Sarah gasped as Khan's passion overwhelmed her. He dove deeper inside her than he ever had, driving her to new heights of ecstasy with every surge. Not his surge alone, but the ocean's around them, its waves cascading over their flesh and turning their fire to steam. Sand, wet sand, spread beneath her, shaping itself to her back like a welcoming blanket. Her new diamond ring, her only adornment, flashed in the bright crescent moon.
She gripped his elbow with one hand and the back of his neck with the other, squeezing him in every way she could. Another wave crashed down upon them, driving him further and deeper and harder, filling her in ways she'd never imagined. She closed her eyes, threw back her head, and sang a note of joy.
With the roar of a beast, he came to her, and she to him, and all was warmth and flesh and sand and sea.
They lay there together as one. He reached for the sand beneath her and eased his way down, pressing his trimmed black beard against her cheek. She felt the whisper of his breath across her ear, heard the thrum of his heartbeat against her breast. He kissed her, and with his lips still upon hers, he eased his way back from her, gently slid in just once more, and then slipped away and rolled to her side.
The waves were calmer now, and gentle with her long black hair. He brushed the hair away from her bright green eyes – "emerald eyes," he'd called them, and she'd called his eyes silver in return. He was a strong man, tall and slender, with wiry muscles all across his arms, legs, and chest. Wealthy, also – far wealthier than any tailor's daughter, and what had she to offer him?
The exhausted, tender smile on his face suggested one answer.
But no; she had to be more than that to him. Had to be; the ring on her finger was proof of that. But what? What had he seen in her? A chance for charity? She'd come to him in desperation, seeking nothing but a chance to afford her mother's medicine. And he'd given her more than a chance. He'd given her hope.
And now, here they were, together in the surf below the castle walls, the music of the royal ball still wafting down to harmonize with the waves. Their clothes lay discarded near the bottom of the path down the cliffs; she'd shed hers first, then gained a head start while he wrestled off his boots. It hadn't been their first time, nor even their first time there. But this time, with the ring shining bright, the ring he'd gently pressed into her hand at the waltz up above, it felt…different. Not only better, though it certainly had been, but…
Significant, somehow. She wondered. No, she thought, it was too early to wonder. She'd know in a month, at the earliest. But still…
He pulled her in for a kiss, stroking her thigh as he took in her tongue. The waves came again, stronger now. Did he hunger for more? Did she? She'd give him as good as she got, she decided, and he looked more than ready—
This time, the waves hit harder, crashing straight between them and forcing them apart. She rolled away, spinning twice before landing hard on her elbow with a mouth full of sand and a nose full of seawater.
"Sarah?" she heard him call, half muffled in the pounding surf. "Are you all right?"
Of course she wasn't. She was cold, naked, and covered in dirt. Another wave, this one harder still, slammed down upon her and nearly knocked her flat. Enough, she thought.
She coughed, stood, and woke herself up.
It was the boy who called for her, red-haired Arikk, and his voice grated nearly as much as his incessant knock. Beneath her bed, the ship lurched hard to port, tall waves slapping the hull as thunder pealed above. She tossed aside the cramped cabin's single blanket, piling it over her still-sleeping husband.
Husband. Was he still, after her "death" those many years ago? What would the courts say? She nearly laughed aloud at the idea of man's court holding any sort of power over her, but she entertained the question in her mind. The last any living soul had seen of Sarah Eilon, she'd walked into the sea in a storm of despair. Khan had been the only witness, and from what the boy Arikk had told her, he'd stayed only briefly in town afterwards before an angry mob had run him off into the woods.
If any legal body did consider her dead, it certainly wasn't the banks. They'd sent her off with a wave, a smile, and the Eilon family fortune. She hadn't shown her face, of course. It was still much too early for that. But her seal, and a few glib words from a certain man of hers, were all the money-men needed.
Much of that money now rested beneath her, locked tight in the many chests sliding back and forth in the hold. The rest was in the bricks of her many holdings, and in the pockets of her many servants. Khan, she knew, even at his most generous, would have been content to see most of it sit and grow, simply for the sake of growing. Now, in her hands, it served a greater purpose. Her coins, and his, rolled out across the whole of the Two Kingdoms, all while he lay sleeping.
And sleep he would, for as long as she willed it. He lay on his side, facing her, still as death save for his slow, shallow breathing. His hair and beard were gray now, gray as his ever-closed eyes, and thicker with each passing day. Perhaps, when she had time, she'd give him a shave like she had in the old days.
"Star?" the boy called again.
She thought of calling back, telling him to scurry off, but just as she opened her mouth, she remembered her voice. Catching the call in her throat, she looked down to her hooded robe, with its special white cloth and red stripes. It lay on the floor, piled together with her underclothes. With a quiet huff, she swung her legs away from the bed, drew the underclothes about her tightly enough to hide her figure, and then stretched and squirmed until the robe shrouded her entirely.
As soon as the hood dropped over her face, the blackness came. To her, it only stretched the dark around her, made each light dim and every shadow long. But to Arikk, and to any others unfortunate enough to see her, her face was night itself.
And the voices. They came whenever she slipped on the hood, and sometimes stayed long after she removed it again. Whispers to her, they flirted with her ears, spinning round her head high and low. But her own voice gave them purpose and direction, spiriting them outward at her command to mask the speaker and sway the listener.
She took the long red gloves from the stand beside the bed, pulled them both on, and faced the door as the Crowning Star.
"I bid you enter, Captain," she said. "Make it short."
The speaking style she'd chosen when she first became who she was. She found that the rhythms had a way of lulling her flock into nodding along. She'd never been much of a poet before, but…well, that was before.
Arikk Tresbitt stepped cautiously into the room, dressed in his full "caped swordsman" regalia. He had his green-dyed leather armor – armor, as if there were anyone to fight in the middle of the ocean – his long red cape, red as his hair, and his fine sheathed saber with its silver hilt. His eyes, green like his armor but darker than hers, flitted about the room, away from her hidden face.
Perhaps someday, she'd let him see.
He briefly glanced at the form of the man beneath the covers. Sarah saw his fists clench and release. Arikk hated the man, and she knew why. But things had changed. Khan was hers now, and that was the end of it. She'd let Arikk ask about him once, and only so that she could tell him never to ask again.
He swallowed hard, and looked for a moment as if he'd forgotten why he came. She turned her palm upward and held it out toward him, a gesture she'd trained him to know as Get to the point.
"We've arrived," he said at last.
Larric. She'd seen the country once before, between the end of the war and…what came after. Hardly a man there had kept all four limbs through the decades of fighting, and those who had now broke their backs in place of those who hadn't. Entire towns still stood in ruins, their crops long since withered or burned. Even in the capital of Cel-Cabiri, the streets lay choked with misery.
And here she was again. But not as a visitor.
"The captain wants to weigh anchor till the storm passes," the boy went on. "But the harbor's straight ahead. Well," he corrected himself, "the 'harbor.'"
Sarah turned and glanced through one of the cabin's small portholes. Ahead, through the driving rain, she saw the tall gray cliffs of Larric's southern coastline. Atop the cliffs, an old castle emerged from the stone like a raised fist. Far below it, at the level of the sea, the gaping mouth of a cave awaited their ship's arrival.
"All well and good," she told the boy over her shoulder. "Now go, and leave me be."
"Star," he said. He put his fist in his palm, bowed his head, pivoted on his heel, and left, closing the door behind him.
She turned both the door's locks as he left, then discarded her robe and climbed back into bed. Pulling the blanket back over herself and Khan both, she eased his arm over her side and kissed him on the forehead.
The dream on the beach had been one of many. She might take them back to the royal ballroom next, to their daughter's first steps, to their favorite festival, to a beautiful future where the two of them saw their daughter wed. In Garland's Grove, just outside their home in Meligreas, with the sun shining down and all who loved her gathered round, beaming with joy. Perfect, she thought.
Of course, all of that would have to wait. There was work ahead, great work, greater than any the world had ever known, and when all was done, there'd be time for all the pleasure she could ever wish for—
The ship lurched again, to starboard this time, scattering the contents of the nearest shelf all over the rickety floor.
She glanced back out the window. The storm would rage for hours. There was nothing for it, and nothing else to do until it passed.Smiling, she kissed his lips again.