Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 9 - Part 5
she glanced up to the dais, Albion was looking down at her. Glaring
down, rather, with the expression of a thunderstorm. Beside him, the
elderly Lord Lajos also fixed her with an unfriendly gaze.
The meal progressed slowly. Trapped between Albion's constant attention and Lajos's glares, Isolde tasted none of the food Josce put before her. Indeed, she heard virtually none of the conversation around her, though that was more blessing than curse. It seemed the nobility they were sitting with had estates in Gwynedd, and from their own viewpoint they found the conquest very satisfactory.
During the third course Isolde excused herself, claiming she needed a moment of privacy. She gave the king a short curtsy and fled the hall, but instead of finding the necessary she headed for the gardens.
The quiet darkness, lit only by occasional globes of handfire, drained the tension from her. Here as a child she had run along the paths with playmates while her father consulted with the king on matters great and small. Here her mother had traded gardening advice and shoots of rare plants with the queen and the Haldane's master gardener.
Isolde walked along a gravel path until she found a carved wooden bench. She stood beside it, undecided whether to sit down. It seemed sacrilege to use the bench now, when those who had worked so hard to create the garden were dead.
Some sense warned her she was not alone. Isolde turned to find Lord Nicklos approaching, his face lit by the golden globe of handfire he held. His grin looked demonic in the unnatural light.
"My lady, it was rude of you to leave the hall before His Majesty." The Torenthi nobleman shook his head, his lips twisted in a thin smile as he spoke. "Perhaps he will not notice your discourtesy if I do not tell him."
"And why would you do that?" Isolde tried to back away, but the bench blocked her path. Suddenly she realized how alone she was here. Fear sank its claws into her heart as Lord Nicklos came closer.
"I would hate to mar the favor of so lovely a lady, but it would be my duty to my king to report such a slight. However," his voice dropped to a silky hiss, "should you be very nice to me I might overlook it, just this once.'
He stopped nearly upon her toes. Isolde straightened her back. His offer seemed most clear to her, and she had had about enough of being traded about like a spare trowel.
"My lord, you forget yourself! It is the king's wish I marry Sir Josce."
"And who spoke of marriage?" Nicklos's smile turned mocking. "Did you think I would sully my proud family name by wedding a mere human? My offer, lady, was for a most enjoyable tryst. Possibly an extended one."
"And what would Sir Josce say of that, my lord? Do you think he would take another man's leavings?" If she could just edge around the bench a bit Isolde thought the path behind her was clear. Hopefully she could outrun this foul brute or lose him in the darkness.
Nicklos's smile widened. His teeth gleamed in the soft light. "Josce St. Cyr will take what scraps he is thrown. The poverty of his family and the lack of talent they show make him realize his place. He does not question what his betters give him."
He gripped her shoulders, crushing out the handfire in an instant. The darkness magnified Isolde's fear and made her reckless.
"Unhand me, my lord! Or I shall scream the walls down!"
"Scream as you like, lady. None will hear you." Nicklos chuckled.
"I would not say that." Albion spoke from just behind Nicklos.
Nicklos whirled, releasing Isolde. Albion stood, legs braced, blocking the path. His shields flared crimson, lighting the garden like a thousand torches.
"The lady asked you to leave her, Nicklos."
Nicklos laid his hand on the hilt of the dagger at his belt. "She never said as much."
"Leave." Isolde stepped around Nicklos and walked to Albion, her chin high. Despite the frigid night air sweat trickled down her spine. "I never asked for your company."
Nicklos's eyes darted from Isolde to Albion. For a moment he wore the expression of a rat cornered by a hungry terrier. Then he straightened, squared his shoulders and released his knife.
"Very well, my lady. You have made your choice most plain." With all the dignity of a pompous burgher Nicklos stalked away toward the palace.
Isolde released her tension in a long sigh. She turned to Albion then, knowing she looked like an enraptured schoolgirl. "Thank you, Albion. I --"
"What in Hell were you thinking?" His shields dimmed, but the fire in his eyes replaced them. He was plainly furious. "You cannot simply walk out on Festil! Ever!"
"I had to get out of there." Isolde stepped back and squared her shoulders for another verbal battle. "I thought I must be ill."
"Did the food bother you? It seemed excellent to me, as always."
"The company sickened my stomach!" Now her tongue had slipped its bridle it took free reign quickly. "All those around me, talking of how well they were living on the estates they murdered for. Wearing finery they stripped from former owners or drained their crofters' labor to buy. I wanted to call them all butchers and monsters at the top of my lungs, but I am expected to be polite to them."
"Isolde." He sighed. "You knew when we came here --"
"And that serpent, Lajos, studying me like I were a caged sparrow. I swear his eyes never left me from the minute I walked into that hall. It made my skin crawl."
"You are new here. Lord Lajos is most careful of His Majesty's interests. No doubt --"
"And you!" Tears ran down her cheeks. She could not stop them, nor could she keep the sob from her voice. "Sitting there with your perfect blonde princess as if we'd never . . . as if you never gave me reason to think you might care for me! I could wish you dead!"
"Isolde . . ." Albion wrapped her in his powerful arms. One hand pulled away her veil and let it slip to the ground as he caressed her hair. His lips rested atop her head, his breath warm and comforting against her skin.
Before she could stop herself, Isolde returned his embrace with a fierce power she had not thought she possessed. They stood for some minutes, clinging to each other in the darkened garden as if they could become one simply by wishing it.
At last Albion released her. When she looked up at him his expression set a thousand butterflies loose in her near empty belly.
"Did you think I would not look at you? Did you think I felt nothing for you, that it was all a game to me?" He brushed a stray strand of hair from her cheek. "Never have I wanted a woman so much, Isolde. And never before you had I thought to share my life so completely with anyone."
"What are you saying? You are already promised to another."
He caught her chin on his fingertips. "That promise is an old one, Isolde. It was made for me, but not by me. I intend to ask Festil to release me from it so I may take another to wife. A woman who holds my heart in her hands."
Isolde shook her head. "Your king cares nothing for people, Albion. He would never . . ."
"Why would he not? There are many single lords who would serve him as well wed to Sophia. And I have no grander ambitions than a simple life in Tolan with the woman I love."
"And what of Derry?"
His smile broadened. "Josce can have Derry outright. You could hardly care for the earldom properly when you are my duchess, you know. Besides, I intend to see your days filled with half a dozen children."
She felt only a moment of loss at these words. He was right, of course. She had always known someday she would leave her home to go with her husband.
And the hope Albion extended burned like a candle before her. "Do you think Festil will accept me as your wife? Why should he?"
"Because . . ." He meant to say more here. Isolde was sure of it. Instead he changed words and gave another reason, though this was no less true. "Because never have I asked him any boon. He owes me this much, I think."
When he bent to kiss her she rose on her tiptoes to meet him. After a moment his tongue flicked over her lips. Then he stroked her teeth with his tongue and moved deeper into her mouth in a gesture so intimate it stole her breath away.
Behind her closed eyelids Isolde saw the flaming aura of Albion's power flaring around them. A softer, silvery glow came from somewhere she could not fathom, but it was there as surely.
His hands slid slowly down her spine until he pressed her hips against his thighs. Isolde gasped at the hard contours of his body. Her senses reeled. Albion broke their contact with a series of tiny, butterfly kisses over her lips, cheeks and eyes. When she fluttered her eyelashes against his chin he laughed, a warm, rich sound.
"You best go inside before you catch a chill, my love.' Albion rescued her veil from the ground as she straightened her gown and smoothed her hair as best she could. "I will speak with Festil this very night, I swear it. With luck we will be wed by Michaelmas."
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