Buriram Tourakom had always had a filthy mouth.
She'd sounded out her first word, an rude term for what hung between a man's legs, at barely past a year old. The whole camp had stopped, slack-jawed, at hearing such a thing come out of the mouth of a child. Well, she'd been born to be a soldier, after all. Once it became a joke, there was no stopping it. Folk would teach her a bad word here and there, sneaking her sweets as a reward. She was swearing with the best of them by the time she was four. (First sentence: "back up, you sodden rat's ass.")
Thayet jian Wilima had fierce eyes and raven-black hair and her mother’s majesty and never let an obscenity past her lips. But the spring Buri turned sixteen, the air turned sour and the world turned sideways and the queen Kalasin jumped to her death off her warlord husband’s tower. Buri’s mother and brother were slaughtered on Kalasin's doorstep. It was time for Buri to follow the standing orders she’d had for her whole life: when Kalasin dies, take Thayet and run.
(It was always a when, never an if.)
She dragged her princess through a city that was blooming into riot, knives out, spitting every curse she knew. By nightfall they were hidden in the back of a cargo wagon rolling on a back road. Thayet finally slept with Buri holding her tight. They woke at dawn, slipped out of the wagon with stolen supplies, and made their way into the forest heading west.
They were silent until, halfway through the day, Thayet asked: "What's the worst word you know?"
Buri offered her princess a range of options. Thayet practiced them all, unfamiliar syllables harsh in her lovely mouth, her voice hoarse from crying. By the time they stumbled across a redheaded lady knight and the Shang Dragon three weeks later, she was almost an expert. But she'd never be quite as fluent in profanity as Buri. Buri intended to keep it that way. Thayet deserved to be better than that.
They were on their way to Tortall with the Dominion Jewel when a friend of Alanna the Lioness joined them on the road. His name was Raoul. Buri was fairly certain he was a knight, and maybe more, but he’d waved Alanna off when she went to list his titles so she wasn’t sure. He was a huge man in a blue uniform who shook everyone’s hands in a crushing grip and didn’t stare at Thayet and was nice to his horse. He drank heavily at night with Alanna’s man Coram, but come daylight he watched over the group with sharp, dark eyes as they rode. The way he rested his hand on his sword hilt told Buri he knew how to use it.
Buri didn’t like him, but she didn’t not like him, either.
He never said more than a few words to her. She was still working on her Common, anyway. But one night as they stopped to make camp, Buri saw Liam pull Alanna into the dense woods on the side of the road. The two of them had been on edge with each other ever since Alanna’s cat had witched him asleep so she could up a mountain to fight an immortal. Buri watched as they disappeared into the trees. There was either going to be a fight or some drastic sex. Knowing them, it would probably be both.
Across the road from her, Raoul was tying up his own horse. He followed her gaze, eyes narrowing, and then met her eyes and raised his eyebrows.
She could see the question he was asking without him having to speak. She answered it by rolling her eyes and shrugging. He huffed a quiet laugh and nodded.
When Liam and Alanna emerged half an hour later, Alanna’s mouth was reddened and Liam’s hair was mussed. Buri caught Raoul’s eye again. He gave her the barest of eye rolls, one corner of his mouth twitching into a smile. She felt herself smile in response.
All right. She didn’t not like him. That was a start.
Tortallans were all the same. Stuck in their ways, sheep-eyed, yammering, no idea what to do with Thayet’s beauty, her brains, her foreign-ness. Mostly they treated Buri like she was invisible. Buri was fine with that. Being invisible was preferable to what happened one morning in the practice courts: a group of young noblemen on their way to the stables saw her doing staff drills and stopped to stare.
She grit her teeth. She’d already warmed up and she wasn’t going to stop now. She spun, dipped, planted her feet, and slammed her staff into the dirt over and over, letting the rhythm and the sweat build up a wall in her mind against the eyes of the men.
One of them, she would have let watch anyway, so that helped. Raoul stood apart from the rest, head and shoulders taller and twice as broad. He watched her with a trained fighter’s critical gaze, and nodded with appreciation as she followed a swift low slice (aim for the knees) with a sharp jab (the throat) and a chop down (the crown of the head). When she finished, he was the only man who didn’t scurry out of the courtyard as she stomped towards the well.
He grinned at her when she approached. “You should charge them for tickets.“
“They should take their sheep-eyes somewhere else,” she growled, sending the bucket down.
His black eyes twinkled. “We’re still getting used to the idea of women warriors here. You and Alanna are a breath of fresh air, and some folks would rather keep smelling themselves.”
“I don’t want to be fresh air. I just guard Thayet."
“As you should. Seems every man west of the border is smitten with her.”
In this new country, where no one could understand Buri when she spoke K’mir, where everyone looked at Thayet like she was for sale, she felt free to be as foul as she wanted. She cranked the winch on the side of the well like she was wringing a neck, and in K’mir said exactly what all those men could go do with themselves.
“I don’t know what that means, but I’m pretty sure I agree with it,” said Raoul calmly. When she drew the bucket back up, he took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to her. “Care to translate?”
She took it and wiped the sweat from her face. She didn’t really want to translate. There was comfort in having the secrecy of a language no one but she and Thayet understood. But Raoul — Raoul was all right. “I don’t know if I can translate it all the way.”
“Please?” He looked at her, and it almost made her smile, to see such a big man being puppyish. “In my line of work, I need all the bad words I could get. Just give me the general idea."
“It’s about a dog and a donkey —" she made a gesture with two hands.
He nodded and finished her sentence. " — fucking!"
She’d heard Alanna use that word, liberally, on the road. Fucking bandits, fucking rain, fucking stones in the horse's hooves. She'd thought it was a general amplifier for anger. But of course it had something to do with sex. She turned to pick up her staff. “Yes. Fucking."
He clapped her on the back with one massive hand and steered her in the direction of the King’s Own mess hall. “In exchange for that, breakfast on me, and --“ he taught her two Tortallan insults and a very descriptive Scanran one she’d never heard before. He let her keep the handkerchief, too.
Soon Raoul was coming to the courtyard each morning to practice alongside her. He made her come to breakfast with him and introduced her to his friends. They swapped fighting tips and dirty words in equal part. He drank too much, but all soldiers did. And yes, all right, so he wasn’t actually a soldier. He was Lord Raoul of Goldenlake, one of the best knights of his generation or so Myles said, and friends with the King to boot. She wouldn’t count that against him too much. Maybe he was her friend, too.
Alanna’s King Jonathan wasn’t so sheep-eyed as the rest of them. Soon he wasn’t Alanna’s at all, but Thayet’s. Thayet tried to tell Buri it was just a political alliance, but Buri knew better. “You can just say you love him,” she snapped at Thayet, and went for a ride. When she came back, Raoul and George Cooper — who was still Alanna’s — found her in the stables. They took her into the Lower City and bought her drinks and whooped as she trounced all of George’s old thief friends in a knife throwing contest.
It was a rocky few months. It wasn’t helped by Jonathan’s undead uncle attempting to pull the palace down around everyone’s ears on the day of the coronation. (“This family is a disaster,” snarled Buri. “Pot, kettle,” Thayet said, waving her hands.)
Eventually Thayet threw Jonathan and Buri in a room together and locked the door. Buri squared off. Jonathan sat down and rested his hands palm up in his lap and looked at her with his sincere, royal-blue eyes. She hated him. But he was trying.
“Tell me what I need to do,” he said.
Buri swallowed. “You need to let me protect her as I see fit,” she said. Her jaw felt almost too tight to get the words out.
“What does that mean?”
“I need horses. And riders.”
Jonathan did it. He gave Buri the money and the grounds and the staff and the royal writ to start the Queen’s Riders. Two months later she let him marry Thayet.
They held the wedding outside on the green lawns of the palace because the Great Hall was still in shambles. Buri stood behind Thayet as she became the Queen of Tortall. That night she got so drunk that Raoul had to carry her back to her rooms.
“Peace is hard for you to come by, isn’t it, little one,” he rumbled to her gently as he knelt at her feet to unlace her boots.
Don’t little me, you oversized stallion ornament, Buri slurred at him in K’mir. She’d worn full lacquered armor to the wedding and now her fingers wouldn’t work to pry apart the fastenings. Raoul made her sit on her bed and carefully undid it all for her, piece by piece. She was asleep before he was done. He was gone before she woke up. Her armor was on the bench at the foot of the bed. It was laid out perfectly.
These were Buri’s rules for the Queen’s Riders: it was a true merit system, no one allowed to buy their way in, all judged on their work ethic -- not their gender, nor their rank, nor the color of their skin. The Riders took young women from northern fishing villages and merchants' sons and Bazhir orphans and Carthaki refugees and everyone in between.
Buri had ridden to the far end of the fields newly allotted to her recruits to test out the ground. She was about to swing out of her saddle when she saw two men approaching on horseback, and went still. It was a knight she’d never seen and another noble whose older face was sour and pinched. The latter called out to her: "You, woman --"
Buri steeled herself. She’d made the Riders her own world in Tortall. Outside of it she was just another brown foreigner.
Unexpectedly, the younger knight next to the noble cleared his throat firmly as they approached, and made eye contact with her. “Commander Tourakom of the Queen's Riders. Congratulations on your recent appointment. The Lord of Stone Mountain and myself were just admiring the new barracks."
"Admiration had nothing to do with it, Cavall,” snapped the lord. His stallion danced underneath him. "Just acknowledging the useless diversion of resources -- these were perfectly good hunting grounds before all this nonsense --"
The knight cleared his throat again. "Her Gracious Majesty was well within her rights to establish this endeavor, regardless of whether we agree with it, my lord."
The noble snorted. He looked down his nose at Buri. “Commander, eh?"
If there was one thing Buri had learned in Tortall, it was how to smile through gritted teeth. "Good day, my lord —“ and politely informed him, in K’mir, that he could go coat himself in ghost slime.
"What was that last bit?" demanded the man, eyes flicking from her to his companion.
The younger man nodded. "A K'miri formality, my lord. Simply wishing you well."
The lord snorted and kicked his mount into a hasty trot, departing without so much as a by-your-leave. His companion stayed and considered Buri thoughtfully.
She held her ground. Her pony was smaller than his horse, but steadier.
"Technically, given the Lord of Stone Mountain's rank, I believe you'd need to use the honorific,” he said at last. "Not simply his ancestors, but his noble ancestors would be called upon to rise from their graves and spit on him, as you suggest."
It had been so long in this country since anyone had understood her K’mir that for a second she thought seriously about kissing this stranger. Before her thought could go any further the man backed his horse up and bowed in the saddle. There was a small smile tucked in one corner of his mouth, and maybe the barest twinkle in his eye. "Good day, Commander Tourakom."
She tracked down Raoul later that day in the stables. “I met a knight today,” she told him. “Tall. Brown eyes. Older than you. Riding with some fogey from Stone Mountain. The lord called him Cavall. Who is he?”
Raoul nodded. “That’d be Wyldon of Cavall. He was the best of the squires, when I was a page. Conservative and hard-headed as a mule, but decent enough. I think he just got back from a few years patrolling the Northern border. Why’d you want to know who he is?”
“He knows K’mir,” Buri said, and felt her voice catch in her throat.
“He knows K’mir,” Raoul repeated, looking surprised. “Well, Fief Cavall is renowned for their horses. I wonder if he picked some up in horse trading with Sarain. Buri, are you —“ he looked at her closely. Buri was horrified to realize her eyes were wet, and quickly started to back away.
Raoul dropped the tack he’d been mending and grabbed her gently by the shoulders. “No, no,” he said softly, “it’s all right —“ and discreet to a fault, for which she was grateful, he glanced around to see if they were alone before tugging her close.
Buri rested her forehead on his chest and swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Even Thayet won’t speak it much any more,” she whispered. “She’s always with Jon, and he doesn’t understand it —“
Big hands rubbed her back. Buri hated herself for being weak, but it was just Raoul, after all. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I’m slow with languages. You should keep using all your insults on me, though.”
You’re so sweet when you’re not drinking that cow-piss whiskey you like, she mumbled in K’mir, into his shirt.
“Was that one?” he asked.
“Mostly,” she answered. He crushed her in a hug.
That fall, Raoul took a squad of the Own and left for Galla to accompany Gareth of Naxen on a diplomatic mission. On their return three weeks later, they were accompanied by a gray-eyed woman with a string of ponies and a dog the size of a buffalo.
Buri watched them ride into her Riders’ courtyard with narrowed eyes. The woman dismounted with ease, but Buri saw the way she kept one hand on the reins of her horse, like she might need to swing back into the saddle at any moment.
Raoul waved Buri over. “Buri, this is Onua Chamtong. We met at the horse fair in Cría after Gary’s mount threw a shoe. She’s got more horse sense than even you or Her Majesty, no disrespect — and I know you and Thayet have been looking for a horsemistress.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “Onua, this is Buriram Tourakom, deputy commander of the Queen’s Riders.”
Onua gave her a long, steady look, and then a deep bow. When she straightened, she said in K’mir: Well met, cousin Tourakom. All clans honor your mother and brother’s sacrifice for our queen Kalasin.
Buri bowed as well, thankful for the cover to smooth her expression. Well met, cousin Chamtong. Where is your family from?
Onua’s mouth twisted. No family these days. She flexed her hands, and Buri caught sight of old scars and faded bruising around her wrists. But I was of the Raa’deh clan. She paused, looking down at the massive dog who sat by her feet, then added: We’re not exactly looking to go back.
I understand, Buri said, and did. How was your ride from Cría?
Onua shrugged one shoulder. Well enough, but some of these Westerners are dumb as dog shit. She nodded once at Raoul, who was busy having the grace to look like he understood their conversation and the ease to not care that he couldn’t. Not that one, provided he’s not in his cups, but Horse Lords save me from the rest of them.
Buri laughed out loud for what felt like the first time a year. Not enough pepper in their diet, she explained. It makes them soft and slow.
Like new piglets, sighed Onua. She crinkled her gray eyes at Buri. Any chance you need help hardening them up?
Buri held out her hand, and Onua took it. Welcome to Tortall.
She knocked on Raoul’s door late that afternoon. He opened it. Her timing was good — he was only tipsy. Any later in the evening, these days, he might be too drunk to stand. She didn’t want to know too much about it. “Buri! Come in?”
She shook her head. “I’m on my way to make sure Onua’s ponies are stabled for the night. I just wanted to say thank you.”
He blinked down at her. “For —“
“For Onua.” It felt strange and wrong, putting it that way: Onua wasn’t an object to be gifted. She was her own person. But still, Raoul had found her, and known where to bring her, and now Buri had someone to talk to. Really talk to.
He beamed, and bent to kiss her forehead. Sentimental drunks, she thought irritably. She made sure to fan the flames of that irritation so she didn’t have to feel the warmth in her chest when he told her, “it was so good to hear you laugh.”
Buri knew something was wrong as soon as she walked past the Own's stables one morning the next spring. Raoul's warhorse Battle had pressed himself to one edge of his stall. He was tossing his head anxiously, eyes wide. The gate that should have closed him in was swinging open. Raoul was nowhere to be seen.
Buri walked slowly into the stables. She didn’t much care for these warhorses, preferring the smart quick ponies the Riders used under Onua’s watchful eye. When warhorses panicked, they bolted, and they didn’t care what got crushed in their path.
As she approached the stall, she learned the answer to Raoul’s whereabouts: the idiot had passed out on the floor. His head was inches away from one of Battle's deadly, stamping, dinner-plate hooves. She didn't have to check if he was breathing; she could smell the alcohol rising off him with every exhale.
Her heart thumping, she eased her way into Battle's stall, whispering a prayer to Chavi West-Wind that the giant dumb war machine wouldn't panic on her. There was no time to run for Onua: by the time she came back Raoul might have his skull kicked in. “Easy, boy," she told Battle, bending to grip the back of Raoul's tunic. "I'm just going to get this rocks-for-brains out of the way. That's all — easy —"
Raoul was cursed heavy, but she managed to drag him halfway out of the stall before his eyes popped open and he jerked violently out of her grasp.
Buri didn’t remember much once things went in that direction, except for Raoul coming to in a lurch and tipping her to the ground, Battle slamming free of his stall, a handful of men from the Own rushing in at the noise, and something heavy and hard as bone knocking her out.
The first thing she heard when she blinked awake in the healer’s wing was Thayet. Her queen was speaking K’mir for the first time in months.
I’ll kill him for you, she said quietly. She was sitting on the bed, both hands holding one of Buri’s, and her beautiful raven’s-wing hair and her cut-ruby mouth came sharply into focus as Buri’s vision cleared.
Buri swallowed into a parched throat. I could get behind that, she muttered thickly.
I know he’s your friend. He’s my friend too. But you could have been killed. And Buri, you are — I wouldn’t — without you — she took a breath and squeezed Buri’s hand and then called Raoul by the entire litany of insults Buri had taught her when they were first on the run from Sarain.
Buri grinned at her, sleepy and proud. I love you, too, she said.
When the page stammered that she’d been requested to immediately come to his Majesty's private office, she wasn’t sure what to expect. When she arrived, Jonathan was leaning on his desk. Thayet was seated behind it. And standing in the corner was Raoul of Goldenlake. Buri almost immediately walked out again. But Thayet caught her eye and gave her a meaningful look.
Jonathan cleared his throat. "Buriram Tourakom, we have decided to temporarily remove Raoul of Goldenlake from his position as Knight Commander of the King's Own, until such time as he can demonstrate consistent sobriety and behavior becoming of a knight of our realm." Blue eyes cut to Raoul, who was very much not looking at his king. "He leaves for the Great Southern Desert this evening, at the invitation of the headsman of the the Sun Hawk tribe." Jonathan's voice implied, quite clearly, that it hadn't been an invitation at all, but an order. His dry formality grated on her nerves. ”Before his departure, he wishes to offer you an apology for his actions last week."
There was a pause. Raoul swallowed and picked his gaze up off the floor. "Buri, I -- I'm so sorry. I didn't --"
She couldn’t really take how crushed he was, the utter sadness in his face, the slump in his shoulders. She cut him off. “Don’t.“ She looked at Jonathan. “Is that all?"
The king inclined his head, and Buri turned to leave. On her way out, she directed her favorite, most venomous K’mir insult at Raoul.
Before the door shut behind her she heard Jonathan say: "Do I want to know the translation of that?"
Thayet answered: “You really don't."
Buri decided to cut back on her own drinking, after that. But a few weeks into Raoul’s absence Onua showed up in her rooms with a bottle of K’mir palm wine, and she gave up sobriety. They got pleasantly buzzed while Buri tried to teach Onua how to play chess.
It was turning into summer. It was hot. Shirts were optional. Onua was hopeless at chess, anyway, and Buri was bored and wanting, and finally she leaned over the board and kissed Onua’s mouth. Onua made a surprised, pleased sound, and they wound up making out, sloppily, for a few moments, tipping into Buri’s bed.
But then Onua pulled away, laughing.
“What?” Buri demanded, glaring down from where she’d pinned Onua underneath her.
“Look at you,” said the older woman, tugging her braid. “You already have me in a wrestling hold. Not everything’s a fight, Tourakom.”
“I’m not fighting,” Buri insisted.
“No, but you’re terrible at being tender.” Onua wriggled loose and stretched luxuriously. Her skin was glowing, buttery and supple, around her scars. “And I like tender.”
“Tender’s not fun,” muttered Buri, flopping next to her. “Oh well. It was worth a try.”
Onua grinned. “It was. Someday you’ll find someone who’ll fight you back, and then you’ll have all the fun you want. Let’s try checkers.”
Four months later, there was a knock on her office door. (What a strange thing, to sit at a desk instead of ride a pony. Thayet had laughed for ten minutes when Buri had realized she needed an office.) She didn’t look up from her reports, just called, “come in.”
Raoul stepped around the doorframe. Buri went very still.
He had the good sense to not come any closer while she inspected him from tip to toe. He was as big as ever, tanned from the sun, with faint reddish highlights picked out in his dark hair. A Bazhir burnoose was draped loosely around his broad shoulders. He wore a footsoldier’s uniform underneath. His boots were battered, his stance a little wider, his feet more firmly on the ground. He looked — different.
“Hello,” she said finally.
He cleared his throat, shy. “You don’t have to talk to me. I just didn’t want you to hear from someone else that I’d come back.”
She looked at him for a long moment. “Are you back in command?” she asked.
He shook his head and met her gaze levelly. “No, not yet. I asked for another two months of probation on the ground before I’m formally put back into service. Sobriety out in the desert is one game, but it’s different in the palace. I need to be sure I can do it.”
She nodded, slowly, still taking him in.
He bowed his head, and looked up at her from under dark lashes, and didn’t say anything else.
She didn’t say anything either.
Then he asked suddenly: “are you still doing staff practice in the mornings?”
“First bell after dawn,” she said, evenly.
He swallowed. “Do you mind if I join you again?”
Buri thought about what that ask meant. When his drinking had gotten bad, he hadn’t been able to get up before noon. His disappearance from their dawn routine had been the first sign that things were going south.
She chewed the inside of her lip, thinking.
Then she nodded once. “Interior courtyard, near the old armory.”
He gave her a miniature salute and backed out of the room. When he closed the door again it was nearly noiseless.
Buri blinked down at her reports, and tried to focus for a few more minutes, and then gave up.
She beat the daylights out of Raoul the next morning.
It had been months since they’d sparred together, and he’d never been all that good with the staff to start with. And they hadn’t been a good match: he’d always been concerned about the foot of height and hundred-odd pounds he had on her, and pulled his blows even though she told him not to. And, truth be told, she’d never really gone at him, either. She’d been new in Tortall, and he’d been the Knight Commander of the King’s Own.
That title no longer applied, and neither did those nerves, Buri thought grimly as she spun around him. Things were different now. She was landing strikes with satisfying precision, hitting him so squarely that the sound almost echoed in the practice court.
But Raoul was different now, too. He didn’t dodge her blows as much as he took them. And he didn’t flinch. Just tracked her with his eyes, silent and focused, leaning in and parrying where he could. His feet weren’t quick but they were steady. His breath came in a regular rhythm.
They went, speeding up the pace, until they were both sweating. His rhythm faltered as he blinked sweat out of his eyes. She took the opening and darted in to whack him hard across the knuckles. He jerked and swore vividly under his breath. She stepped back, panting, and lowered her staff.
Raoul exhaled, and pulled off his soaked shirt, and then he left without a word.
Then he came back the next morning, and let her do it again.
It continued that way for two weeks. He never landed a hit on her.
On the fourteenth morning they fought, she sensed him falling into their now-familiar pattern, and frowned. She knew he was better than this. It was time to shake things up. She’d been sparring with George Cooper while Raoul had been gone, and had a few new tricks up her sleeve she’d been saving, anyway. She tried one.
His eyebrows rose, and it was like she could read his mind: so you want to fight dirty?
He came back at her with something that curved sideways — something he’d learned in the desert, maybe — and between one blow and another he caught her at last, right in the ribs, with a smack. She yelped with surprise, almost with delight, and he froze immediately. “Buri!“
“Well, don’t stop,” she said, and swung again. He knocked it back, eyes glowing, and suddenly it was like they were in a different world.
This was more like it, she thought, feeling the air start to hum around them. They were with each other, now, and listening instead of expecting. The pace was fast, and her nerves were alight and focused, watching him to see what else he’d been hiding for the past two weeks. He revealed move after move that he’d never tried on her before — things that switched hands, that twisted, that dove, that made her have to think.
Where have you been all this time? she thought at him, dodging, smiling. This was a language she could speak: the language of testing and being tested, of chasing each other down paths of skill and strength. Raoul, it turned out, was fluent in it too.
He came at her fast now, suddenly unafraid to use his height and weight to his advantage, and she had to keep finding loopholes to slip through. Those loopholes got smaller and smaller as he learned her responses, and their bodies got closer and closer together, and Buri swore as she realized what was happening a breath before he took them both down into the dirt.
“I yield,” she gasped, and then realized she’d said it in K’mir, and repeated it in Common. He rolled sideways to kneel and pull off his shirt, catching his breath.
“Did you learn all that in the desert?” she asked, looking up at the ceiling of the practice court. He’d put her flat on her back.
“Yes,” he said.
Buri re-saw the fight in her head. “What else did you learn?”
“A few more hand-to-hand things.” he said, voice muffled as he wiped his face with his shirt. “And a lot more on horseback.” He cracked his neck.
“I want to learn it,” Buri said. There had been something he’d done, intricate without being flashy or fancy, that she thought she’d be able to pull off, and wanted to try with a knife.
“I’ll teach you,” he said, and when she looked at him again he was smiling.
“Good,” she said. She swung her legs over her head and then rolled to her feet. “Tomorrow.”
She was dusting off her thighs when she heard him clear his throat. She paused and narrowed her eyes at him. He was looking down at his knees. She frowned.
“I don’t want another apology,” she told him, bluntly. “If you’re about to try to give me one.”
“I am,” he said.
“I don’t really need to hear it.”
“All right,” he said, and ran his hands through his hair. “I won’t say it out loud. Can I just think it at you, please?”
She rose her eyebrows. “Can you —“ but then he lifted his face and met her eyes and she shut up.
She hadn’t thought someone Raoul’s size could ever look vulnerable. But there he was on his knees, looking up at her. She could see all the bruises she’d left on his big arms and broad shoulders, and the gleam of sweat from their fight. She held his gaze for a long moment. He didn’t look away. Something about the way he was looking at her made her feel like her heart was being squeezed.
“All right,” she said at last. “Apology accepted.”
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
The practice court had two doors set into opposite walls. She was halfway to one when she heard him say, very quietly, the rejoinder to the K’mir insult she’d thrown at him on his departure.
Buri almost tripped. She turned around. “What?”
But he was almost at the other door, and just winked once over his shoulder and then left.
Buri was a little more careful with what she said around Raoul, after that. Did he know K’mir, or had he learned that phrase special? Slow with languages, my ass, she thought. Myles told her he was the quickest of the students in his page-year, quicker even than the boy who would become prime minister. Conversational Carthaki, fluent Bazhir, some Scanran. But they hadn’t taught K’mir at the palace, so Buri wasn’t sure where he would have picked it up.
She cornered Onua one day. “Has Raoul ever spoken K’mir to you?”
The other woman looked surprised. “A little. He introduced himself in K’mir when we first met in Cría. His accent was atrocious, but he did pretty well.”
Buri started testing it. She threw different words into conversation to see how much he’d respond to. Mostly he still asked her to translate, as he’d always done. He never said anything else, either.
Eventually she gave up wondering about whether or not he knew any K'mir. If he did, he did. It didn’t matter. What mattered now was that he kept showing up to carefully rebuild their friendship, piece by piece, with his newfound calm, solidity, and ease.
She took a few Tortallan lovers who looked at her, meek and baffled, when she talked dirty to them in K’mir. Most of them didn’t even pick up on the inflection. They stroked her hair or said sweet things in Common in reply. She sighed inwardly and resigned herself to quiet, tame sex. The pool of people who were brave enough to sleep with the Rider Commander was small enough as it was.
Her best luck was with one of Raoul’s recruits to his new-and-improved-and-actually-functional Own: a stocky Bazhir named Qasim, assigned to First Company. He was good enough in bed that her tongue loosened and in K'mir she said I’ll put you on your knees right now if you don’t fuck me harder. He spoke no K’mir and only some Common, so she knew he didn’t understand her. But, bless him, on hearing the tone of her voice he grinned sideways and said something sharp and mocking back to her in his own tongue, and flipped them both so she could be on top.
Oh, so you want me to do all the work, is it, you worthless son of a — and he cut her off with something else that had a wicked edge on it, callused fingertips running up her back. It wasn’t quite what she expected but it was most of the way towards what she wanted and she’d take it. She took it, and then she took him until he couldn’t talk anyway.
Raoul had a battlefield bellow that was legendary in Tortall’s armed forces. One evening over their standing game of chess Buri told him that they only gave him the Own because no one else was loud enough for a hundred men in sparkly, clanky armor to hear.
He laughed, but then turned earnest. “Actually, I was thinking. We are loud. We’re supposed to be loud, I know. The symbol of the monarchy’s might and all that. But I divided all the companies down into squads, and we’re doing almost as much work on foot now as we do on horseback. Loud isn’t always the way to go.”
Buri knew he was right. In his years of committed sobriety, he’d grown into a gifted, innovative, and well-loved leader. He’d taken the Own from a parade-ground decoration to a true fighting power, and she knew he chafed against some of its old protocols. He leaned forward in his chair and shifted a chess piece. “I can’t be hollering orders if we’re sneaking up on bandits or spidrens. I want a standardized set of hand signals. And I want you —“ he pointed at Buri — “to help me make them.”
She rose an eyebrow at him, and neatly dispatched one of his pawns. “Why?”
“Because you know how to move silently through enemy territory. And you command a force even more diverse than the Own — although Goddess knows I’m trying." He fiddled with one of the pawns he’d already gotten from her. “I don’t know, Buri. Tortall needs all the help it can get. I won’t turn good men away just because their mothers sang something different to them than mine sang to me. Hand signals would be easier and faster to learn than Common. It could get us all on the same footing.”
She thought about the idea. Some of the Riders already used a few, but could do with more, and standardization would be essential to spread their use. She knew the Royal University had a wing for deaf students — maybe she and Raoul could ask them for help…
He interrupted her thinking with a final thought. “And if the Riders and the Own use the same set of hand signals, you and I can deploy joint teams where they’re needed.”
Now she rose both eyebrows. “Joint teams?”
He nodded, serious. “Buri, think about it. The Own and the Riders — they’re a battle-axe and a knife. Two different weapons for two different jobs. Combat isn’t big armies lined up across battlefields any more. We’re in hills and valleys, taking on pockets of fighters. My boys can do the heavy lifting, but we're not made for the tricky, subtle stuff.” He cleared his throat. “And you’re one of the best commanders I’ve ever known.” He looked down at the chessboard, then back at her. She was surprised to see that he looked a little shy. “I want you with me.”
She sat back, touched. “All right,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
He beamed at her, and stuck his out bear-paw hand. She took it, and they shook. “I promise I will always respect your word in the field,” he told her solemnly, and let her go. His grin turned wicked as he looked back down at the chessboard. “What I will never respect is your constant inability to see my pawn-and-rook endgame coming —“ and he promptly ruined the moment by sweeping his queen across the chessboard to take her king.
Buri threw up her hands and called him a low-down sodden piece of shit in K’mir, and he laughed until she threw something at him.
Whatever Buri had with Qasim was both deeply casual and a complete secret, at her insistence. Fortunately he was as discreet as she was, and neither of them were given to romantic notions. They proceeded in privacy for nearly four months. She didn’t even tell Onua.
Then, one evening there was a knock on her door. When she opened it, it was Raoul. He looked a little sheepish. “Can I come in?”
She beckoned him in, and he shut the door behind him and leaned on it. She half-expected it to crack under his considerable bulk. “What’s going on?”
He opened his mouth, then closed it, then tried again. “I have to send First Company out to the Gallan border for six months,” he told her. “They’ll leave tomorrow morning.”
She sighed inwardly. There was the end of that decent lay. Oh, well. “And? Do you want me to send a Rider group with them?”
“Buri…” he looked indecisive.
She crossed her arms. “Spit it out, Raoul. I’m happy to discuss logistics with you, but it’s short notice if they’ll need to leave tomorrow.”
“Qasim ibn Zirhud is with a squad in the First,” he said quietly.
How in Mithros’ name did he know about—
She scowled and shoved clear a space on her desk and sat on it, feet swinging. “Six months?” she said.
“Six months,” he confirmed. He tucked his hands in his pockets. “Buri, if you — if you want, I could reassign him. He does excellent work as a tracker and they need him out there, but I can use him somewhere else closer to home, if you —“
She smiled. Horse Lords bless, but he was sweet. She shook her head. “Raoul, no. I would never interfere in that way. And—“ well, they were past the point of coy. “No harm done. He was always temporary.”
He looked sideways at her. “Was he, now.”
She grinned. “Not his fault. He did an excellent job.”
He tipped his head back. Suddenly Buri found herself at the business end of a very specific sort of gaze.
Raoul had taught Buri all she knew about keeping secrets in the swamp of gossip that was Corus. In the wake of his very public scandal with alcohol years back, he’d become a master of privacy. Even so, there were rumors about him that floated around. Rumors that sounded like: Goldenlake will make you scream. And he’s big everywhere. And that mouth and those hands — made her come twice without even taking his clothes off —
Something she had never considered before about the man in front of her made her insides do a slow flip.
“I’m glad he did well,” Raoul said smoothly. He was still giving her a look that made her feel shivery. “I’d have to fire him if he hadn’t.”
“Do I even want to know how you found out?”
He gave her a small, dark smile. “You don’t.” He turned to leave.
You’re one sneaky motherfucker, she muttered at him in K’mir, shaking her head.
“Takes one to know one,” he shot back instantly; and when he added darling in K’mir his accent was perfect.
She gave up trying to guess the extent of what Raoul knew, in general. It was always more than she thought.
The system of hand signals Raoul and Buri devised with the help of the deaf University students became standard-issue across Tortallan armed forces. Their training manual had The Tourakom-Goldenlake System of Communication printed on the front. The hand signal system, along with the spelled mirrors that allowed generals to speak to one another across distances, made warfare in Tortall silent, efficient, flexible, and deadly.
And then there was what inevitably happened when you turned a language over to a bunch of smart young people. (Buri admired her cacophonous mess hall, full of riotous Riders from every corner of the kingdom and beyond.) The hand signal for gather and the one for cave turned into shorthand for there will be a very large cask of ale behind the barracks this evening if you want to come get sloshed. The hand signal for charge done four times fast into the one for valley meant he blew his wad too soon. And on and on. Buri and Raoul kept lists of their favorites and swapped back and forth. She loved having a language she helped make herself, a language that the people she had come to care for so dearly used to talk to and tease and help each other.
Her favorite unofficial hand signal was, of course, the one where you made a dog with one hand and a donkey with the other, and, well — it had something to do with fucking. For her birthday the next year Raoul gave her a small framed parchment. It was a precise technical drawing in the style of the training manual of just that gesture. Raoul wrote: the first of many insults you taught me. I’m grateful for them all. Happy birthday. Love, Raoul.
She hung it on the wall of her office and tapped it when she needed a smile.
Raoul and Buri were friends. They were best friends. Raoul knew what it was like to command, what it was like to have rocks in your bed and dirt in your teeth, to steel your face before executions even when they were necessary, to love your comrades fiercely. He respected her word in the field. He yanked her out of the way of sword strikes and cut arrows out of her. He teased her, easily, lovingly, and she practiced all her worst K'miri insults on him. He didn’t even ask for translation any more, just laughed.
She and Raoul led joint forest trainings each year, rotating out the Own companies and various Rider Groups, in an effort to build camaraderie. They were camped in the woods above the River Drell one night when a courier rode into camp. In her bag was a very battered message for Buri, covered in markings and stamps she hadn’t seen in years and bearing the ribbon of clan correspondence.
She could feel Raoul’s eyes on her as she stood, trying to hide the tremble in her hands. She didn’t look back at him, just went into her tent and closed the flap behind her.
The script was unfamiliar after all these years, curling and dancing in the way that Common never did. It took her a few tries to parse through it, but when she did she had to sit before she fell. The Hau Ma clan’s ancestral longhouse in the Saren highlands had been ransacked and burned to the ground during the annual gathering, with the women, children, and elders inside.
Buri’s eyes stung.
She wanted Thayet, but Thayet was on a diplomatic mission to Tyra. She wanted Onua, but Onua was a three day’s ride back in Corus, wrangling ponies and trainees. She thought about the Riders she’d brought with her: some of them were K’mir, but most of them were Tortallan-born to refugee parents, and all of them were young, so young — only children when Kalasin died (you were only a child when Kalasin died, her inner voice told her harshly) — she couldn’t talk to them.
She wanted her mother and brother. She wanted Sarain to never have fallen. She wanted to not feel ashamed of the life she’d built and loved in this western country, at the expense of leaving her clan to burn in the last scrap of homeland they had.
She realized she was weeping and stifled it. There was a wine service in her bags. With a salute to the fact that she was making a stupid choice, she got out the bottle. If she couldn’t have any of what she wanted, she at least wanted to not have to think.
It wasn’t not until she’d downed most of the wine that she realized the compound stupidity of her choice, because now more than anything she wanted Raoul, and she couldn’t face him drunk. Not with his past. Well. Nothing for it but to drink the rest.
Raoul gave her half an hour. Then he opened the tent flap, came in wordlessly, and closed it behind him.
She blinked up at him, head spinning, and held out the letter. He took it, and read it. (The conscious part of her brain filed that away: Raoul could read K’mir. Of course he could.)
When he finished he looked down at her, and looked at the empty wine bottle next to her, and stood for a long quiet moment. Then he left the tent again.
Buri put her face in her hands and cried.
A few minutes later the tent flap opened again and Raoul came back in.
If she hadn’t been on the ground, her knees would have buckled with relief.
He was carrying a bucket and a pitcher of water and a little packet. He set everything down and then looked at her.
“I feel awful,” she said, very quietly.
There was a lot of him to crouch down, but he did. He put a hand on her cheek and smiled sadly. “I’ll bet you do.”
She felt tears slipping down her face again, unbidden. He settled next to her and wrapped his arms around her and let her rest her head on his chest. She whispered K’miri insults at herself until he covered her mouth. “Stop it,” he ordered. “No good will come of you being angry at yourself.”
He smelled like leather and sweat and the faint minty scent of regulation-issue soap. She breathed it in and squeezed her eyes shut and listened to the way his heartbeat, so slow compared to hers, gently repeated in his chest. The good thing about Raoul was that when he was this close to her she couldn’t really think about anything else except him.
After a while Raoul nudged her upright, and shifted her so she was sitting in font of him. She put her face in her hands again, resting her elbows on her knees. The tent was spinning and it was better to be in darkness.
She felt a series of gentle tugs on her scalp, and frowned. “What are you doing?” she asked, voice muffled, tongue heavy.
“I’m braiding your hair back,” Raoul said from behind her. “You’re going to throw up soon.”
“Oh,” said Buri. “That’s true.”
He kept braiding. “There’s a bucket and a pitcher of water. Once you throw up, rinse out your mouth and clean your face and put the bucket outside. Mix the herbs from the packet in the rest of the water and drink it. It’ll taste terrible, but it will save you in the morning. Don’t forget to get undressed and take off your boots before you go to sleep.” He finished the braid, tied it off, and tucked it down the back of her shirt. Then he turned her around and gently pulled her hands away from her face. He took her chin in one hand. “I have a lot of experience with this, if you remember.”
She would have nodded, but her head felt too loosely attached to her neck. It was nice to just look at his dark eyes, anyway.
He rubbed his thumb along her jaw and kissed her forehead. “I adore you, Buri,” he said, deep voice quiet. “We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
He got up and left, which was good, because sometimes Raoul made her just as dizzy as alcohol did, if she was being drunk-honest with herself. Then her stomach rolled and she went to the bucket and threw everything up.
She rinsed out her mouth, cleaned her face, put the bucket outside, drank the terrible-tasting herb water, took her boots off, and undressed before she went to sleep.
The next morning after breakfast, once the Riders and the Own had their assignments for the day, Buri looked for Raoul. The herbs he’d given her had saved her from a raging hangover, and given her an acceptable appetite.
She caught his eye across the camp, and tilted her head slightly. He nodded, and after a moment trailed her through the woods into a small clearing clustered with boulders. She took one, and he took another.
They sat silently for a few moments, and then Raoul asked: “how are you feeling?”
“Fine, I think,” she said.
“It’s all right to not be,” he said gently. She sighed.
“Raoul, the alternative for me is rage, and that’s not good for anyone.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’ve spent so long being angry. I was so happy to not be angry any more. I don’t want to start again.”
“I understand,” he said, and they were quiet again.
Then he began, “the letter said —“ but she cut him off, remembering.
“Wait. That’s right. You read the letter. You can read K’mir?”
“You can speak it, too, can’t you,” she said, accusingly.
His mouth twitched, and then in K’mir he said: yes.
Her eyes went wide. “Why have we never talked about this?”
“I started learning because you said didn’t have anyone to talk to,” he said. “All those years ago. But by the time I was halfway decent at it, your Common was flawless, and you had Onua, and…” he trailed off. “So I’ve just saved it.”
“ ‘Saved it,’ ” grumbled Buri. “Now I really have to watch my tongue around you.”
“Please don’t,” he said, sincerely. “I love hearing you say all the things I wish I could.”
He cleared his throat. “The letter said,” he said again, “that they’ll save what they can from what’s left, and that clan members can come back and retrieve any objects that might have belonged to their families.” He held her eyes. “If that’s a trip you want to make, I’ll go with you.”
His face was open and honest. Buri felt her heart squeeze, and didn’t trust herself to speak.
“I don’t want to,” she said at last. “I’ve lived long enough in the past. I can let it go.”
He nodded. “If you change your mind, just tell me.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
You’re welcome, he said in K’mir, and then, bless him, looked away while she wiped her eyes.
After she’d calmed down again, Buri rested back against the warm stone and closed her eyes. Her hair was still in the braid Raoul had made the night before. Then she thought of something. “They’re all going to think we’re sleeping together, aren’t they,” she said dryly.
Raoul snorted. “I was in your tent for less than ten minutes. That conclusion’s an insult to my stamina. And anyway,” he said, leaning back and stretching out his legs, “you’re too good for me.”
She opened one eye and looked at him. The sunlight slanted across his face. “I’m not too good for you,” she said. “You’re too big for me.”
Raoul grinned wickedly, eyes sparkling, and opened his mouth —
— and then closed it again and looked away, blushing faintly.
“What?” she said, opening both eyes and sitting up.
He shook his head.
“You were about to say something filthy,” she said, delighted.
He pressed his lips together and tried not to smile.
“What was it?” she demanded.
He cut her a look. “Guess.”
She already knew what the joke was, but she wanted him to say it, to hear something lewd and sexual out of him, to watch his control slip. She’d always known he wasn’t all chivalry and duty. She looked closely at him, and he sighed.
“Stop reading my mind, woman,” he rumbled finally.
“Never,” said Buri, grinning, feeling victorious. “Especially not now that I know it’s dirty.”
“Fine. But don’t tell anyone. I have a reputation to uphold."
She thought about mouth and hands and made her come twice. “Raoul,” she said slowly, “do you know your own reputation?”
He looked at her, and parsed what she was saying. His smile was dark. “I’ve been discreet.”
“So have I,” she pointed out. “But I know you know things about me.”
His eyes glittered. “I do.”
She leaned forward. They were in it, now. “So —“
There was a sudden rustle of leaves and then the third son of Fief Hannalof, who had joined the Own two months before, broke into the clearing holding hands with one of Buri’s trainees.
Raoul and Buri turned. “Oh,” gasped the trainee. The youngsters immediately let go of each other.
“Occupied,” said Raoul, mildly.
“Just building camaraderie, sir,” squeaked the Hannalof boy.
“Of course,” said Raoul easily. He unfolded himself to standing. Buri took his cue and followed suit. “That’s the assignment, isn’t it? We were just leaving, anyway.”
Buri hid her grin as they passed the two, who stood petrified at being caught. “They always look like we’re going to write home to their mothers,” Raoul murmured as they approached the camp again.
“Always,” sighed Buri.
“As if you and I have the time to sully any reputations besides each other’s,” he said, mock-exasperated, and Buri laughed.
Years passed. Their joint command during the Immortals War was written up as a training example, and Jon gave Raoul Malorie’s Peak as a reward for it. (He asked Buri if she wanted a fief, and she told him the day she became of some rock in Tortall was the day they buried her under one. “He was trying to be nice,” Thayet said reproachfully.) They incurred royal wrath by skipping formal events with shocking regularity, mostly to ride through the Royal Forest or play chess. Once in a while his control would slip and he’d pin her with the smoky look he’d first given her the night he came to talk about Qasim. She’d hold it, letting its delicious heat seep into her, for the few seconds before he’d catch himself and look away again. They never talked about it.
He also summoned her for all the best fights. Like this one: a band of marauding centaurs, pillaging through the Royal Forest. They’d set the village of Haresfield on fire and were on the run. She’d gotten a note from him that read: two Rider Groups if you could spare them, and you, if you can spare yourself. I want you to meet Kel.
Of course — Keladry of Mindelan, Raoul’s new squire. Buri picked two Groups, including Evin’s. They were on the road by dawn.
Raoul’s eyes lit up when she walked into the council tent that afternoon. He gave her a quick nod, and introduced her to the centaurs who would help them with the hunt. She already knew the other men in the tent: Raoul’s second Flyn, of course, and a young sergeant named Domitan. Qasim was in Third Company now as well, but, bless him, never once treated her as anything other than a perfect stranger.
Raoul talked the group through an outline of the situation, unrolling a map of Haresfield and its area on a long table. Partway through, a very tall young woman entered the tent with a carefully balanced water service. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen, but she cleared Buri by a head and then some. She served the group with more quiet and grace than someone her size and age should have had. Then she stood silently behind Raoul, hands clasped behind her back.
Raoul finished his outline and looked across the map at Buri. “Thoughts?”
Her eyes flicked over the region. There was a little town called Owlshollow a few miles away that they might hit, a merchant caravan in between… she tapped one route on the map and glanced up at Raoul, flashing a hand signal: post a Group there?
He shrugged. Maybe, but — she followed the jut of his chin towards a river with two bridges. Oh. Block one off and siphon the bandits into the valley. She rose her eyebrows and shook her head, eyes flicking to Evin and his seconds: she’d only brought two Groups, not enough to sweep the whole area.
Raoul tilted his head towards Dom. All right, she could take Dom’s squad. Fine. “Clank clank,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. He grinned, then traced the line of the river further upstream —
“All right,” Flyn cut in brusquely. “My lord, Commander Tourakom, if you don’t loop the rest of us in, we’ll be here all day.”
Raoul straightened, looking a little surprised, and Buri blinked. Behind her, Evin heaved a sigh. “It’s funny when they don’t even realize they’re doing it,” he announced to no one in particular.
“Doing —“ said Buri.
“The talking-without-talking thing. Didn’t Alanna chew you out for it last year?”
Raoul rubbed a hand over his face. “Yes, yes, she did. Sorry. Forgot. Flyn, let’s get a group of men to stop up the southernmost bridge on the river. That’ll force the bandits into the valley. Dom, you’re with Buri.”
“Silence the tack on your squad’s mounts,” she told the sergeant. “We’re not a marching band. You, Evin, and Aline will do a sweep.”
The centaurs offered to go with Aline’s group, and the rest of the meeting dissolved into a flurry of logistics. The young woman behind Raoul listened intently, hazel eyes tracking each speaker. She made eye contact with Buri only briefly. Buri gave her a nod, and was rewarded with the tiniest of smiles.
After they’d made a plan of action, the group disbanded. The young woman silently cleared cups and pitcher, and disappeared, leaving Raoul and Buri alone in the tent.
Raoul looked at her hopefully. “So? What’d you think?”
She grinned at him, touched by his excitement about his squire. “Well, I’m appalled that you made her wear that vile Goldenlake green —“ he rolled his eyes — “and how have you already managed to teach the lesson about being both bigger than everyone else and quieter than everyone else?”
“She came pre-made with that one. I think it’s the Yamani training. And don’t be jealous. Just because you’re short and noisy —“
She interrupted him with a rude gesture. “I’ll give you short —“
She could see the comeback on the tip of his tongue, but then he paused. She took his cue and went silent. Outside the tent she heard Dom’s voice, friendly as always: “… pretty often. Usually Flyn or Evin will call them on it if they’re around.”
“Or Alanna?” said a younger, quieter voice.
“Or Alanna, but she didn’t do it as nicely as Flyn did today — shouted at both of them in the middle of a meeting that hand signals were one thing, but for the sake of politeness they should at least pretend they can’t read each other’s minds.” Dom laughed. “Anyway, you eventually learn to fill in what they’re not saying, but let me tell you, it wreaks havoc with reports. I once had…”
As Dom’s voice faded, Raoul slung a heavy arm around Buri’s shoulders with a grin. She wrapped one around his waist, or at least as far as she could make it.
He looked down at her. His eyes were twinkling with affection. “So we read each other’s minds, huh?”
She snorted. “Sure thing. Tell me what I’m thinking.”
“That you adore me, but also I’m a… something horribly insulting in K’mir.”
Buri elbowed him in the ribs. He wasn’t wrong.
Raoul wrote about Kel the same exultant way George Cooper had written about his children when they were small, so Buri was kept well apprised of his squire’s progress: she got kicked in the ribs by a centaur and still killed him! She rescued a little girl! She was taking care of a griffin! She jousted with Raoul! (Buri rolled her eyes — of course Raoul would find the baby version of himself, all committed to chivalry and service, and find great joy in knocking her into the mud.) Then she started winning jousts. She was making him lots of money; Raoul promised to take Buri to dinner on it.
Buri would have liked Kel regardless of these accomplishments. The girl kept her head down and her eyes open. She worked hard, fought clean, and her sense of duty was sweet, just like Raoul’s. She was impractically idealistic like him, too, but Buri could forgive that. Buri would give Kel blanket forgiveness for most anything, to be honest, because over Midwinter her second year of squiredom she brought Buri a wonderful gift: it was a pitiful note from Raoul begging her to come with him to his great-aunt’s holiday party.
Even unflappable Kel couldn’t hide her grin as Buri cackled. “The man’s the size of a palace wall and he wants my protection? Ha. Tell him I’ll go. And tell him I’ll hold it over him for the rest of his life.”
Buri had heard Raoul’s laments about his family before. Even though skirts weren’t her favorite, she dressed to save both of them an earful, in a midnight-blue gown with a gold overdress. Raoul grinned when he saw her. “What, no crossbow slung over your back?” he asked, in mock surprise.
“Knife strapped to my thigh,” she shot back, deadpan.
He nodded seriously, and opened the door to his great-aunt’s carriage, sent to the palace to fetch them after too many years of Raoul claiming he couldn’t possibly get through the snow on horseback. “Good. You may need it.”
The evening was an unmitigated disaster. Buri was subjected to a litany of comments on her skin, her hair, the shape of her eyes, her “tribal” background, how Jonathan ever managed to tame Thayet. Raoul got questions on his clothes, his income, his tearing around the countryside with commoners, and had he really — really — taken that Mindelan merchant girl as a squire? But surely he didn’t have enough time to keep an eye on her… behavior with all those soldiers...
Buri swallowed her wine. Then she took the glass they’d insisted on filling for Raoul, even though he’d been sober for well over a decade and his family knew it. He watched her drink it, eyes very dark. When she set the glass down again, he took her hand and pressed her palm to his mouth. Buri felt heat shimmer through her.
The aunts were harpies. The uncles were dull. The cousins were obsequious, and shockingly conservative. One implied that Kel had slept with Wyldon, and might make similar advances on Raoul. Buri felt Raoul’s anger rising. She seized his hand under the table. He looked at her sharply, and whatever he saw made him give her a tiny nod of assent.
Buri turned her head to the cousin and said something pointed, and the cousin said something pointed back, and Buri was not Hau Ma clan for nothing and so knew exactly what twist-the-knife comment to say next, and the room got very tense until Great-Aunt Sebila, nearly completely deaf, asked if anyone had any ideas on who the youngest Disart daughter could marry. Raoul smiled and said nothing. He was still holding her hand under the table, and stroked his thumb over her knuckles in a way that made her feel light-headed. He didn’t let go until the meal was done and they could make their excuses and leave.
They were silent in the carriage back to the palace, but Raoul kept his hand on her knee the whole way, and Buri couldn’t think about anything else.
Outside his rooms, they paused. “Thank you for coming,” said Raoul very quietly. “And thank the gods it’s just once a year. They’re always just as bad as I think they will be.”
Buri shook her head. “They don’t deserve you.”
He looked down at her. “Well, you can’t choose family.”
“Yes, you can,” snapped Buri. “I did. Get rid of this one. They don’t deserve you.” She glared up at him fiercely. “Not for a single minute.” She switched into K’mir, starting to really lose her temper now. A pack of straggly, ungrateful, disrespectful, power-grubbing little —
Raoul took her face in his hands and bent down and kissed her.
His lips were warm against hers and his hands were strong and clean and heavy. Buri opened her mouth under his and he took the invitation, knowing exactly what to do, sliding a hand to cradle the back of her head. Of course he’d be good at this. He was good at everything else. He stroked the other hand down along the curve of her breast to her waist and deepened the kiss and she had to order her knees to not give out.
Then he drew back. “I’m sorry,” he said roughly. “Oh, Buri, I should have asked first —“
She caught her breath. “Ask me,” she demanded, and gripped his shirt. “Ask. I’ll say yes to anything.”
He shook his head slowly, eyes glittering. “You shouldn’t open that door,” he said, voice husky. “You don’t know what’s on the other side of it.”
“I think I do. You have a reputation.”
He drew her to him, one hand on her lower back, and being against him was enough to make her dizzy. He pressed his lips to her forehead. “So tell me what you’ve heard,” he murmured against her skin.
Buri tilted her face up, wanting to kiss his mouth again. “Good hands. Big everywhere. A little rough.”
He chuckled darkly. “Just a little?”
Buri felt a new wave of heat almost take her out. “More, when it’s necessary,” she managed to say.
One of his hands fisted in her hair. “Should I tell you what I’ve heard about you?”
“That you make being rough necessary,” he said. His voice was like gravel. He rubbed his thumb across her lower lip. “And that you have a filthy mouth.”
Buri smiled, and darted her tongue out to his fingertips.
Raoul exhaled and swore very quietly. “Buri,” he said, voice low and a little desperate.
“Ask me,” she ordered.
He gripped the back of her neck. For the love of the gods, woman, he said in K’mir, please come inside and let me ruin you.
She rolled her hips against his and said: yes.
Raoul was big, with the blessed quality of knowing his own strength at forty that he hadn't at twenty, and once they were in his bed he was all over her. Hands in her hair, on her throat, her hipbones, strong grip under one thigh, mouth between her legs, Chavi save her, that felt — she twined her hands in his dark hair and held on for dear life.
Her brain was scrambling both her languages and a smattering of curses she knew from Scanran, from Bazhir, even some Carthaki. When Raoul lifted his head from between her thighs he gave as good as he got, with a filthy mouth to match hers. He bit his way up to her throat, murmuring fragments against her skin: split you in two — "won't be able to ride for a week —" scream for me —
"I don't scream," she retorted, hiking up her knee to whack him in his side.
He caught her knee and pushed, spreading her legs. Too late she remembered the other rumors she'd heard, years ago. "Is that a challenge?" he asked, eyes dancing.
“Try me, you—“ and she called him something terrible that made him laugh before he bore down on her.
It was good. It was so good. His force made her bones shake and his size made her eyes water. But she sank her teeth into his shoulders and seized the back of his neck and held on through the onslaught. Don't you dare fucking stop, oh, gods — and when the pressure built to the point she couldn’t hold back, she gasped “Raoul, I’m going to —“ and he got his hand over her mouth just in time before she came.
"How long have we known each other?" Her voice felt rusty.
Raoul was sprawled next to her on the bed. He blinked at the ceiling and cracked his neck. "Twenty years?"
"Twenty years," Buri sighed. She felt like steam was rising off both of them. "We could have been doing this for twenty years."
He chuckled. "You're forgetting I was a drunk idiot for a while."
"Fifteen-ish years, then," she amended. "But still."
He turned his head to look at her. In their earlier haste they hadn't bothered to light a fire, but Raoul had lit a brace of candles when he'd changed the bedclothes afterwards. The light played over his features now. "I think," he told her solemnly, "that we should make up for lost time."
Buri grinned. She rolled over and draped her arm over his chest. "Yes, please," she said sleepily. "But not now. I need recovery sleep."
He covered her hand with hers. "As much as you want," he murmured. Buri's eyes flickered shut. The last thing she remembered before sleep really did overtake her was Raoul saying something so quietly she couldn't even tell what language it was in, and shifting to slide her into the curve of his arms.
Just before dawn a crash and shouts from the other side of the wall sent them both flying out of bed. Battle training had them alert in an instant. Raoul tossed her sheathed knife to her from where he'd dropped it after taking it off of her thigh, garter and all, hours earlier. She hiked a blanket around her shoulders and was a breath behind him as he slammed the hilt of his sword on the locked door to Kel’s room to break it open.
Kel was standing barefoot in her nightshirt as her dog and birds fought back a well-dressed, blond-haired man and two other nobles. Kel already leveled her glaive at the humans. Smart girl, thought Buri. Raoul seized the man one-handed and slammed him against the wall.
Then Buri realized she knew who the man was, although she hadn’t seen him in years.
Burchard of Stone Mountain was spitting with anger. He was ranting at Kel so foully that Raoul leaned on his windpipe to make him shut up. “You forget yourself, my lord,” he said, icy calm and formal. “If you attempt to carry out your threats, I will break your jaw.”
“He is distraught,” the woman next to him cried. “My lord, please. Our son is dead.”
Kel, usually so composed, looked horrified. “Joren?” she whispered. Raoul’s eyes widened, just a fraction, and he eased the pressure on Burchard’s neck. Burchard took the opportunity to tel Kel that she was a bitch and a trollop and a harlot and a whore and a slut. Buri was unimpressed with his vocabulary. Those were all just synonyms. Raoul, suppressed rage smoking off his skin, shut him up again.
“My squire isn’t responsible for your son’s death,” he said tightly. “I make allowance for your grief, and won’t ask to settle this insult by combat. Get out.”
He let the man drop to the floor. His companions gathered him up and pulled him away. Kel shut the door after them, trembling.
Raoul sent her to fetch something to drink — juice or water, no liquor. Buri followed him back into his rooms after she’d gone.
“Did you really just make her run an errand?” she asked.
“It calms her down, to be useful,” said Raoul. He carefully put away his sword and then rubbed his face with both hands. “Mithros. What a mess.”
Buri sat on his bed as he hunted for a shirt and pants and put them on. “Maybe Lord Fartface wasn’t all wrong,” she pointed out. “Kel’s brought out a side of some of these men they’ve never shown in public. Maybe the gods are keeping an eye on what happens around her.”
“I am not equipped to have a god-touched squire,” sighed Raoul. “I’ve only just gotten the hang of a normal one.”
Buri chuckled. He glanced at her, smiling. Then he turned to face her and blinked. He looked like he’d only just remembered why she was in his bedroom.
She did like being able to see his mind work.
“Forget I was here?” she asked, grinning.
“Yes,” he said, wonderingly, then he shook his head and said “I mean, no,” and then said “Wait. Buri.“
“Come here,” she said, and he did, smoothing his hands over the blanket that covered her shoulders and bending to kiss her. He really did know how to kiss. Buri sat up straighter and slid her hands into his hair. He wrapped one big hand, the same hand that had just held his sword, very gently around her throat and she thought yes —
They heard a door in the next room open again.
Raoul pulled away and rested his forehead against hers for a moment. Then he sighed and said, very quietly, “don’t go anywhere,” and went out into his study.
She could hear soft clinks as Kel set out a pitcher and cups. She couldn’t make out what Raoul was saying, but his tone was gentle. Kel was too polite to interrupt, but during a pause Buri heard her voice, hesitant. Raoul cut her off, firm but kind. After a few more minutes of conversation Buri heard the door to Kel’s rooms close. “I’ll have the lock fixed in the morning,” she heard him call, and then he appeared in the bedroom doorway.
“How is she?” asked Buri.
“She’ll be fine,” he answered. “I told her if I catch her blaming herself I’d find an unsolvable mathematics problem and make her do it.”
Buri smiled, and then the air shifted between them. There was a long moment where he just looked her over, eyes warm and dark and appreciative.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” he said softly.
“I should leave,” she told him, rueful.
“You should,” he agreed.
“If I go now,” she continued, watching him pull off his shirt and come towards the bed, “we’ll have deniability for whatever rumor the Stone Mountains start to spread.”
“That’s true,” said Raoul, and knelt at her feet.
“The Riders won’t be awake for —“ he pulled her hips to the edge of the bed and spread her thighs, pushing the blanket off of her; “oh,” said Buri, and slid her legs over his warm, broad shoulders — “the Riders won’t be awake for another hour —“
“Mm,” said Raoul gravely, and got his mouth on her, and then neither of them spoke for a while.
Afterwards, when she was limp and trying to catch her breath, he stood over her and splayed one hand across the muscles of her stomach. “Now you can leave,” he said, and smiled.
They had rules. Nothing in public — no physical contact, no flirting, nothing. Don’t send notes, don’t add anything personal to letters; too much of the correspondence between the Commander of the King’s Own and the Commander of the Queen’s Riders could end up as public record. Put work first. Tell no one. And try not to scandalize Kel.
Their precautions worked even better than she would have predicted. Despite the venom of the Stone Mountain family, no one took the gossip about Buri’s Midwinter whereabouts seriously.
“Does George Cooper know what a good liar your Kel is?” demanded Buri as she shut the door to Raoul’s study behind her one afternoon.
Raoul, to her surprise, scowled. “He doesn’t know, and I’d like to keep it that way. He always wants all the good people. He’s been sniffing around Dom for months. Why? What’d she do?”
“One of the Rider trainees cornered her in the stables asking if she knew anything about us. She gave him the most convincing blank stare I have ever seen and told him he must be smoking poppy.” She sat on his desk. “I didn’t think that girl had a dishonest bone in her body.”
Raoul smiled. “She doesn’t. She just has some very loyal ones. I don’t deserve her.” He reached for Buri. “We don’t deserve her.”
“I deserve her,” retorted Buri, and smacked his hands. “She and I deserve each other. We both put up with you.”
For that comment, Raoul locked the door and made Buri put up with him, right on the desk, for the next half hour.
Against all odds, the tall, whip-thin Evin Larse had made an excellent deputy commander. He was given to theatrics and insolence and affairs with married people; but he was smart and pragmatic and loyal and one of the few people in Buri’s life who wasn’t even remotely intimidated by her.
Six months into whatever it was she and Raoul were doing, Evin ambled up as she was checking over the ponies and leaned against the fence of the pen. He was chewing a toothpick and looking nonchalant. Buri eyed him suspiciously. He’d been working for her since he was fifteen; she knew when he was up to something. “What?” she demanded.
Evin turned his blue eyes to the sky. “Do you have anything to tell me? Anything I should know about?”
She paused in her inspection of a sweet gray mare. “No.”
“Hm.” Evin chewed on his toothpick some more. Buri ran her hands over the mare’s nose and moved on to a sturdy roan.
“Is that because there’s nothing I should know about, or because there’s something I shouldn’t know about?”
Smart. Too smart.
“Aren’t those the same thing?”
Evin took the toothpick out of his mouth. “Come on, Buri.”
She sighed inwardly. “The latter,” she said, because she owed him that much, at least.
“Does it have anything to do with how happy you’ve been lately?”
She rose her eyebrows at him. “Have I been happy?”
He looked at her like she was an idiot. “You haven’t knocked a single one of the new trainees out of their saddles this spring. I asked you for a day off two weeks ago and you gave it to me.” He shook his head. “Usually at the first dinner of each season you get up on a chair in the mess hall and tell everyone some heinous, scarring nonsense about how they’re going to be slaughtered in their beds if they don’t work hard and this year you just… left.”
“It’s not nonsense,” retorted Buri automatically, checking the pony’s hooves, but yes. She had left that dinner. She’d left that dinner because she’d crossed paths with Raoul on her way to the mess hall. He’d given her a hot, wordless look that put her in a turned-on haze for the rest of the evening. When she’d finally made it to his rooms he’d shoved her up against the wall and told her everything he’d thought about while waiting for her, in explicit detail, switching between languages, until she climbed him.
“You’re either in the early stages of brain-rot or you’re having the best sex of your life,” said Evin, and Buri was so glad her back was to him so he couldn’t see her face. “Shall I tell you which one I’m betting on?”
Well, that she could quash. She turned around. “If I hear of any bets about this, you will never have a day off again as long as you live.”
He raised his hands, grinning, and she went back to the ponies.
They were quiet for a while, and then he said: “I learned a lot, during that year you let me work for George Cooper.”
She glared at him. “Does that mean you’re spying on me?”
“Gods, no!” He tossed his toothpick into the grass. “It means I can lie for you.”
She looked at him for a long moment. He pushed his floppy blond hair off his face and looked back at her, steadily. She felt a sudden wave of affection for him.
“Tell everyone I’m in the early stages of brain-rot,” she said at last, and he laughed.
Evin and Kel were the front line of a small group of people who lied for them, or gave them the gift of saying nothing at all, for the next two years. Onua saw a bite mark on her shoulder one day in the baths, opened her mouth, caught the look on Buri’s face, and shut up again with a grin. Raoul said Domitan of Masbolle had seen him leaving the Rider camp at dawn during a joint mission, silently saluted him, and never breathed another word. Lerant of Eldorne loudly distracted the Lord Seneschal one afternoon outside Raoul’s tent during the Grand Progress and gave Buri enough time to lace up her shirt. Miri Fisher sat next to Buri in the Rider’s mess and deflected all questions about her whereabouts the prior evening by droning on about what an excellent meditation session they’d had.
And one night, on an expedition near Lake Naxen to root out a colony of spidrens, Kel and Qasim ibn Zirhud discreetly managed to shepherd everyone to their beds to leave Raoul and Buri alone on either side of the camp’s last fire.
“We have good friends,” said Buri quietly.
“We do,” Raoul answered, equally quiet. The firelight flickered on his face.
The night was uncannily silent. The spidrens had already torn through this swath of the Royal Forest, eating or scaring to death the wildlife that would normally be rustling and hunting and calling in the dark. The trees were unmoving in the still air. Once they put out the fire, the only sound in camp would be Flyn’s snores.
But Raoul was across the fire with the dangerous look he gave her when he wanted her the most.
She met his gaze for a long moment, weighing the risk.
“I make too much noise,” she muttered finally.
His eyes got darker, like a predator’s. “I’ll keep you quiet,” he said, low.
Buri let her breath out and scowled. I can’t believe what I let you do to me, sometimes, she said in K’mir, and his smile was deadly.
They put out the fire and went to his tent. As soon as the flap was closed, he took her by the hips and pulled her close.
“You know I love it when you talk,” he murmured against her ear. “But not tonight. Don’t make a sound.”
In the pitch black he was invisible, but they’d been doing this for long enough that they knew each other by touch. He got them both undressed with military efficiency and bore her down. When his hand slipped between her thighs, she inhaled sharply, and then caught it as his other hand went over her mouth.
“Hush,” he ordered, barely audible. “And hold still.”
Gods, he knew how to take her apart. In minutes she was shaking and swamped with desire. She forced herself to be quiet. When he moved to shift his weight, bracing his broad forearms on either side of her, she knew to put her own hand over her mouth. She felt, rather than saw, him smile. “Good,” he whispered, and sank into her.
She could have stayed like that forever. She was floating in the dark with no anchor but the intense pleasure of Raoul above and inside her. The bruising strength of his hands, the sound of his carefully controlled breath, his hard weight deep between her thighs, his mouth on her throat — it was like there was nothing else in the world besides him. It was almost too much. Then it was too much. He was tender and wicked and brutal and sweet and relentless and the only thing that mattered and he was going to make her come, he was going to make her come so hard she was going to pass out —
She took a deep breath, clamped both hands over her mouth, and went to pieces.
Afterwards they lay side by side, silent. Buri was shaking. She found his hand and held it, and she could feel him trembling, too.
When her breath had settled, she pulled her clothes back on, slipped out of his tent, walked to hers on weak legs, and collapsed into sleep.
The next morning, he was perfectly normal. Joking easily with Dom and Flyn, keeping one eye on Kel as she helped Lerant pack up the camp, calling out instructions to his men. His eyes passed over Buri in an almost friendly way. Like nothing had happened.
They found themselves side-by-side as he saddled his big warhorse and Buri maneuvered her pony, and for a moment they worked in silence. Then she broke one of their rules and said, under her breath: “Who are you?”
He paused, and looked at her. For a moment his whole demeanor shifted into the man he’d been the night before; and then, in a flash, it disappeared. He smiled, and stroked her hand quickly, and said in K’mir: I’m yours.
That fall, Buri got another one of Raoul’s letters. In the past four years there had never been a letter from him that didn’t mention Kel in one way or another, with affection and pride she knew he carefully tempered so as not to cross the formal boundaries Kel had so clearly set for her own protection. Buri knew he’d taken her on after decades without a squire not because Alanna had suggested it, but because he’d been keeping an eye on her, in the way he always kept an eye on anyone left out of the fold. She had a memory of him flipping a knife idly, talking about the Mindelan girl, how she could handle a horse, how she’d gone after her maid despite the risk of repeating all four years as a page, now that was a strong sense of justice…
The letter said: we’ll ride to Corus next month for Kel’s Ordeal. I suppose the kingdom has more use for her than I do but — a few words were scribbled out, and he’d gone with it’s still hard to see her go.
Buri made plans to be at the palace for Midwinter.
As was custom, Raoul instructed Kel on the night of her Ordeal, then left her in the chapel. Buri had let herself into his rooms to wait. He gave her a small, wan smile as he came in and shut the door behind him. He didn’t say anything, but sat at her feet and rested his back against her shins.
She slid one hand into his hair. “Are you going to sit up all night?”
He shook his head.
“You’re just going to lie awake in bed and hope I don’t notice.”
They sat for a moment longer watching the fire, and then Buri nudged him to stand. He did, obediently, and followed her into the bedroom. They both undressed, and when they slid under the covers Raoul pillowed his head on her chest and wrapped a piece of her hair around his fingers.
She watched his head rise and fall as she breathed in and out.
“She’ll be fine,” Buri told him. She wasn’t saying it to soothe him. She was saying it because it was true. The realm needed Kel. The Chamber was supposed to know what the realm needed. So it would send out Kel in one piece.
It would send her out, because the realm needed Raoul too; and if Kel didn’t survive, Raoul would never be the same.
Because they could read each other’s minds, Raoul nodded his head.
Buri napped during the night; she wasn’t sure if Raoul did. Where he usually sprawled in his sleep he stayed curled tight to her. Before dawn she felt him shift, and opened her eyes. Together they dressed again and walked to the chapel of the Ordeal.
It was packed and silent. Nealan of Queenscove was up front, next to a young Yamani woman. When he turned his head Buri saw his profile, weary and focused, and for the first time he reminded her of his father. Kel’s other year-mates, all done with their Ordeals, were scattered throughout the pews, staring at the door to the Chamber or at the floor. There were representatives of the Yamani delegation, friends of Kel’s or of her parents. Ilane and Piers sat holding hands. Even Prince Roald was there, discreetly in the back. Buri budged him over and sat next to him. Raoul went to the front.
No one breathed as the chamber door finally, slowly, opened.
Inside, in the shadows, Keladry was standing the way she’d stood when Buri first met her. Feet apart, firmly planted, hands behind her back, head tipped down. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t coming out — why wasn’t she? — it was taking too long —
The sun’s first rays touched the walls of the chapel, and Kel let her arms fall to her sides and lifted her head and walked out into the dawn.
There was a bit of a rush afterwards, but Buri and Prince Roald stayed put. The prince released his breath and looked at her sideways with a weak smile. She squeezed his knee. Roald had always been her favorite nephew, more sensible and patient than his father; she knew he had Kel factored into his future cabinet plans. Up near the altar Raoul wrapped a blanket around Kel’s shoulders and asked her something low and quick. She gave him a decisive nod. Raoul relaxed and released her into the hold of her parents. They swept Kel out of the chapel with Neal and the young Yamani woman behind them. Kel had sweat through her thin shirt, but her eyes, long-lashed in her young, pale face, were glittering with purpose.
Buri stood to let the prince slip out, and waited for Raoul.
He joined her, wordless and smiling. As soon as they were back in his rooms he sat down, put his face in his hands, and burst into tears.
After Kel’s knighting, Raoul told Flyn to tell the king that he’d gone away on family business and Buri told Evin to tell Thayet whatever lie he thought she’d believe and they went to Malorie’s Peak.
(It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell Thayet about Raoul. But Thayet had her own opinion of Raoul, formed by what had happened in the Own’s stables twenty years ago, and by a subsequent two decades of Raoul refusing to accord Jonathan even the barest shred of royal dignity, which Buri thought privately was good for Jonathan but which Thayet considered a provocation. Buri would wait. Thayet would find out soon, and they’d deal with it then.)
They had seven long days days of preparing battle plans for the coming Scanran conflict, riding in the hills, swimming in the lake, reading, playing chess, and having outrageous amounts of sex. She hadn’t ever minded the kind of sex they’d had, but so much of it had been fast and rough in stolen moments, and it was unspeakably luxurious to be teasing and slow.
On the last day at Malorie’s Peak, Buri was sunk fully into the bathtub with her eyes closed. The door to the bath chamber opened, and even without opening her eyes she could feel Raoul look at her and smile.
His lips touched her forehead, and then she heard him settle on the floor next to the tub and stretch out his legs with a sigh. For a long time they were quiet.
Then he took a breath, and Buri knew exactly what would come next.
“Don’t,” she said.
She opened her eyes.
“We’re about to go to war, Raoul.”
“This is the worst possible time to say it.”
“I think there’s no better time.”
She reached for him with one sudsy hand. He took it.
She thought of her mother, who was never given to expressions of affection, taking her by the shoulders and saying: Take Thayet. Go now. I love you. It had been the day she died.
She looked at Raoul and held his gaze and thought: please don’t.
His eyes softened. “All right,” he said gently.
They were quiet again. Buri closed her eyes and listened to the birds outside the open window. Raoul held her hand.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter if I say it,” he murmured, after a while. “What matters is that you know that I – you know.”
Her voice was stuck in her throat, but she swallowed and after a moment said, “I know, you dolt.”
He chuckled, and kissed her, and left her to finish her bath.
That night, next to him in bed, Buri blinked her suddenly burning eyes. They were going to war. They’d been going to war all their lives, but this one was different. Killing machines with razor arms and legs would meet them on the battlefields. The Scanran king had a penchant for skinning men alive. Raoul would be sent to the northern border with the Own. She would go west with the Riders, to protect the supply chain and the coasts. And if —
She sat up, heart pounding. He was already almost asleep. “Raoul.”
His eyes fluttered open. “What is it?”
“I —“ and she couldn’t, she couldn’t finish it, but what if he —
“Oh,” he said, and reached up to take her cheek gently in one big hand. “It’s all right. You don’t have to say it. I know, too.”
She took his hand and pressed it to her heart.
Am I that obvious? she asked in K’mir.
He smiled at her, dark eyes over-bright. Just to me.
Can you really read my mind? she demanded.
A corner of his mouth twitched. “I wouldn’t want to. It’s filthy in there.”
“You should talk,” she retorted, around the lump in her throat.
“You wouldn’t have me any other way,” he said, and pulled her down to him.
On their return to Corus, Thayet found them one morning along the fence of the practice yards, watching the Own and the Riders go through a joint training exercise. The queen hoisted herself up to sit between them on the fence. For a while she was silent.
Then she said, very blandly, “how was that strategy retreat Evin told me about?”
“Productive,” Buri answered, equally bland.
Thayet narrowed her eyes and looked at her. Buri knew better than to look back, but she could feel when Thayet swiveled her head to look at Raoul. “Not reproductive, I hope?” said the queen, clipped — and oh, the jig was up.
“Not for lack of trying, your majesty,” Raoul answered, squinting at the riders in the distance. “Buri, what do you think of First Company’s new corporal Dermot?”
“He’s joking. We used protection. We don’t want children. I think he could work on his archery,” commented Buri, at the same time that the queen put her face in her hands and muttered “for the sake of the Gods —“
They were quiet for a time to let Thayet process.
Eventually she lifted her carefully re-composed face from her hands.
If he hurts you, I will disembowel him and offer his intestines to the Horse Lords, she told Buri in K’mir.
“He speaks K’mir,” said Buri.
Raoul said, “I didn’t think horses liked intestines.”
I promise they will like yours very much, Thayet told him, queenly, and hopped down off the fence.
The war began in earnest. Raoul took the Own and went north. Buri took the Riders and went west.
The only benefit to riding west was that west meant Pirate’s Swoop; and Pirate’s Swoop meant George and Alanna.
Besides Raoul, George and Alanna were Buri’s oldest Tortallan friends. They were an odd couple: the realm’s first lady knight and its King’s Champion, bad-tempered and god-touched and fearsomely armed and heavily Gifted and disgustingly wealthy; and her husband, an easygoing commoner who appeared to have no job in particular but who was actually in charge of every intelligence operation from the southern desert to the northern mountains, and who may or may not have once been King of the Thieves.
At Pirate’s Swoop, Buri made sure the Riders were safely camped on the walled grounds outside the heavy stone castle. Evin disappeared with George. She passed him coming out as she was going in afterward. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you ever going to officially tell me that you’re still working for the spy service on the side, or am I just expected to pretend I don’t know?”
“You’re expected to pretend you don’t know,” called George, waiting just inside the door. “Leave the poor lad alone to his double agency and come have dinner with me and my wife.”
Dinner was in the kitchen, the dining room having been given over as sleeping quarters for villagers from a hamlet that had already been hit by coastal raiders. George and Alanna’s teenage daughter Alianne breezed through to kiss Buri’s cheek and then continue on to a mysterious assignation that made her mother frown and open her mouth. But George rose his eyebrows, just slightly, and Alanna sighed and sat back in her chair and didn’t say anything.
I guess Raoul and I aren’t the only ones who read minds, Buri thought.
At the end of the meal, warmed by the hearth and the wine, Buri watched George sling an arm around Alanna’s shoulders and kiss the top of her head. She watched Alanna close her eyes and lean into him. Then she asked: “why did the two of you decide to get married?”
George grinned and tugged a lock of Alanna’s copper hair gently. “You want to tell your side first, lass, or shall I tell mine?”
“You tell yours.” Alanna was still resting against him with her eyes closed, but she was smiling.
“Ah, well. I spent five years askin’ her and eventually she just gave up and said yes.” He glanced down at her. “Isn’t that right? I just wore you down.”
She chuckled. “That’s most of it,” she said, and opened her eyes to look up at him. “And we’re a good match. You never tried to make me anyone I wasn’t.” Her smile was rueful. “I know I’m complicated. But you can handle it.”
George looked at her for a long moment, smiling. “Well, all right,” he said at last. “If we’re goin’ to be sincere. You’ve always been a partner. You’ve never been fearful of my crooked ways. And the sex is good.”
She grinned. “Don’t make Buri blush.”
“I don’t blush,” said Buri automatically.
“We’ll see about that,” said George. “Shall we talk about what prompted you to come here in wartime askin’ questions about marriage?”
Buri blushed, and drank, and didn’t answer.
The full force of Alanna’s violet gaze could make anyone twitch, but it was nothing compared to George Cooper’s. The man’s stare was quietly infamous in the King’s inner circles for its ability to make traitors and rebels vomit up their secrets. It was a bit much to have both of them looking at her so closely. Buri picked George to glare back at, and he softened, smiling.
“Raoul’s a good man,” he said, unexpectedly. “He’s had his dark times, but you know what those were. He’s far past them now. And he loves you.”
“You do know how much he loves you, right?” Alanna asked, eyebrows raised, and Buri suddenly wondered what kinds of conversations Raoul might have had with them, about her, about this.
“I know,” she said quietly, and that was that.
They moved on to other subjects and talked for a while. Underneath the conversation was the sense of wanting to cherish the moment, likely the last quiet warm meal they’d all have for a long while. It was hard to push back the chair and stand, but the Riders would need to start early. Alanna gave her one of her usual brief-but-crushing hugs. George walked her back out through the castle.
At the doorstep, she had a sudden thought, and paused. “Please don’t tell me you’ve talked to my second about —” she waved a hand.
“Talked with Evin about you and Raoul?” George laughed. “I tried to gossip, but he told me the only thing goin’ on was that you were suffering the early stages of brain rot.”
“I’m going to promote him for that,” said Buri, and went to her tent.
They’d been based out of Pirate’s Swoop for two months, running up and down the coast to back up the navy and fend off bandits and keep order, when word came from the north: General Vanget was overwhelmed. The soldiers he’d been sent, many ex-convicts, were poor horsemen; and the rocky Scanran ground was dangerous even for experienced riders. They were losing men and mounts to twisted and broken bones and tramplings. He needed the Riders — as many as possible. Please bring them yourself. Letters are too slow for the plan we must create, he’d written curtly.
Buri brought Evin to her meetings with George, whose many secret capacities included being a spectacular military strategist. It took three days and nights to organize a plan that would divide the company of Riders to send a good two-thirds north, with Buri and Evin accompanying them, and with Buri then returning to the coasts to reassign soldiers ill-suited to border posts. Alanna would periodically appear to glance over their shoulders at charts and maps, shudder, say “I’m so glad I work alone,” and wander off again.
Once the plan was set, they left as soon as they could, and rode hard. Even so, it was well over a week before they reached the fort the army had named Mastiff.
The air was chill and gray, and the guards who let them in through the rough-hewn gates looked drawn. Evin narrowed his eyes as they dismounted.
“Something’s off,” he murmured.
She felt it, too. Forward bases in wartime were never jovial places, but there was always gallows humor, conversation, even snatches of laughter. But the mood was oddly quiet. She glanced around. “George Cooper gave you a good nose,” she told Evin. “Go find out what’s going on.”
Half an hour later, Evin found her and flashed a hand signal. She followed him around to the back of the barracks.
“There’s been some acts of treason,” he muttered.
Buri raised her eyebrows. He’d put a sarcastic spin on the word treason. “Explain.”
“Keladry of Mindelan got put in charge of a refugee settlement camp a day’s ride east. Last week, when she was here delivering reports, the Scanrans sacked it. They burned the place to the ground but took most of the refugees with them, including all the children.” Evin’s face tightened. “Wyldon sent her to bury the dead and then return here. She went, but never came back.” He glanced around. “Working theory is she’s alive and well, but that she went across the border to go after her people in defiance of orders. Duke Baird’s son and a few other young knights she’s friends with slipped out of here two days ago. And Dom’s squad went missing last night.” He smiled crookedly. “Your man is suspiciously unconcerned about their whereabouts.”
Buri crossed her arms over her chest and looked at him for a long moment. She thought of Kel, all of nineteen years old, riding alone through Scanra to save a hundred people. Young idiot, she thought, with a wave of pride. “Good,” she said. “How’s my man otherwise?”
“Ready to rip Wyldon’s head off for not wrapping her in chains and bringing her back over her horse,” said Evin. “He doesn’t like the idea of her alone in enemy territory.”
“Well, she won’t be alone for long. Dom moves fast, even if those knights don’t.”
“Even so, apparently he’s a bear right now.”
She scoffed. “Raoul? A teddy bear, more like.”
“Only you would say that,” called Evin as she left to follow a bowing porter.
As Commander of the Queen’s Riders, Buri had been given lodging in the long, low building they’d built to accommodate officers. The porter escorted her down the hallway, filling her in on meal times and when Vanget held his nightly meeting. He stopped in front of a numbered door and reached for the ring of keys on his belt.
The door directly across the hall opened.
Raoul stood in the doorway. He saw her, and his eyes lit with relief.
The porter was sorting through keys, chatting on about where she might find the storehouses if she had need of extra supplies. She held up a hand. “Thank you. I’ll actually be staying —“ she gestured at Raoul’s door — “with him.”
Raoul made an effort to keep his face straight, but she knew him well enough to see the barest flicker of surprise appear and disappear.
The porter was Wyldon-trained and didn’t miss a beat. “Of course, Commander. And shall I let anyone who needs you know to find you here?”
“Yes, please,” said Buri pleasantly, lifting her saddlebag.
She pushed past Raoul into his room and set her bag down. Behind her, he shut the door and locked it. She turned around.
“I think you just broke one of our rules,” he said.
“I think I don’t give a shit,” she said.
He wrapped both arms around her and picked her up.
She let him hold her for a while. He hid his face in her shoulder and breathed shakily in and out. She could feel his heart thump against her chest, his arms strong around her ribs.
After a while, she said: “Evin told me what happened.”
His arms tightened. “I taught her to ask for help,” he said, voice muffled.
“You taught her to not wait to do the right thing,” she reminded him. “And you sent her help. She’s going to be fine.”
He sighed. “Dom and his boys would have gone after her even if I hadn’t sent them. I just gave them official cover for when the conservatives make Jon get on his high horse and charge them all with treason.” He carried her to the bed and sat down with her in his lap, still holding her tightly. “I’m so glad you’re here. When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow,” she said. “I’m just here to deliver Evin and his squads and talk with Vanget about what’s happening on the coasts, and then I’ll go south again.”
He pulled back, and she looked him over. He looked exhausted. He gently smoothed her hair back, dark eyes tracking over her face.
“I wish —“ he started, and then stopped, looking away. They both knew wishes in wartime were pointless.
She took his face in both hands and looked at him. She thought about twenty years of friendship. Twenty years of insults and sparring and chess games and hand signals and brutal honesty and reading each other’s minds and fighting side-by-side. Inside that, three years of dizzyingly good sex and hot looks across a room that made her knees give out and the feeling, the wonderful light-and-deep feeling, that he was hers.
“When this war is done,” she said, “we’re going to get married.”
His eyes went very wide.
“We’re going to get married,” she continued, “because I love you.” She switched to K’mir. Deal?
He blinked at her, shocked.
She rapped her knuckles on the side of his head. “Raoul.”
He swallowed. “I had no idea you were going to say that,” he said, astonished.
I guess you can’t read my mind after all, then, she said.
I guess not. He switched to Common. “Are you serious?”
Yes, you great numbskull. She shifted on his lap. Please say yes so I can get up. I’ve been in the saddle for weeks and my hips are too old for this position.
“Your hips are perfect,” he said, almost automatically, running his hands down her sides, and then in K’mir he said: I mean, yes. Gods, yes. Of course, Buri — and tipped himself backwards, hauling her down on top of him, and kissed her and kissed her and kissed her until she wriggled free of his embrace and sat up.
He looked up at her, breathless, eyes damp. “I love you so much and you are the best thing that ever happened to me.”
She shook her head. “Not true. The Own is the best thing that ever happened to you. Getting sober is the best thing that ever happened to you. Kel is the best thing that ever happened to you.”
He grinned and tugged her hair. “Fine. Top four.” He tilted his head. “But you’re still the top of the top.” He switched to K’mir. I love you more than my own life. I’m going to tell you all the time. You can’t stop me any more.
“I’ll allow it.”
He held her gaze for a long moment, smiling, looking radiantly happy, and she had to look away so she wouldn’t start to cry. He took her hand and held it, running his thumb over her knuckles. Then he teased: “what, no ring for me?”
She cleared her throat and then scoffed. “Do you want to wear the big white dress, too?”
“Oh, absolutely,” he said seriously. “How else will I signify that I’ve been saving myself for our wedding night?”
“I’m fairly sure you’re not a virgin.”
He grinned, and caught her by the hips again and twisted to pull her back towards him. “Only one way to be certain of it.”
They made very certain of it, and then they went across the base to Vanget’s headquarters. Raoul wrapped his arm around her shoulders as they walked. Across the courtyard, Evin saw them and raised one eyebrow. Buri used the hand signal she’d had to invent specifically for him, which meant one word from you and I’ll cut your tongue out. He grinned.
After the meeting with Vanget, during which Wyldon’s gray eyes flicked from Buri to Raoul and back again until he seemingly reached the logical conclusion, Raoul went back to the officers’ quarters. Buri went to find Evin.
They took a walk together along the ramparts until they found a quiet stretch, and then they both stared out into the Scanran night.
“When this war is done,” Buri told her troublesome, gossipy, philandering, double-agent, beloved second, “I’m retiring and I’m making you commander.”
Evin’s eyebrows took a series of escalating trips upwards. For the first time in the years Buri had known him, he was speechless.
“The brain rot has really taken a turn for the worse, hasn’t it,” he said at last.
“Actually, I’m having the best sex of my life,” she answered. She clapped him on the shoulder, and left to sleep with Raoul.
It was not a good war. While Raoul and Vanget and Wyldon and Evin held the northern border as best they could, Buri and the Riders went up and down the coast, battling back the gangs of pirates that came ashore to pick at a weakened and distracted Tortall. She spent most of her days on horseback or in the mud. She talked to George Cooper in a mage-spelled mirror most nights, in the baron’s capacity as military strategist. Evin sent reports south and included, when he could, notes from Raoul that were never more than miss you, stay safe. The casualties were heavy.
There was no word of Kel, deep behind enemy lines. But there was a letter from Prince Roald, gently assuring Buri that he’d written to his father to say that if the King were to label Kel’s actions treasonous, his son would never speak to him again. There was, consequently, not a peep from Corus. “Thank goodness that boy inherited his mother’s brains,” sighed Buri, tossing the letter into the fire fondly.
The weeks dragged on. The killing machines continued to make their way south. One awful day, Buri and the Riders chased down the sound of screaming to find one making its way with lethal precision through a fishing village. It had found itself on high ground and was holding there, its smooth domed head swiveling back and forth, its huge jaws making a deafening clatter, and its knife-fingers slicing through any human or projectile that came near. Buri roared orders for the chain-reinforced rope and the metal nets and the hard, armor-piercing arrows they’d made special for this war.
Suddenly, the clattering jaws clamped shut. The domed head of the machine slipped backwards heavily on its neck. The knife-fingers collapsed together with a metal-on-metal smash. Then the entire thing, with slow finality, collapsed.
Humans scattered to get out of its way, still screaming. “Who shot it?” yelled Buri above the din, trying to get closer.
“No one shot it!” Miri yelled back. “It just —“
“Then I don’t care how it went down,” shouted Buri. “I care that it stays down.”
They trussed the thing up with the metal ropes and fastened it under a net with spikes driven into the ground. Buri got close enough to punch a hole in its head. None of the child-voice smoke they’d heard of emerged. She waited for a few moments, then wiped off her sweat and went to talk to George.
George didn’t know what would have caused the machine’s collapse, but her report wasn’t the only one. They’d fallen still across the front. “And you know I love it when there’s no reason for something,” George told her through the mirror. She could hear his smile. “It means I get to spread rumors. Which one should this be?”
“Oh, have it be a witch,” said Buri, sighing and cleaning her warhammer. “People love witches.”
It wasn’t two days before one of the trainees came up to her, wide-eyed, and said that one of the fishermen told her his cousin in Corus told him that a friend who worked in the palace told her that he had seen Princess Shinkokami, Roald’s betrothed, working Yamani sorcery to stop the killing machines and save Tortall. Buri kept a straight face. George worked fast.
“It’s mean of you to call Shinkokami a witch,” she told George that night.
“Witches was your idea, and it’s making her even more popular,” George said. “Besides, she gave me permission.”
Buri’s estimation of the future Crown Princess rose considerably.
With the killing machines down, the tide of the war turned in Tortall’s favor. The Scanran coalition fell apart in confusion. The reports from the north got better and better, including Buri’s favorite, which was a single note from Raoul written in a hasty scrawl in huge letters: KEL BACK. In less than a month, the northern border had been secured.
Buri and her Riders made their way back to the Swoop to issue final reports and organize a return to Corus. While there, George called her into his study and told her to close the door. She leaned on it while he steepled his hands and said, smiling: “Keladry of Mindelan is our witch.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. George did love being oblique, sometimes. “That’s a very conservative thing of you to say,” she said finally.
George grinned. “Neal of Queenscove and my river runners sent in their reports. Kel went across the border to get her people — you know that. They were being driven northwards by Stenmun Kinslayer to be fodder for the necromancer Blayce Younger. She followed them to Fief Rathhausak, broke in, rescued the children, killed Stenmun and Blayce singlehanded, and set the castle on fire. Blayce’s death ended the spell that kept the killing machines going.”
Buri decided to sit down.
“George,” she said.
George smiled. “I know. I’m regrettin’ the rumor I started. The truth is better. But Neal asked me to respect that she doesn’t want to be a hero.”
Buri stared into space for a long time.
“Someone taught her all the lessons she needed to know to pull off that heroism,” said George, very mildly.
Buri came back down to earth and cleared her throat. “Raoul would never take credit. He doesn’t think of it that way.”
“Well, maybe he should,” said George, looking very casual. “Maybe he should be rewarded. Maybe a wife would be a nice reward.”
Buri stood up. “That was a terrible segue, and you’re a heinous gossip, and maybe that’s already in the works,” she said severely.
“Bein’ a heinous gossip is my job,” said George with a grin. “This is my way of tellin’ you that Alanna and I want to come to the wedding.”
One morning back in Corus, someone tapped her shoulder in the Riders’ mess. She turned around. “There’s a lady outside holding a longbow taller than she is,” said a Rider, wide-eyed. “She’s looking for you.”
Buri wasn’t surprised by anything, after this year. She wiped her hands and went.
Yukimi noh Daiomoru was standing calmly in the chaos and muck of the Riders’ stable yard, looking like a flower, if flowers held longbows taller than they were. Yuki was a good friend of Kel’s. At some point Nealan of Queenscove, walking disaster that he was, had convinced her to say she’d marry him. She was Buri’s height, and lovely, and charmingly delicate, but Buri had seen her pull a hairpin out of her elaborate headdress one day and reveal it to be a stiletto knife.
She liked Yuki quite a bit.
As Buri approached, Yuki bowed. Buri bowed as well, for good measure.
“Commander Tourakom. I hear you have a suitor waiting for you in the north,” Yuki said, blissfully skipping over formalities.
Buri rubbed her nose. ‘Suitor’ wasn’t exactly the word she’d use for Raoul. “You could say that.”
Yuki bowed again. “I, too, am awaiting a marriage ceremony of my own. I would like to ride north to make sure it happens before I dry up of old age.”
Her face was straight, but the corners of her eyes were crinkled in the way that Kel’s did when she was secretly smiling.
Buri smiled back. “I’d be happy to travel with you. I have some business to take care of, and I need a break from being in the saddle. Can you wait two weeks?”
Yuki bowed again. “I will write to my fiancé and tell him to expect me accordingly.” She straightened. “I confess that I was hopeful you would join me, and wrote ahead. I have been told that while Northwatch Fortress feels unable to extend the hospitality necessary for nuptial events, the township of New Hope would be happy to host us, and any honored guests.”
Buri looked at her closely. “Are you telling me that Vanget haMinch and Keladry of Mindelan fought over who got to throw a big party, and Kel won?”
Yuki did her secret smile. “I have heard that Keladry is —“ Yuki paused “— more herself than she has ever been, following her wartime experience.”
“You mean she won this war for us and she’s not putting up with bullshit any more,” said Buri.
Yuki bowed, and when she straightened, her smile wasn’t secret at all.
Buri finally went to talk to Thayet.
She found her in the office that the king and the queen shared, with its broad wood desks facing each other. Jonathan looked up when Buri came in, and started to say something, but Thayet saw Buri’s face first. “A moment, my dear, if you would,” she said smoothly, and Jonathan got the hint and left.
Buri shoved some papers aside and sat on Jonathan’s desk and looked at Thayet.
“I’m retiring,” she said.
Thayet blinked. “From what?” she said.
Buri rose her eyebrows. “From the Riders.”
Thayet went still, and then brought her hand to her forehead for a moment. “Did you forget I had a job?” asked Buri, patiently.
“No. Of course not,” said Thayet wearily. “Oh, Buri. I’m sorry. Sometimes I forget that people can retire.” She huffed a laugh, and looked back up at Buri. “Forgive me.”
Buri looked at Thayet. Thayet looked exhausted. Not that that had any effect on her astonishing beauty, but Buri had known Thayet her entire life. Her eyes got heavy and her chin got stubborn when she was worn down, just like it had when she was little. You couldn’t retire from being Queen.
Are you getting enough sleep? asked Buri in K’mir.
Thayet smiled, either at the question or the language it was asked in, Buri wasn’t sure. Yes. Don’t worry about me. This war has been a pain in the neck. And it’s been hard having Roald gone, if I’m being honest. Her accent was different, after all these years, but her grammar was still solid.
He’s taken well to being on the front lines, Buri told her. He inherited your brains.
Don’t be mean, said Thayet. Jon has brains too.
“You know what I mean. The Kel thing.”
Thayet smiled, razor-sharp. “The Kel thing,” and they didn’t have to say anything else.
After a moment, she said: “why are you retiring?”
Buri shrugged. “I’m old. I’m tired. My hips hurt all the time. I have good systems in place and good people to hand them over to.” She swung her feet, and took a breath. “Raoul and I are getting married.”
Thayet looked at her, hard, and then looked off to one side.
“I know you don’t like him —“ Buri started.
“I like him more than you like Jon,” shot back Thayet, immediately. “Raoul’s never proved himself to be —“
“I like Jon just fine, he’s just not —“ said Buri, talking over her, and then they both said “ — good enough for you,” and stopped talking immediately.
Thayet put her hand over her mouth.
Buri leaned back on her hands and closed her eyes.
“Sometimes we really are still sixteen, aren’t we,” she heard Thayet say. She opened her eyes again. The queen was leaning her cheek on her hand, elbow propped on the desk.
“I think we might be,” said Buri, and Thayet smiled and straightened up.
There were a few moments of quiet while Thayet looked out the window. Buri chose the most important-looking of the documents on Jonathan’s desk and ripped it in half and began folding it into a paper bird.
“When are you getting married?” said Thayet at last.
“Next month,” said Buri.
“Where are you getting married?”
“I’m going north,” Buri said. “Nealan of Queenscove’s fiancée is coming with me.”
Thayet cleared her throat and stacked a few papers neatly, then folded her hands on her desk. “I’m coming with you,” she said squarely.
Buri’s hands went still.
“I’m coming with you,” Thayet repeated. “You were there on my wedding day. I’m going to be there on yours.”
“We’re not even sure we’re going to have a ceremony,” tried Buri.
Thayet glared at her. “I’m coming with you. You’re having a ceremony. I’m coming with you and I’m going to be a sad sack at your wedding to an undeserving man just like you were a sad sack at mine —“ and Buri couldn’t help it, she started laughing, remembering their outsized teenage emotions, and threw the paper bird at her, and Thayet was laughing too.
Thayet caught the bird and unfolded it. “Oh, come on, Buri, this was the Sinthya heir’s request for his father to be released from prison.”
Buri shrugged. The Sinthyas had tried to sell Numair back to Carthak. “Too bad.”
Thayet grinned. “Too bad,” she agreed, and tossed the creased paper in the wastebasket.
Buri told Thayet that she and Yuki planned to leave in two weeks, and Thayet nodded crisply and said she’d make arrangements. Buri hopped off Jon’s desk and kissed Thayet’s cheek and went for the door.
“Wait, wait,” said Thayet. “Who’s going to command the Riders?
Buri turned. “Evin Larse.”
Thayet groaned. “Buri, he slept with Leanna of Harthright and her husband last year.”
“I’m very aware,” said Buri, and was. “But he is an excellent commander, and he will keep you safe.”
“That’s hardly the point of the Riders now, is it,” said Thayet, looking at the ceiling.
Buri swallowed. “It’s always the point of the Riders, Thayet.”
Thayet tipped her head back level and looked at Buri for a long moment. Buri looked back at her. There was so much to say. There was so much that couldn’t be said. She tried to just think it at Thayet.
“I love you, too,” said Thayet at last.
The way a K’miri marriage ceremony was supposed to go was this: your sisters and cousins took you out into the fields and crowned you with flowers and sang songs, and then brought you back to your groom.
Buri didn’t have sisters, and she didn’t have cousins, and she didn’t fancy being sprinkled on the head with whatever goat food was poking up out of the hardscrabble Vassa Plain. But she let Onua and Kel and Thayet and Yuki take her outside New Hope’s walls. Thayet and Onua knew the K’miri songs, and Yuki and Kel knew the Yamani songs, and all of them, even Yuki, knew the Tortallan ones, and by the time Kel’s boy Tobe came to tell them that the shepherds needed their pasture back, Buri felt lighter.
Buri wore red, because she wanted to, and let Thayet and Onua put amber and diamonds in her hair. She held their hands as she went out to the wide, polished-wood pavilion that Kel’s carpenters had expertly built for the weddings of their chief healer and their commander’s former knight-master. Kel, looking elegant in something silk and trouser-y that Lalasa had made, was standing and talking quietly with Raoul. Raoul’s eyes went a little wide when he saw Buri, and then he turned to Kel and asked something, and her mouth twitched. She produced a handkerchief from her pocket and handed it to him. Then she floated away in her silk trousers to stand with Dom and Evin.
Raoul took her hand when she came to him, and held it tightly. Hello, he whispered in K’mir.
If you start crying I will divorce you immediately, she whispered.
Too late, he said, smiling, teary, and it was.
The way a Tortallan marriage ceremony was supposed to go was this: two virginal affianced people knelt in front of a priestess and the priestess proclaimed all kinds of fertility hullabaloo over them. Neither Buri nor Raoul had knees that accommodated ritual kneeling, and neither virginity nor fertility were remotely interesting, and priestesses were in short supply this far north. So instead they got Alanna to stand an apple crate and tell them she loved them and that she was grateful, on behalf of all their friends, to stop having to pretend that Raoul and Buri weren’t having sex.
Thayet gave them a townhouse in Corus and Alanna and George gave them wedding rings and Kel gave them a pair of beautiful enameled daggers and Dom and his boys gave them a hard time, and after all that was done it was time to walk back New Hope’s dining hall for a meal.
Buri and Raoul let their friends go ahead of them.
“We have a good family,” said Raoul quietly, watching them go.
“We do,” murmured Buri, but she was squinting at a few interpersonal dynamics as the pavilion emptied out. “If Kel keeps wearing silky trouser outfits, Dom and Evin are going to get in a fight over her.”
Raoul shuddered. “Don’t tell me these things. She’s still fourteen in my head.” He put his arms around Buri, and she breathed in his familiar leather-and-mint smell. “Oh. We forgot to say vows.”
She wrapped her arms around his sturdy waist. “Were we supposed to say vows?”
He shrugged. “I think it’s something people do.”
“All right,” she said, looking up at him. “I vow to, um —“ she switched to K’mir. I vow to never tell you anything I learn about Kel’s personal life, even though she is very grown up now and grown-up things may happen.
“Thank you,” he said fervently.
She thought about their years of friendship, and his uncanny ability to know what was going on in her personal life, and smiled. I also vow to never be shocked when you know more than I think you do.
He grinned. “I vow to never be shocked by the absolute filth that comes out of your mouth.”
She leaned into him. “How about you vow to not be turned on in public by it?”
“That was once,” he complained, and kissed her silent when she threatened to make it twice, right now. “Hush. Save it for later. Tell me something else.”
She cleared her throat. I vow to protect you, she said. His eyes went very soft.
“Let’s make that one mutual,” he said. “I’ll vow to not pull my punches.”
“That one should be mutual too,” she said. “Can we also mutually vow to never go to your great-aunt’s for midwinter?”
“Absolutely,” he said immediately.
“Should there be some sort of vow about love?” she asked.
He stroked her cheek. Up to you, he said in K’mir.
I think just that I’ll love you, she said. Simply that. Which should be easy enough. Because I already do. I have. For so long. Even though I never say it.
Raoul looked like he might start crying again, so she pulled him down until she could kiss him. “How does that sound?”
“That sounds wonderful,” he said, voice rough. “I’ll do the same, except I’m going to say it all the time.”
He kissed her again, sweet and deep, and Buri held him as tightly as she could. When he pulled away she said “I vow to —“ and made some very specific points about how she intended to use their wedding night. Raoul immediately broke one of his vows by looking very shocked and very turned on.
At that point their family, far ahead of them on the path, had realized that they’d gotten distracted and turned around. Alanna yelled something about how she didn’t know why they were taking all that time to talk when they could read each other’s minds. Evin yelled something about drowning in each other’s eyes. Onua yelled something dirty in K’mir, and Buri yelled something dirty back. Kel, placid and serene, covered Tobe’s ears. Raoul laughed, and kissed Buri in front of everyone, and they went to catch up.