Verdeen paced through the lush gardens, letting the honey scent of night-blooming moonflowers soothe her. Their waxy ivory petals glowed in the lights. Thank the Lady goddess everyone seemed to be inside. The splashing of the wishing fountain drew her, and she emerged into a small clearing lit by pink mage light. She wasn’t the first to venture there. She froze at the intimidating figure staring into the shadowy ripples of water. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone was here—”
“Don’t go.” Aryk turned from the fountain and held out a sun-bronzed hand. “Stay.”
She eyed his hand, wary of his touch. “Daq Aryk, what are you doing out here?”
Was he following her?
“Just Aryk. I needed quiet.” He raked his hand through his hair. “I felt on display.”
She could relate to both parts of that statement, and unexpected sympathy welled for the stranger. As if of its own volition, her body moved closer to him. His eyes drew her gaze. Their intensity made her falter. “Why have you come here to Poshnari-Unai, my city?”
“To set my destiny in motion.” His lips quirked at her puzzlement. “Stovak nos briel.”
She cocked her head. “What does that mean?”
“‘Destiny awaits.’ Sounds grand and mysterious, hai?” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “’Tisn’t. I’ve a political problem back home. Cianan thought Loren could help.”
Humans believed in the Destiny Hand? “Well, he’s very good at solving most problems. Everyone’s but mine.”
“Your eyes are red. You’ve been crying. Why?” He frowned, but she read genuine concern in his eyes. “Today you triumphed over everyone. I’ve never seen anything like it. You were amazing.”
“Really?” She cursed the tremor in her voice, the eager need for approval only too obvious even to herself.
His smile softened the harsh planes of his face and deepened the crinkles around his eyes, making him seem younger and less imposing. “Hai. Really. I’ve seen many a warrior in my lifetime. Believe me when I say you’re truly gifted, kyra. Smart, strong and beautiful. Poetry in motion.”
Something melted within her at the compliment. There was that word again, kyra, his husky tone almost making it an endearment.
“The one thing I wanted most in this world slipped through my fingers this afternoon,” she confessed. “A chance to be selected as a ranger trainee, to further my studies. It didn’t happen.” A tear slid down her cheek. She froze as he reached out to brush it away.
“There are many paths to greatness,” he told her. “A warrior’s greatest strength is the scope of his vision. You showed vision and judgment today, but take care lest your focus cause you to miss your true path. A warrior must above all be adaptable to change. The one thing that never changes is the fact that everything changes.”
Aryk held out his hand again, palm up, and Verdeen found herself reaching to take it. Big mistake. His thick, scarred fingers slid over hers in a caress which made her tingle in places not even remotely attached to her hand. She entwined her fingers with his to still them and bit her lip at the zing of awareness as his thumb brushed across the sensitive skin of her inner wrist. “Cease,” she whispered.
“Cease what?” His voice dropped to a smooth, dark seduction of lethal proportions. “This?” His fingers teased hers with long, light strokes. “Or this?” He rubbed gentle circles over her pulse, which hammered at his touch.
She should pull away but didn’t move. Couldn’t move. “This isn’t proper.”
Some rebellious part of her didn’t care.
“Do you always do what’s proper, kyra?”
She had to know. “What’s kyra mean?”
“’Tis a term for a woman warrior.”
Verdeen nodded. “We also have such a term, ancient and seldom used. Vertenya. Few exist in our world to carry such a title.”
According to Cianan, there were now but two—Queen Dara and herself.
Aryk slid closer, the heat from his body curling around her. “I answered your question. Now you answer mine.”
What was his question? If only she’d focused on his words instead of on the rich smoky warmth of his voice. Like crème rija pudding with honeyed brandy. Sheer decadence to make her melt.
“Do you always do what’s proper?”
Female in the military? It didn’t get any less proper; just ask her absent parents. Acourse, holding hands with a royal guest in a moonlit garden wasn’t exactly proper, either. Yet here she stood with her hand in his, close enough for his subtle, musky scent to push the fragrance of the flowers from her awareness. All she could think of was how she wanted to move closer yet. Dazed, she shook her head.
Heat flared in his changeable eyes. “They said this is a wishing fountain. If you make a wish and toss in a pebble, your wish comes true.”
“’Tis true. A legend as old as this city itself. There are faeries with the power to grant it, if the wish is personal and comes from the heart.”
Aryk uncurled his free hand, revealed a stone. With a flick, he tossed it over her shoulder.
Verdeen heard the splash.
“Guess what I wished for.”
“Your destiny would be fulfilled?”
“Stovak nos briel. Nay, what I wished for is more personal and out of my hands.”
Their gazes clashed, then locked. His eyes narrowed, darkened. “A kiss, freely given, from you.”
What? Her heart skipped a beat. She froze. That was it? Why waste the power of a wish on such a frivolous thing?
He must have read the disbelief on her face. “’Tis a rarer gift than you’d ken. But tonight, in this magical place, all things seem possible.”
They did. They truly did. She should’ve been angry or offended at his outrageous request. She should return to the party. Today had been emotional chaos. She felt raw, vulnerable, in its wake. Tonight, heart ruled mind. She nibbled her lower lip, undecided. Why? Mayhaps ’twas the moonlight, the seclusion of the garden setting. Who would know? Mayhaps ’twas his words, the understanding on his face. The heat in his eyes, the warmth of his hand.
Or mayhaps Cianan was right. Mayhaps the woman tired of the warrior having the say.