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Ten Mountains

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Buri had a good stride going, that easy rhythm that left other walkers in the dust without leaving oneself out of breath. Invigorating. Effectively discouraging to company.

She’d finally found Thayet in her outer dressing room, surrounded by no less than three ladies-in-waiting busily bundling her in the immobilizing layers of a high-necked winter gown. Her discarded riding gear had been carefully arranged over a blanket on the settee -- to protect the furniture from the mud, sweat, and horsehair that was in the habit of following the queen – and her windswept hair tamed into an elaborate braided bun, still damp from the bath.

“Oh, Buri,” Thayet said, catching Buri’s arrival out of the corner of her eye. Lady Rachel of Greenleah had one graceful hand clamped over Thayet’s skull, applying a fistful of pins to her tightly wound hair.

“Called away for more than a bit then?” Buri said mildly. Her voice always sounded hoarser when spoken to women wearing dresses. She’d grown to appreciate it that the way Cooper appreciated fine wine.

Thayet grimaced, shaking her long sleeves in answer. Lady Viselle, the youngest of the three, made a tiny frown when the movement interrupted her attempts to right the sleeves’ layers. Once properly arranged, a darker cuff would emerge from pale sleeves, followed by a long fall of white almost to the floor. Buri wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress like it, but on Thayet – Buri suddenly understood why people cared about aesthetics. She just wished she didn’t have to go to political hullaballoos to see it.

That reminded her -- she didn’t know what occasion had prompted Thayet’s handmaidens to whisk her away from the archery range. Was it a small thing or, gods forbid, a big one? Buri eyed the dress with new wariness, mentally resolved to be on her toes lest someone decided she needed washing and bundling too.

“Tell that politician he shouldn’t interrupt your practicing unless he wants you to start missing your shot,” Buri said without real heat. They’d gotten all their heat out, the both of them, during the year Jonathan had blocked Kalasin’s knight’s training to save her for a political marriage and Thayet had moved into her own wing of the palace.

Thayet laughed, and Buri left her with a nod, trailed out by the sighs of women busy salvaging a queen from the muddy wreck Buri had handed over to them -- again. Buri figured they had to be used to it by now, mostly.

So that put Buri wandering through the castle at a vigorous pace, energy up and ready to get something done but too distracted by the overhanging threat of fancy dress to figure out what. Only thing she knew, it wouldn’t involve much talking. It wasn’t a people kind of mood she was in.

With that in mind, it both did and didn’t make sense that she ended up in the comfortable mess that was the common room of the King’s Own – not the one upstairs with the Carthaki rugs and the gold frames on the mirrors, but the one downstairs, where the upholstery had gone bare on the couch arms and one of the wall hangings was an axe that had slain a giant.

Buri gave in to the inevitable and ducked in. At her pace there was only so long you could wander through the palace without having to turn around. The room was dim, wall sconces turned down and no one with a gift for magelight making an effort. Together with the unaffected clutter of couches and scuffed tables, the room had a welcoming ease that might wash all the stress out of anyone who entered. For Buri, it wiped away the restlessness – no fancy dress ball could get in here to make her feel out of place – and left behind only a joyful energy, the pride of an athlete ready to move.

A handful of knights had taken up chairs spread about the room, including one apparently asleep in the corner. A page bent to deliver an early dinner of turkey pie and mashed potatoes to his knight master, a gray-haired man twisting awkwardly around the boy to frown at his chess game. Two broken-down chairs had been pulled up to the low table, the board resting next to two tankards and a partially unrolled map.

His opponent sat bonelessly with his knees almost at the level of his chest, the weight of all six and a half feet of him sinking the well-stretched leather seat almost to the floor. His hands easily engulfed the chair arms, and the battle-scarred axe on the wall did not look out of reach for his long arms. He topped off this image of ungainly size with a smile of chronic good humor in a curly, black beard. His name was Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie’s Peak, and he looked like he could pick her up and climb ten mountains before he’d need to put her down again.

Buri probably needed to stop thinking like that.

Raoul noticed her and lifted a hand in greeting. The older knight finally made his move and settled into his dinner. “Tourakom,” he said gruffly.

“Goldenlake. Haryse,” Buri acknowledged. She knew Flyndan Haryse only as an acquaintance through long years serving the same kingdom. It was Raoul that had brought her over, a kindred soul baffled by court politics and formal parties. She put her hands on her hips, impatient but unwilling to break up the game. Her lips twisted trying to think what words could explain her peculiar need for action. She didn’t realize that the expression itself might be communication enough.

Raoul’s eyes flickered over her face, and he reached to move a piece on the chess board, standing in the same motion. “Oh, well – check and mate.”

“You son of a bitch,” Haryse said tiredly.

“It’s about keeping track of the possibilities, Flyndan. Keep at it. Enjoy your turkey.” He tipped an imaginary hat as he stepped past the table to Buri’s side. She planted her feet broadly and looked up at him, grinning in anticipation.

“Feeling dull, Buri?” he asked, grinning back.

“Dull in the head and fast in the feet,” she admitted. Raoul nodded, accepting this as a complete explanation, and they walked out together into the chill of the late afternoon, Raoul strolling in long, easy steps while Buri fell back into her stride. The two paces were reasonably well matched.

She cast one glance behind them as they left, eyebrow raised, and Raoul admitted, “He doesn’t really play. I’m supposed to help him uphold his honor with his son-in-law, who does. When you gave me that look, I thought I might as well end the lesson there.”

Buri smirked. “Picking you as his first opponent, I’ll give him points for guts.”

Raoul shrugged humbly, as though he weren’t one of the best military strategists in the kingdom.

They had come around the edge of the barracks to a small armory used by the practice yard and archery range behind the stables. It was empty now as the afternoon drew on and shadows lengthened. Raoul ran his hand over a table holding wooden staves and swords. Bows hung on the wall next to a box of arrows suitable for practice. Buri had been here earlier with Thayet, but now archery seemed too still and precise for what she wanted.

“What’s put you at loose ends?” Raoul asked. “No riders to train?”

“I was making sure her gracious majesty hadn’t forgotten how to shoot a bow,” Buri said, “but the last I saw her, she was wearing lace.”

“Lace?” Raoul said, startled. He too tried to keep track of the palace’s social calendar, and finding oneself unapprised of enemy movements was always unsettling. “What for?”

“I don’t know,” Buri admitted, and they shared a deeply worried look.

“If they come for us,” Raoul said seriously, “I’m tossing you at them and running for it.”

“Ha! I’d like to see you try.” She feinted a jab at his liver, blocked one in return, and they fell into a light wrestling match beneath the hanging bows. She broke his hold twice and nearly took him down to one knee, but he had that terrifying reach and about a hundred extra pounds on her. Without using any dirty tricks and with a room full of weaponry to be careful of, it wasn’t surprising that she ended up with her back against the wall between a halberd and a pike.

“I can’t remember – are you the ticklish sort?” Raoul said thoughtfully.

Buri laughed. “You don't need another advantage, you over-sized mammoth.”

It was time to remind him that he was only winning because she wasn’t fighting dirty – or smart, as she called it. She stepped forward against his chest and brought her knee up to the inside of his thigh, just south of where it would have done some damage. As moves went, it was a hell of a tease, but she didn’t expect him to suck in a breath like he’d plunged into icy water. Her own breath was coming out against his collar bone, and she could feel his whole body give a small jerk, from his feet on the floor to the tips of his fingers on the wall at either side of her head.

Oh Goddess, she thought, what an idiot, but her heart was beating furiously, and somewhere in the back of her head, she had known exactly what she was doing. She said – almost evenly! – “Bothering you a bit there?”

“Buri,” Raoul said, teeth set, “I think you could bother me a lot more than a bit with just your knee.”

Buri’s eyebrows went up. She thought, stunned: When was the last time I did that to a man? And this man was the size of an oak tree. There was something dizzying about having such an effect on that much territory. You’re a warrior, Buriram -- attack! Or was it yield?

Her hands moved up to grab his collar -- stalling, really, to let her plan her next move. He was watching her, unaware of this inner monologue, and his eyes widened at her brown hands curling in his shirt. He managed to ask, his voice going up uncertainly, “In the armory?”

“Gods damn it, Goldenlake,” Buri hissed, “it’s not like I want to get caught.”

“I’ve been at court too long to want to drag you into that.” But his hands had dropped to span her rib cage, one thumb on the underside of her breast, and Buri knew he was not speaking chivalrously. They were the both of them great lovers of privacy. That they had bound themselves by love and loyalty to very political creatures meant consequences must necessarily follow.

While she turned this over in her head, she felt his hands leave her, the air cold where he had been warm. Clearly, the thought of pulling her -- and himself -- into the public eye scared him. And maybe she was a little scary herself. She pinned him with a look and said with dead calm, “Do you know how much trouble I’ve gotten into in my life?”

He gave her a considering look that she followed up with a tug on his collar that barely shifted him. All that directionless energy she couldn’t get rid of was boiling up, and she was promising herself that this was the only time in her life she’d wait on this big, slow lunk when at last he dipped his head and kissed her. She sunk her hands into his hair as his arms came around her back, and she had been so, so right: he could have carried her over the whole Roof of the World.