tagRomanceSelected for Sport Ch. 16

Selected for Sport Ch. 16

bySmileWhenYouMeanIt©

Limaq stiffened imperceptibly, fingers closing on the pommel of his sword. His eyes narrowed on the dark depths of the corridor leading from their post at the door to the Queen's garden. Despite his relaxed stance he remained fully alert, watching between the moonbeams that cut into the darkness at each window leading back to the Star Chamber. One corner of his mind noted that Ben, beside him, was still staring unfocussed into space. A conversation for later.

At the last minute his fellow guard shot alert, hand flying to his sword hilt when the approaching figure stepped silently through the moonlight of the nearest window, discarding stealth. The dark silhouette stopped in the shadows, within sword range.

Limaq's eyes narrowed slightly, his fingertips drumming a silent, staccato rhythm on the leather grip. The hands of the man facing him lifted into the moonlight, palms pressing together in front of his chest in the warriors' silent gesture of reporting to a superior on post. The hands were sinewy, patterned with the scars and callouses of a dedicated swordmaster.

"Your orders?" Limaq asked quietly, mouth dry. Ben's eyes widened and shot sideways at the lack of challenge, returning immediately to the shadowy figure in front of them, his stance relaxing slightly.

A backpack, coated with the red dust of the Shalmav desert, thudded softly against the knee of the warrior facing them while he drew forth a sealed message tube and silently proffered it to Limaq. Without looking at the junior guard, the newcomer then tossed the pack to him. On reflex, Ben swiped it aside with his sword, a stifled exclamation of indignation bursting from him while he stepped forward, bringing the sword up to menace the warrior in the shadows.

"I wouldn't," advised Limaq quietly, sidestepping into the pale light to frown over the brief message.

"He-." Ben broke off when the new warrior, ignoring his blade, stepped up to Limaq and murmured something into his captain's ear. His hand shook on his sword hilt. Moonlight ran along the famous zig-zag profile of Zander, captain of the Tahl's guard.

"No," apologised Limaq quietly to his old sword-brother. "I am to post your orders publically." Their eyes met. "He must have been furious. What -?"

Zander stepped backwards wordlessly, bowing and offering his blade to his new captain. Silent, ignored, Ben gulped. What had Zander done to be demoted to the Maian guard?

Limaq clasped his hands briefly over those of his friend. "Then take your post. Now. His orders clearly state -."

"I know what they say," Zander interrupted quietly.

Limaq drew a breath. Released it.

"Ben," said the captain. The younger warrior pulled himself together. "Dismissed. Take the Commander's pack to our quarters and find him suitable accommodation."

"Commander no longer." The deep voice, hoarse with exhaustion, followed Ben down the corridor as he jogged swiftly away, mind seething with conjecture.

Xanir Tahl watched the guard run through the Star Chamber, and waited until his soft footfalls died before emerging from the shadows. A moment later he joined his two sword-brothers by the garden door.

Limaq's eyes widened as he bowed, taking in the thick dust still coating the Tahl in his own palace, the eyes of both travellers strained through lack of sleep.

"Is she in there?" Xanir's voice was almost inaudible, his hand already reaching for the door handle.

"She has slept here most nights since you left, my Tahl."

A sigh escaped Xanir. "Then we are in time." A hand closed on Zander's forearm, gripping it painfully. "I am sorry, old friend. I wish -," the emperor broke off.

"I am honoured to serve my Tahl." Zander's voice growled, fierce pride echoing in each syllable.

A touch to his guard's shoulder and Xanir turned fierce, black eyes on Limaq. "I am not here," he ordered, words careful and deliberate while he watched the captain straighten, eyes widening in realisation before turning opaque as he too bowed wordlessly. There had been plots before that had demanded complete silence. Xanir disappeared through the garden door.

Maybe she was sulking, Alanna admitted to herself. A little. It was hard not to when your husband bewitched you with a night of luxurious, breathless, wondrous sharing - the massage, the frame, the sofa, the bath, finally the bed: sleepless, sensual, spellbinding.

And he had also talked to her. Endlessly, about everything and nothing. The long low rumble of words and laughter had only faded when eventually Xanir had allowed her to sink into sleep with the coming dawn.

He had left by the time she had awoken, in her own bed. He hadn't just left her alone to sleep, either - Xanir had left the palace, the city; she had no idea where he was or when he would be back. He hadn't told her anything about the minor detail of his imminent journey.

Obviously his conversation skills needed a bit more work.

She had received no word since either, while the moon had slowly waxed, waned, and was now full a second time. The bright light silhouetted the branches of the vast tree in the Queen's garden stretching above and below her illicit perch high above the flowerbeds. Here she could sulk in peace.

She missed him so much. And not just physically, this time.

The vast shadow of a huija bird glided soundlessly over the sleeping flowers, the shadow of sharp-etched talons reaching through the air her only warning before the trunk shivered. Voracious squeaking rose from the young family nesting far above.

Alanna half-smiled, and then scowled, picking at the dry criss-crossed bark under her fingers. Bird-brain was allowed to come and go as he pleased. She had once again been confined to the women's quarters. No-one to see. Nothing to do except learn Sianese from Prince Haman's shy wife, and then tease her tutor. Tease her with the additional vocabulary Alanna learned during the tart encounters she manufactured with Rihanne. Poor Sarah would call her husband in to translate many of the words, cheeks aflame.

Her branch swayed again, responding to the shifting weight of the other denizens of the tree. Alanna sighed as she absently shredded a piece of bark broken from the trunk, rubbing the stringy threads between finger and thumb. She had to stop behaving so childishly. Stop this perverse pastime of goading her chief rival into teaching her Sianese dockyard slang, merely because she was bored. Her lips twitched.

The branch dipped again, more deeply. Alanna glanced up and froze.

The furthest tips of this limb, and the one below it, stretched almost to the ground by the massive outer wall enclosing the forbidden garden. Beyond the wall were the communal palace grounds, and on their far side she could just make out the retaining wall banking the Tahl's terrace, where she had once awoken beside Xanir.

A shadow, dimly visible in the moonlight, had crept up from the ground and was shuffling along the branch below, using hers as a handhold. A pale oval shone briefly as the intruder looked up for a hold. Alanna's heart felt as though a fist was clenched around it: How had he got in here?

Slowly releasing her breath, she lifted the oblong of bark in front of her own face, breaking the smooth circle of lighter skin that would give her away. Her blood was jumping, breathing rapid, and she held perfectly still, brain thundering with questions. How had the intruder got in? It was impossible - the wall was guarded by the Zalmat and her own guards were outside both of the garden doors.

More importantly: did the intruder know she was here? What was he (or she) here for? Her tense limbs were shrieking at her to scream for her guards, but her head was telling her to wait and watch. The intruder was in the same tree as her, but gave no indication that he knew she was here. While no threat was evident then it would be better to observe, to inform Haman, and through him, Xanir. Besides, he was on her ground. She defied anyone - including Xanir - to beat her at climbing a tree.

At least she wasn't bored any longer.

Be careful what you wish for.

Carefully the dark figure crept closer to the trunk. Alanna relaxed slightly, watching the hesitant, slightly clumsy movements. This was no smooth assassin.

Even on the thought, the intruder flung up her arms as though struck, one hand flying to her neck while a soft cry revealed her gender. In seconds, the rounded limbs seemed to petrify and the woman toppled in slow motion from the branch, making no move to save herself, landing with a soft thud on her back amongst the flowers below.

Alanna found herself staring, aghast, down into the frozen face of the woman she had been seeking; the one who had exchanged words and a small bag with Hector Beguine two months ago. The face was unknown, but she recognised the necklace pendant gleaming between the stiffened fingers clutching at the shaft of a slender dart in her neck. The dark eyes were drying, staring: dead.

She gulped.

The tree was rustling with the assured, rapid descent of a new occupant - and this one did come flying in over the wall; the black-wrapped, lithe figure of a true warrior swinging stealthily down to land beside his victim.

Now Alanna was trembling. She knew that this must be one of the Zalmat, protecting the palace women, protecting her, but the knot in her stomach tightened, a warning not to make a sound, holding her petrified on her perch.

Steel flashed in the moonlight and bile heaved into her throat when the silent figure chopped abruptly down. Her eyes clenched tight. The terror of not being able to see what he was doing grew and spread until they shot back open. Nausea heaved and Alanna swung her face away, trembling incessantly while at the corner of her eye the shadow of the blade rose and fell: clinically, silently dismembering the huddle which seconds before had been a living, breathing woman.

Alanna struggled to steady her breathing, tears shining in the moonlight when the knife was soon sheathed, a cloth unfurled from under the dark robe, and skilful hands silently packed away his grisly work. She didn't want to watch. But this she had to tell Xanir. Surely a member of the Zalmat would call for assistance? Or was any breach in security to be hidden? She swallowed down a fresh surge of nausea.

Both heads shot upright when soft footfalls sounded on the gravel path. A broad-shouldered silhouette was advancing in the darkness, hands at his head unwinding the cloth that protected a desert rider from sun, sand and wind.

"Princess?" murmured a well-known voice, too low to carry beyond the enclosing walls.

The butcher's head jerked around; sharp, cold eyes raking the darkness and shadows of the surrounding bushes, seeking the princess. Alanna swallowed at the knife that had suddenly reappeared in the blooded hand.

"Alanna?" Her husband was almost to the central fountain. The black-wrapped figure twisted to face him and slithered soundlessly behind a nearby bush, curved blade raised menacingly.

"Xanir!!"

Even as the hoarse cry burst from her, the black-clad figure spun again and his steel flashed in the moonlight, flying straight toward her voice. A wild flinch, and she fell backwards from the branch a fraction of a second before the sharp blade stabbed into the trunk where her head had been. Her knees locked, a hand automatically grabbing her ankle before she twisted herself back on top of the branch almost without looking, her face turned in terror toward the assassin.

Xanir was fighting him.

Alanna's eyes widened incredulously while she lay panting on her perch.

Xanir was fighting him. On her wedding night, her husband had dispatched that assassin almost instantaneously, effortlessly, despite the drawbacks of fighting bare-handed against a killer with a sword. This one -.

Alanna gulped while she watched the violence tumbling around the garden below, the silent, deadly shadows struggling for supremacy. Standing on her branch, eyes transfixed with dread she bit back a sob when Xanir leapt backwards to evade the sinuous sweep of the twin, wickedly curved blades that had leapt into the hands of the assassin. Her breath caught in her throat when a second slash opened the linen across her husband's chest, and she drew breath to scream.

Xanir threw her a forbidding glance, the expression achingly familiar: No. Don't scream. Taking advantage of the microsecond of inattention, the intruder drew a fine red line across one muscular arm, his breath exploding in a grunt of triumph.

Impatiently, Alanna dashed the tears from her eyes. Dammit, Xanir! Call your guard! Her palm was sweaty against the hilt of the dagger protruding from the trunk by her waist, and no matter how hard she wrenched, she couldn't shift it. Furiously she threw her whole weight against it, feeling her head reel when it tore free and she was falling, landing breathless and winded on her side on the short grass.

Her heart jolted at the dark shadow bearing down on her, blade descending, and she threw the dagger. The assassin dodged, swaying onto his toes to arch sideways like a startled cat, before pouncing forward again with the same sinuous grace, eyes grim and merciless.

But he catapulted past her with her husband on his back, head slamming into the trunk where he slumped, motionless. Xanir wrenched both blades from his hands and threw them across the lawn before beginning to tie the man in knots with his trailing headcloth.

The dark face turned her way, eyes aflame. "Silently. Main door. Fetch Limaq and Zander only," Xanir hissed. The figure underneath him was beginning to shake his head and shift his weight. Heart in her mouth, Alanna fled across the shadowy garden, breath heaving.

Zander took off as soon as she gasped, "Queen's tree". Limaq kept pace with her, holding back impatience. By the time the figures on the grass came into sight, Zander was holding down the assassin while Xanir tightened the cloth across his mouth. "Take him to Emf's hell," ordered the Tahl.

The next second, Xanir was atop her, tumbling her to the ground, pinning her with his weight, his hands holding her wrists beside her head. His face was in hers, eyes burning with fury. "What in Mikla's name were you playing at?" he hissed.

"Me?" she squeaked. Bruising lips slammed against hers, the fury in the kiss stunning her into silence. Her pulse rocketed, awareness of the hard press of his formidable erection pulsing through her blood. His weight was making her breathless, making her melt. His ruthless kiss was making her mindless. Her blood was racing and she felt a whimper rising in her throat while he plastered her to the ground and devoured her lips. His hips began to rock into hers, and a needy, breathless noise broke from her.

The footfalls dragging the would-be assassin away had faded, and the small night noises of a sleepy garden were beginning to return when Xanir lifted his head. Alanna was squirming up against him, pleading for his touch. "You were safe up the tree," he grated.

Oh.

Alanna tried to drag some air back into her lungs. It was harder to drag sense back into her head, her mind was singing in anticipation, longing; echoing the rising, heaving lust was boiling through her blood and melting her sinews and -.

"Answer me," Xanir snapped, voice still low.

"You were in danger," she protested, breathlessly. His weight atop her was making her squirm in small, pleading movements, feeling small, and weak with excitement.

An incredulous eyebrow rose. "In danger? I was never in any danger you little idiot. I was fighting to disarm and question him without giving him any chance to attack you."

She gulped, eyes widening.

"But then you fell out of the damn tree and -."

"Your fault," she whimpered. The sibilant tirade stopped with a hiss through gritted teeth and Xanir scowled down at her, eyes flashing.

"You know I can't help but fall at your feet when you're around," she coaxed softly, eyes pleading up into his: I'm sorry I scared you. "Over balustrades, balconies, trees -." She trailed off at the look in the grim face glaring down at her. Then suddenly his face creased with laughter and Xanir dropped his cheek to press against hers, body rocking with chuckles. "Idiot," he muttered into her hair, swooping her up into in his arms while he stood up. "Don't ever do that again. Leave me to fight my own battles."

"OK," promised Alanna, voice wavering. She found she was crying silently, and turned her face into his shoulder. "He -," she was stopped by a fresh surge of nausea, and gestured towards the grisly cloth bundle at the foot of the tree.

"Shh," murmured Xanir, walking swiftly and silently to the central fountain, although this time avoiding the gravel. "It's over now." He pulled his torn shirt free, dipped it in the pool, and began to gently wipe the tearstains from her cheeks. "You are safe."

She leaned forwards and pressed her face against him. "Yes. You are here." She drew a shaky breath. "It was her," said Alanna into his shoulder, muffled. "The woman with Beguine."

Xanir stopped and shifted her so he could look down into her face, thumbs stoking gently across her damp cheeks. "What?" he sounded puzzled. "That was a treasonous dog of a Zalmat, paid to assassinate you." The look that crossed his features was terrifying. "We intercepted a message."

"No," whispered Alanna, twining her fingers in his waistband, enjoying the comfort of his warm skin against her cold hands. "He murdered her." She gulped, clutching at his arms when with a sudden frown he swung her up again and began weaving through the trees to the main door. The taut muscles under her fingers were distracting.

"What was the woman doing?" he murmured against her hair.

A warmth kindled deep in Alanna's chest. Xanir didn't even hesitate, taking her words as truth and acting on them. Her voice was stronger when she whispered: "Climbing the tree. But I don't think she knew I was there. And I don't think she came over the wall."

"It would be too difficult," agreed Xanir huskily. "Another of the Zalmat must hold the zip if one of them has to enter; to do so alone would be impossible, a suicide fall. And no way out." He set her on her feet and tapped an almost imperceptible staccato on the panel of the door, before swinging back towards the Queen's tree. "Stay with Limaq," her husband hissed over his shoulder. A hand on her wrist prevented her instinctive stumble into following, although it couldn't stop the sob that rose in her throat or the shudder that ran through her. Don't leave me alone.

"My princess," Limaq murmured over her head. She shivered incessantly, staring into the darkness where her husband had disappeared again, barely aware of her fingers clutching at the warm cloak that was wrapped around her, or the warm arms that followed, holding her tight against the comforting bulk behind her.

Xanir re-emerged from the shadows mere moments later, and a dangerous look lit his eyes when they took in the embrace. His expression softened at the sight of the fresh tear-stains on her cheeks, reading the strain in the wide eyes, and he peeled her from her bodyguard's arms into his own without a word, rubbing a soothing hand up and down her spine.

"You intercepted a message?" whispered Alanna, huddling against him. Then she gulped, shooting a guilty look sideways at Limaq.

"Limaq you can trust," soothed Xanir. "He and Zander. No-one else can know this happened. No-one can know that the message: She will be in the Queen's garden at the new moon - was intercepted." Xanir watched the solemn little bewitching face, tilted up to his, nod emphatically, and he smiled briefly. The fluttering longing in his chest was so strong it almost hurt. Let her be true. Even if I must send her away, let her be true. "No-one can even know I was here."

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