When I Fall

Belinda Mcbride
Available from Loose Id

That day he decided to flirt.

I stood against the far wall of the newly built council chamber, where I could observe all entrances and exits as well as the councillors themselves. I also had an unimpeded view of the public gallery where Helios's sister, Deirdre, was seated, my daughters to her left and Helios's son, Alexander, to her right. I suspected that the children were numb with boredom, yet when I looked up, I saw that Lauren's eyes were bright with curiosity, while Maia wore a pensive expression. Alexander was playing a handheld game. When he caught me looking at him, he smiled and winked. He was paying attention.

I glanced back at Helios. His cool gray eyes took on a sultry cast, his gaze dropping slightly down the length of my body. His index finger rested over his upper lip, reminding me of what that mouth was capable of.

I inhaled, willing back my immediate response. My face went warm; my groin went hot. Gritting my teeth, I fought to keep my expression neutral. A trace of a smile on that lovely face told me he hadn't been fooled.

Obviously I could no longer fulfill my old duty as Helios's bodyguard, yet I retained my former rank of captain of the Royal Guard and needed to focus on my job. Scanning the room, I took note of any who might have observed my brief distraction. We still had some trust issues with our esteemed council. There were those who used our unconventional relationship to undermine Helios's rule. Helios wasn't flirting out of boredom. He was playing a game that might reveal a traitor.

Never underestimate a man who'd learned to survive by using his wits and his beauty in equal measure.

Councillor Evan Pratt was droning on about a delayed shipment of agricultural supplies, and while most would detect only mild boredom in our king's expression, his attention was sharply focused. This was council business, and as usual, they had to take the issue and worry it to death. There was no such thing as a quick solution when a problem was thrown before a roomful of men and women who were insecure in their personal power.

I glanced at him again, and as always, my breath caught. Today he was formally garbed. Generally he preferred the flowing white robes of the temple priests. To his amusement, they were not dissimilar to the filmy garments he'd worn as a slave. He enjoyed the feel of the loose fabric on his skin. The yards of linen also hid the blades that he was in the habit of carrying. Fortunately the robes of the Sun Temple did not require that he hide his face. When I'd first found him on Warlan, he'd worn a veil.

The council had pressured him into presenting a more royal appearance for his kingly duties, so once a week, he dutifully appeared in the public chambers attired as the council saw fit. His rigidly tailored coat was jet-black. It buttoned high to the collar under his chin and dropped to the floor. The sides were open to his hips, revealing loose trousers of deep, rich maroon. The fabric of the coat was heavy silk brocade; the rising sun that was the crest of our people was embroidered across his shoulders. The wide cuffs were decoratively stitched in the same gold the crest was embroidered with. At his side hung the golden kilij, the sword he'd earned as a Sun Priest. Now he was both priest and king and entitled to both symbols of office.

His fiery hip-length hair was elaborately arranged in tiny braids and clubbed tightly at his neck. He was otherwise unadorned, save for a wide blue sapphire bracelet around his right wrist. It matched the one I wore. Once we were formally married, the bracelets would be switched to the left arm and permanently set in place. For now, I was recognized as the consort of the king, a less official position than captain of the guard. The wedding would not be scheduled until the official palace complex was complete. The delay was a council ploy to stall the big event, but neither of us seemed in too much of a hurry.

I still wore my first marriage bracelet on my left wrist. It was humble, the metal an alloy and the stone a simple clear yellow citrine rather than precious sapphire. I carried Suzan's battered bracelet in a pocket in my utility vest. It had shattered, and every day I reminded myself to take it to a craftsman for repair. Every day I found an excuse to avoid that errand. The broken bracelet was a constant reminder that she was gone from my life forever. It felt good there close to my heart.

Helios was an uncommonly beautiful man, and that beauty was enhanced by the gentle humor in his expression. With his smooth skin and lined eyes, he was nearly too lovely to be a man. He cultivated that illusion not out of vanity, but out of a desire to mislead. No casual observer would believe that under the silken, pampered surface lay a dangerous warrior with a brilliant mind. Few of the councillors at the table woke early enough in the day to witness Helios during his private training. Nor did they realize that he used these contentious sessions to ferret out suspicious behavior. We knew that Markus had not worked alone in his betrayal of our king.

The argument began to rise in pitch and intensity. Across the room, Carlotta Berne gave me a brief smile. She had as little tolerance for bureaucracy as I. Odd, given that she herself was a displaced queen. Before I was able to respond, she was surveying the room, studying the councillors. Several feet to her right stood her old companion Caius, who served as the king's bodyguard this day. He caught me looking, nodded, and returned his focus to his job. Caius was the king's last line of defense, and as far as I could see, he took his job seriously. He'd come to us with a small group of Talisian refugees. They'd been mostly women and children, living nomadically, surviving on odd jobs and the money that Carlotta funneled to them from her work as a mercenary. She'd been their queen and breadwinner, but Caius had been their shepherd and protector.

I took a moment to examine his heavy features. He was unremarkable in appearance, with short sandy hair that lay flat to his head, and pale blue eyes. He was tall and coarse, yet when he moved, was oddly graceful. In spite of Carlotta's implicit trust in the man, something struck me wrong about him. His face lacked expression. His rare smiles never reached his eyes. He must have occasionally felt anger, but the telltale signs were never there. He was as blank and mysterious as a mask. Perhaps Caius carried more scars than those that twisted down his neck to his chest. He caught my gaze once again and looked away, seemingly unconcerned.

I didn't like that. Most of the guards would have reacted to my scrutiny with discomfort.

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