“It will not be,” he said. “If you wish to champion your mother, I’ll stand by your side.”
“Are you through with them?” I asked. “Now that you’ve finished the dice for the tournament, have you any further obligation to the Otleiches?”
Syndrian released my hands and sat beside me, his thick thigh pressed alongside mine. “Pali…” he said gently. “Why? Why ask that now?”
“You said you know I’m always thinking steps ahead,” I said. “I fear I won’t be able to extricate myself from the Otleiches. Not now. Everything is such a mess. We haven’t the means to confront my father. We need to find a way to support Biko and Idony. If I return home, even if it’s just to learn the truth, I might have to compromise what I want—my freedom.”
“Why?” he demanded. “Why should you be the one to make the compromises?”
I stroked a fingertip along the fabric of his breeches, feeling the dense muscle through the material. “Because I’m the critical pawn in all this,” I said. “If I accept the roll of the dice, we can all put this behind us. Find a peaceful way forward. Perhaps if I marry Emeric, I’ll have some influence to protect Biko and Idony. Assuming I’m allowed to return home. Assuming I am correct that my mother did not intentionally try to harm me… Assuming so many, many things.”
“So you would marry him then?” Syndrian was staring at my fingers.
“I would prefer to marry the one I love, but how many people are truly blessed with that?” I asked, my temper getting the better of me.
“Neo and Brex. Neo’s brother, Rain, and his wife… Even Antonia and Dale have something true, Pali. Idony was happy all those years with Cyprian, was she not? What makes you think you deserve less?” His words struck with the force of an axe, leaving me breathless and shaken.
“I’ve enjoyed so much ease and comfort in my life,” I cried. “A beautiful home, meals… Do you know that I’ve never laundered anything? Not once. Not a rag, a dress. I don’t know where to begin living a normal life. I may have exceptional skills when it comes to playing board games, but I’m a shallow person, Syndrian. My depth is limited to those things I truly care about.”
He got up from the settee then and strode across the room. “Do you not see?” he asked. “Do you not understand that it is your very depth that sets you apart? You care more for truth and kindness than comfort and coins. If you are shallow, Pali, then the rest of Efimia has the soul of a puddle days after the rain.”
I left the settee and walked up behind him. He stared into the fire, and for once, I was not tempted to tease, to control, to taunt it. I cared only for the man before me. I slipped my arms around his waist and rested my cheek against his back. “In the pub,” I said, “it was your touch, your heat that I used to calm me. To focus my gift. Without you, I would be a mess. Passionless. Powerless.”
“Not powerless.” He turned to face me. “But I like the sound of you passionless without me.”
I smiled at him and snuggled against his chest. “What do we do, Syndrian? I know what my instincts demand, but I’m not the only one affected by my choices. By my actions.”
He pressed his lips against my hair. “What would you do?” he asked. “If you were only responsible for the call of your heart, what would you do?”
I lifted my face to his. “After I kissed you senseless?”
He smirked at me and tapped my nose with his. “After that, I’ll be a useless companion for any quest you’d like to undertake. Let’s handle this together, Pali. Whatever you decide, I want to be a part of it. And then after, senseless kissing.”
I lifted my face to his. “Can I have just a little taste?” I begged. “Something…just in case…” My voice broke, and before I could cry again, he slipped his hands behind my neck and pressed his lips against mine.
“I’ve always loved you, Pali.” His stubble scraped my chin, and a delicious thrill flowed from my lips and then lower, flooding my body with heat. “And I will love you forever, whether you’re mine or not.” His tongue teased my mouth, filling me with his sweetness. “So let’s make certain you don’t marry Emeric. The man will not appreciate me claiming his wife and staking a camp in front of your manor.”
I kissed him again, reluctant to stop but knowing that the only way to have more of this, to build a life with him, was through it. “Come with me?” I whispered against his lips. “I need to go home.”
* * *
Syndrian and Irode to the Lombard estate despite the late hour. If I was going to confront my mother and father, there might be some advantage to surprising them in the night. Biko wanted to accompany us, but he was too fraught…too close to erupting. I preferred to handle this myself, in my own way.
Biko had spent years being loved by his parents. Despite having a father by birth who would sooner have abandoned his child than make him part of his empire, Biko had been loved. Meanwhile, my entire past, present, and future were now in question. If I was to learn that my mother meant for me to die at the hands of thugs in Kyruna, if it were truly my father’s wish to marry me off to an Otleich even though I would go to any length to be spared that fate…Well, I would need Biko’s support and love later.
For now, there was only one person I wanted at my side. I wanted no one but Syndrian to hold my hand, to wipe my tears, and to give witness to whatever fate befell me. As we rode quickly and quietly through the night, all I could pray was that my parents did not hurt Syndrian. They could do what they wished to me. I would accept the consequences of my many choices. But I would make certain Syndrian came through unscathed. I would make any horrific bargain required to protect him.
We finally arrived on the property and tied the horses a small distance from the manor. We’d agreed not to stable them so we might make a quick escape, if a getaway was needed. We linked hands and approached the manor on foot. As we walked the well-lit path, we encountered an unusual cart and horses. The cart was marked with the same shield I’d seen displayed in Knuckles & Bones.
“Syndrian.” I gripped his hand as my blood ran cold. “That fox…that fret…” The colors and the distinctive shape of the square knot carved into the wood marked the cart as coming from Kyruna. As belonging to the Otleiches.
“I see it.” His lips were drawn, his face pinched. “We should leave, Pali. We should not go inside. Let this business settle, and then…”
“No.” I shook my head. “Wait here. By the cart. If any trouble comes to me inside, you’ll be the only one who can help.”
He pulled me close. “I cannot let you go. By the gods, I can’t stop whatever’s happening in there!”
“I can,” I said softly, pressing a kiss to his lips. “Wait for me?” I asked. “I fear I will lose courage if I am not assured no matter what, you will be here.”