Standing outside his parents’ chamber, Cruce overheard his mother complaining good naturedly about having to polish his father’s boots.
“You should have had Gulden polish these days ago,” she scolded and slapped the sturdy leather boots.
Zhen rarely bothered with anything more than slippers, but today he would drag his old riding boots onto his withered feet. Every year Zhen acted as host to a private meeting of the Adarium so he could participate. He shunned the Council’s public meetings because of his infirmity, but, coming from a family with its name upon the Founding Tablets, Zhen would always retain his seat on the Council.
“Where do you keep the cloth and polish, Zhen?” his wife asked him.
“Boot polish is the last thing I think about, Viv,” Zhen said, a little wearily.
Viv grumbled something that Cruce did not quite hear and then she hustled into the antechamber. Shaking the boots at Cruce, she told him to find Gulden and have them polished.
She plunked the boots against her son’s chest, and he reluctantly took them in his arms. Viv was about to rush back to her husband but stopped mid spin and gave Cruce her full attention. His unease had wiggled her intuition. “Cruce, is something wrong?” Viv asked quietly.
Cruce shook his head. He looked down and rubbed some dust from a boot. They had been sitting on a shelf untouched since last year’s Adarium meeting. The leather was dry and stiff beneath his thumb.
By his non-verbal responses Viv guessed that something troubled her son. Hoping to encourage him, she straightened his collar and told him that he looked good.
Cruce forced a smile to reassure her. He was a head taller than his mother. His sister and he had inherited their father’s bigger physique, or what had once been his physique. Viv Chenomet was daintily beautiful. Gray mingled freely with her strawberry blonde hair that she always kept in firm braids. Few lines surrounded her blue eyes despite the responsibilities she had taken on over the past decade, not the least of them being the maintenance of her husband’s ego that had been shattered with his body.
Viv wore a conservative black dress with a lightweight black scarf tied around her neck. Emerald rings sparkled from three of her fingers and told of her wealth.
“Are you nervous?” Viv asked.
“I think so,” Cruce admitted.
“Your father has looked forward to this day for a long time,” she said and her eyes sparkled with proud happiness. Her son, her baby, was a man now and soon his status among all of Kwellstan society would be official.
Cruce chewed his lower lip and avoided her eyes. “I’ll go find Gulden,” he said and rushed off on his errand.
After delivering the boots to the valet, Cruce went to the foyer and greeted Councilors as they arrived. The annual meeting at the Chenomet home was the last big social event of the summer for the Kwellstan elite, and Councilors attended with their wives and children. The notorious Bendag Anglair, fat and bearded, dared to come with his mistress.
A banquet was planned for after the meeting. The meaty smells from the barbecues in the backyard were already drifting into the house. Extra servants had been hired for the week, and trays of the best Kwellstan spring water, doubly blessed by Nebakarz priests, were being circulated to the guests. Fine wines and spicy brews would be served later. The day was hot and humid. No doubt late summer thunderstorms were brewing out on the Nufalese plains but would hopefully stay out of the valley until the next day.
Dayd was at the front door, and she waved to Cruce. He took his place on the other side of the open pair of red doors and welcomed guests along with Dayd. She was lovely in a blue dress that was slit up the sides of her legs just a little farther than their mother would have liked. She wore silver bracelets on both wrists, and a headdress of topaz beads contained her golden hair. She had decided not to defy the humidity today and attempt to curl her hair, and it was braided in the same fashion as their mother’s hair.
“Welcome, Elder Manderlini,” Dayd declared as she gave her hand to the Adarium’s Senior Councilor. He was bent and thin and his bald head was speckled with age, but a ribald gleam danced in his rheumy eyes as he grasped Dayd’s hand.
“You know I’m available now, Maid Chenomet,” Manderlini cackled. He had been a widower for the past year and apparently found consolation in advertising himself to young women.
“That gives me something to think about it,” Dayd said cheerfully.
Manderlini kissed her knuckles and then gave her hand a more grandfatherly pat. “Has that Radello proposed to you yet?” he inquired.
“He has yet to decide if he has the courage to be my husband,” Dayd replied and Manderlini laughed.
The old Councilor then turned to Cruce, and appraised the young man as they clasped hands. Cruce welcomed him warmly and offered the hospitality of his home.
“Thank you, Young Lord Chenomet,” Manderlini said and then with a wink quietly added, “I look forward to seeing you at more meetings. I’m tired of all the old men I have to put up with.”
“Yes, Elder,” Cruce said and was glad when the old man continued into the house.
Cruce shared the greeting duties with Dayd through three more families. The Promentros entered, followed by the Bunzees, and then came the Hebenstens.
Peeking out at the guests still coming up the lane, Cruce quietly asked Dayd if the Larkas had arrived yet.
“You missed them coming in when you were still in the back,” Dayd said sympathetically. “They are probably at the buffet. Their mother has no fear of food.”
Cruce wanted to go greet the Larkas, particularly Ribeka, but time was short. He would just have to find her after the meeting.
“I have to get Father,” he said.
“You’re supposed to help me,” she whispered with annoyance as the Enberns approached with their six children. By the gate of Lord Enbern, Dayd judged that he was already drunk.
“I am supposed to do many things,” Cruce said mysteriously and abandoned her as the six unruly Enbern children streamed shrilly over the threshold. Dayd reached out to Lady Enbern with excessive enthusiasm so as to avoid the lingering sloppy embrace of her husband.
Cruce wove his way through the crowd in the large foyer. He nodded when spoken to, but did not stop to make conversation as he rushed with the urgency of an eighteen-year-old. It was a relief to break past the servants and enter the private wing of his home. He returned to his parents’ rooms just as Viv wheeled Zhen out with his boots on. He looked thin and pale, even at summer’s end, and the tailoring of his white shirt and burgundy vest had been done for a more robust man. A silver crescent pendant hung across his chest. It was the symbol of their family.
Zhen waved his wife off the handles of the chair. “Go on, Viv. We’ll be right behind you. Thank you for your help,” he said.
Cruce admired how his father, needy as he was and often distracted by pain, always remembered to thank his mother.
Viv bent and smoothed his wavy silver hair back from his cheek so that she could kiss it. On her way out, she smiled to Cruce with excitement.
“Am I fashionably late yet?” Zhen asked.
“Almost,” Cruce replied. “I saw the Enberns coming in, and they are usually last to arrive.”
Zhen chuckled and then began to wheel his chair toward the hall, obviously straining. Cruce rushed behind the chair and suggested that his father let him push. Before Zhen could protest, Cruce added, “It’s muggy, Father. Let me push so you don’t get sweaty.”
“I suppose that is a good idea,” Zhen admitted. “It’s good that you are thinking about appearances. Push slowly. We should talk about a few things before the meeting. I had hoped to get a moment with you sooner, but you haven’t seen fit to be home for days, except to eat and wash.”
Instead of pushing slowly, Cruce did not push at all. He gripped the smooth handles of the wheelchair hard, then let them go and wrung his hands.
Zhen craned his neck and peered up at his son. “This is very slowly,” he commented.
Cruce’s heart was thumping and his chest was tight. Sweat burst out beneath his good clothes. “Father, you can’t name me your proxy to the Council today,” he said.
Zhen frowned, very puzzled by his son’s statement. Being placed as a Proxy Councilor in his father’s seat had been planned for some time now that Cruce was eighteen. Although Cruce was young, the proxy appointment to represent the Chenomet family was legal. Zhen had groomed his son for his role, knowing that Cruce would have to assume the responsibilities as head of the family while Zhen still lived. In essence, Cruce would inherit much of his rank while his father lived because of Zhen’s disability.
Zhen tried to turn more completely around so he could confront his son, but twisting his body shot pain through him. With an angry gasp, he righted himself in the chair and pointed to the floor in front of him. “Get around here!” he barked.
Meekly, Cruce stepped around the wheelchair and even kneeled before his father. The humility took Zhen aback.
“What is this about?” asked the crippled patriarch.
“Father, I’ve joined the Kwellstan Militia,” Cruce answered. The words had been weighing on him like a sinus headache, but saying them brought no relief.
Clearly Zhen Chenomet had never expected his son to say such a thing. Hesitantly he smiled, hoping he had reason to laugh. “What is this nonsense, Cruce?” he asked.
Cruce felt sick. He tried to answer but his mouth had gone dry and he had to clear his throat to get out words. “Father, I have decided to serve five years in the militia because, ah, because I want to do something on my own. See more of Nufal,” he said. His reasons sounded so lame when he saw their effect on his father, whose face crinkled with rising dismay.
Zhen looked away at the wall, apparently seeking a better explanation from the relief sculptures of men on horses hunting buffalo and antelope upon the prairie. The carved and painted wood was as close to hunting as Zhen had gotten since his accident. Cruce was always amazed that his father had not had the décor stripped from his private chambers. It seemed to him that the artwork would be an unbearable of the accident.
Fighting back his anger, Zhen said hopefully, “Cruce, my son, why did you not say you want to do some traveling. Of course you can see more of Nufal. A man of your station should certainly tour our fine realm, maybe even go see this Jingten that has the Nebakarz so bothered.” Zhen became happier now and continued, “You can still be named my proxy and have time to travel. Do not worry, Cruce.”
Cruce tried to divert his father’s fantasy and explain, but Zhen interrupted him sternly, “I shall have no more of this ridiculous talk, Cruce. The militia is not for a firstborn heir of your prestige. You have no place among those blockheads. Whatever you have said or promised to those rowdy militia boys you’ve been running around with all summer — yes I know — you can take back without shame. You will do this. I command it.”
“Father, it is done. I gave my pledge three times at the Adlemont these past three nights. I must report for training by the equinox and I will be on frontier duty all winter protecting settlers from raiding savages,” Cruce said.
The news shoved Zhen into the back of his chair. He stared at his son, appalled. A militia pledge had to go three nights in a row and swear his pledge three times at the temple run by the Nebakarz for humans. The three-night process gave a man a chance to reconsider, but the third pledge was binding. No one could be released from their duty after that, not even a Chenomet.
Zhen clutched his forehead, thinking over the horrible facts again and coming to the same conclusion. All that remained was his anger. He lashed out at his son with both hands, slapping him hard on both sides of the face. At first Cruce cringed like the child that he was, but then he defended himself. It was what a militiaman would do. He seized his father’s wrists and stopped the beating. Cruce was so much stronger, and the eggshell frailty that he felt in his father was agony.
“Father, stop. You will hurt yourself,” he said. Cruce replaced his father’s arms to his sides and stood up.
Pain throbbed through Zehn’s body. The exertion had punished what was left of his back. Then the pain hit the hopeless wall of paralyzed numbness in his lower body. He hated the places he could not feel the most.
“Why, Cruce, why?!” Zhen demanded, not caring if the servants heard his wail, or the guests.
Cruce glanced nervously into the hall. He should have been stronger and told his father earlier that morning or even in the middle of the night. Now, his stupid timing was going to create monstrous embarrassment for his family.
He asked his father not to yell. Shaking, Zhen leaned an elbow onto an armrest and let his forehead sink into his hand. “My son. My only son,” he muttered sadly.
Cruce returned to his knees. Desperate to mend his father’s misery, he tried to apologize, butZhen would not look at him.
Confessing more truly now his feelings, Cruce added, “Father, I am too young. I don’t want to sit on the Adarium and listen to the bickering of old men. I want to ride upon the prairie and the mountains. To defend my homeland and people and become a man.”
His father scoffed at his son’s juvenile lust for danger. “You could get killed,” he warned.
The notion confused Cruce’s eighteen-year-old optimism. Cruce was not worried. Although the savages were devious and cruel, the militias were superior. “Deaths are rare,” Cruce said dismissively.
“I will have to pay the Nebakarz to pray for you. Indeed I will,” Zhen said. “If you come to harm it will be as a spear in your mother’s heart. Did you think of that?”
Cruce resented having his mother’s love thrown in his face. “A man must think of more than his mother,” he said.
“A man!” Zhen sniped. “You think the militia will make you a man? A man is made by duty to his family not this militia foolishness. I needed you to be on the Council. True, we Chenomets are wealthy, but I too long have been broken. Our political and business relationships are decaying. There are other more active families moving in on what was once ours. I needed you on the Council to give the Chenomets a voice again. A strong young voice that others would respect. Not my long wheezing death rattle. I thought you understood these things.”
Cruce had never heard his father speak with such dark despair and describe himself with vile morbid terms. None of it was true, Cruce believed.
“You are respected, Father,” he said simply.
“Bah! I have the respect of the dead. The estate class of Kwellstan gathers here just because I can still throw a good party,” Zhen said.
Confronting his father’s rising depression, Cruce tried to soothe him because it would only be five more years. He pleaded, “Father, please, announce to the Adarium that I have chosen to defend Nufal and then I will take your seat on the Adarium.”
“Do it yourself!” Zhen declared and wheeled his chair backwards with a disgusted flourish. He steered around his son and headed for the door.
Cruce stood. He grabbed the wheelchair, intending to push it for his father, but Zhen ordered him to let go. “I’ll see you in five years,” Zhen said. “Till then, I might name Dayd to the Adarium. There’s no legal precedent for it, but at least she understands her duty to those who bore her.”
The rejection stung Cruce, and watching his father struggle down the hall with angry speed was a sad sight. For the first time, Cruce regretted giving his third pledge the night before.
When they assembled for the meeting, Zhen had to allow Cruce to hold onto his wheelchair as he led the Councilors into the amphitheater behind the house. Otherwise the wheelchair would have accelerated disastrously down the ramp that had been built over the steps. The Councilors filed slowly into the amphitheater behind their host.
The outer third of the theater was shaded by a high wooden trellis overgrown with grape vines. Being late summer, heavy bunches of fruit hung down from slack masses of leaves and vines. As the Councilors settled onto the stone seats that were thoughtfully padded with pillows, they plucked grapes from above.
At the center of the theater a cloth canopy in Chenomet red provided shade for the speakers over two padded benches. Cruce parked Zhen beneath the canopy and then took his place in the first row of seating. Zhen called the meeting to order.
He was joined beneath the canopy by Elder Manderlini and Temmer Mulet, the esteemed Lord Scribe of the Adarium. A servant accompanied Mulet with a small writing stand that he set up with a supply of writing cloths, inks and styluses. Manderlini shuffled toward his bench with much of his weight on his cane. He slowly lowered himself to his seat and then leaned over his cane with both hands on it. Mulet, much younger with a forest of light brown curls atop his head, bowed respectfully to the Senior Councilor and his host, Zhen, before taking his seat and dismissing the servant.
Beside Cruce, fat Bendag Anglair fanned himself with a broad hand and loosened the laces of his billowy cream-colored shirt. Perspiration dotted his florid face. He obviously would have loved to have taken off his long green vest.
“It’s hot today,” he grumbled to Cruce. “Let’s hope this meeting is mercifully short.”
Cruce politely agreed that it was hot. He felt feverish from distress and his shirt clung to his back beneath his red jacket. He could not even focus on the opening blessing that Manderlini delivered in his rasping old man’s voice as he praised the Kwellstan Sect for its guidance in the ways of the Great Divinity. Then Mulet began to read from the Adarium record.
Resisting the urge to squirm, Cruce tried to make eye contact with his father, but Zhen stared past his son into the assembled men of the Kwellstan estate class. Desperate desire to appease his father raved inside Cruce. Indulging his own interests in the militia now seemed so reckless after the lecture from Zhen about his familial duties.
Are we really in a needy state? Cruce wondered. Do our relationships really decay?
The disappointment and despair of his father battered Cruce. Although his father had been emphasizing his need to takeover Adarium duties, Cruce had not imagined that the need was dire and could not wait a few years.
Even Mulet, a normally engaging speaker, had started to drone as he plowed through the notes of Adarium business and reported the status of current projects. The tedium bored Cruce and affirmed a little bit his decision to pledge to the militia. It would be good to leave this dirge of the city fathers and ride free upon the frontiers with men near his age. Gehr Bradelvo had been right about that.
Attending the party at Gehr’s house after the Bozee bout had led to a summer of good times drinking with the militia commander and his buddies and soaking up their tales of dangerous adventures. Life seemed so sweet to the militiamen, and the chance to earn a reputation instead of inheriting one had enamored Cruce.
Miserable, Cruce longed to make himself and his father content. His mind raced still trying to come up with a solution that would match all of his duties.
Mulet finally finished his opening report and moved onto current business. Bendag Anglair sighed tiredly, and Cruce reflected that not even the older men seemed to enjoy this process.
“Our first item of business,” Mulet said and then with a friendly gesture toward Zhen added, “And certainly happy business for our esteemed host Councilor Chenomet is the appointment of his son, Cruce, who has achieved the age of manhood, to act as his proxy at regular meetings of the Adarium.”
Cruce suddenly felt nauseous and Zhen still refused to look at him. Applause arose from the Adarium, and a few men gave Zhen supportive cheers.
After the congratulatory noise stopped, Zhen cleared his throat. He was still able to project his voice somewhat, but he surprised his peers with his bitter tone.
“Strike that from the agenda, Lord Scribe,” he announced.
Mulet blinked with surprise. Shocked muttering swept through the theater, like a big gust of wind hitting a pile of leaves. Anglair puffed and turned to look at Cruce although he seemed actually happy that something interesting had happened. Cruce felt everyone’s eyes on the back of his head. He did not know what to do.
Zhen stared at the smooth paving stones of the amphitheater with a profound frown.
Elder Manderlini was the first to remark openly. He tapped his cane three times, which brought a little order, and leaned toward Zhen. “You surprise us with this order, Councilor Chenomet,” Manderlini said. “Your son is young, but I know I can speak for the Adarium and say that his appointment will be accepted without protest.”
“My son has other plans,” Zhen said. “Let my announcement be stricken. I have nothing to say. Let us move on with our important business.”
The brusque dismissal of the subject flustered Manderlini. He knew how Zhen had been looking forward to the proxy appointment of his son. The old man squinted at Cruce and wondered what had happened between father and son. Employing the wisdom of his years, Manderlini decided that the issue was probably best not aired in open meeting. That was the least he could do to show respect to his Chenomet colleague.
Manderlini turned toward Mulet and started to tell him to strike the agenda item, but Cruce interrupted the Senior Councilor. He was on his feet and speaking before he had fully realized what he was doing. “My esteemed Estate Lords of Kwellstan,” Cruce said. “Allow me to clarify the intentions of the Chenomet family. My appointment as proxy must be delayed for I have pledged to the Kwellstan Militia for the next five years.”
Bendag Anglair erupted with laughter. His girth lent his guffaw much force, and Cruce gaped at him. He had not expected such rudeness, but it made him finally realize how inappropriate his joining the militia was. It made him look foolish. Cruce was an heir, not a lesser son or bastard.
Yet, confused as he was, Cruce latched onto his anger at Anglair’s laughter.
“You would do well not to laugh at a Chenomet in his own home,” Cruce declared, and Bendag Anglair was taken aback by the young man’s forthright defense. Anglair removed his smile.
“Order!” Manderlini said firmly. “Order!” He thumped his cane insistently. “You have been given no leave to speak, Young Lord.”
Cruce hastily bowed to the Senior Councilor. He asked forgiveness and permission to continue.
Manderlini granted it because he was truly curious.
Cruce looked at his father, who was actually looking back at him with an expression that combined anger, surprise, and genuine interest.
Cruce stepped away from his seat and positioned himself tentatively within his father’s sphere. He continued, “I have chosen to serve Nufal in the militia and defend the good people of our civilization. I ask to attend regular meetings of the Adarium, when my militia duties allow. This, I would, um, appreciate…if…” He began to flounder, uncertain of what else to say, or if he should just conclude. Cruce glanced pleadingly to his father, wanting help.
Zhen gave his chair wheels a half turn and moved a little closer to his son. He was undecided whether his son had been hopelessly stupid or rather deft. The Bunzees and Hebenstens had founded new estates on the frontier, and Cruce’s participation in the defense of those ambitious families’ holdings was a good show of Chenomet strength now that Zehn considered it. And, despite his wrath, Zhen could not resist the pride he felt from Cruce speaking so boldly. Perhaps in five years, all would be well, except of course for his withering body.
Zhen addressed his peers. “The added commitments Young Lord Cruce has taken on will prevent him from regularly attending the Adarium. I would, however, ask the Adarium to permit his attendance on behalf of my family when he is available.”
The attending lords began to discuss the proposition among themselves, and Manderlini fingered his cane thoughtfully. The Senior Councilor locked eyes with Zhen, who conveyed a desire for Manderlini’s support. The request was an inconvenience to the Adarium. At best, Cruce would only attend a third of the meetings, but it was progress considering that Zehn attended none of the public meetings.
Once the collected conversations began to die down, Manderlini gestured with his cane for Cruce to come before him.
“Young Lord Chenomet, are you serious about juggling your responsibilities between the militia and Adarium?” Manderlini asked.
“Of course, Lord Elder. No effort would be too great in the service of Nufal and Kwellstan,” Cruce replied earnestly.
Manderlini arched his shaggy eyebrows. “And have your militia superiors approved of your desire to serve in the Adarium as well?” he said.
Uncertainty blazed in Cruce’s eyes. He had not thought of this. He had pledged to serve Militia Master Bellastan Carver. He had not asked for accommodations for civilian commitments. He had not even met Bellastan Carver yet.
“I shall obtain the approval from the Militia Master,” Cruce said.
Manderlini gave him a knowing look, doubtful that Cruce would get permission. But for the sake of Zhen, Manderlini declared that the Adarium would vote during that day’s session to approve or deny the Chenomet request.
Zhen openly expressed his gratitude. Cruce returned to his seat and expected Mulet to move to the next item of business, but Lord Syman Bunzee rose to his feet and requested to speak, which was granted. Zhen tensed in his chair. The Bunzees were the most bold about seeking the lucrative contracts the Chenomets held with the Kwellstan Sect. Rumors hinted that the Bunzees planned to bid openly next spring, which would be a terrible act of disrespect to the Chenomets but also a clear sign of the family’s eroded influence.
Bunzee said, “My Esteemed Estate Lords, allow me to propose a condition upon the Chenomet request. Because Young Lord Chenomet has yet to get permission from the Militia Master, let it be set that his acceptance to the Adarium relies upon this permission as well as our vote.”
Zhen grated his teeth, but otherwise hid his displeasure. The closest ally of Bunzee, Lord Esseil Hebensten quickly voiced his support for the proposed condition, and it was added to the Chenomet request upon which the Adarium would vote. With the soft scratching of his inky stylus, Mulet noted down the perilous condition that Zhen knew was meant to keep Cruce out of the Adarium.
That day the Adarium voted to allow Cruce to join the Adarium meetings when his duties allowed, provided that he obtained permission from the Militia Master. Cruce was happy as the meeting concluded. His youthful confidence allowed him no doubt, and he believed that he had found a solution that would eventually please him and his father.
As Cruce went to push his father out of the amphitheater, Zhen grumbled that he had made a fine mess of things. Cruce glanced at Manderlini and Mulet to see if they had heard, but Manderlini’s aged hearing had most likely missed the comment, and Mulet did not look up.
Cruce wheeled his father up the ramp and the Councilors followed them out. The crowd of guests in the large backyard of the estate clamored happily now that the banquet could begin. A warm dusk gathered over the valley and servants lit torches to control mosquitoes and lanterns were strung over tables now laden with food. Cooks were carving beef and pork over the fires and dishing up dripping platters. The bounty of summer’s vegetables and fruits cluttered the tables with a variety of salads and side dishes, and servants carried pitchers of water and wine on both shoulders and attended to the cups of the guests.
As the Councilors dispersed among their families, the hot news of Cruce’s pledging to the militia circulated quickly.
Viv intercepted Zhen and Cruce as they arrived at the head of the main banquet table. The news had yet to hit her ears, and she received her husband and son with happy flutters. Viv embraced Cruce and kissed him on the cheek. Her eyes beamed with teary happiness. She loved her son, was proud of him, and knew how much his success meant to Zhen.
“Tell your mother,” Zhen commanded grumpily and wheeled himself up to the table and snatched a silver goblet of wine.
Dayd, who stood nearby with Radello, perked up with curiosity as she instantly sensed that her sibling had somehow offended.
“What?” Viv asked, giving her husband a curious look.
Cruce wet his lips and took hold of his mother’s hand.
Sweet Mother, I will make you proud. Do not fear for me, Cruce thought wistfully and then told her.
Viv jerked away from him, startled by the impossible news.
Zhen drained his wine cup and gestured impatiently to the nearest servant. “Our son has gone idiot,” he declared.
As the servant refilled his cup, Zhen looked up to Dayd and said, “I shall have to rely on you more, dear daughter.”
Dayd blinked with confusion, wondering what her father could mean.
Other guests were seating themselves at the tables and everyone was speaking about Cruce’s surprising news. Many of the Councilors openly asked Cruce questions. Some politely, some with mocking mirth. Cruce weathered all of their comments and questions, unashamed of what he had done.
Viv sat beside her husband in shocked silence. She alternated between giving her daughter helpless looks and watching her husband drink. Zhen was often given to consuming drink and other pain medications, but not to excess in front of guests. But judging from the pace he was setting today, Viv planned to make sure he retired early from his party. She and the children could entertain the guests without him.
Predictably, Cruce ate hastily and fled his father’s side to mingle. He filled a tray with desserts and headed for the Larka table. Ribeka rewarded him with a quick smile. He respectfully greeted her parents. Her father, Tekar Larka, immediately expressed his surprise about Cruce’s militia choice.
“I felt it was time a Chenomet tried something new,” Cruce said brightly, ignoring the veiled disapproval in Tekar Larka’s voice.
Quickly, Cruce distracted the family with the dessert tray. Tekar’s wife was immediately appeased and took two plates. Chelma gave him a hostile look but took a dessert all the same. Tekar declined, and Cruce gladly set the tray near Ribeka and asked if he could sit.
Tekar waved a permissive hand. “Go ahead. Last we’ll see of you for a while,” he said.
Cruce thanked him and tried to contain his excitement as he sat down next to Ribeka. Her dark hair was pulled up and then divided into a dozen small braids contained by a wreath of lavender flowers. She smelled good and today her hazel eyes matched the soft gray-green leaves intermingled with the flowers in her hair. Her white dress was modestly cut, but still flattered her maiden’s figure much to Cruce’s approval.
He pointed out the dessert to her that he considered the best. It was the Chenomet chef’s specialty.
“Oh, I don’t know if I have room,” Ribeka declared and held her flat stomach protectively.
“I’m full too. Would you like to dance?” Cruce asked, but then worried that he was acting too quickly to separate her from her family.
Ribeka seemed eager and asked for permission. Her mother hardly glanced up from her second dessert as she reached for a small pitcher of golden cream. Tekar Larka frowned but said that he would not deny Ribeka the famous Chenomet hospitality.
They excused themselves from the table and quickly moved off to the section of the yard where the younger people were gathering. Musicians were just coming back from their break and setting up to play for dancing. Cruce was glad to have Ribeka’s attention, and when she slipped her soft hand into his, his heart beat with hot excitement.
It was good to escape the adult pressures that had gripped him all day. The scrutiny of the Adarium and his looming service in the militia receded, and Cruce welcomed the unjudging presence of his peers. Ribeka introduced him to her friends as they mingled among the dancers, and Cruce did the same when they encountered his friends. Ribeka often commented about how exciting it was that Cruce was going to get out of Kwellstan and do something daring.
Cruce and Ribeka danced until their feet hurt. Holding her was a pleasure and he knew the memory of it would keep him awake many nights with desire. Cruce enjoyed avoiding his family as well. He did not even investigate when he saw his father retire from the party. He judged it best to keep his distance. Zehn’s opinions would not have improved after hours of drinking.
Cruce eventually persuaded Ribeka to escape the warm press of revelers around the tireless musicians. Cruce led her deeper into the sprawling Chenomet gardens. They crossed a wide lawn and entered a grove of old trees, preserved from the ancient forest from which Kwellstan had been thoughtfully carved. A couple night birds sang among the drowsy dark limbs of oak and maple.
They did not talk. It was easy in the darkness for them to twine their arms around their torsos and begin kissing. At first, Cruce kissed her tentatively, fearful that she might rebuff him, but when her soft unschooled lips clung to him with growing excitement, he kissed her harder and deeper. His hands moved down her body. Her buttocks arched into his hands and he pulled her against his body. The hot thrill of her body that fit against him in the most sensual fashion injected him with passion. His body burned to continue and he kissed her neck and started without thinking to pull up her dress into his greedy hands.
Then she pushed him away. “Cruce,” Ribeka said breathlessly. “Cruce. I’m…I’m not ready. No.”
He kissed her a few more times, wanting, needing to ignore her, but she spoke again her denial and Cruce loosened his hold. Her skirt slipped back down her legs and she stumbled away from him. Ribeka leaned against a tree. She touched her flushed cheeks and then wiped her lips.
Cruce wanted to persuade her to continue, but he silently forced himself to honor her wish.
“I should get back,” Ribeka said.
Cruce kindly took her hand and led her back toward the lights and noise of the party. It was hard to leave the dark private grove of his desire, but perhaps he had been too optimistic to hope that he could have everything now. She was a fine sweet woman and deserved his patience.
“Ribeka, may I visit you next time I am in Kwellstan?” Cruce asked.
“Yes, Cruce. Please,” Ribeka answered and kissed him once more before they emerged into the lights of polite society.