Power laid upon him like a thousand secrets she had never known
And so she spoke
June 24, 1203. Scutari, Byzantium
It was barely summer and already the heat was heavy. The air itself weighed down upon Katherine as though a dozen wool blankets were wrapped around her shoulders instead of just her gown.
The tall and narrow arches let in light but barely any breeze. Even the palace’s situation on the hill, overlooking both the harbour and the forest, was of little help. The land rolled, unbroken, below the window, the greens of spring and summer turning the Byzantine countryside into a lush and fruitful orchard. The lapis-blue of the sky was only now beginning to tint with the approach of evening, and a heat-haze shimmered above the stone of the courtyard below. Thick stone walls rose before and behind her, beige and tan and dull, the bright mosaics on the ceilings too high above her head to be more than the vaguest of curiosities now.
Not as it had been upon her first arrival. The figures and the animals had seemed to breathe they were so alive, the shimmering bits of glass reflecting and refracting the light from the sun. She had spent hours staring up at them, climbing scaffold, stair and even – once – a high shelf to get a better view.
Eli had been amused; his council (their council) less so.
Eli. He was entering the room as though her thoughts had summoned him, his booted footfalls on the stone harsh against the now-broken silence. He approached and stood behind her, and she could feel his concern radiating from him. Sympatico; that was Eli’s term for it, of one mind. It was why, he implied, she found him so easy to read and to anticipate.
Kate wondered about that, sometimes. Maybe he was simply bad at hiding things.
“Is everything alright?” He stroked his hands up her arms, the purple silk of her gown sliding soft against her skin under his caress. “You’ve been here for almost half an hour. If you’re worried about the Venetian fleet-“
“I’m not worried,” Kate replied, and fought against the urge to lean back into his arms. He would take that as his cue to soothe her, hold her close, promise to protect her and keep her safe.
She was already so safe that she was suffocating.
The sky outside was blue, the hills were green, and inside everything was close and brown and dull. The dust in the air made it hard to breathe.
“The Crusaders have changed course and landed at Chalcedon. They’ll not get far,” he reassured, as if she’d said nothing. He was warm and strong and everything that was good, and for a moment, unbidden, she hated him for it. “The terrain is with us and they lost ships to the storm. They’ll be easy enough to repel should they decide to be foolish.”
She knew what was coming. He would kiss the back of her head, then put his arms around her and lace his fingers between hers, then the neck. He was nothing if not consistent.
Eli's breath was warm against her hair and his lips followed only a second later. His arms slid about her waist and he took her hands in his as he did so.
He kissed the back of her neck and she permitted it.
"Something's wrong," he said when she failed to relax against him, and she could hear exactly how his frown must look.
The walls were closing in.
"It's the heat," Kate shrugged and stepped away. That sense of entrapment faded with the distance, but did not vanish altogether. She lifted her veil from where it draped artlessly across her shoulders, and covered her hair. It was purple silk to match her gown, which was in turn the same as the embroidered designs she had laid on the hem and cuffs of Eli's tunic, the stripe of rank on the cloak that he draped across one shoulder. Such a perfectly matched pair they made.
"I'm going for a ride," she announced, and turned to face him. She was matter-of-fact, not bothering to show defiance. He would object now, the crease appearing between his dark brows.
Eli frowned, as expected. "It's coming on to evening." He hesitated; knew better after eight years than to disallow it entirely. "Take Nathaniel with you." He would mean it as a compromise, but she was in no mood to concede even a little ground.
Katherine shook her head, and reached up to pin her veil into her hair. "I don't need a guard."
"The woods are no place for a woman alone, especially in the evening." He could not resist the argument; he never could. "Even a man would be hard-pressed to fight off multiple assailants."
"Then taking one guard will hardly make a difference," Kate pointed out, not above indulging in a little thrill of victory. "Besides; I'll have my bow." And there was no-one within a day's ride of Scutari, if not further, who could outmatch her there.
"Why must you be so stubborn? Take Cassandra with you at the very least."
She ignored him, sliding the last pin into place, the fabric whisper-soft between her fingers. A thread snagged on the rough place on her finger where her bowstring always sat, and she pulled her hand away abruptly. “You like it when I’m stubborn,” she pointed out, and smiled at his grimace. She rose up on her toes and pressed a kiss against his mouth, closed-lipped and affectionate. He leaned in, seeking more, a way to distract her from leaving.
Katherine stepped back, smiled tightly and left the hall. The stairs were smooth beneath her feet, the well-worn edges of the steps still a little cool through the soft leather of her shoes. There were people in the corridor below, a handful of ministers standing in a red-robed cluster, heads turning to watch her as she left.
She held her head high and did not look.
The whispers had begun years ago and showed no signs of abating. Of course she heard them; how could she not? 'Eight years his wife and no sign of a child,' the first would say. The second would always follow, 'and he still refuses to put her aside?'
She should be grateful that he had not. That he dismissed the suggestion every time it was put to him, that he loved her. She was grateful. She loved him more now, certainly, than at sixteen when she had been brought across the storm-wracked sea to be his bride.
Love was at once a blessing and a cage. To be wife to the governor was to have power over men and arms and land, but only insofar as he granted it. To be loved by Elijah was to be treasured, yes, but as a relic, placed upon an altar in a niche for the purposes of worship.
She was luckier than many; her situation was hardly unique. Just one more high-born girl traded into marriage, and a bishop’s bastard at that. She’d had few options and fewer expectations. Elijah, though; he was young, handsome, and kind. He had been gentle, never once taken with force what was his by law. He had waited, watched and tamed her as any patient hunter with a hawk. In time she had accepted the hood and bell, had desired him in return. She had thrived.
The idea of it ending, to be sent away, put aside in favour of another, more fruitful womb; it was terrifying and amazing all at once. To no longer be ‘Elijah’s lady’ but a creature of her own design, wild, untrammelled, free...
Or to be penned up in a cloister, dark and prison-walled. For freedom was the privilege of men.
In the courtyard now, the faintest breeze plucking at the edges of her veil, Kate swung herself into Boudicca’s saddle with no help from the waiting groom. Let them stare and murmur and wonder why she went out alone. She was still mistress here, at least for now, and none but Eli could command her otherwise.
The gate was open, the world laid out beyond it calling to her in desperation. Her blood-red horse was a wall of heated muscle and coiled strength beneath her, yearning just as she did for the chance to stretch and run and fly.
Katherine dug in her heels, her horse sprang forward, and she rode.
The long road that passed between the great stands of cypress trees was a lonely one even in the day. It was far enough apart from market, port or palace that few bothered to wander along the hard-packed earth. That suited Kate just fine.
Bowing low over Boudicca’s neck, her bow digging in to her stomach, they galloped so fast that she imagined they could almost lift off together, stretch out hand and neck and will and all but touch the stars.
The road bent to a curve ahead and Kate sat straighter, drew back against the reins to slow their approach. The breeze was cooler now, the sun half-set, sweat prickling on her neck beneath the veil. Her thighs ached from exertion, as did her shoulders, and she threw back her head and laughed with the sheer joy of it all.
She did not expect the stranger at the riverbank.
He was kneeling at the water’s edge, a horse grazing gently alongside, and he startled at the sound of her approach. He stood, full waterskin in his hand. His dull grey cloak was open, tucked back into his belt to avoid the rushing river. His tunic was short, only falling to his knees. Blue hose showed between the hem and his calf-high boots, a western style she rarely saw here, across the Bosphorus.
He looked like home, and a part of her that she had kept long-buried ached.
Kate drew her bow and nocked an arrow without pausing for thought, or breath, or question. It was aimed right at his heart; should he move or threaten, he would die. And if he were one of the Venetians, come on Crusade to rape and pillage their way through the fertile countryside – she would have a great deal to say about that.
Starting with his last rites.
He stared, but not at her bow. He stared at her, as though it were the first time he had ever seen a woman, and she refused to break or lower her head even under the intensity of that look.
Why should she not be proud? Woman she might be, and bastard, but she was also the Strategus’ wife and Defender of her lands. She would hold her arrow fast until he yielded.
He did not yield. He made no approach but spread his empty hands. No weapons. He would have a knife on his belt, of course, but the robe was open and there was nowhere else for him to hide a sword.
A minute passed between one breath and the next, the moment when she could have loosed three arrows, had them stick in throat and stomach and groin, and it would all be over.
Instead, she looked, stared back at him the way he looked at her, curious and greedy.
He was fell and wild, with white-blond hair. His shoulders were broad and his legs muscled, and the space between them was where her eyes lingered longer. It was hard to guess his age, but he could not be more than two or three years younger than herself.
His eyes were old.
He took a handful of steps toward her and she did not lower her bow, but neither did she fire.
He was sinuous when he walked, sure-footed, every step suggesting arrogance that sent an answering heat curling up inside. His hands were slim, his fingers long. How would they feel against her skin? Did he have sword-calluses to make them rough, or was he a cleric, with hands soft from easy work? Would he be gentle if she allowed him to brush them, warm, against her thighs?
Men like this had featured in the stories of her youth. She had curled up behind the bed-curtains with her nurse, long falls of soft blue velvet cutting off the cold of the world. Nurse had woven stories, then, while Katherine had drunk them in; tales of the fae and sidhe who stole children, and incubi who ruined maidens in their sleep.
And in the sanctuary of the bedposts Kate had laughed.
In the wilding now she did not laugh. Her chest was tight and the curl of heat unspooled further, deep inside. He wet his mouth to speak, his tongue red against his lips. They glistened in the fading light and the blood stirred inside her heedless of her reason and her will.
If she had been born a man, been permitted (hateful word!) to take a lover at her pleasure, she would have chosen one like this, who stood like quickened moonlight among the trees.
"Who are you?" He asked, his head cocking with the question. He spoke in French and his accent lilted gently. An Englishman.
Katherine, she should have said, and drawn a blue curtain between them. 'Caterina di Firenze,' and 'my husband is lord here; you trespass on his lands. Be gone.'
She un-nocked the arrow from her bow instead and laid it down across the saddle-horn. The tension left the string and flooded through her, arms, neck and spine all thrumming with the power not unleashed. She stared at this woodland-creature, at the tilt of his jaw, the hair that curled against his neck and the short-cropped beard that would be rough against her lips.
"Kate," she said instead, and he smiled. "I am Kate."
Close enough to touch now, he took her reins in his hand and wound them about his fingers, the leather crossing dark against his sun-warmed skin. "I am called Thomas.” He still watched her but that awe was gone, replaced with curiosity and something warmer in behind. And most importantly, with nothing at all approaching reverence.
"Will you come down?" he asked, and his words were honeyed silver.
She found her voice and raised an eyebrow at him, imperious. "What will you do if I do?"
He grinned, his mouth quirking up at the corners and his lower lip full. She wanted to suck on it, and find out if he would whimper. He answered. "Do you want worship? I won't kneel."
She accepted his challenge with a smile of her own, the blood rushing under her skin so loudly that surely he could hear it. She didn't care. "Not even to a lady?" she asked him, teasing.
"Not to you," he answered. His eyes never left hers and he held Boudicca gentled and unmoving. "But I think you could use someone to ride by your side."
He was like all the others, and the disappointment she felt was sharp and immediate, disproportionate to what it should have been. "Why? So you can protect me?" she was scornful in her reply.
"By the way you hold that bow I think I would be better served standing back so that you can protect me," he laughed, and she was mollified. "But no. The road can be lonely, and you look like you don't smile enough."
"And you think you could make me smile." It was a ridiculous thing to say, the laughter already back in her eyes, but he simply shrugged in reply.
"I would like the chance to try." He rose up on his toes but was still only to the level of her waist. Kate leaned over, her feet still locked in their stirrups. Only a foot or so separated them, and it would be so simple to keep leaning, to let her veil fall from her shoulders to cover them both, to press her lips against Thomas’, taste the swell of his.
His eyes were the most astonishing shade of green, like the jade that came from the east. She raised an eyebrow again, not moving. "Do you plan to kiss me?"
He parted his lips and his breath caught. His eyes went dark, the centres wide and black. "If you want me to."
"Do you want to?" She was hesitating, but she could not take her eyes off of his hands, the way the strap wrapped over and around his skin, the strength of his fingers. She knew the answer that she wanted, and excitement thrummed in her blood. She was playing a dangerous game, this flirtation, with every chance that he would take her at her offer and her word.
"Yes." And his words spun out on a voice husky with desire. "But that was not my question. Do you want to kiss me?"
Here was the precipice, the moment of her choice. Turn back to the palace with its straight lines and high walls close about her, or throw wide the shutters and let the sunlight in.
It was a dare, a challenge in his smile that he did not expect her to answer. The only thing she had to do in order to wipe that knowing look from his eyes was to follow her own inclinations. The cage door was unlocked and unguarded; if she did not step through it now, would she ever find a chance like this again?
It was no choice at all. “Yes,” she answered, and the walls crumbled into dust.
He reached for her, his motion tentative, as though she were the fever dream, or thing of mist. She felt a stab of guilt as she leaned down, hands tangled in Boudicca’s mane for purchase, and brushed their lips together. This was madness, raw and inexplicable, some midsummer’s witchcraft that had wound its way around her.
His lips were softer than she expected, dry and slightly chapped, the effects of wind and sun on tender skin. He tasted clean and clear, like fresh water in a desert or the first cold night at the end of summer. He was the river and she was drowning, and when she broke and gasped for air it was with that image in her mind and shivers all along her skin where his hands had been.
She dismounted and slid into his arms. Her fingers played in his hair and she tightened her grip to bring his mouth down to hers again. She was tall, a blessing and a curse, and he was only an inch or two above her.
He stepped close and splayed a hand across the small of her back to pull her in, and their hips aligned and locked together. A rigid line against her stomach betrayed his desire, and an answering void expanded deep inside. She was empty and she wanted him, needed to be filled, driven higher and consumed. His mouth was hot when he opened for her, his tongue tracing delicate patterns on her lips.
He was gentle, too gentle; soft and slow would give her time to think and plan and perhaps regret-
She bit his lower lip, enough to sting but not draw blood, her hips against his hardness and her thumbs against his jaw to hold him still in place. He moaned against her mouth, the vibrations running through her fingertips. His hips hitched up toward her and she met him there, the heat between her thighs a pulse too strong to be ignored.
Surely, surely, in return for years of service, duty, faith – for this one reckless thing, on a fae-wild night, she could be forgiven.
It was different, to kiss like this, his hands moving now along the curves of her body. There was no need to worry about the future, about pleasing or displeasing him and how her actions would be judged. She could take and there would be no furrowed brow across the breakfast table on the morrow. There was only this instant, with teeth and tongues dancing and foreign hands on her hips and a desperate need fornakedskin.
His cloak cushioned them upon the grass, the evening air still warm and sultry on her skin. He bore her down upon it first, his hands running up her legs beneath her gown. Rough, they were rough and calloused and his movements delicate; how could both exist together? He pushed the fabric up above her waist and she fumbled with the knots of his hose points and his braes.
Her lacings next, and then his mouth was on her breasts, his tongue rolling flat across her nipples. They hardened at his touch, the unbearable heat of his mouth followed closely by cool air as he turned his head to mouth the other.
He gripped her thighs, traced his fingertips over the skin in the hollows of her thighs and her hips, his knuckles brushing once – twice – as though by accident against the hard nub between her legs.
Lightning shot through her and she rocked her hips up into his touch. He closed his lips around her nipple and he sucked, his thumbs rubbing circles on the soft skin right at the join of thigh to groin. She hitched her hips again, a keen breaking from her lips, and still he evaded contact where she needed it the most. He teased and tormented, her skin on fire where his mouth left trails, and it was brilliant but not enough.
He knelt above her, his tunic off and chest bare. He was as beautiful as she'd imagined him to be, lean muscle and sinew, his fair skin taut and flushing pink along his collarbone. She reached down to press her hand against the long ridge of his prick, and his low and desperate groan sent shivers running through her. He was fully hard and yearning, rocking into her hand through the fine linen of his undergarments, and the hint of wetness made her grip him that much tighter.
She sat up and pushed him back, her free hand splayed out across the solid plane of his chest even as she worked his prick with teasing strokes. He allowed it, falling back onto his heels and then allowing her to press him down to the ground. She straddled him, her gown fallen down around her waist and pushed up above her thighs, her veil and pins lost somewhere in the grass. It only took a second to tug aside the linen that separated them, Thomas' cock hard against his stomach and darkened red with need.
She moved to stroke him again, this time with nothing in between them, but he pushed her hand away. He rose up on his elbows to kiss her mouth, and rut his hips against her. She moved up his body and his prick slid between her folds, hard and hot against the slickness there. A groan escaped her and she ground down against him, the solid length of his arousal rubbing against every tingling nerve. He was steel encased in velvet and she was a void of want and desperate aching need.
He bit, his teeth sharp edges on her skin, sending pulses of pleasure racing down and through her, but- “No marks,” she gasped. He pulled back and the wet trail of his mouth stung cool in the air.
"Married?" He asked her, and he seemed amused rather than appalled at her hesitation and her nod.
She rolled her hips and he made a sweet and desperate noise that she yearned to wring from him again. He cupped her breasts, stroked his thumbs across the hardened peaks of her nipples, rough and needy. She reached back and seized his cock in her hand. He stiffened, anticipating, his hands stilling in their movements and his breath catching.
She sank down upon his prick and took him inside her body, the second man to ever breach those walls.
She was liquid and she was fire, molten gold inside her veins.
Her hips rolled, slowly at first as she got accustomed to his size. The stretch was just enough to complete her, end that empty hollow feeling, and bring pleasure in its wake. She rolled her hips again, leaned forward to brace her hands against his shoulders and there and there and there!
The head of his cock rubbed against that place inside that seemed connected to every other part of her body. He stroked into her, his hands rough against her hips. He held her tightly and thrust up into her, his back arching up off his cloak.
She rode down to meet him in return. She ground her hips against his in frantic circles, first the nub of pleasure at the fore that demanded friction, sparks shooting up her spine at every contact. Then the swelling, burning need inside for more and ever more pressure until she thought that she would burst; blow apart into a thousand sparks and take her place among the stars.
Her thighs were aching, her arms trembled where they held her weight above him, and still there was the pleasure and the need driving her ever forward. Thomas' mouth was on her breasts again, frantic nips and licks wherever he could reach.
He pressed a hand between their bodies and she lost her rhythm for a moment. He worked one finger in between, his fingertip resting just there where she could reach it on the downward stroke. She rocked her body down on him again, filled herself, hitched her hips and he was there. He rubbed his finger against her, slick with the evidence of her desire. That little extra was enough, the swollen balloon of pressure bursting in a rush. Sparks consumed her, became a blazing fire that racing outward from the iron bar inside her, flooding every limb and sense and inch with searing bliss.
She screamed, and it was his name upon her lips.
The curtains parted, the cage was gone, and she could see the sky.