I

Targo City.

It looked normal from a distance. But as she neared it, Jacey began to realize about how incredibly large it was. The camp did nothing to prepare her for the towers that stretched into the sky and the roads wide enough for perhaps four or five carriages. Even though she sat on a horse, everything towered around her as she rode down the street next to Heddwyn in a parade of the returning soldiers. Never in her life had she felt so small. Worse, many of the Targoian’s watched her, even cheered for their return. All she wanted to do was make it to some place of privacy.

The fifty-five odd soldiers finally wound their way to the palace, where they dismounted. In the courtyard, only close family could wait. Here, the soldiers would unpack their military-issued supplies and store them for the month they did not use them. Then, they could go home for a month-long break. That was, everyone except Heddwyn. As soon as he arrived, he needed to report to the head guard and file his reports of the events. It shouldn’t take him much longer than an hour or two. Many of his real meetings would happen tomorrow, after he had a nice to rest.

Heddwyn took both his and her horse and handed them off to a stable boy, while giving directions to another man about what to do with some of the sacks and supplies. Jacey moved quietly to the side, watching him and smiling faintly to herself. For the firs time, she understood why the merchants said he was short, for most people stood a good foot taller than him. The only reason he stood out was the bright red sash across his chest.

“Heddwyn!” a woman called.

Heddwyn turned instantly. A woman flew through the crowd and squeezed him tightly. He responded in turn, then pushed her back and searched her face. He said something to her and she smiled. Then, he took her by the arm and brought her to where Jacey stood.

“Jacey, my sister, Eva,” Heddwyn said in Aldroian. Then, switching to Targoian he said, “Eva, my wife.”

Eva smiled broadly and looked at Heddwyn. “Only Aldroian?”

Heddwyn nodded.

“Then… you promise to translate exactly what I say?”

“I will do my best.”

Eva’s face glowed. “Well then, tell her that she is the luckiest woman in the world to have you for a husband, and if she can convince you to love her, she will be even luckier than that.”

He paused, his eyes glancing from Jacey to Eva. “I do not think that second part is best to include.”

“Heddwyn, women are not stupid. If I can tell that quickly that you don’t actually love her, she knows by now. And she’ll know I said it, so no need to worry.”

“I would still rather not say it.”

“Then tell me how to say it in Aldroian and I’ll tell her.”

“Eva! No.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “Well, then I’ll just have to find someone at home.”

“You may try.”

“I think,” Jacey said, “you are both having  very important conversation and not including me.”

He looked at her. “If you were more proactive about learning Targoian like I said you should, then it would not matter.”

She said nothing and he turned back to Eva. “She can come home with you for a few hours?”

“Of course. Why would I mind?”

He nodded and looked at Jacey. “You are to go with Eva to her house and I will meet you there. We will be having dinner there I am assuming, since I always do and then I will take you to my house.”

Jacey nodded. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“I am sure you will be as well.” He squeezed EVa’s shoulder and let her go. “I will see you in a little bit.” He turned back, just in time to prevent a loading mistaking.

Eva smiled at her and shook her head. ”I have this peculiar sense that you can understand anything I say to you.”

Jacey just smiled.

Eva led her through the city, walking along the edge of the road and keeping a close eye on her at the same time. Jacey stayed close and looked around at the city. Everything seemed to tower above her, from the people to the buildings.

Eva brought her to a modest section of town and up to just an average house. With all the stories about Commander Borut’s fame, the last thing anyone would have imagined would be that his sister lived in a normal house as a normal person. With a smile, Eva opened the door and motioned her to enter.

The house itself seemed spacious enough. An entry hall split led either to an open living room to her left another room at the end. Cushions covered the floor of the living room, along with a few low tables. Jacey learned while she still lived in Aldroian that Targoians always just used cushions to sit on, chairs needing to be too large.

Eva paused in the entry, glancing around, “I’m going to try talking in Targoian. After all, you’ve been living among them for a bit.  Maybe…” she shrugged… “maybe you picked some up.” She glanced around again. “But first, some tea I think.” She walked down the hallway and put her head through a doorway. After a moment, she came back and motioned for Jacey to join her in the living room.

“I honestly never thought that I would see that sash on another.” She smiled. “And you’re even prettier than he led on.”

Jacey paused. He never once told her she was pretty. Not except that first time, when he told her what she could expect herself doing.

“Don’t worry about anything. With all of the war captives that have been coming in, prices went down so much on the slaves that some of us less wealthy people can actually afford one. So I leave most of the house chores to her and have more time for my children. The two boys are at school right now and the youngest is taking a nap. I have three. One of them…,” she smiled faintly, “one of them Heddwyn hasn’t seen yet.”

Jacey smiled in return. That encouragement was all the woman needed. She began talking about one thing or another, just light, general topics, about her children, the town, what it was like here, what to expect. She only stopped for a moment when a cup fell in the kitchen and she left to check on the maid, as she called her. Eva didn’t feel right, she explained, giving the maid a name when she doubtlessly had one from her home but since she barely spoken TArgoian, no one knew it yet.

After tea Eva beckoned Jacey to follow her around the house, showing her the few rooms they had and getting her youngest from her nap, a large baby only a few months old. For the rest of their walk, she just held the girl and she watched them both with big, hawkish eyes. The whole while Eva just chatted on like it was perfectly normal to talk with someone who couldn’t understand a word of what she said. Yet, Jacey could tell that Eva wished she could have a conversation with her.

The knot that had been growing in Jacey’s stomach grew even larger during those two hours. Jacey had known for the past week she needed to tell Heddwyn before they reached Targo City that she spoke Targo and  yet never found the words. She could not say for certain why she did not want anyone to know. It had to have come from her determination to learn everything she could when first a prisoner. But now, she was a wife. Heddwyn would not let her meet his sister and then change his mind about it. Worse, she wanted to tell this woman who opened herself up so freely to Jacey that she understood everything she just told her.

In many ways, Eva was the exact opposite of her brother.  Whereas Heddwyn would use only a few words to portray a point, Eva talked about anything, using a variety of words to dramatize her point. And while Heddwyn enjoyed the quiet moments of just watching something peacefully, Eva seemed to thrive on company. Jacey marveled at the difference and yet found herself partly pleased as well for Eva seemed so much like her in so many ways.

It wasn’t until the baby began fussing that Jacey had a moment alone to process everything she learned. She watched the rather deserted street and sorted everything Eva said by importance. In many ways, life in Targo City would be so different.

A foot scrapped roughly against the stone floor followed by a gasp of pain. Jacey turned to find Juna, of all people, standing in the doorway and rubbing her foot.

In her whole life, Jacey  would never have expected such a transformation. Juna’s curly locks now hung in flat waves. Her dress hung limply at her side, not bouncy or pouffy like it normally did but more what Jacey had worn most often when she worked for her father. Also, her rosy cheeks seemed pale and her face pinched with worry.

With a grimace, Juna began to limp into the room. “Stupid, stupid woman. Acts like someone important’s coming and expects me to do all the work. Never bothers ask if my hands or hurt or if I need a rest. Just work, work, work, work. Work until your feet get scrapped off on these stupid stone floors and your ears fall off from not being able to understand a single heathen word they say,” Juna pressed her lips together and rubbed her foot again. Jacey just sat there, not sure if she should just stay or leave quietly. Never had she been on the opposite side of service as she was now.

A crash on the street caused Juna to jump and look towards the window. For a moment, she did not even seem to see Jacey beyond the sash. She cautiously darted her eyes up for a second and paused.

“Jacey?” she whispered.

Jacey smiled faintly. “Yeah. Hi, Juna.”

“What–what are you doing here? Surely–I never thought she  would have gotten someone else to help with the chores. But you don’t know how badly I’d like to have you. How long have you been standing there?”

“Since before you came in.”

Juna blinked. “I–didn’t even see you.”  She paled. “You–you heard what I said?”

Jacey nodded. “How couldn’t I?’

Juna looked up and down her. “Well, I’m sure she’ll figure out a way to convince you to not wear those clothes. If you can even figure a way to talk to her. She’s impossible to communicate with. It’s like–she expects me to learn Targo!”

“She does.”

Juna rolled her eyes. “It’s a horrid language and I won’t. Now that you’re here, I’m sure with your Aldroian you’ll be able to figure something out.”

“Juna, I’m not here to work.”

Juna blinked, looking almost stunned. “Whatever do you mean?”

“I mean… I’m one of those guests that you were complaining about.”

“Impossible! I saw you captured. I saw you taken by–them and never heard of again. You are a slave, just like me. How–how could you be one of the guests?”

“It’s–complicated.”

“Oh?”

Jacey nodded.

Juna moved towards her. “Tell me then. Tell me what happened them after–” she shuddered. “–he took you.”

Jacey paused and glanced out the window.

Juna blinked. “You didn’t become his mistress–did you?”

Jacey turned sharply on her. “No! Whatever made you think I would?’

“You look like someone who is ashamed of what they’ve been doing.”

“I became his wife, Juna.”

Juna blinked. “His wife?”

Jacey nodded.

“Why ever did you do such a crazy thing like that? Don’t you know the stories? Don’t you know what he is capable of? Are you stupid?’

“No. I am not stupid. I know the stories. I knew before I married him that he was suppose to be one of the kindest commanders in the whole army. I knew that he was generous, since he offered to let me go. And now that I’ve been with him, I know who he is, Juna, as much as he lets me see.”

“He brainwashed you. That’s the only way any proper woman would dare let him touch them.”

“No. He didn’t. How could he do that?”

“They can!”

“They can’t manipulate emotions. Just read them.”

“So he just guessed that you loved him?”

Jacey paused and shook her head. “No. I didn’t love him. Not when I married him at least. It was–connivance.”

“So you married a monster out of connivance?”

“He is not a monster, Juna! He is a man, just like–like Ty!”

“Don’t you dare bring my husband into this! The only way you can even think about doing that is if you loved him like I loved Ty.”

Jacey paused.

“You do then? You–after everything he put us through, you love him!”

“So what if I do?’

“So what? Jacey–you love a man that is impossible to love. Who will never love you. Who probably just thinks of you as his mistress.”

“First of all, Juna, he is not impossible to love. He’s–”

“Ha! You’re a traitor, Jacey. You’re a traitor to everything that we fought for these last years.”

“I am no traitor, Juna. So what if I love him? So what if I want to love him and I want to make him happy. Heddwyn hurts so much sometimes that it practically breaks my heart. I do want to be there for him no matter how much he pretends he doesn’t need it. And he is nothing like what you Ketekeys bother portraying. He’s kind and caring and gentle and–and treats me better than a lot of people have recently.”

“You are sick, Jacey.”

Jacey just smiled. “You can call me whatever you want. That doesn’t change who Heddwyn is and that, against all odds, I–I think I do love him.”

Juna slapped her across the face. “You are a pervert for even attempting to love him. A pervert and a hoer and a–”

“Enough!”

Jacey jumped at the sharp command and blinked. Heddwyn stood in the doorway, his dark eyes glaring at Juna. Juna looked down quickly, but not quick enough. In two strides Heddwyn stood before her.

“Look at me,” he commanded.

Very slowly, Juna rose her head and looked at him. She swallowed. He held her eyes for a long moment before he spoke in barely a whisper. “Do not ever speak to my wife that way. I don’t care who you were to her in Ketekey but know that I will not tolerate such action from anyone directed at my wife.“

Juna cringed and looked down.

“Do you understand?”

Juna nodded slightly and swallowed again. Jacey could practically see the woman quaking before him. Jacey slipped off the window seat and went to Heddwyn, putting a hand on his arm.

“I demand a verbal answer.”

Juna shifted her feet. “Yes… yes sir.”

“Good.” He turned and looked at Jacey only then. Gently, he led her from the room. “Are you okay?” he asked, switching into Aldroian.

Jacey nodded. “You didn’t need to be so harsh on her.”

“I did.”

“She was just–angry at me. I don’t blame her. I would be angry too if I was in her situation.”

Heddwyn stopped and looked at her. “Jacey, had I not spoken then, she would have hurt you more than that once.”

Jacey looked up at him. He looked so concerned, like he had just saved her from near death. She swallowed. She knew from his conversation with an earlier commander that he spoke Ketekey, but he did not know she knew. He never told her about it himself. Yet, he spoke it now, to protect her.

She swallowed. She never thought until now that she loved him. Wasn’t it too soon? Wouldn’t she be foolish thinking that she could love him after knowing him for only a few months? Yet, she did love him. She loved him in the way that caused her to want to always be there for him. In the way that kept her from dreaming about going back to Aldroa. In the way that she knew he needed her, even if he never said so.

And somewhere in his heart, he had to care something for her. He never would have spoken Ketekey unless he felt it was absolutely necessary to protect her. He wanted that part of him to be a secret. Except from her now.

But didn’t shave her own secret? And that one she couldn’t even tell him. She loved this man and yet, she couldn’t tell him something so simple. Even now, as she thought about it, the words got caught in her throat.

He leaned over and kissed her forehead reassuringly. Jacey reached up and pulled him into a kiss, wrapping her arms around his neck and playing with his hair.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He brushed back a whisp of  her hair. “For whatever for?”

Jacey shook her head, though she could feel the tears slipping  down her face. He brushed them back with his thumb and searched her face, his own reflecting more concern than she had ever seen before.

“What is it, Jacey?”

She turned away. A shudder shook her body.

He sighed softly. “I’m going to find Eva. The–the back porch is rather quiet.”

Jacey nodded. “She’s–upstairs.”

Quietly, he walked away and she walked quietly to the back porch.

The cool wind blew back her hair and cooled her hot face. Jacey leaned against a pillar and closed her eyes. A turmoil of emotions tore through her body, sweeping her away on the raging river. Never had she expected the simple realization of how she felt about him to be so complicated.

For a long time, she just stood in the silence. A soft knocked interrupted her jumble of thoughts. Jacey turned to see Eva watching her. Quickly, Jacey wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Eva just closed the door and walked towards the railing.

“Heddwyn told me what happened,” she said softly in Targoian, just like she had this whole afternoon. “You shouldn’t let her get to you. She–some of them can’t understand how someone can love another over two feet taller than that.”

Jacey just felt her face crumple and buried her face her hands. Eva wrapped her arms around Jacey and held her close. Jacey leaned herself against her and cried softly.

Eva rubbed her on the back gently. “It’s okay, my little sister. You don’t need to worry. All is fine.”

Jacey shook her head. “It’s not that.” Eva moved a little sharply and looked at her. Jacey looked up and brushed back her hair. “It’s him.”

“What’s–what’s wrong with Heddwyn?”

Jacey didn’t know where that came from, but kept talking all the same. “I don’t know. I love him. I want to love him. But–I can’t seem to tell him….” Jacey sighed and looked back at the sky. “No one else knows I speak Targo. Yet I’ve known it for so long.”

“Why–don’t you tell him? He would be so happy.”

Jacey shook her head miserable. “I–I don’t know. I think.” She took a deep breath. “I think I fear he will eventually leave me. If he doesn’t know I speak Targo, perhaps he’ll slip and I’ll be ready for it when he happens.”

“Oh, Jacey,” Eva shook her head. “He won’t leave you.”

Jacey felt the tears coming to her eyes again. “HOw do you know that?”

“Because he’s my brother. I know him better than you do. When he signed that marriage agreement, he meant it. Breaking it would be against his honor.”

“Then why am I so scared?”

“Because he doesn’t show his feelings well.” She sighed and brushed back some of Jacey’s hair. “He promised himself that he would not get married after… what happened. The less people he cares about, the less they can hurt him he figures. But… he’s been at constant war for ten years. And it worked fine for a few years but now… he’s worn out, even if he won’t admit it. He knows they wouldn’t even consider letting him retire, so he doesn’t ask. He’s had no real life outside of the military. So… he closed himself off and pretends that he doesn’t need anyone when, really, he does so badly.”

“What happened? He doesn’t tell me anything.”

“No. He wouldn’t. He barely told me any of it. Just… enough to explain why he joined the army.” She paused. “He was seventeen. I went here to visit a friend. Our town was attacked in that whole conspiracy by Ketekey to insight a war, wear us down, and then attack us later on. Only he survived. He somehow found the sword that he learned to fight with and his knife Father gave him from the wreckage. Then he enlisted. After he enlisted, he showed up where I was staying and told me pretty much exactly what I just told you and… went to revenge our family.”

Jacey blinked and looked at her. “He… no wonder.”

Eva nodded. “Few things make him happy anymore. Right now, you’re about to see him the happiest he will be after tomorrow night’s dinner. He relaxes in town. But… he hasn’t had a chance to heal. And he most certainly hasn’t seen any reason why he would want to love someone.”

Jacey wrapped her arms around herself. “I love him. I didn’t even know it until now. Until–Juna accused me of loving him. And I so wanted to tell him but….” She shook her head.

Eva put an arm on her shoulder. “That’s all I think he needs is your love. That he showed you he can speak Ketekey is enough to prove he’s opening up. And… he’s really such a softy that I don’t think he will be able but help loving you. He just… isn’t sure about showing it. But I can hear the fondness in his letters. I doubted at first the wisdom of him marrying you but… he’s starting to rely on seeing you.”

Jacey nodded slowly. “And… you don’t think he’ll change his mind?”

“Heddwyn is the most honorable man I know. He said he would care for you so he will care for you. I can think of only one reason he would leave.”

Jacey looked at her. “Why?”

“If he finds himself loving you. Then that–that will be a struggle. I think he wants to know that if he dies, he dies and life goes on. Not that if he died, he left a wife behind to mourn.”

Jacey sighed. “You won’t tell him though? That I speak Targo?”

“Not if you don’t want me to. You both can communicate fine enough that I think there shouldn’t be any problem with him not knowing.”

Jacey smiled faintly. Eva leaned over and gave her a hug. “Know you’re always welcome to come by while you’re here. Though I don’t think Heddwyn will be doing as much work as your used to. But still… it might help.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much, Eva.”

“Come, let’s go in before Heddwyn gets too worried about you.”

Next

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