It didn’t hit him until they were far away from Atherton, riding down the long road that would take them from all familiarity into a new, dangerous territory that would most likely kill them.
Then, like suddenly running into a wall, the realisation that everything was over and he’d never again see the woman he couldn’t live without, in all likelihood, slammed into him and he nearly fell off his galloping horse.
He looked to his left. Yarrow, galloping beside him, had tears streaming down her face. He wondered if they were from the air that rawly scraped past them, drying out the most moist of skins, or if she was only now letting the emotion out, dropping the bellica mask she’d worn back in Atherton.
She turned to look at him then, and he saw the truth that had just hit him mirrored in her own face.
“Dammit,” he muttered, and faced forward again.
So much for the hope that this was all just a dream.
An hour after they’d kicked their pace down to save the horses, the sun setting in the west and casting long shadows out to their right, he heard a yell behind them. Jules twisted in his saddle at the sound, and saw a figure on horseback in the distance, advancing steadily.
“Shite,” he said, and turned back. “Yarrow, we have company.” He kneed Suki in the sides and urged her into a canter, not wanting to gallop quite yet if he could help it.
Yarrow was beside him in an instant and they were both cantering away, hoping it would be enough to outrun the newcomer. He glanced behind again and saw the rider hadn’t gained, but hadn’t fallen back either. He breathed a small sigh and silently lent strength to his horse, praying she had the stamina to keep them safe.
A few minutes passed and there was another shout, louder this time, though Jules couldn’t make out what was said. He glanced back again and saw the figure was much closer. “What the…” he muttered to himself, wondering how on earth the rider could have caught up that fast. “Yarrow, we need to go faster,” he said, and they both kicked their horses into a gallop, though they knew that it was only a matter of time. They’d galloped out of Atherton, and Suki and Pyrrhus were tired.
Still, they pressed on, hoping to elude the rider. Why the Empress would only send one after them was beyond him, but —
He heard the cry on the air and in his head simultaneously. Without checking behind him he pulled on the reins hard. Suki came to a sharp stop from her gallop and reared back on her hind legs, landing hard. He pulled again and she turned slowly, but refused to go any further when she stood sideways on the road, a wall of horseflesh preventing passage. “Suki!” he scolded, wanting to ride to meet the woman he could see clearly now, a petite figure with red hair bouncing as she galloped up on her dark brown mare. Suki regarded him out of one eye, glaring, snorted, and looked away.
It wasn’t necessary to meet Ghia halfway in another second. She rode up next to him then, and before he could ask why Amora didn’t look tired after her extended gallop Ghia had leapt from her horse and was on his, kissing him ferociously.
Suki danced in irritation at having a human she disliked mount her so unceremoniously, but Jules ignored his horse in favour of his love. He wrapped his arms around Ghia’s waist and, grabbing her hips, pulled her up so she could sit on his thighs instead of backwards on the saddle. She responded by wrapping her legs around his waist and intensifying the kiss, and Jules — getting lost in the sensation overload of Ghia’s well-formed backside under his hands, her firm lips pressed against his, the delicate smell of her mingled with horsesweat and his own, considerably less-delicate scent, and her shy tongue hesitantly dancing with his more aggressive one as they kissed — felt himself getting hard.
A throat cleared to his right and they broke off the kiss. He’d forgotten Yarrow was there. Actually forgotten everything except the fact that Ghia was in his arms.
“Far be it from me to break up a happy reunion between lovers, but as mentor to my young cousin here I feel obligated to inform you that sex on horseback is not nearly as fun as it sounds.” Suki interjected with an angry neigh then, and stamped both front feet hard enough to shake Jules in the saddle, pressing Ghia more firmly against him. He suppressed a groan. Yarrow looked at Suki’s reaction to her statement with mirth on her face. “And I think it may piss off your horse,” she added dryly.
Jules snorted and made a mental note to tell off Suki later. Ghia had turned the colour of her hair, but she didn’t remove her arms from around his neck or her legs from his waist. Fine by me, he thought, keeping his hands on her rump. “Yarrow,” he said, something suddenly occurring to him, “did you say ‘cousin’ just now?”
A look of “oh, crap,” passed between the two women, and Ghia looked at him guiltily. “I um. I sort of found out who my real parents are,” she said sheepishly.
“And you didn’t tell me?” he said with a mock-stern glare.
“Only Yarrow and Anala know. And Magea Rosa,” she said. “It was a need-to-know basis.”
“Fair enough,” he said, giving her a quick kiss and adjusting his position on the saddle.
“Ow!” Ghia exclaimed, and moved her left leg away from his right one. “What is that? It’s hard and digging into my thigh.”
Yarrow burst into hysterical laughter then and had to ride off a ways when she caught Jules’ death glare. When she was far enough away for them to talk and hear each other, Jules looked at Ghia, his turn to be sheepish. “It’s not that, is it?”
Ghia cocked her head and gave him such a sardonic look that she only could have picked it up from Yarrow. “No. That I didn’t mind. It feels like a wooden box, and I think it’s in your pocket.”
Realisation dawned on Jules and he felt like a prize idiot. Again. “That,” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the small wooden jewelry box. Ghia replaced her leg where it had been and he smiled a bit at her eagerness.
And suddenly froze up, looking at the little box.
“Jules. What is it? I want to know.”
“It’s…it’s for you,” he said, and it was all he was able to. He gave her the box. “Open it.”
Confusion reigning her features, she took the box from him and looked inside. Ghia fell quite still then, staring at the box’s contents in disbelief. “Jules,” she said finally, “this is a commitment ring.”
“Yeah. It is. I’ve been carrying it around for a while. Waiting for the right moment. Guess I’m an idiot no matter what I do –” he was cut off as she kissed him again, the ring already on her finger.
“Yes, you are, but that’s fine because I like you that way,” she said against his lips, and kissed him again. Jules pulled her close, a smile tugging at his mouth.
After a long embrace, he pulled back a bit to ask a question that was still pressing on his mind. “So. Who are your parents?”
“Oh. That,” she said, and her arms slid down until her hands rested on his chest. “I was hoping you’d forgotten about that.”
“No, and I’m rather curious what family I’m marrying into.”
Ghia had a look on her face like she’d just bit into a lemon while killing a cat. “How does Exsil Vis sound to you?” she asked, her voice too bright.
There was a pause before he could answer, he was so shocked. “Are you serious?”
“As Muerta. My mother was Charity Exsil Vis; my father was Terence Lihin. I’m to be Lady of Atton. Or I was, when Yarrow was planning on being Queen again,” she said, her words coming out in a rush.
“Wow. That I did not see coming,” he said, then shrugged and went to kiss her again, but she pulled back.
“You don’t care?”
“Why would I? It doesn’t change who you are, and you are whom I love.” She let him kiss her then, and he savoured it, because he knew this was one of the last. “Now. You have to go back to Atherton.”
“What? After that — albeit clumsy — proposal? I’m coming with you, Jules — it’s why I’m here in the first place.” She glared at him, and he did not look forward to this argument.
“No, you’re not. They’re trying to kill me, and they’ll be trying to kill Yarrow after tomorrow. It’s too dangerous to travel with us.”
“And it’s not dangerous for me to go back to Atherton?”
He sighed. “It is, but not so much if you throw your lot in with me.”
“As if I wouldn’t! You’re my fiancé!” She was shouting at him, anger making her cheeks pink. She was very fetching like that, but in the interest of his life he kept himself from saying so or smiling.
“And it’s best if they don’t know that, Ghia. You need to go back to Atherton and…just forget about me. It’s safest that way.”
Her face crumpled as tears ran down her face, and her fist connected with his chest, though the impact wasn’t enough to really hurt him. “Damn you, Jules. What was the point of proposing if you’re just going to leave me forever?”
He opened his mouth to respond, but didn’t have an answer. Instead he wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, wishing they were anywhere but Athering. “I’m sorry. It was selfish of me to do so,” he whispered into her hair, starting to cry himself. “But if anything happened to you because of me, Ghia, I –”
“I know,” came her muffled voice from his chest, where her face rested. “I feel the same.”
He sighed. It was a pained sound. “I don’t want to let you go. Ever.”
She pulled back from him then and wiped her eyes, sniffling. “But you have to. And you can’t come back.” She was staring off down the road, back towards Atherton and a life he knew she didn’t want to return to.
Determination suddenly solidified in him, and before he knew it he was making a promise to her. “But I will. I’ll find a way to come back.”
“They’ll kill you, Jules,” she said sadly.
“I know. But I won’t be satisfied until I’ve married you in the Temple, Ghia, and I’ll die trying to come back to you.”
She laughed a little then. “You’re just determined to be all sorts of useless fiancé to me, aren’t you? First gone, then dead…I’ll be a widow before I’m a husband.”
“Anything to frustrate and irritate,” he said, smiling back.
“Yeah,” she said, sniffing and put her arms around his neck again, “yeah, you’re real good at that.”
“Shush,” he murmured against her lips, kissing her deeply. There was a longing attached to the kiss, the wish that they could linger where they were and spend what time they had left in each other’s arms.
That was time they were out of.
“You need to go now, love. Go back to Atherton and take care of Helene, and stop your paxwoman from having a heart attack over your disappearance. I’ll be back for you. Someday.”
She nodded and clicked to Amora, who was grazing by the road. Her horse trotted over to them cheerfully and immediately got into a position so Ghia could get back onto her.
“You’ve trained her well,” Jules said plaintively, loathe to let go of the warm body he held in his arms.
“Magi secret,” Ghia replied, extricating herself from his arms and getting onto her horse. For the first time since he’d seen her, Jules noticed she was wearing pants, and not a peplos.
“Ghia. You’re wearing pants,” he said stupidly.
“With those powers of observation, I’m going to assume it will be too much to ask for you to remember our anniversary,” she said in good humour.
“Hah,” he said, and reached across the gap between them to cup her cheek with his hand. He then drew her close and kissed her again — an activity he never got tired of. “I’m the one who proposed, remember?”
“Not really, you just handed me a box and said it was for me.”
“You love me for it.”
“That I do. Now go.”
She nodded, and started to turn Amora around, then stopped short. “I don’t have a ring for you, Jules,” she said suddenly.
“Don’t worry. I won’t forget I’m engaged.”
“Still. You need one. I’ll find a way to get it to you.”
“What are you going to do? Address it to ‘Jules, traitor and exile, somewhere outside Athering’?” he teased gently.
“I’ll find a way,” she said firmly. Amora pressed up against Suki, and the horses said their goodbyes. Ghia grabbed Jules’ hand and squeezed. “Stay safe.”
“You too,” he whispered, kissing her hand, and then she was riding away, a figure that disappeared too quickly into the coming darkness.
“Jules,” came a voice, and Jules turned to see Yarrow was back, though when she’d rejoined them he didn’t know. He pulled on the reins, urging Suki towards Atton again, and the two horses walked beside each other, bellica and medic riding them, on towards their bleak future.
“We’re not going to make it, are we?” he asked quietly after a few minutes of riding.
A sigh. Then, “No.” That was that.