Authors: Charlotte Boyett-Compo
"Don’t you tell me what to do in my own keep!" he snapped, his grin fading at her reprimand. "Don’t."
Liza followed his gaze to a small set of stairs leading off one of the far rooms. She was completely aware of Conar’s sudden stillness; his immediate pallor; his held breath. His pale blue eyes had glazed as though in terrible pain and she saw his hand go up to his chest as though something hurt inside. She was about to ask what ailed him when a swath of color began to float down the stairs toward them. Her attention once more on the stairs, she failed to see Conar shudder as though with the ague.
A man of medium build, thin and cadaverous-looking, dressed in the red robes of the higher orders of the priesthood of the Serenian Wind Warrior Society, glided on bare feet down the stairs. His thin, skull-like face was set in closed lines of disapproval as his pale gaze shifted over Liza. That penetrating perusal, coming from black-rimmed sockets, was shadowed with anger so intense it was palpable. His shoulder length white-blond hair was braided in one thick queue that fell from the crown of his head to below his waist. His lips, two thin, pale slits of flesh, were pursed tightly together and his hawk-like beak of a nose was held high in the air, seeming to quiver with disdain as his attention swept away from Liza and settled fiercely on Conar’s bent head. Wide nostrils flared as though a stench had entered the keep.
"My Prince," the man said as he passed them. As he reached the turn in the semi-circular stairway, he glanced over his shoulder and his hateful stare met Liza’s, going through, and beyond, her.
Liza shivered as though she had been blasted with a gust of frigid air. The rune stone around her neck pulsed against her flesh and she reached up to touch it.
"A friend of yours?" she joked, for Conar’s face was devoid of color. She felt his hand tighten. She knew he had forgotten her presence, for he turned to her with a blank, stricken look on his face.
"What?" His face was gleaming with sweat.
"Are you all right?" she asked and when he didn’t immediately answer, she put her hand on his arm. He jerked so violently from her touch, she took a step back. "What’s wrong with you?"
He looked at her—really looked—seeming to see her for the first time. His brows drew together in puzzlement as he saw the lines of worry on her face. He shook his head. "I’m fine." He looked back at the staircase of the main hall where the High Priest had disappeared. "I’m fine, now," he whispered as though to himself.
"Who was that man? That priest?"
"Tohre," he answered in a voice so low she had to strain to hear. "Kaileel Tohre."
"What is…?" she started to ask but was shocked by the sudden rush of motion toward them.
A young servant girl fell to her knees before Conar, her head to the carpet, her arms straight out. She did not speak, but her breath came in loud gasps of nervousness.
Conar frowned at the girl and for some reason her position at his feet greatly angered him. His lips pulled back over his teeth and in a snarl of rage, he shouted at the already frightened girl, "Get the hell up, woman!"
Scrambling to her feet, the young girl would not raise her head. Her hands were gripped tightly together in front of her, the fingers running over one another in agitation. She was trembling violently as she stood there.
"What the hell do you want?"
"Milord!" Liza warned in a steady voice. "You are frightening her more!"
Conar would have bellowed at Liza, but she was looking at him with challenge and he felt like a fool. "I don’t like people falling at my feet!"
"No more than they like doing it, I would imagine."
He clenched his jaw, but managed to lower his voice as he spoke to the servant girl. "Don’t just stand there. Tell me what you want."
"With your permission, Your Majesty," the girl stammered in a husky whisper, "we have one of the rooms ready for you. Can the lady wait until her room is done or will you be giving her yours?"
"What the hell are you bothering me with this for?" he thundered, calming only as Liza hissed another warning. He tossed the thick gold of his hair. "Let her have the gods-be-damned room. I’ll use my brother’s until mine is ready."
A wild look of intense terror passed over the young servant’s face, and in her fright, she forgot her training and raised her voice to her Overlord to gain his attention. "He won’t like you going into his room, Your Grace!" She opened her eyes wide with fear as the young Prince impaled her with the full force of his fierce, direct blue gaze.
Conar’s voice wasn’t a shade warmer than the glaciers of his homeland as he spoke. "I am just as much his Overlord as I am yours, Mam’selle! If I wish to make use of his rooms, that is my right! Do you understand?" He took a step toward her, his hand fisted.
It looked as though the girl had suddenly turned to jelly, for she collapsed to the floor in a heap, her arms thrown over her head to protect herself from her Prince’s wrath. With her slight form shivering so badly—Liza could actually hear the girl’s teeth clicking together—the poor servant huddled on the floor and began to sob hysterically.
"Now look what you’ve done!" Liza snapped.
"What did I do?"
Liza knelt beside the trembling girl and would have put her arms about the heaving shoulders, but with a leap of sheer terror, the girl jerked away, her hands coming up to cover her sobbing face. There were thin white lines on the girl’s hands and forearms. Liza looked to Conar for help. "Look, Milord!" she demanded as she lifted one of the girl’s hands for the Prince to see.
Something dark and painful crossed Conar’s face as he stared at the marks on the girl’s pale flesh.
"Milord, please! Do something!"
He seemed to come out of some distant reverie and shook his head to clear it of whatever vile memory had claimed him. He swallowed, tasting bile in his mouth.
"Conar?" Liza inquired.
He looked at Liza’s pleading face and then at the girl’s bent head. He seemed to gather himself and then let out a ragged breath. Hesitant to further upset the servant, he knelt on the floor beside Liza.
"Milord?" Liza’s whisper was like a calming breeze after the roughest storm.
With infinite care, Conar held out his hand to the servant girl, but didn’t touch her quivering body. "Mam’selle?" he whispered, his voice breaking. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Mam’selle, may I help you to your feet?" When she didn’t answer, he took a deep, wavering breath and let it out slowly, speaking to her as quietly and as reassuringly as he could. "I am not angry at you, Sweeting."
Liza watched the girl shrink further into herself. Speaking solely to the girl, Liza lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I don’t think you realize what it is you’ve done, Mam’selle." She saw the girl flinch and hurried on. "You have done something no one ever has before. You have brought the mighty Prince Conar McGregor to his knees. You had best take advantage of his momentary lapse of churlishness and take his hand, else neither of us will ever hear the end of it."
The girl hesitantly raised her head and she briefly met Liza’s smile, her gaze skipped away and then returned for a moment, searching, pleading. What she saw in those beautiful green depths, almost the same shade of green as her own, made the girl stop shaking. Moistening her lips, she held Liza’s warm, gentle gaze.
Conar could feel the girl’s intense fear like a sentient life form invading his soul. Towering rage welled up inside him, for he knew the girl was accustomed to ill treatment, probably at the hands of his own twin, that she expected blows and beatings with every sharp word. He felt a great pity building inside as horrible memories surfaced in his mind, and he leaned down, putting his lips close to the girl’s ear, even though she tensed like a steel spring as he neared.
"If you persist in behaving as though I am a beastie from the pits, Mam’selle, how will I convince this lady that I am a sweet-tempered and malleable knight? How will I win her heart, then? If she will not have me, I shall surely pine away, and you will be the one to blame for my untimely demise. You will be the one who will cause my insomnia, my loss of appetite, my hair loss, my gout, my…" He saw a tiny, flickering smile on the girl’s lips. "My admission to an institution for the terminally suicidal and perhaps, ultimately, my celibacy." He saw her flinch with astonishment.
"Not that, Milord!" the girl whispered, her lips twitching.
"Most assuredly that, Mam’selle," he informed her, his hand over his heart. His soft, deep voice broke with feigned misery. "Would you be the cause of that?"
"I would be hounded to death by every female in Serenia if that were to happen, Your Grace," she whispered back.
"And rightly so, Mam’selle, should you deny so many, so much!" He smiled broadly.
"Conceited buffoon," Liza snorted.
He glanced at Liza. "Don’t belittle what you haven’t seen." He grinned at the red flush that quickly spread over Liza’s face.
The servant giggled, her lilting laughter sounding like summer puffs of wind; but a loud noise from below stairs made her cower again, her laughter vanish, and her trembling fingers cover her face.
Conar immediately reached out and drew down the girl’s hands, holding them in one of his own. With his free hand, he raised her tear-stained face so he could get a better look at her. "What troubles you, girl?" he asked softly. "I am no ogre from Diabolusia."
There was such misery in the girl’s face and in her quivering tone that her childish voice, husky as it was, seemed even more youthful. "He will be so angry, Your Grace. He will beat me after you leave." Her chin trembled. "I have not gotten over the last beating." She lowered her head, her face burning with shame.
Forcing down his temper, for he had seen the warning shake of Liza’s head as she saw his rage flare, he firmly gripped the girl’s chin and gave her small oval face a gentle tug. "No man lifts a hand to one who serves me and gets away with it. No man; not servant nor Lord nor Prince. If he does, he will have me to deal with me, and I can promise you this: Galen McGregor wants no trouble from me!"
The girl raised her head. "You would protect me from your own kin?"
"Aye, I would. I am his Overlord just as I am yours." He shrugged. "And I don’t like him all that well, anyway."
"But when you leave, Your Grace—"
"Are you indentured?"
"Aye, Your Majesty," she said, lowering her head.
"To my family or to my brother as his own personal servant?"
"To your family, Your Grace."
Conar smiled. "Well, then, if you are indentured to my family, as guardian for you, you are indentured to me. You belong to me, do you not?" He carefully watched the girl’s face to see if she was following him. He squeezed her hand. "I am the Heir-Apparent to the throne. When I take that throne, I will, in essence, be your parent. Right now, my father, the King, is your surrogate parent. Isn’t that true?"
The girl nodded.
"And I am his Regent, am I not?"
"Aye, Your Grace."
"So, technically, you belong to me." He winked.
Understanding lit the girl’s small face and she smiled. "I belong to you," she whispered in awe. "I belong to you." She turned to Liza. "I belong to His Grace!"
"Well, of course you do!" he snorted. "And because you do, and because I have been looking for someone to stand as chaperone for me as I take this lovely lady with me to our next destination, I think I shall require you to travel with us." He glanced smugly at Liza.
Liza raised one fine black brow. "Chaperone, Milord?"
"Nanny?" He grinned.
Liza gave him a warning look.
"Guardian?" He chuckled.
Liza stuck her tongue out at him.
"Lady’s maid?" His lids fluttered audaciously.
"Companion," Liza stated firmly.
Conar nodded. "Companion, it is!" Getting to his feet, he reached a hand to both ladies and smiled as they placed their hands in his. He grinned into the servant girl’s beaming face, happy he had calmed the girl all by himself. "How does that sound to you, Mam’selle? Will you hire on as companion to this lady?"
"At his expense, of course," Liza added.
He turned to Liza, saw her smug expression of counter-challenge, and winced. He frowned, knowing he had lost. He nodded in agreement. "I’ll pay your way, Mam’selle."
"And give you your free-lot papers when we reach our next stop," Liza said.
Conar sighed, recognizing the fact he’d been out-maneuvered by a slip of a girl not taller than his shoulder blade. He glanced at Liza’s uplifted face. "I’ll sign them this very night," he said through clenched teeth.
"Plus…" Liza stopped at his warning growl, but her face was bright with humor. "Plus the promise of work at Boreas Keep, if you should ever need it."
The girl’s mouth fell open. She took Conar’s hand and brought it to her lips. "Thank you, Your Grace! Oh, thank you!"
"No need to thank me," Conar snorted, his face turned to Liza.
"And it will be free-work with pay, won’t it, Milord?" Liza amended.
"Free-work with pay?" the girl gasped.
"Free-work with pay?" Conar groaned.
Liza raised her chin. "Naturally."
Out-maneuvered again. "Naturally," Conar agreed in defeat.
"I will guard your lady with my life, Your Grace!" the servant swore as Conar gently withdrew his hand. "I would give my life for you, too, Your Grace!"
Lightning struck near the keep and the loud accompanying boom rattled the windows behind them in the nearest room. Liza yelped and jumped closer to the servant, grabbing the thin girl’s body in a death-grip of fright.
Conar laughed, shaking his head. "You just may have to. She doesn’t care overly much for storms."
The servant drew Liza toward the closest room. "Come, Milady. We will shut the drapes against this storm and you will be safe."
Conar shook his head as the door closed behind the two women and he heard the tinkling sound of female giggles. Raising his eyes to the heavens, he shook his head again.
"Great Alel," he thought aloud. "What have you done now, Conar?" One woman to travel with was bad enough, but two? Insanity! Shrugging his broad shoulders for getting into such a predicament, he gave up the notion of going to Galen’s room to change. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to find his ill-begotten twin and throttle the daylights out of him! He pounded his fist against the wall as he turned the corner and headed down the stairs.