Authors: Jacquelyn Frank
So they didn't realize he was the
leader. That was perhaps a good thing, Jaykun thought. Otherwise, they would have tried to kill him immediately, using him as some sort of trophy or whatever it was the Krizans liked to do to the leaders of an enemy force.
“Why don't you all just give up already? We're going to come over your walls tomorrow, whether you like it or not. No one else has to die if you simply open the gates.”
“We would rather die than let
like you into our city, where you will kill our children and defile our women.”
“Trust me, we don't want anything to do with your women,” Jaykun said. To be blunt, Krizan women were twice as ugly as their hideous male counterparts.
“Again he lies,” the second warrior said. “Who wouldn't want the beauty of a Krizan warrior woman? Kill him. His words irritate my ears.”
“Yes, do get on with it,” Jaykun said with a sigh.
His blasÃ© tone enraged the Krizan warrior. He balled up his fist and punched it dead-on into Jaykun's face. And it hurt. There was no two ways about it. Krizan warriors were definitely strong, if not exactly bright. Had they been bright, they would have learned how to fight on landâ¦seeing as how they lived on land and not on the ocean.
The Krizan pulled a dagger from his boot and reared back to plunge it into Jaykun's chest.
Oh no. Not that again, Jaykun vowed to himself. He wrenched a hand free somehow, surprising his over-arrogant attackers and reached to catch the downward plunge, his hand grabbing the meaty forearm of the warrior and stopping the dagger dead in the air. The warrior seemed as though he couldn't believe his eyes for a second, couldn't believe that Jaykun had the strength to counteract his strike.
The two struggled for several long moments, the warrior pushing down, Jaykun staving off.
Then the softest little sound slid through the air. Like a musical note, only gentler and more beautiful. The Krizan warriors froze, and to Jaykun's surprise, all the strength behind the dagger was gone. Instead the men were suddenly tripping over themselves to withdraw.
one said to the other, their eyes wide. Both men scrambled off Jaykun, turned, and ran. They were trying to run so fast that they fell more than once.
Jaykun sat up, at a complete loss to explain what had just happened.
Then he heard it again. That soft, lilting note. Like a laugh. The sweetest, most singsongy laugh he'd ever heard.
He got to his feet and peered out into the moonlit darkness. That was when he saw a figure standing there in the moonlight. A woman. She was slight of build, tall but slim. She had long hair that whipped around her body in the ocean breeze. He could not tell what color it was, only that it was dark. It fell all the way to the backs of her knees. It could cover her entire body, he found himself thinking. And a good thing too, for she was completely naked.
She was dark skinnedâagain, an undetermined colorâbut it appeared to be an even and beautiful tone in the moonlight. She had small breasts, curvy hips, and long legs. And though he couldn't make out her features perfectly, he knew she was quite beautiful. Not a Krizan womanâshe was too tall, too lithe, too pretty.
She came closer, increasingly revealing her beauty as she drew to within five feet of him. She was smiling softly, her eyes running down the length of him, no doubt sizing him up just as he was assessing her. She seemedâ¦fascinated. She reached out as if to touch him and he jerked back. Her hand lowered.
“I won't hurt you,” she said, her voice musical and sweet.
“Who are you?” Jaykun demanded of her.
“I saw you. Saw you burn. Saw the waters boil. How did you do that? Why would you do that? Do you enjoy it? Does it not hurt? Do you do that often?”
She barely paused between questions, leaving him a moment to get over the shock of knowing he'd been watched. He supposed it had to happen sometime, but he had not seen anyone in the cave. He could have sworn he was alone.
“Did the Krizan hurt your tongue? Can you not answer? Is the moon not beautiful tonight?” She turned her face up toward it, closed her eyes, and drew in a deep breath. She opened her eyes again and looked at him, and he saw they were a pale, silvery color in the moonlight.
“Who are you?” Jaykun asked again.
“Jileana. Who are you?”
“Jaykun,” he answered in turn. “Where did you come from?”
“From the beach,” she said. “Can you show me how to make the water bubble? I want to learn how to do it.”
“No, I can't, and trust me, you don't want to know how.”
She frowned at him in consternation. “Very well. If you don't wish to share. Let's go back to the beach. It's safer there.”
“I would much rather go back to my encampment.” He eyed her nude state. “You shouldn't be out hereâ¦unprotected.”
“Yes, it is not safe. Men make war.”
“I am one of those men,” he told her baldly.
She took a hesitant step back. “Are you going to make war with me and my family?”
“Iâ¦I don't know who your family is. But I don't make war on just anyone. In fact, I prefer not to make war. When I first go to a city, I see whom it is they worship, then I try to convince them to let mems of my goddess set up temples there. If they refuse, I become moreâ¦forceful in my request.”
“But my family worships Diathus. We have always worshipped Diathus.”
“The goddess of the land and oceans. That would make sense, coming fromâ¦Well, I assume you are from around here. But everyone should worship Weysa as well. For without conflict there can be no peace, of the mind, the body, or the soul. We must be conflicted from time to time so that we may make the best choices and judgments, making us stronger and more sure.”
Jaykun couldn't believe he was in the saw grass philosophizing with a naked woman, but it didn't stop him from doing so.
“You make a very good point. I shall have you speak to my father one day. He is quite learned and enjoys such debates. My mother as well.” She turned her head suddenly and looked back toward the beach. “I have to go now. Will you come back tomorrow night?” she asked.
“You can be certain of it,” Jaykun said wryly.
“Very well. I will see you then! Goodbye!” She waved at him and hurried off. She was fast, moving sleekly into the darkness. All Jaykun could do was watch the line of her bare body until she disappeared into the cove he had come from. Oddâthere was nothing down that stretch of beach. It was the very reason he had chosen it. Where could she possibly be going?
Jaykun didn't have time to dawdle over the matter. It was late and there was danger of another enemy patrol coming by. Although, he suspected that raggedy band were soldiers who had fled the thick of the battle, waiting for darkness to hide their presence so they could perhaps escape or, as they had done, cause trouble.
Jaykun went back to the encampment without any further molestation, which was a good thing, because he found himself completely preoccupied by the appearance of Jileana. Not just the baffling question of where she had come from but so much more. Why had she been naked? There were dangerous men from both armies encamped just a short distance away. It was madness for her to be out and about at all, never mind in such a vulnerable way.
She had been really quite beautiful. As Jaykun thought about it, he could not recall having seen any woman to compare. All the more reason for her to be more cautious. Beauty could be a curse for a woman, drawing unwanted attention. Dangerous attention. And if he had to confess it, he himself had been incredibly drawn to her. Had she actually touched himâ¦there was no telling what his reaction might have been.
No. Not true. He would not have had any reaction, Jaykun told himself sternly. She was just another woman who happened to be pretty. No more, no less. And he had no place in his life for women, pretty or otherwise.
He made it back to the command tent, the encampment quiet now in comparison to the activity of earlier. When he entered the tent, he found both of his brothers pacing anxiously, still fully dressed in their armor.
“At last!” Dethan cried when he saw Jaykun. “What took you so long?”
“You know why I must go.”
“Yes, of course we do,” Garreth said with a manner of impatience. “But you are usually backâHave you been in a fight?” he asked abruptly.
“That is why I was delayed. I was waylaid on the way back.”
“Oh. I see you made it out in one piece,” Dethan said.
“Don't I always?”
“You know, it is not a given that you will make it back with all your limbs or your head attached. You can still be beheaded by a normal sword and left on the ground, unable to heal until your body parts are reunited.”
“Yes,” Garreth said. “It is very hard to find one's head with one's body when the body cannot see the head for lack of eyes.”
“This is all a moot topic. I am fine,” Jaykun said, impatient with his brothers' worrying. He did not like to be coddled. He was perfectly capable of handling himself in any situation. “If you wish to discuss something, then let us discuss how we will approach the city walls tomorrow.”
“I was thinking we would send a messenger, offer the leaders one last chance to open their gates peacefully to us. Their army, such as it is, has been decimated. Our taking of the city is only a matter of time. Surely they must realize it at this point.”
“They might. It does not follow that they will behave wisely. Would you risk the life of a messenger?”
“Better one life than the lives of many.”
“Yes, but the Krizans are very dishonorable,” Jaykun pointed out. “It is very unlikely they will respect parlay.”
“So we don't try at all?”
“I think not. If they wanted to parlay or surrender, all they had to do was open the gates. They know this. We have already sent messages telling them we will not harm the citizens of the city if they but lay down their weapons. The rest is up to them. We will take this city one way or another, and we will earn the fleet of ships in their harbor. I want those ships. If we are to move on to the Isle of Moroun, and then to Shintu, we will need those ships.”
“It is said Moroun is heavily protected by the goddess Diathus,” Garreth hedged. “If you plan to lay siege to an island that is protected by a god of Xaxis's factionâ¦It is unwise. Especially when we are a more able land army than a seafaring one.”
The gods were at war. There were twelve gods in all, and they had been split into two factions. One was led by the brothers' goddess, the goddess of conflict and war, Weysa. The other was lead by Xaxis, the god of the eight hells. Meddling in the affairs of the gods was never a wise thing for a man to do, but the brothers had sworn to Weysa to do exactly that, for the power of the gods came from the multitude of their worshippers. The more the gods were worshipped, the more powerful they became. Every temple the brothers raised in Weysa's name made her and her faction more powerful. Every city they stole from Xaxis's faction made him and his faction weaker.
The only thing that protected the brothers from the wrath of Xaxis at this point was their goddess's protection. But she would only continue to give that protection if the brothers honored the agreement she had foisted upon them. An agreement they must honor no matter what, else they enrage the goddess and find themselvesâ¦Well, all three brothers had learned firsthand of the vindictive nature of the gods. They would not court it again for any reason.
“One step at a time,” Jaykun said. “I am not certain I will try to take Moroun. First let us take this city. Then we will worry about the next. Now, I don't know about you, but I am weary.” He began to take off his clothes, revealing the scarring and damage done to him earlier. His brothers watched him with troubled eyes for a long moment but then finally began to follow suit. They were each in their cots shortly after, sleeping the troubled sleep of men at war.
t was two days before they finally took the city. Two days and two nights of Jaykun's nightly punishment. And never once did he see the strange beauty again.
Not until the third night, when he left his brothers in charge of the city and went back to the cove. He was watching the setting sun with one eye and picking his way into the cove with the other, so he nearly ran into her as he moved away from the rocks and waded into the water.
She was sitting in the water, the waves lapping at her bare skin, her breasts just barely touching the water's surface. It was daylight now so he could see her clearly. Her skin was not as dark as he had thought it was initially. She was a warm cocoa color, her nipples dark and as large as a gold coin. Her eyes, now plainly visible in sunlight, proved to be an iridescent green and regarded him with open curiosity.
“May I watch you boil the waters?” she asked him.
“It is not a spectator sport,” he said almost irritably. But he couldn't figure out if it was because she didn't understand that what happened to him was involuntary and painful or because his body inexplicably tightened with a curious attraction toward her.
Why did she have to be so damn beautiful? Perhaps if she were less so he would find her more aggravating, find her intrusive to a fault. Because he thought he should be reacting that way, he did so without really feeling the temper of it.
“And yet I have watched you every night. Is it as painful as it looks? You burnâ¦like a star. I can feel the warmth even at a distance.”
“And a distance is where you should stay,” he bit out.
“Butâ¦it is beautiful. A star in the shape of a man.” She stood up and walked toward him. She reached to touch him, but he pulled away.
“It hurts. It is pain beyond anything you can imagine. There is nothing beautiful about it.”
She was undeterred. She moved forward again, her hands coming to rest on his chest. Jaykun felt the coolness of her hands through his tunic. It was compelling, the sensation of her touch somehow alluring to him.
“You are not hot now. Your skin is simply warm. Like any man's would be?”
It was a question and he found that curious. Hell, he found everything about her curious. She was curious in both being and action. She was sloe-eyed, her cheeks full at the apple. She had the gentlest nose and thin little brows that crested in the middle. Her hair was straight, sleek, and shiny. It was wet from her lower back down and overall a perfect sheen of black. There were no lights to her hair, no sign of fairness. It was simply rich and dark.
“That will change very soon. And you shouldn't be near when it does. You will get hurt.”
“I will be careful,” she promised him. “It happens the same every night at dusk?”
“Yes. Every night.”
“It is a long story,” he said evasively.
“Well, I believe there will be time later and you can tell me then. It won't last all night.”
“Only half of it,” he said, his tone scoffing.
“It could last the entire night,” she pointed out. “It is lucky that it is only a short while.”
He supposed she had a point. But then again, she didn't have to suffer every minute of it in excruciating, burning pain as he did. She was watching it from the outside. It still made him uncomfortable to think of her watching him as he lay vulnerable and burning. It was almost likeâ¦like being stripped naked in front of someone he would much rather keep hidden from.
He cast an anxious eye toward the sky again. “You must leave,” he said sharply.
“I will stay,” she persisted. “I will watch as I have done every night these past nights. And then, when you are done, I wish to talk to you for a little while. I have so many questions.”
“What if I do not wish to talk?” he said abruptly. Inside his body he could feel it. Feel it starting. Warming his skin in an all too fleeting sensation of comfort, chasing away any coolness in the air or brought by the waters.
“You will talk,” she said assuredly. “I am sure of it.”
“Leave,” he pressed. Then in a more gentle tone, “Please.”
She smiled at him, backing away and moving to the farthest edge of the cove. Then she sat down on a flat boulder, not in the water, crossing her legs and smiling at him expectantly. And whether he wanted to or not, he was going to put on the show she was expecting. He couldn't decide if that galled him or made him feelâ¦comforted. There was something comforting about knowing he wasn't going to be alone. Oh, she couldn't really be a part of it, butâ¦he wasn't alone.
He slowly began to undress, his eyes never leaving hers as he did this. He was not a shy person. He really did not care if he was naked or clothed in front of strangers. He was that confident in knowing he would never be truly vulnerable in the world, that he would always be able to take care of himself even if all he had were his bare hands. Even those men who had waylaid him the night he had met herâhe was sure he would have prevailed in the end.
But there was something about undressing in front of her that feltâ¦provocative. Feeling her curious eyes on him was almost like feeling her touch against his skin. He tried to shake it off, but that was hard to do when his body was filling with heat at the same time. Soon he would burn. Burn for her eyes to see and watch. Again, it felt intimate. Far too intimate. He was shocked to realize that by the time he was fully naked, he was inexplicably hard. Aroused. Aware.
She took all of this in. All of him in. Her eyes were wide and curious, and she was nibbling a little on her bottom lip. Slowly he sat down in the water, letting the coolness of it wash over his hot body. And for some reason, just before he broiled into cinder and ash, his body burning away in fierce bits and pieces, he thought of how long it had been since he had been intimate with a woman. And then he thought of who that woman had been.
His wife. Casiria. The woman he had once loved with everything he was. She had birthed his sons for him. She had meant everything. But she and his sons were long gone now. He had not had the opportunity to see them grow into men, and he had no way of finding out what kind of men they had become. They were dead. Long dead and forgotten by everyone but him.
The water boiled as though in response to his turmoil, in response to his present pain and the memory of pain. Pain no one would ever understandâ¦pain he had never shared with anyone.
By the time juquil's hour arrived, he felt destroyed in more ways than one, more ways than just the physical. His body was ravaged and burned, brittle and blackened. Almost everything he was had been burned away to the bones. It took some time before his eyes healed enough for him to be able to see her, for his muscles to finally move under his command.
She was close to him, her hands reaching out gently to him, touching his burned flesh.
“I see now. I see the pain of it,” she said. “I could not tell from a distance beforeâ¦but now I see how truly painful this is for you. Can I do something to give you relief?” she asked, her eyes and tone tender and warm.
“Your kindness is enough,” he said. And he meant it. There was something soothing in her nearness.
“Now we can talk until you feel better. Tell me, who are you here in the world of men?”
The question was a curious one, but he answered her. “I am a warrior. But you know this.”
“You are more than a warrior, to be sure. My father is a warrior, but he is also a husband, a father, and a brother. Who are you?”
“I am a brother,” he said. “One of four. Two are with me here, in the city of Kriza.”
“And are they warriors too?”
“Yes. Very strong ones. They are impressive men.”
“And do they burn like you do?”
“One did. It was different for him. It was the flames of hell that burned him. Iâ¦I burn like the sun, from the inside out.”
“You say he did. You mean in the past? But no longer?”
“Yes,” he said, not elaborating further.
But she did not let him get away with that, and he had not expected she would. “Why did he stop?” she asked.
“It is a long story.”
“Why did it start?”
“You ask too many questions,” he said irritably.
“How else am I to know you?”
“What if I don't want you to know me?” he asked of her, his tone hard.
“Nonsense,” she said dismissively. “You wish to know me, and so I must know you.”
“I never said I want to know you.”
“Of course you do,” she said with a lift of her chin. “All men find me curious and compelling. They always wish to know about me and my kind.”
She brushed past the inquiry. “Tell me, have you children? A wife?”
These questions irritated him further, so he almost did not answer. But in the end, he said, “I did once. What of you?”
“Oh, I do not have a wife. Nor do I have children.”
He fought the urge to smile. “And what of a husband?”
She frowned. “There is one who wishes to be my mate, but I do not wish it in return.” Her frowned deepened. “He cannot understand thatâ¦” She trailed off, clearly not meaning to speak aloud on the matter because she looked at him as though in surprise. It was strange because he felt as though she was otherwise open to his questionsâ¦when in fact she had smoothly dodged some of his return inquiries.
“I need to get back to my brothers,” he said, trying not to sound as full of consternation over that fact as he was.
“Your brothers depend on you a great deal? Or is it you who depends on them?” Before he could work up a reaction to the affront, she said, “My brothers do not depend on me at all, but one thinks I should depend on him. But the only one I truly depend on is my father. I am in his care until such time as I take a mate. Then I will be in my mate's care. That is the way of things with my people.”
“You keep saying âmy people' but never tell me who your people are.”
“You have not told me who your people are. Where do you come from?”
“Nowhere. Everywhere. I used to say I was from Barost. It was the city whereâ¦where my wife lived.”
“With your children?”
“What happened to her?”
“She died. Look, I do not wish to talk about her.”
“All right. Where are your children?”
“They are dead too,” he snapped at her, “and an equally taboo topic!”
“I see.” Her mouth drifted into a sad little frown and her exotic eyes went soft with pain. “I did not mean to make you angry. I only wished to know everything about you. I find you so fascinating. I find you different.”
“I am no different from any other man,” he said.
“Other men do not burn like a star.”
Well, she had him there. “Is that all that fascinates you about me?” he asked. “I am not some freak show meant for your entertainment.”
“Believe me,” she assured him in the face of his biting tone, “I find nothing about you to be any more freakish than you might think I am.”
“You do not burn every night.”
“No. But we all have our trials, and we are all different and strange in our own ways. And that's what is so beautiful about most living creatures, don't you think? If everyone were the same, it would be quite boring.”
you?” he asked intensely, reaching to take her head between his hands and boring a stare into her eyes.
“IâI am Jileana. I am daughter to the warrior Creasus. I care for my people's young when they must hunt or farm. I have a brother who is a warrior just like my father. They defend our home from our enemies and I am very proud of them for that. My mother is a great woman with compassion in her soul and a firm hand.
“I love the feel of the warm sun on my body as I lay beneath it, and the coolness of the ocean waters as I swim through them. It is a simple life, the life I lead, but it is a good one.”