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To Call Myself Beloved

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Veradis takes one look at Antillar Maximus and his bewitching smile and thinks, This man will break you in two.

He is not the sort of man who is careful with young ladies' feelings; he is, instead, the sort who will smirk at propriety and convention, who will fill her mind with intoxicating, heady lies, and leave her cold. He is a man to be avoided, even if he continues to ply her with his smile and the twinkle in his eye and the promise of breathless adventure. 

Her sisters obviously do not agree.

"Oh my," Eliana says, breathing deeply as she stares intently at Antillar.

"I know," Anatola says, and licks her lips in a way that profoundly disturbs Veradis in ways she can't even begin to articulate.

"I don't see what's so appealing about him," she snarls. "He is handsome but a complete degenerate." Of course you do, a snide voice in her mind says. You've got eyes. You see that he's beautiful, and that he's charming and very, very capable. She tells the voice to shut up in a rather decidedly unladylike manner and scowls at her sisters. "And in case you two have forgotten, you're married."

Anatola snorts. "Married. Not dead or blind."

"Married and pregnant," Veradis says.

"I'm not a healer, dear, but even I know that pregnant doesn't mean dead," Eliana says mildly. "Or blind."

Veradis continues scowling, but she doesn't say anything more. She wonders if she ought to be offended on Antillar Maximus' behalf because, if her sisters are any indication, woman must gawk and stare and lick their various facial protrusions in lascivious ways around him all the time. Wouldn't a person get very, very tired of this sort of treatment? More importantly, wouldn't a person want to be seen as more than a handsome face and a rather—she swallows—spectacular body?

"He's quite scandalous, you know," Eliana says to Anatola.

"I've heard," Anatola says, "that he and High Lady Antillus don't get along. Why, Lady Gnaeus Macia told be that they had famously violent fights when he was a boy."

"Oh!" Eliana says, surprised. "But they seemed perfectly cordial this afternoon."

Veradis is quite used to being overlooked in her sisters' conversations. They are so much older than her, after all, both nearing thirty years of age, and they still seem to think of her as a small child and don't need her to participate. Her sisters start to speak of this lord and that, what this countess wore, and how that wedding had turned into an utter disaster, so she tunes them out and returns to her book.

Still, she cannot help but feeling a bit sorry for him. She bites her lip. Antillar Maximus is a rogue reprobate; by all accounts, he is a dangerously competent legionare, but in all aspects of his life that do not involve soldiering, he seems to live for nothing but the next drinking house, the next loose woman, the next bit of aphrodin. Women like her sisters—bored, high-born wives—would look on him with lust and might spend a night or two in his company, but they would not deign to marry him.

She wonders what life his life is like, and she is inexplicably saddened.

"Where are you going, dear?" Eliana asks as Veradis gets up to leave.

"Nowhere," she says. She knows where she could go, of course; she could go to her chamber, or to the library, or to the paintings gallery; she might seek out her father for tea, or visit the greenhouse for a walk, or nip down to the kitchens for a bit of pie. She wonders what it would feel like to have none of those things, to say, "I am going nowhere," and to truly mean it.

Antillar Maximus might be perfectly happy with his life, but Veradis cannot fathom it.

Veradis comes upon Antillar Maximus' prone body in a hallway off an antechamber after a late night in the library, lying half-propped up along a wall. She prods his leg with a toe, and then prods harder when he doesn't stir.

She grits her teeth, and decides that she should try to wake him so he could at least attempt to walk to his rooms with dignity before she can stomp away and send some brawny footmen to fetch him. She kneels down before him and shakes his shoulders—and she marvels, in some small, primitive part of her mind, how strong and thick and hard they are under her hands, and promptly tells that part of her mind to shut up—and says, "Antillar Maximus. Wake up now. I don't care what poison you've ingested, it's time now to wake." She shakes him more, but his head just lolls forward, and he remains as asleep as ever.

And then she realizes that he's not breathing.

She has him rushed to the infirmary and works tirelessly for two terrible hours to keep him breathing and get an antidote into his system. He wakes with a gasp, empties his stomach, and drifts of into exhausted sleep.

Veradis stares at him for a few moments, and then gives the staff on hand strict instructions that no one else is to be allowed in and to keep him in bed until morning, when she can come talk to him. She leaves the infirmary with fear burning in her belly.

When she stumbles into the room the next morning, she is met by a tearful assistant. Maximus, it seems, had left at some point during the night, slipped right passed the nurses and the fury wards in the infirmary's walls. She stomps all over the citadel and sends runners and messengers to fetch him from wherever he might have gotten to.

She stumbles upon her brother by sheer chance and asks where Antillar Maximus might have gone. He frowns at her. "He's gone," Vereus says.

"Gone?" she asks shrilly. "Gone where?"

"I don't properly know," Vereus says, eyeing her strangely. "Are you quite all right?"

She shakes her head impatiently. "I'm fine, but he most certainly is not. I had him in the infirmary all night."

"Oh, right." Vereus smiles. "You know how he is. He told me he'd taken a bit too much aphrodin wine last night. He'll be fine."

She starts to say that Antillar Maximus' condition had nothing to do with wine; there had been no aphrodin nor wine in his system. She bites her lip. To run about a citadel filled with powerful citizens and talking of her suspicions is the height of stupidity until she knows more. "Where is he?"

Vereus shrugs. "He's completed a hitch in Placida so I think he's off to Phrygia—they're recruiting after the Third Phrygian had taken such heavy losses last year." He puts a hand on her shoulder. "I know he'd fancied you but you were never going to oblige him anyway. Nothing lost. Cheer up."

She goes to her father and tells him everything, though. If there is an assassin loose in the citadel--she shudders. The implications are horrifying. 

But Papa's face grows sad, not alarmed. "Leave it alone," he says, shaking his head gravely. "There is nothing you can do, Veradis."

"But Papa—"

"Let it alone," he says again. "It was…not a random attack. Maximus has taken steps to defend himself, I'm sure. Had he died under my roof I would have taken action, but it is best not to interfere where one is not wanted and with forces one cannot control."

And just like that—after nearly a month of plying her with smiles and charm—Antillar Maximus had flown out of her life as fast as he'd come in. Acid burns in her stomach.

Somebody had tried to kill him, and by all accounts, he knew it.

The Vord War feels like a knife against her, slicing and carving swathes of her skin. She feels parts of her drift away: her brother is dead; her city is dead; and soon, the realm may be dead. She takes comfort in small things. She watches sunrises. The takes time to walk barefoot through dew-soaked grass. She holds her nieces and nephews as often as she can. She admires the way muscle and bone and skin meld together at her bidding.

Her life takes a rhythm. She spends her morning at infirmaries, her afternoons with Lady Isana and Dianic League business, and her evenings with her father and sisters. Lady Isana is a calm place in the storm. The First Lady is what Veradis would like to be, one day, if the Vord do not take everything she holds dear from her. Very few people could wield their eyebrows the way Lady Isana does.

When the fighting starts in earnest, Veradis is lost to sea of cries of pain and fraying muscles and cracked bone and immerses herself in the business of catching life before it flees broken bodies. It is bloody, unnerving, taxing work, but she does it, and is so immersed in it that she almost misses the messenger that informs her of her father's death.

She finds herself sitting hard on her campstool, bloody hands dangling in front of her. The messenger is saying something about selflessness and sacrifice. She nods dumbly. Papa, dead. Papa, who would hold hands with her and looked so pleased when she'd declared that she would rather study awhile than marry. "My dear," he had said, patting her hand, "you'll be the only one left after your brother marries. And then you and I shall drink our tea and chat late into the night and not worry for a thing."

Her hands twitch and she thinks, Papa, papa, you promised. Papa had promised. And now…now, he didn't even leave her a corpse to bury. There is a terrible, keening sort of sound, and in some dim part of her mind, she realizes that she is making it. It doesn't matter. Somehow, she manages to climb to her feet, to grip her knife, and let the metal burn some of the numbness away. She stumbles to the closest tub. The legionare in it had had a badly torn wound in his side; it had been closed, but he would die of internal bleeding if she does not mend the damage to his innards. She shrugs off offers of help and reprieve. The grief will slam into her like a hammer, and she does not know how much will be left of her afterward. For now, it is best to work.

"I do believe you ought to read this immediately," Lady Isana says mildly as she hands a sealed letter to Veradis over a small tea table in Lady Aria's garden.

"Is this really from Octavian?" Veradis asks. "Are you masquerading as a cursor for him?"

"Yes," Lady Isana says. "Today, I'm little more than a messenger girl."

Lady Aria snorts. "Come, Isana," she says. "Let's leave her alone while she reads this."

"Why am I the last one to find out?" Veradis grouses. "Especially because it seems to concern me in particular." She opens the letter, expecting the usual—condolences for her father, and a vaguely worded invitation for her to visit—but what she finds makes the breath catch in her throat.

Lady Cereus Felia Veradis,

I am writing to inform you, Lady, that I have placed before the Senate the issue of the fate of the city of Ceres. It is my understanding as per my mother that you are desirous of regaining your home; as such, I hope that I have not preformed a grave disservice to you upon proposing that you be named High Lady of Ceres and the sole heir of your father, the late High Lord Cereus Macius. Your father is responsible in a very large way for the survival of the realm, and, more personally, for the survival of my home; I wish very much to do him credit. If you do not wish to be named High Lady Cereus, you have but to say it and I shall withdraw your claim. Understand that I am not offering you a boon: Ceres is buried in croach and Vord; the city needs to be repopulated and the lands reclaimed and resettled. The responsibility is enormous and it will be in unenviable task. However, I do not think there is any other candidate in the realm more suited to the job.

Please send your reply with my mother. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours, as ever,

Gaius Tavarus Magnus

Her hands tremble. He is giving her Ceres. He is giving her back her home.

She reads the letter again and again. It will be difficult. She knows next to nothing about the administration of a High Lord's lands.

But she can learn. "Yes," she whispers. Then, louder, "Yes. Yes!" She leaps up and sprints in search of Lady Isana. She has a very important letter to write.

"Watch," Maximus whispers in her ear at the Senate meeting.

Veradis glances at him in irritation. "They're meeting to decide what to do with my city. Do you think I would be doing anything else?" It's unfair to him, she knows, to snap at him like that after all he has done for her, but she's strung so tight she is vibrating.

He just grins and pats her knee. "No, I mean, watch Calderon. He's about to speak."

She looks back toward the floor. Senator after senator has spoken, and so far none of them had even suggested that she be granted Ceres and made the sole heir. They all had their reasons; some said she was too young, others said that her talents did not range widely enough; and some said, without so much as a façade of politeness over their condescension, that she was a female and obviously unsuited to such tasks.

Veradis grits her teeth and sits through them all. Octavian had done the same, with a slight, mysterious smile on his face. She had stopped looking at him for support around the same time Senator Alpheus had cast shadows on her sense judgment by citing the fact that she had not married. She clenches a fist. These men know her. They'd known her since birth. They'd known her father. How could they want to take his city away from his family?

"I don't know what he could say now to fix things," she whispers sourly.

"Have you seen him cow these jackals into submission before?" She shakes her head. His grin widens. "Then you better watch."

When Gaius Octavian stands to take the floor, every eye rivets upon him. He only smiles a little at the attention, and then proceeds to systematically skewer each argument. Yes, Lady Veradis is indeed female, but that is no indicator of weakness—one need look no further than Lady Placidus Aria or Countess Calderonus Amara or Countess Isana, who all were instrumental in the final days of the War, or even Tribune Cymnea in the First Aleran legion, who masterfully fulfilled her duties even during extreme peril, or perhaps they wished to remember their own First Lady, who had traded blows with the Vord Queen and calmed not one but two great furies. Lady Veradis' age certainly should pose no problems; why, High Lord Phrygius Cyricus is barely eighteen years old and no one had raised an objection to that. Her abilities certainly were no cause for complaint, for one need only look upon High Lord Antillus Raucus' rightful heir, who is only just relearning how to walk, and since none in the Senate had argued against such a disability in him, surely, Lady Veradis, who is hale and healthy, would pose no problem. And if she had not married, what of it? It only suggested that she had a strong mind and that she knew it.

Then his eyes flash about the room and his voice hardens as he recounts Cereus Macius' sacrifice. He dares them to dishonor it. And then he sits down and is silent.

Later that day, Veradis is named High Lady Cereus, and Ceres is hers.

The task, as Octavian had said, is no boon. Ceres and her lands are barely recognizable, devastated and gutted and covered in alien growth. She weeps bitterly for hours after she has seen the reports.

Still, she has a job to do. Father would have worked tirelessly to reclaim Ceres, as would have Vereus. She steels her shoulders and gets to work. To help her, Octavian has relegated the First Aleran legion to burning out the hives and croach hidden in the underground caverns. She works closely with Maximus, coordinating efforts and sending engineers and builders and healers where he thinks will be most efficient. She resettles the counts and lords who are still alive, and reassigns steadholts to holders who are willing to live on her lands. She has endless meetings with financial advisers, military advisers, merchants associations and everything in between. Slowly, she carves Ceres anew out of disaster.

After the tenth month of this—after ten months of talking with Maximus and eating with him and staring at him and getting a taste for him in his element—she gets to wondering what is so different about him. He itches less, she supposes. The constant cloud of restless wanderlust about him is gone. In a world gone dark and helpless, he seems oddly content.

So she decides that, if she survived the near end of the world, she can survive finally giving in to lust.

"Poetry," Max murmurs, pressing a kiss next to her navel. "If I knew anything at all about it, I'd write poems to the little mole next to your bellybutton."

She giggles at him—she'd surprised and appalled herself, giggling like a schoolgirl with him, but by now, it is a foregone condition—and threads her fingers through his hair. "I'd rather you didn't, actually."

"It will be terrible," he says affably. "I'd title it An Ode to my Lady's Lovely Spots."

Veradis rolls her eyes in mock irritation and fights to keep a smile off her mouth. "Do stop."

"My lady's moles are like roses," he recites, gleeful. "A healthy shade of brick / Marvelous, they never fail / To in my memory stick."

"You are terrible," she gasps between guffaws. "Horrible. Cease and desist, sir."

"Upon her navel fair / there is an enticing one / and a cluster on her lofty brow / to count them is such fun!"

They're both laughing too hard to say anything else.

She loves his joyous, earthy sensuality. Sex for Max is not a dry ordained ritual only to be had for the purposes of perpetuating old dynasties. ("Don't you dare lie back and think of Alera," he warns, a playful warning in his voice, and makes it so that she can't lie still and silent for the life of her with his clever fingers and cleverer tongue.) It is slick and sweaty and close and tender and raunchy and spontaneous and fun. It is an attitude she finds easy to espouse.

She loves gazing at him in sleep the best. He is so different in repose. Awake, he vibrates with energy and a cheerful, infectious vitality; asleep, she can see ghosts of the child he had been. These moments are why the scars on Max's back trouble her so. He is hardly conscious of them, and while she admires the play of furylight on the muscles in his back, she can't help but wonder about them, burning with a curiosity that is both gauche and morbid.

She can only imagine a two ways for him to have gotten branded with a whip so harshly: he had committed a grave indiscretion in the legions—she immediately discounts this one, because Max is a consummate military man—or he had be subjected to them as a child. Max is hardly one to lie idly by when assaulted. He would have retaliated with fist and sword and fury.

Unless he had no sword. Unless he was too young for furycraft. Unless his fists were too small.

He glances over his shoulder and catches her looking for what seems to be the millionth time. She flushes and averts her gaze as casually as she can.

He sighs. "You can ask, you know."

Veradis swallows and considers her words carefully. "I thought you might tell me when you were ready."

He sighs again, rubs a hand over his face, and settles into bed. He slides an arm under her and she snuggles next to his side gratefully. He is still tense, and his voice sounds very tired. "I…haven't really talked about them to anyone. Besides Calderon, I mean. And even then…"

"You don't have to tell me."

He strokes her arm, thinking. "We should talk about it, I guess. It's just…it's not much use thinking about them. Not a crowbegotten thing to be gained by it."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because…" his voice deepens until it is a rumble beneath her cheek. "You know what happened to my stepmother, right?"

"Yes," she says. "I met her in Calderon. It is a terrible thing." She shudders a little remembering the hard band of metal encircling the High Lady's neck and the meekness in her eyes. The Antillus Dorotea of the past had been an intimidating woman; what she amounted to now could not intimidate a mouse.

He makes a noncommittal sound. "How much do you know about the circumstances of my birth?"

"About as much as everybody knows, I suppose. Your parents weren't married, you don't get along with your family, and you hadn't seen them in years apart from the time you spent with your brother in the legion."

"That's about right. Crows, I'm making a mess of this." He takes a deep breath, and says, "My stepmother whipped me when I was a boy."

She freezes in his arms and holds him tight. "I'm so sorry, Max."

His embrace tightens. "I don't want you to be. It was a long time ago. And besides, it wasn't the worst thing she'd done to me."

Veradis doesn't know what is worse: that he'd been subjected to terrible abuses when he had been a helpless child, or the bitter humor in his voice. "Oh." And it hits her like a sledgehammer: the night she'd found him poisoned, and how her father had known more than he'd said, and how the High Lady of Antillus had arrived and left that very day. "She's tried to kill you, hasn't she?" Horror wells up inside of her.

"She killed my mother first. And then, yes, she tried to kill me. After I came into my furies, I threatened to kill her if she ever came near me again. That's when the accidents started. She came pretty close to offing me most of the time, too. Very bloodthirsty people, my family." He sounds almost philosophical about it, and suddenly, so much about Max's past behavior becomes clear. His wanderlust, his thirst for life and pleasure, the greed with which he surveyed and partook of the world.

"The thing of it is," Max says, sounding more like a man wrestling with a mildly vexing puzzle than a megalomaniacal monster on the warpath, "I've been spending a good bit of time thinking about her. About my—family, I suppose. I know why she did what she did now. It's so obvious in hindsight."

"What do you think her motivations were?" she asked, and tries to keep the rage out of her voice. She wants to tear Antillus Dorotea limb from limb.

He smiles at her crookedly and continues stroking her arm. "Love."


"Think about it." His mouth twists about in a wry smile. "I am the publically acknowledged bastard son of Antillus Raucus. I am a pretty damn good crafter, if I say so myself, and I had a good run up north and in Placida. I know people. I was a bloody cursor of the Crown and a known associate of people who were known to be in Gaius Sextus' personal retinue." He shrugs his shoulders. "If I wanted Antillus, I could have had it. A word to Placida and Phrygia, and another to Gaius, and that would have been that. And she had Crassus, and I'm sure that she was doing whatever she thought would help him succeed Father as High Lord. If that meant getting me out of the way, well, that was it."

"Wasn't she declared a confirmed traitor to the realm a few years back? For conspiring with Kalare during the rebellion and aiding and abetting the original Canim invasion?" Veradis asks waspishly. "I don't think love was deciding factor there."

"Well, I'm sure being a power-hungry bitch was a part of it, yes," Max says mildly, "but I'm also sure that, in terms of dealing with me, she was just looking out for Crassus. Not that he needs it, mind. They don't come much more fierce than him."

"No," Veradis says, impatient. "She shouldn't have worried because you would never do that to him. You would have never taken Antillus unless it was freely given."

He grins at her. "She didn't know me very well, obviously."

"I don't understand how you can talk so calmly about this."

He gives her a very direct look. "Well, I could run up north and give her a good beating. If she was still whole, maybe I'd do it. But I don't hit women, and I especially don't hit those who can't hit back." He shakes his head tiredly. "I can't even bring myself to hate her now. I've spent most of my life running from her. I've had nightmares. And for her to suddenly be so..." He grimaces. "Helpless, I guess. She's so bloody helpless. It's strange."

There is still a storm raging inside Veradis, but love wells up within her, hot and turbulent and insistent. He deserves so much more than her pity. "You," she whispers fiercely, "are magnificent."

He kisses her, slow and soft and soothing. "No," he says finally. "I'm not. I'm just growing up."

Max stalks into her office like a hurricane. "I have no idea how to run a city," he says without preamble.

Veradis inhales sharply. Reckoning had come, and she needs to be very careful. So she shrugs, smiling. "I didn't either. I'm making it up as I go along."

He snorts. "Then I wonder if it occurs to you that maybe getting married is a bad idea? It'll be the blind leading the blind."

She narrows his eyes at him. "No, it does not. I had no earthly idea what to do when I'd got here, and I seem to have muddled along." It was an understatement, of course. She had worked tirelessly to repopulate her city with merchants, with artisans, with the required personnel that provided essential infrastructure, to rebuild it to the heights it had enjoyed when Papa had been High Lord. Max knew that, of course—the First Aleran had been heavily involved in clearing the croach from Ceres' streets and walls and houses and lands and fighting left-over Vord. "But it does occur to me that our First Lord didn't exactly learn beforehand how to run a country either and he seems to be doing well."

"That's not what I mean at all," he says tightly, and runs a hand through his hair. "Calderon's different. He's never met a problem he can't fix. I'm not like that."

She sucks in a harsh breath. It is always best, she thinks, to tear open a wound than to let it fester under the skin. "You don't want to marry me?"

He whirls around and stalks to her, and she notes distantly that he looks much more angry than apologetically abject. "Crows, no, that's not what I mean, either. Of course I do, Veradis," he growls. "I just—I don't—" He rubs his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Five years down the line, or ten, I don't want you to regret marrying me." Anger makes his voice rough. "I don't know a crowbegotten thing about being a High Lord. I don't know what needs to be done here or how the taxes work or how to regulate steadholts and crops or anything. I don't know how--" and here he stumbles, his voice going hoarse with frustration "--how to be useful to you."

Oh, Max. She gazes into his face, and sees the love there and her heart pounds with it. There is anger and consternation and regret flowing out of him, but all of that is utterly insignificant, because the love she feels in him is so much stronger. Veradis reaches up and takes his face in between her hands and brushes the broad, beautiful planes of it with her thumbs. "I'm not marrying you because I need a man to run my city, Max," she says softly. "I'm marrying you because I love you."

His eyes bore into hers, and he reaches up to take her hands in his own. There isn't an inch of them that isn't calloused and worn hard and leathery with battlecraft, but he is terribly, heartbreakingly gentle with her. "My mother and my father loved each other. It wasn't enough for them."

"You aren't your father, Max. I'm not your mother." She swallows. "The times are different. And If I haven't made it clear before, I don't care about whether or not your parents were married. You know that."

"That's not what I mean." He frowns at her, even as he rubs his thumbs over her palms. "You're not like other women, Veradis. I want to build something with you. I want to build something that lasts and I don't know..." He swallows. "I don't know how to do that. I spent my life running. I don't know—I don't know if I know how to do anything else."

Again, Veradis feels the searing, helpless anger rush through her, anger at Antillus Dorotea who had so viciously stripped from a helpless little boy any sense of home and hearth and happiness he might have carried with him through life. It is becoming an unfortunately familiar sensation. "You're very lucky," she says, finding her voice, "that I do. I'll teach you."

His eyes are red and slicked with tears for a moment. When he closes them to watercraft the tears away, she stands up on her toes and kisses his eyelids.

"You see," she says, "I'm teaching you already. Don't think you can't cry in front of me, Maximus. Great furies know I've blubbered on you enough."

Something in him tightens. Then he takes a deep, deep breath and opens his eyes. "I don't think it's that easy," he says roughly, "but you've got yourself a deal. You've got me. I'm not leaving. If you start complaining, ten years from now, five years from now, even five minutes from now, I'm not leaving. I love you, all right? Say what you want, do your worst, but I'm here to bloody stay." He looks mutinous, almost as though he is daring her to contradict.

A fireball or a sun bursts inside her chest, and the heat of it, the singing joy of it, spreads everywhere inside her. Instead of saying anything, she leaps at him and kisses him, and it isn't a gentle kiss; it is ferocious, joyous, ripping thing. She kisses him with all the fear and loneliness and desperation she had felt, with all the love and happiness she feels, and the contentedness she hopes will come. Max makes a hoarse sound in his throat and lifts her up onto the table, scattering papers and quills and pots of ink, but she doesn't care because he's pressing into her and she rocks into him and they're still kissing and his cock is pressing into her belly and she thinks, distracted, Oh, I did that.

He moves from her mouth to her neck and her collarbone, and he 's already somehow undone the front of her dress—while she might not appreciate the fact that Max has probably had sex with a legion or two worth of women, she does like that he knows his way around a woman's garments—and he's kissing down the valley between her breasts and she can tell what he's going for and while she does like that, there's need for something more urgent, more primal, so she tugs him back up and says, "No, not now, do that later—" and he grins savagely and she unbuttons his trousers and she's ready, oh great furies, more than ready as he pumps a finger into her, then two, and then suddenly, he's in her, and the heat flares high and the prickles and tingles start racing down her body as the familiar rush comes, but not like before; this mad, frenzied mating has no room for slow caresses and tender ministrations, and she feels him surging, the musky, male thickness of him, of the hardness of the chorded muscle against her and she thinks, He's staying, he'll marry me, oh great furies, all of him is mine mine mine, and the pleasure crashes down on them like a wild furystorm.

A little while later, when they're both spent and sweaty and breathless, she says, "I do believe we forgot to lock the door."

"I don't think I can do anything about that. I don't even think I can move right now." His face is buried in the crook of her neck, and she giggles as his breath brushes her skin. "You're a very demanding mistress, my lady."

"Of course," she says, sliding her fingers through his hair, reveling in in its damp thickness. "I wonder, though, if you wouldn't mind taking a bath with me."

She feels his mouth curl into a smile. "I have no objection. Our activities, I confess, have left me feeling a bit spent as well."

She stifles a giggle at his tone—spoken like a lord at court, equal parts vaguely bored and mildly contemptuous—and continues in kind. "Then I wonder if you would be so kind as to lift my person and convey me to my bedchamber. The heat, you know. I am quite helpless with it."

"Do I join you in this chamber?" he asks, and licks her in one continuous movement along the base of her neck. Muscles that had only moments before protested movement awaken.

"Forever," she says breathlessly. "And don't you forget it, Maximus. You're mine." He may be the stronger, may be able to tear stone apart with his bare hands and may be able to make the skies rain fire, but she will hold on to him no less fiercely, with no less force than he is capable of. She is Cereus Felia Veradis, and she has built her city up from the ashes of civil war and invasion, and she is strong enough—more than strong enough—to never, ever let go of him.