It was incredibly rude, he knew. And he should keep up the pretence of dislike. He knew this as well.
But when she smiled like that – he knew she meant naught but a jest of it, and he found his traitorous lips curving into a smile as well as he answered her.
“Is that what you call me?” He laughed a bit. “Well, I suppose I deserve it. I’m Lares. Lares Stout-Heart.”
What am I doing? This is ridiculous – Exsil Vis will not be pleased.
The Lord Exsil Vis, not the Lady, though he aimed to please her as well – and with more passion. Life had become difficult, as so many things that pleased Hope displeased Maurice, and vice versa. Playing double-agent for a married couple was a living Tyvian.
In his case, he would have preferred the fires of the afterlife of the wicked, for the one to whom he was truly loyal was the one without real power, and so he lived a lie every second of every day. If they were in Athering, it would be different, since women ruled there without question. They were in Voco, however, where whoever survived to adulthood inherited – and that survivor was Maurice Exsil Vis.
More the pity. He was a right bastard. Lares did not know why Hope stayed with him. God knew she’d had plenty of opportunity to leave, and yet at every turn she chose her prison here. He didn’t even stay in her bed, for Vulcanus’ sake! Surely she could not…love him?
Lares pushed the unwelcome thought away. God knew he was better than his lady’s husband, although this was not saying much, as most men were. Were Hope to choose Lares…she would never have to wear powder to cover the bruises, and her bed would never be cold again. All she would have to do was say the word, and they would leave. Seek amnesty from the Empress of Athering. Or maybe go to Suncoast, or Nighttide – anywhere but here.
She never would say the word. It was silly to think on what could not be. She had chosen her torment, just as he’d chosen his. She would stay with Maurice, and Lares would serve and love her in silence, ever playing her husband’s puppet. There was no other way.
“Lares?” a voice cut into his musings, and he saw the bellica staring at him in – concern? Surely not; she hardly knew him and couldn’t possibly like him. No one did. He was Lord Exsil Vis’ dandy – a silly courtier, more concerned with vanity than thoughts of substance, with an arrogant attitude and a short temper. No longer the intelligent, even-tempered and humble Lares Stout-Heart, a farm boy from land outside Terranamos. That boy had died a long time ago.
“Lares,” she said again, a little firmer.
“Are ye well? Ye’d’ve been staring inta the distance fer a while now,” she said. He could have sworn her tone was gentle but that was impossible. No one was gentle with him, no one save Hope. Even that was rare these days.
“Oh, yes. Just got…distracted, thinking of things that are neither here nor there.” He gave what he hoped was a game smile. His facial muscles protested such an unwonted exercise and he was sure he looked like a scarecrow, face caught in a terrible rictus.
She nodded, accepting it, and looked back at the road. “Aye,” she said. “I’d a know what ye mean,” and she went quiet, going inward to view her own life’s torments.
Anala Tanner. He knew all about her, of course, serving Hope Exsil Vis as he did. His lady was obsessed with the bellica and collected every tidbit of the woman’s life as was possible. She’d known Anala had been coming to Voco, when even Maurice had not, and she had arranged things so that Lares, rather than anyone loyal to Maurice, would be the one to meet her. He didn’t know how, but assumed Hope had an impressive spy network, for it was the only explanation. He had stopped wondering about it.
He continued to wonder why.
Why did his lady harbour such a fascination for a prominent military leader of an enemy nation, let alone one who was responsible for the deaths of many Vocans? It was not that Hope was a misplaced Atherian, hungering after a hero of her homeland – far from it: she was a Vocan, born and raised.
So why did she care so much about Bellica Anala? It made no sense. They looked slightly similar, but he hardly thought vanity was the source of his lady’s interest. Every time he asked, she evaded the question.
As she evaded so many questions.
He had no right to know, really, and she’d already shared much with him. But he wanted to know everything he could about her – where exactly she’d been born, who her parents had been, how old she was. She couldn’t be as young as she looked, for she’d had a daughter, over ten years past now. Yet she did not look a day over twenty-three.
He obsessed over her even as she did over Anala. He burned to know her on every level, in every way, to lose himself in her and her life until he did not know where she began and he ended. To submit to her completely, to show her what it was to be loved and cherished by a spouse — if only she’d let him.
That would never happen. So he waited out his punishment, in silence, suffering gladly for his lady.
He would never leave her. Could never leave her. To be near her…it was enough. It had to be enough.