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Authors: Peter Morwood

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The Dragon Lord (9 page)

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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It was a
, heavy and fur-trimmed, Vlei-style. The dense fabric was the color of autumn maples, the fur red fox; and it hung from Aldric’s shoulders as loosely as a riding mantle. Clothing of any sort meant much more than simple modesty right now: in this potentially hostile environment his bare skin felt horribly vulnerable, and even a single layer of cloth could give an illusory protection.

Or should have done. If anything this sleeveless, side-slashed, open-fronted and monstrously oversized
seemed to emphasise with every movement that he was stark naked beneath it; which was subconsciously worse than having nothing on at all. Aldric glanced at himself and exhaled a soft oath. This was deliberate; and the robe had probably been selected with a deal of care to unsettle him so successfully.

Isileth’s equally naked blade gave him more comfort; at least with the
in his hands, then armored, unar-mored or newborn naked he could give a good account of himself to anyone, or any thing… no,
. His mind reconsidered that last, and an inward shudder raised the hair on arms and neck as he regretted tempting fate with such a thought. The events in Geruath’s citadel at Seghar were still far too recent for such an idle jest, if jest it had truly been at all.

Smiling a mirthless smile, he very gently closed his ringed left hand on the door’s iron handle and increased the pressure to an inward pull. Nothing happened. He relaxed a little, then pushed out. Again nothing. Tentatively he tried sliding it sideways.

Then shrugged with resignation and wrenched back with all his strength and weight behind it.

The door wasn’t stiff, unoiled or jammed as he had allowed himself to hope. It was, as he had feared instead, locked and bolted top and bottom—and the jolt of his failed attempt to open it sent silver spikes of anguish into every joint from wrist to shoulder.

Aldric shrugged again, although this time it was really more of a suppressed wince, and would have sworn had swearing helped at all. Then as he considered the matter and flexed his arm to work the twinges out of it, he swore anyway. Gently—but with sincerity.

“Idiot,” he muttered under his breath. “Should have known. Now after all that racket, who else knows?”

It was talk for the sake of hearing a familiar voice and nothing more. Despite his self-accusation, Aldric suspected—no, he was quite sure—that whoever wanted and needed to know he was awake knew it already. If he was a prisoner—or a guest, though to his knowledge not even the Drusalan Empire required that guests be kept under lock and key—then it was unlikely that the past few moments’ activity would have gone unnoticed for long.

But who would notice? And who would they tell?

The Alban grimaced and recovered Widowmaker’s scabbard from where his unsheathing flick had sent it; the
blade ran home with a steely whisper as he sank to both knees on the floor. Laying the weapon across his thighs, he sat back on his heels, drew the
folds more closely around his chest and composed himself to wait.

He did not wait long—and had not expected to.

Privately, Aldric reckoned that no more than ten minutes had passed from the first signs of life in his room to the series of metallic clicks as its door was unlocked. At the sounds he rose smoothly, swiftly and silently, and as he regained his feet and spaced them for balance his right hand tightened on the longsword’s hilt, giving it that minute twist which freed the locking-collar. Widowmaker seemed to tremble with eagerness in his grip, like a poised falcon; she would leave her scabbard at a touch now, as blindingly quick as a striking snake.

And as deadly.

The woman in the doorway knew it. She stood quite still, not in the least afraid if the smile on her full red lips meant anything; but she had been told, indeed, warned at some length, about how fast and dangerous this young man was, and she had taken note of that— as she now took note of many other things about him while her gaze swept with dawning speculation across his exposed-yet-tantalisingly-concealed and at last so very
body. She had unashamedly drawn back the covers as he lay unmoving in drugged sleep, and had been mildly attracted to him then; but how very different this Alban looked now that lithe, powerful muscles slid and shifted purposefully under his tanned skin. Yes. Different indeed. For just an instant the hunger in her eyes was as naked as his body, beneath the
which she had spent a quarter-hour selecting from her brother’s wardrobe.
And not a minute of that time was wasted
. She decided to treat this one with all the caution he deserved, and a little more besides. For the present, at least.

Aldric stared at her with eyes that were narrowed and watchful in a face which he had schooled to expressionless immobility. His whole demeanor was as poised and wary as a startled cat, ready to lash out or sidestep at a heartbeat’s notice, because although a blurred and hazy memory told him that he had seen this woman twice before, it was only the first sight of her that he recalled with any clarity. She had been entering a room on that occasion too; but flanked by armed and armored guards.

Well, there were no guards this time. And that was her mistake, because if need be he could reach her and seize her, and lay the persuasive length of Widowmaker’s bitter edge against her expensively scented throat before that throat could start to shape a cry for help.

And then,
—though the idea repelled him with its total lack of any honor—he could bargain for his freedom. With her life.

“You are awake.”
Lord God and the Holy Light of Heaven, what a voice she had
! The fact was self-evident and made her words unnecessary; but their very triviality did something to ease the taut silence which clogged the bedroom’s atmosphere like smoke.

“I am.”

“Good.” It was scarcely a conversation sparkling with brilliant wit. She hesitated, studied him from head to foot again with the same frank appraisal as before and nodded to herself. “You look very well… rested. And healthy.”

Aldric felt uncomfortable under that stare. “I would feel more at ease with my clothes on, lady. Where are they?”

“They were foul. Stained, torn.”

“—And mine. I asked where, lady, not what. I want my own clothes, not this—this horse-blanket.” A very superior horse-blanket and one of considerable value, but that no longer mattered. Aldric knew he was trying to be ironically humorous, and knew too that he was not succeeding very well, for the emotion which his not-quite-humor concealed insisted on bubbling to the surface. That emotion was anger.

Anger directed at her, for the way in which his memory jarred with what he saw and heard. And anger which fed on itself as his uneasiness made itself manifest in an abruptness which was not the courtesy expected of a guest. Or was he a prisoner after all?

“My clothes,” he repeated more quietly. Then, softly, “Please.”

“Better.” She said it with a sort of gratitude, not in the bantering tone of one who has scored a point. “Of course you realize,’
, that such a request can be fulfilled quite easily.” The purring, husky tone was back in her voice and added a honeyed darkness to her words which had not been there before. She clapped her hands together twice and stepped to one side.

And a man came in: a man who made Aldric take an instinctive snap-step backwards through no more than simple caution. Not because of who the man was—just a liveried serving-man, no more—but what he was: huge. He stood head and shoulders taller than the Alban, and those shoulders were of a piece with the rest of him— bulky with corded muscles whose outlines were plain even through his clothing. He was the sort of excellent bodyguard whose presence alone was a weapon, the kind of man it would be wiser not to cross. And by the expression on his face, he had both understood and disapproved of the way in which his mistress had been addressed.

In his arms, precisely folded, were clothes which Aldric recognised: They were black, and leather for the most part—tunic and breeches and boots. But there was something else as well, and it was not leather but fur: a
of black wolfskin. Aldric stared at it and felt a small, strange, unaccountable roiling deep in the pit of his stomach. In his secret heart of hearts he had hoped. He had wished…

Of everything I own, I would as soon that one was burned to ashes. And the ashes scattered on the western wind.

And yet he could not think of any reason why.

With utter disregard for their neat folds, his clothes were dropped unceremoniously onto the bed, and one boot slid with a thump to the floor. The right boot, of course. It balanced upright for a moment, then toppled over. And a knife fell out of it with an accusing tinkle which drew all eyes.

It was Aldric who looked up first, with a feeling that despite their expressions of astonishment the throwing-knife’s presence came as no surprise to anyone. The whole affair had probably been stage-managed from the start, as deliberate as the choosing of the overrobe he wore. Stooping, he set the boot upright again, picked up the knife and turned it over in his fingers once or twice, then unconcernedly returned it to the sheath stitched inside the long moccasin’s laced and buckled top.

“Thank you.” The remark was addressed to nobody in particular, and so neutrally voiced that it was impossible to tell if he was pleased, or amused… or blazing with anger.

The big servant glowered at him, and though he had known it all along, Aldric noticed as if for the first time the diagonal belt crossing his chest which was the shoulderstrap of a wide-bladed regulation army pattern shortsword. So she has an escort after all, he thought. Of sorts. But one I could take easily. Just meat. He met the other stare for stare and it was the bigger man whose gaze dropped first.

Not a flicker of satisfaction at the small victory showed on Aldric’s face, because he was growing more and more certain that someone, somewhere, was testing him for a purpose of their own.

But what was it?

“Get out.” His command was so quiet that it was little more than an exhalation of breath. The servant hesitated; then, although it required a glance towards his lady and her nod of assent, he left without further protest and closed the door behind him as a good servant should. But the woman remained.

Aldric paused in the act of laying out his clothes on the bed and flicked a look towards her, then gestured with one finger. A little circle, drawn horizontally on the air between them. “Turn around, lady,” he amplified, and waited until she had complied.

“I had not,” she said to the wall, “expected a man of men who value honor to be also a man who threatens unarmed women.” There was just a hint of disapproval in her voice.

“I didn’t threaten you. Not even once.”

“You did—and I saw you. You held your sword and you looked at me, and you wondered if maybe you might have to put the blade to my neck before you could get out of here. Oh yes.”

“Was I so obvious?” Aldric made the concession sardonically. “Ah well…”

“I hadn’t expected it of a guest in my house,” she repeated.

This time Aldric said nothing. He dropped the
to the floor and drew fresh linens from one of his saddlebags, then busied himself working one leg into the tight-fitting trousers of heavy cotton he wore beneath his riding-breeches.

“And I hadn’t expected such a one to need long underwear.”

The Alban froze, balanced on one leg with the other raised beneath him like a stork, half in and more importantly half out of the garment in question, and he blushed all over. Apart from his left leg from the knee downward, that “all over” was patently beyond dispute. His head snapped round and it almost certainly turned faster than the Drusalan woman had expected, for he caught the vestiges of an expression which later and calmer consideration insisted that he had not been meant to see.

She was looking over one shoulder and there was an impish smile on her lips. But in her eyes there was a glitter of truly malicious amusement. It wasn’t honest good-humor, rightly created by her ridiculous, inaccurate but very apt observation. Oh God, no. It was a nasty wallowing in the undignified embarrassment which her words had caused. That wallowing, and the pleasure which stemmed from it, were stilled even as Aldric became aware of its existence—but the very fact that he had seen and recognised it troubled him.

“Not underwear, my lady. Trousers. Proper trousers.” He hitched the trews up and fastened them firmly at his waist. “Try wearing combat leathers next your doubtless-so-tender skin some time,” he continued waspishly, “then ask again about why I wear these. If you still have to.”

Without further comment, or indeed further insistence that she look away since it was plain she had no intention of doing any such thing, Aldric finished dressing in clean clothes from the skin out. Somebody had been decent enough—if that was really the word he wanted— to shave him and bathe him whilst he was unconscious, so why not? Loose white shirt and knee-length hosen were followed by the black leather of breeches, boots and tunic. And then finally, unwilling to wear it but more unwilling still to let the woman see his reluctance, he pulled on the wolfskin

Its fur was as he remembered it on that rainswept day when it had first been pressed into his armored hands, as a payment for the death of a man who might at another time or in other circumstances have been his friend: deep, rich, warm, and redolent of the herbs which Drusalans liked to strew in their clothes-chests. Yet underneath it all was the faint reek of fire. And of spoiled, rotting flesh.

She watched in silence, impressed despite herself as he enclosed himself in a black that was made still deeper by the few points of contrast against snowy fabric or burnished brightmetal. On someone else it might have approached the melodramatic; but there was a melancholy about this man, an introspection and a brooding which stifled ill-chosen remarks at the source. Instead the woman said, “
leathers, Alban? Surely you don’t…?”’

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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