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Alanna’s ears were throbbing to the ceaseless shouts of the crowd below when eventually Xanir withdrew his arm from her shoulders and with a last wave, turned to lift and carry her back up the steps to the terrace. She balked in a moment of rigid refusal, pulling away from his reaching hands, and one foot landed outside the carefully cooled area on blistering hot mosaic. Her breath hissed inward on a gritted refusal to yelp. The next second her new husband was carrying her back up the steps.

Her skin squirmed under his grasp, but Alanna kept her face calm, proud. This was a moment for dignity.

The four lords standing to attention on the wide terrace and pedestals were gazing directly ahead, focus beyond the Tahl and his bride. Despite the rapidity of her glance, their features seemed etched into her mind. Her skin was running cold despite the scorching sun, tightening over bones and muscle, every pore clenching in shame while Xanir bore her past the one standing aloft on the nearest plinth. The one who had also stood nearest her head, panting as he had watched.

Dignity? With her back now to the public, Alanna allowed her eyes to snap closed. All four had watched.

Head swimming, she recalled her grandmother’s warning that Tahl’mese marital customs would be different. How different? she thought in rising trepidation. What would he do now? More – what might they do?

Dread began to tighten down her spine.

Be strong. Alanna wrenched her mind away, and forced it to stumble through the mantra she had learned to recite as a child, standing endlessly to attention through interminable parades.

Hjuortmark, Hjarnland, Kjellund, Vik… the names of the provinces of her home evoked stunning memories of sharp, high mountains bounding lush valleys. Shoulders burning under the merciless sun, Alanna felt her brittle equilibrium lurch again sideways, tears stinging, and drew a sharp breath, thrusting the longing away. Xanir stepped into the shade of the doorway.

He stopped in the relaxation area immediately inside, at the foot of the dais, and lowered her to casino oyna her feet. Heavy carved wooden seats scattered with colourful cushions encircled a beautiful pattern of tiling on the cool floor. In the centre of the area, two bathtubs had appeared, each gently steaming, and a high pile of blue towels bordered a variety of dishes and small tubs on a low table to the right. The ointments and liquids in the tubs smelt of soap and exotic flowers.

A light breath escaped Alanna as the slightly singed sole of her foot met the blessed cool of the floor tiles. The carving on the heavy wooden shutters for the doorway to the terrace was exquisite, delicate reliefs of trees and flowers and fruit and beasts all gambolling together in a riotous whole. Her eyes were fixed on a carven outline of long-legged, long-billed birds standing in a river when the footsteps of the four lords entered the room behind her, and stopped.

She could not halt the trembling, although anger was rising in her. She didn’t have words for this: her father had taught her a series of code phrases so that she could let him know if the Tahl was violent, or sadistic. But not this. She could not tell him this. A memories of her own pleading, begging the Tahl, tied to the bedpost and then splayed across the bed in front of these four flashed across her mind. She flung it away.

Frozen, she watched a richly-clothed arm of one of the lords reach into her field of vision. An arrow of thought stabbed her: a Kjeldahl would not submit to this. Not again. Alanna felt the anger that had been steadily growing under the fear surge toward the surface, ripping a shudder through her. But there were five of them. The hand touched the side of the door shutter, to swing it closed. A soft remark from the Tahl stopped it. Alanna hardly breathed, tension aching in her muscles, watching as it withdrew. Xanir said something further, and the lords chorused an obvious obedience, bowing, before their footfalls marched rapidly along the wall behind her to the main door out into the corridor.

Sim-lá, maeli Zur-Tahl, Alanna repeated silently slot oyna to herself. The phrase echoed in her head, jittering nerves clinging to it as a distraction from anger and fear. They had all agreed that the most useful thing she could do in her year of damned exile was to learn the language.

Her breathing soft and rapid, she turned her head at the last moment and watched the four exit. The icy shard of tension hurting Alanna’s spine eased slightly. The last man had the sheet folded neatly over his shoulder, and barked an order to someone standing outside the door as he stepped through. She had a brief glimpse of the outline of a hulking guard standing motionless against the wall beyond the door while running footsteps raced away down the corridor. The door clicked shut again, cutting off sound and sight.

She was alone with him.

Alanna’s stomach remained cold, tension hardening it

They stood in silence for a moment, motionless. Then Xanir reached a hand to the light silk covering her breasts. Anger burst, and Alanna spun out of his reach before he touched her, turning burning eyes on him.

“We are not on show any more – I’m not on show,” her tense whisper shivered through the air. “You’ve done your duty so just get out,” she hissed, uncaring that he couldn’t understand a word.

Xanir blinked. He looked steadily into her tear-bright eyes. Then with slow movements, exuding the calm air of a master horseman faced with a frightened foal, he stepped forward and reached carefully for the fabric wrapped around her.

She batted his hand away while side-stepping smoothly, eyes snapping with anger. “No,” she said, in his language.

One eyebrow went up.

The Tahl strode forwards, his hand shooting out. The reaching arm was harder to deflect this time, but Alanna swirled further away, darting backwards into to a patch of space at the foot of the dais.

Xanir had halted, his head slightly tilted to one side. Curiosity and interest lit his dark face.

Alanna gasped as he sprang toward her, swerving and ducking backwards to keep facing him and canlı casino siteleri evade his grasp while he dodged around to her side in a semi-crouch. His hand closed in the cloth at her hips. She grabbed at the fold over her breasts. Their eyes clashed. Braced on one leg, her other foot already lifted, Alanna hooked it up behind his bent knee, jerked it forward and pressed down hard on the top of his calf in one swift movement. Xanir lurched, turning his stumble into a smooth roll. Alanna spun away, dismayed to feel a tug at the cloth at her breast accompanied by a tearing sound. The silk ripped right up the centre of her torso, clinging only by the last fold across her heaving chest. Alanna swirled to face her opponent, heart pounding.

Xanir was back on his feet, laughing, a bright light in his eyes.

The next few moments were a dance of precipitous defences and evasions as Alanna struggled to stay ahead of the Tahl while he stalked her around the dais. Her breath was coming faster and faster, sweat sheening her skin. Indignation was clouding the tremor of fear in her mind.

Xanir kept nodding each time she blocked or evaded him, a pleased smile flitting across his face. He was testing her defences. His easy air of an expert assessing a new recruit grated against her pride. Wrath crested when the cloth still hanging over her breasts was pulled free, and this time she darted towards him. The room echoed to the open-handed slap she landed across his cheek.

The Tahl jerked backward, anger springing into his eyes, then slammed into movement towards her.

Realisation flooded Alanna’s mind and she stumbled backwards, cheeks blanched, her palms flying to her open mouth.

Xanir stopped, the spark which frightened her dying in his eyes, and stood quietly, spreading his hands, open palms towards her.

They stared at each other, breathing swiftly.

A knock sounded on the door.

Both heads turned swiftly.

Xanir looked back at his naked bride shivering just beyond his reach. A frown darkened his eyes as he watched the fire die out of her. She paced hesitantly forward, head and shoulders drooping, to stand quietly at his side.

His voice was gruff as he called permission to enter, and he dropped a kiss on her hair while tucking the torn silk back around her slender curves.

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