Chapter 11

As Ronan rode his horse through the city, he wondered when Stardancer was going to show up. He was worried: Stardancer had never left a rescue this long before. What if something had happened to him? In the next instant he berated himself for even considering it. Garyn, Freea, and Gashen would be with him, and they would let themselves die rather than let anything happen to Stardancer. Stardancer, in return, would die if anything happened to any of his little "family." They were a closely-knit little group, and they had gotten themselves out of difficult situations before with no worse than a scraped knee. Stardancer would be fine.

He turned away from his thoughts of Stardancer and considered all of the noise around him. People had thronged the streets, leaving only enough space for the wedding party to pass. Ronan rode in front on a white steed dressed in white while his bodyguards rode behind him dressed in black and on black steeds. In front of Ronan was a group of four priests dressed in gold robes, walking down the street, chanting blessings on the union of the Queen with Herald Ronan of Valdemar. Every person in the street was dressed in his or her best, and the street itself had been hung with white streamers. White rose petals floated down through the air, reminding Ronan of a snowfall. On both sides of him people were calling out his name, and he found himself looking each time he heard it. He would give them a polite nod or wave, and then the party pressed onward to the temple.

He'd described all of this to Kira in his mind, but when they turned the corner and he saw the temple, she had to ask him what the matter was.

:Everything's been white so far, but the temple is done up with black decorations. It's probably to represent the goddess, but now I feel like I'm going to my own funeral.:

:Oh.: Kira didn't say anything further. She understood completely.

Once they reached the temple stairs, the priests waited for Ronan to dismount before advancing, still chanting blessings. His bodyguards fell in behind him, and Ronan made his way up the stairs. People were still cheering and throwing rose petals, but Ronan felt that they were all cheering for the wrong thing. He wanted nothing more than to jump back on that horse and gallop back to Kira.

Father Kendar met him at the door and took his arm, leading him into a room off to the right. "This way, lad," he said affably, giving the Herald a smile. "We've got some things to take care of before the ceremony."

At Father Kendar's insistence, Ronan knelt before the priest and listened while he read all of a god-husband's duties and obligations aloud. Then, when the formidable list was finished, he recited a final injunction for Ronan to place all his faith in the divine and his wife and to trust that the pairing was the best for him. At the old priest's direction, he removed a glove and held out his hand, which Father Kendar clasped three times in some sort of ceremony. Incense was burned (incense that made him very foggy-headed) and a symbol of some sort was drawn on his forehead with water. With that, the priest assisted him to his feet and told him that they were ready whenever he was. He didn't understand what the old man meant since the feeling of sleepiness had increased with the water symbol on his forehead. He was having a hard time thinking.

"Ready for what?" he mumbled groggily. What had been in that incense?

"Ready for the ceremony, of course!" Father Kendar told him, leading him toward the door. Ronan followed, not really able to resist. Before, he'd been worried and tense and angry at all of the fuss, but now all he wanted was to curl up somewhere and sleep.

Music started as they reached the entrance to the main part of the temple, and everyone stood as Father Kendar led him forward. He saw the altar up ahead, Storena dressed in a fantastic black dress standing in front of it, and mixed in with the crowd were the flames of candles and plumes of smoke rising from even more lighted incense. He knew he was walking in time to the music and that Father Kendar was leading him up the center of the temple, but he felt as if he were floating a few inches above the ground and that someone else was controlling his body. He was, as Kira would have said, out of it.

The next thing he knew, he was standing in front of the altar and Father Kendar was behind it, chanting words. A short while later, he found himself presenting a box to Storena (oh, his wedding present) and found himself accepting a gift from her as well. It was the pendant engraved with the crest of Ashten. He got a look at what she had received from him, and he wondered just what was wrong with that tiara. He was sure that the one he'd bought had been hideous, but this one was gorgeous in every way. Then, he realized that someone must have seen what he'd chosen and thought he'd made a mistake and exchanged it for the one he'd handed her. Then, his mind clouded again, and the next thing he remembered hearing was Father Kendar talking about a drink of some sort. He watched as the priest poured something into a large gold cup and passed it to Storena, who took a mouthful before holding the cup to Ronan's lips. He swallowed it without a protest, too dizzy and sleepy to even avoid doing so.

A choir broke out into song, surprising him, and Storena took his hand and turned, leading him down the center aisle and to the door. As they reached the outside and the people saw their queen and her consort, they burst into cheers that nearly deafened him. An open carriage waited at the bottom of the stairs, and Storena led him down to it and insisted he get in while enough rose petals fell to make him think that a freak blizzard had blown in.

Once he was sitting down and the carriage was moving, the fresh air cleared his head and he was able to think again. Also, he became aware of a very insistent and very worried voice in the back of his head.

:…Oh, please answer me, Chosen, you've gone all muddle-headed and I can't hear your thoughts anymore! Answer me, what has happened to you, what's going on, are you all right?:

:Kira?: he thought, and then he sagged back into his seat. Gods, that was hard work! He'd never had such trouble before! What on earth had happened?

:Chosen!: Kira said in relief. :Are you all right? What happened to you?:

Ronan added it all up in his head and thought about it. :Seems I was drugged with something. Maybe the incense? I don't know. How long did you lose me for?:

:A few hours,: she told him. :Are you feeling better?:

:A little bit,: he admitted. :Not so sleepy now.:

Ronan was going to ask Kira how she was, but he was startled by Storena kissing him. He jumped, and asked her what she thought she was doing.

"Hear the bells ringing? I need to kiss you whenever they ring," she said, giving him a limpid smile. She moved in for a second one, and Ronan fought the urge to duck. Every time a bell rang on the way back to the palace, she kissed him to the accompaniment of cheers. More than once, he turned his head and waved to the crowd in order to avoid being kissed. It was an annoying but very effective way to keep from being kissed breathless.

More white rose petals fell, reminding him again of snow, and every now and then he had to brush himself off or risk being buried. Storena was in the same predicament, but she spent some time trying to help him with brushes that were half-caress, half-brush. For some reason, people watching cheered with approval, and he heard some man in the crowd shout out that they should save that kind of thing for the wedding bed. Quickly Ronan let her know that he could handle brushing off on his own.

They arrived at the palace to the accompaniment of every servant and courtier cheering them, and Ronan looked around anxiously for Kira. A loud wham from the direction of the stables surprised everyone and Kira limped out, looking a little miffed.

:Some idiot of a stablehand locked the door to my stall, Chosen,: she said sweetly, coming to his side. :Now he can have the joy of fixing it. Are you all right, love? You're awfully pale.:

:Just very self-conscious,: he told her, hugging her neck before giving her a little kiss on the muzzle. :Everyone's looking at us.:

:That's because you look positively gorgeous in that outfit,: Kira said, nuzzling him and giving a little whicker. :And because they're horrified that their Queen's new Consort just gave a horse a kiss.:

:You're not a horse, you're a fabulous lady!: he protested, scratching her poll. :I wish you could come to this ridiculous party that I know is going to take place any minute.:

:I'll watch from the window,: she said, giving him a wink. :I'll have you know, however, that when you marry for real, I intend to be part of the wedding party and give you away during the ceremony, not to mention joining in the festivities afterward!: She sent him an image of her and a stallion waltzing hoof in hoof alongside Ronan and a faceless bride that had brown hair.

He laughed and yielded to his bodyguards' insistence that his bride was waiting to go in to the reception. He let himself be led along and fought to keep his expression neutral while he heard courtiers wishing them joy on either side. They reached the great hall and Ronan nearly jumped a league when the music started with a crescendo that sent his heart into his throat. It was as if someone had trained those musicians to lie in wait for someone and then frighten the life out of them.

The musicians continued playing while Storena and Ronan stood at the head of a receiving line and greeted all of the guests that had shown up for the wedding. He wasn't expected to say or do anything but stand there and look pleasant, which was what he did. Each couple came up and gave them good wishes, and it took a few hours before the last guest had seen them. At last, Ronan was able to think about something other than smiling and giving little bows to people.

The Great Hall was aptly named, for it was very great. There were tables set up in a U shape around a central floor that was clearly for dancing. The tables had been covered with white tablecloths and had been hung with silver and black swags of silk. Candles had been lit in black and silver candlesticks, and there were fabulous china, crystal, and silver place settings. Storena escorted him to his chair and at her reminder he seated her before taking his own chair. Everyone else sat down, and food was served.

Ronan did not know what it was they were eating, but it was good. He could tell right away that it was soup of some sort, so he busied himself with that in order to avoid having to talk to Storena. Since he sat at Storena's right, he kept up conversation with the lord on his right in between bites of food and that man's conversation with the person on his right. He was about to ask the lord if the weather was always so fine this time of year when he felt a hand on his left knee. He moved his leg away from Storena, but she kept it up.

"Stop that," he whispered at last, a little fed up.

"What's the matter?" she asked, smiling archly at him. "Don't like it?"

Ronan resisted the urge to drown her in her soup. She was taking this whole thing too far. He did not intend to play the good husband at all, so she had better realize that very quickly and leave him be. Also, he found himself wishing that Stardancer would hurry up and get there.

Many courses later (he lost count around twenty), Storena stood up, signalling that it was time to start dancing. She held out her hand to him and he let her lead him to the floor, and he remembered that he was supposed to dance the first dance with her alone. Fabulous. He got to show everyone what a terrible dancer the Queen had forced to marry her.

:You're not a terrible dancer,: Kira said lightly. :You're just tense and feeling as if you don't want to dance right now. How about I help you? I'll count in your head, and you step in time.:

:Or maybe I could embarrass her with how poor of a dancer I am,: he pointed out, feeling very, very wicked.

:Carry on,: was all Kira said, and she sounded as if she were looking forward to what was going to happen.

There was one problem with Ronan's plan to bother Storena. Once you were taught to do something well, it was very, very hard to stop doing it well and do it poorly again. He tried to move out of time, to drop his feet when he had to step lightly, and he tried to trip so they would go sprawling, but it was impossible to pull off. Storena's next comment ensured his feeling crabby for the rest of the night.

"You're a wonderful dancer, Ronan," she said, pulling him a little closer. "Let's dance as much as we can."

After a few hours of dancing, he was exhausted and ready to stop. He got himself a glass of something to drink and then, because he was too much of a gentleman, he fetched one for Storena.

"Why thank you, dearest," she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek. He frowned.

"Storena, please stop doing things like that," he told her, leading her toward the rotunda. "Let's go out here and talk."

"Let's do," she said sweetly, following him.

They sat down on a handy bench and she turned to him, looking blissfully happy. He almost hated himself for what he was about to say. "Storena, I know that you're trying to be loving towards me, but please stop it. I do not love you, and although I had to go through a ceremony, I do not consider you to be my wife and I don't consider myself your husband. What you're doing, caressing me like you have been, makes me very uncomfortable and I would like you to stop it."

She stared at him, aghast, and for a second he saw fury flash in her eyes before he felt the slap that nearly snapped his neck. He stared right back at her and realized that he was now considered a husband who was very strongly god who had just insulted his wife. Of course she would hit him.

"You will not speak that way to me again, Ronan," she said, wrapping him in a very tight embrace. "I told you that you would be my husband whether you wished to be or not, and now you are. You will obey me, Ronan, and if I wish to caress you, you'll allow me to. Do you understand?"

"I understand that you're angry with me, but I'm being caressed by a person who is pretty much a stranger to me," he said, persisting. "That's unsettling, being touched by someone you don't know. At least let me...get used to you." He said that last while fighting down a feeling of panic. She was giving him very little choice in this matter, and it was either pretend to acquiesce or have the life slapped out of him. This whole business was getting very ugly.

"You'll have a good chance to get used to me later tonight," she promised, releasing him.

:That's it,: he heard Kira say, and in the next moment she had stomped up the steps and whuffed at the woman, angry and looking ready to fight. She was in what Stardancer referred to as "mama-bear mode." That meant that someone threatened her Herald at his own dire peril. :How dare she insinuate something like that! Get on my back, Chosen, we're getting out of here, and to the deepest hells with being polite!:

:Kira, I certainly can't ride you yet,: he reminded her. :Your wound's not healed!:

:We have very good Healers in Valdemar! Let's go!:

What happened next horrified the both of them and left Ronan certain that he was in a country full of lunatics. An arrow came out of nowhere, burying itself in the already-injured shoulder. At the same time stablehands showed up, quickly putting a halter and lead over Kira's head. Guards materialized and surrounded him to keep him from going to her, and he heard Storena give a little chuckle.

"Maybe now you'll realize that I am not to be threatened with a trained horse, Ronan. I know your feelings for this beast, and I know that I can't kill it, but I can make it very uncomfortable, can't I?"

He stared at her, feeling sick. "You're mad," he choked, wishing he could pull away from the guards. "You're mad!"

"No, I'm just very, very determined," she told him, giving him a kiss. "This can be difficult or easy, and it's entirely your choice. Now, listen closely. Your valets are going to escort you upstairs now, and you and I will spend the night together, or you can stay here, not spend tonight with me, and watch your precious Companion be beaten. Which will it be?"

He was certain he was going to be ill, but he managed to choke out an answer. "I'll go upstairs," he gasped, choosing to ignore Kira's protests and pleadings.

Storena smiled, and Ronan's bodyguards arrived and began to lead him away.

:Chosen, no!: Kira pleaded. :You don't have to go through that! I'll be fine, really I will, and you don't have to sacrifice yourself to that witch!:

:Look, we both learned about the possibility of rape or torture during our trainee days,: he reminded her. :You've already been shot twice for me, and I'm not going to let them torture you any longer. If all it takes to get them to leave you alone is my being a little accomodating in bed, then I'm going to do it. I can't stand the thought of you being hurt anymore.:

:And I can't stand the thought of you being raped by this woman!: Kira snapped. :I'll trample her to death if she even touches you!:

:We both know you can't do that. That would mean war against Valdemar, and we don't know how powerful these people are militarily. It could cause a lot more trouble than we could handle. I'll be fine, Kira. I promise.:

:You won't be,: Kira said mournfully. :But I'll help you through it, Chosen.:

:Thanks, beloved. See you in the morning.:

He walked between his two bodyguards/valets/watchdogs and said nothing. They led him back through the great hall, out to the stairs, up the stairs, down a hall, up some more stairs, and down yet another hall. They opened up a set of double doors, and they were at the wedding suite. It was very nice and furnished in velvet, but he wasn't much in the mood to notice decor. The two men led him to what was apparently his dressing room, and he allowed them to remove his wedding finery and wrap him in a robe. They led him back out into the bedroom and turned down the bed for him before asking him if there was anything he would like.

"Two bottles of red wine," he told them. "And a large glass."

His guards left the room, chuckling. While one stood guard at the door the other went and fetched the wine, much to Ronan's relief. Once he had the wine, Ronan uncorked a bottle and quickly drank off a glassful of it.

:Careful, Chosen,: Kira warned him, remembering the few times he'd been drunk. :You know what wine does to you if you have too much.:

:Why do you think I asked for two bottles?: he asked, pouring himself another glass. :I want to be a little drunk tonight. If she doesn't make it up here before the wine puts me to sleep, that's entirely her problem. Being a little drunk won't take down my shields, so I'm not putting anyone at risk by drinking, and if it makes tonight easier, then I'm all for it. How are you, sweet?:

:I am safely ensconced in the stable and a healer is taking care of this new wound, looking at my old one, and muttering about mad archers,: she said, sounding very amused. :If it weren't for what's about to happen, I could enjoy listening to him.:

:I'll be fine,: he said, trying to convince her as well as himself.

After the fourth glass of wine, he began to feel quite drunk, and he lay down and set his fifth glass on the bedside table where he could easily reach it. He shrugged out of his robe and thanked the gods above that he was still in his smallclothes. Apparently, they were for Storena to remove. That thought made him nervous and slightly sick all over again. He finished the last of his fifth glass and contemplated getting up to get some more. Then, it seemed as if the bed was far too nice to leave.

He woke at one point, but his mind wasn't clear enough to register more than that Storena was there and doing things to him that he didn't want to think about too much. If it had been someone he cared for, he might have enjoyed it, but it was Storena, the mad woman who could shoot Companions and threaten to beat them. He remained awake, but his mind was still fogged enough for everything that was happening to be at one remove from him. He knew from experience that anything that took place while he was feeling like that would be remembered when he woke. Later, his mind slipped back into sleep, but it didn't keep his body from feeling. When he next woke, there was sunlight streaming into the suite and he was alone--and naked--in the large bed. He moved, and a dozen little pains made themselves felt. Even worse was the headache threatening to pound his skull apart and a very sore throat.

That was when he heard the voice in the back of his mind, sounding as if it had been speaking for quite some time and was becoming increasingly frantic.

:...Chosen, oh, please let me know you're all right! Why are you hurt? What's happened? Why did you scream? What did she do to you? Oh, what on earth went on? Are you even awake? Is your mind all right, I can't sense anything from you!:

:K-Kira?: he thought, trying very hard not to make his head hurt worse.

:Chosen!: she all but shrieked, making him wince. :TALK TO ME! What happened last night? Are you all right? Why am I sensing pain from you? WHAT HAPPENED???:

:I'm fine, just please stop shouting,: he pleaded, pulling a sheet over his head to block out the light that was attacking his eyes. :I'm just fine...: That was when the barely-remembered moments from last night made his stomach clench, and he rushed into the bathroom to find the convenience. There, he was sicker than he could ever remember being, and he wretched each time he thought about what had happened. The beginning of it had not been all that bad, but later! Those things she had done to him...they hadn't been part of lovemaking, they'd been unadulterated torture! What was worse was that he'd been able to sense her feelings while it had been all going on. She'd enjoyed everything she'd done to him. She'd enjoyed it all!

How long he spent being sick he had no idea, but his knees gave out at some point, and when his mind began to work again he realized he was lying on the floor and weeping. His stomach, head, and throat hurt, and he wanted nothing more than a very, very hot bath. He could hear Kira talking to him, but he couldn't make sense of what she was saying.

"Easy, now," he heard a familiar--thankfully male!--voice say as a robe was wrapped around him. "It's going to be all right, Ronan."

"Aldiss?" he croaked, looking up at the man who crouched beside him.

"Yes," Aldiss said, helping him to sit up. "It's me. I know it's hard right now, but I'll help you."

Just then, Aldiss' words reminded him just what was hard, and he was crouched over the convenience again, wretching so hard that he was sure his spine would snap. Aldiss kept talking, telling him that he was all right now, and that he would feel better soon, he just had to keep breathing.

Somehow, the next time his mind cleared, he was sitting in a tub full of very hot water and Aldiss was helping him wash. A sudden thought made him start shaking, and he was so frightened he couldn't tell his friend what it was. Finally, he managed to choke out what was bothering him.

"She's going to want to do that again."

Aldiss nodded. "Unfortunately, that's all too likely. We'll have to think of some way to keep it from happening."

"How?" Ronan moaned. "She'll hurt Kira if I say no!"

"I don't know yet, but trust me, I've been thinking about it since last night," Aldiss told him, helping him to rinse off. "I was in the garden last night, and I saw and heard everything. To hell with that woman, I'm getting you and Kira out of here!"

"Kira can't go far," Ronan said as Aldiss helped him out of the tub and wrapped him in a towel. "She's been shot twice."

"Well, we'll get her away until she's well enough to travel, and then we'll get the both of you out. We'll think of something."

Ronan didn't remember getting dressed, but the next thing he knew, he had clothes on and was sitting on a couch across from Aldiss. He knew he should have been making plans as energetically as Aldiss was, but his mind refused to work. All he could do was sit there and fight off a feeling that he was going to shake himself apart in a few minutes. He was trembling, but he knew he was going to shake if he thought about last night too much. So, he didn't. He asked after Neran and Aldiss' lady-love, and he asked Aldiss if he'd been down to see Kira at all.

"I went to see her after I reported in this morning," he told the Herald, worried by the lack of color in his friend's face. "She spoke to me."

"She did?" Ronan asked, shocked. That made Aldiss the first human she'd spoken to who was not her Herald. "What did she say?"

"She begged me to come and make sure you were all right, and she said that you were in some kind of shock. I'd say she was right about that. Do you think you can walk? She wants me to bring you down to the stables if you feel well enough."

"Of course!" Ronan said, getting to his feet. "Let's go now!" He longed to feel her smooth hide and her greeting whuff blow his hair back from his face. He wanted to see her eyes looking into his and hear her voice up close.

Aldiss walked with him out of the suite, startling the servants who sat there, presumably waiting for the Herald to ring for them.

"Consort Ronan is going to the stables, and he does not wish to be disturbed for any reason," Aldiss said, fixing a steely glare on all three men. "If Her Majesty comes, please tell her that the Consort will return after assuring himself that his Companion is all right." The three bowed, and soldier and Herald left.

Together, Aldiss and Ronan made their way through the palace and outside, to where the gardens and the nearby stable waited. They reached it without encountering anyone else, and once they were inside and Ronan saw Kira standing in her stall, he let out a choked cry and vaulted over the stall door and the next thing Aldiss knew, the Herald had buried his face in Kira's crest and was sobbing.

:It's all right,: Kira said, tenderly nuzzling her Herald. That nuzzle gave him the feeling that warm, protective, and loving arms had been put around him. :I'm here, Chosen. I love you. I'm right here, and we're going to get through this.:

:I'm sorry I worried you, love,: he told her once his mind was working.

:You don't have anything to apologize for!: she snapped. :She should be apologizing to you! How are you feeling?:

He considered that. How was he feeling? He really wasn't sure, but he was certain that he'd been better.

:Chosen? You don't have to answer if you don't want to, but what was it that made you scream last night? What did she do to you?:

He thought about that. There were a few things she'd done to him that would make any man scream, but there was one thing that had horrified him more than anything and the memory of it nearly made him scream again. :She enjoyed hurting me like she did,: he said at last. :I could feel it. She was punishing me by doing all of those things to me, and she was enjoying doing it. That was what made me scream.:

A burst of emotion was Kira's only answer. There was outrage, anger, fury, sadness at what had happened, and a fierce and protective love for her Herald that made him weep again, but this time it was from love for her. She sat down in the straw and invited him to sit with her, and he was more than happy to do so. He needed no encouragement to lean against her and she curled around him as if he were foal. Ronan had not felt so protected or secure since he'd been a little: it was as if he had gone to the stables to be comforted after a nightmare. Slowly, his eyes closed, and he began to sleep; this time, however, it was a sleep of healing.

When he woke, Kira was there, nuzzling him on the cheek. :Good morning, sleepy one,: he heard. :Nerys is here.:

That statement alone made him smile, and he got to his feet to greet her. "Good morning," he said, incredibly happy that she was there.

She chuckled, covering her smile with one hand. "It's afternoon, my lord," she said, curtseying. "Congratulations on your marriage."

That made him remember, and he felt his smile fade. "Rather offer your condolences, miss," he said, fighting for some of his old mood. "I hate that woman, and a forced marriage is no marriage at all."

She stared at him in shock. "I--I--I..." she trailed off. "If you hate her, and you're married to her, then..."

"What am I going to do now?" he asked. "I don't know, but I'll think of something. It's good to see you, though. You're quite a sight to wake up to."

He felt a wave of intense amusement from Kira. :Why, Chosen! I do believe you have learned to flirt!:

:Well, how many stallions have you cozied up to in your time?: he countered. :Before things became too heated for a young Trainee and you closed me out, the things you said to all of them were quite an education for me.:

Kira spluttered, surprised at her Herald's sudden audacity. Then, she was laughing. Once Nerys heard it, her eyes grew very wide and she stared at them, moving her eyes from one to the other. Finally, she seemed unable to stand hearing what she couldn't fathom. "She's laughing!"

"Yes," Ronan said, fighting off laughter himself. "I said something that amused her."

She looked at Kira and then looked at him again. "Oh."

:Kira, could you...?:

Kira went quiet and looked at Nerys, and then Nerys gasped and stared at her. She kept staring, and Ronan was sure that the girl's eyes were going to fall out of her skull at any moment and then roll across the floor.

:I told her that I like to laugh when something is amusing,: Kira told him after a minute. :I explained Mindspeech to her, and right now she's slowly beginning to comprehend it. She's got a good Mindspeaking ability, thank goodness.: She stopped to laugh, and then she spoke again to him. :She just said that she's never spoken like this before, but that she likes it, and she loves the fact that she can talk to me. Also, she said that if I've told you anything she's told me about you she'll never speak to me or bring me carrots or apples again.:

Ronan laughed while Kira reassured her that she could keep a secret. "She hasn't told me a thing," Ronan said. "Although I have to say that now I'm curious what it is you two ladies have been talking about! Would you care to share?"

Nerys blushed. "No, not really," she said. "But I'll share one thing with you. I thought you two looked awfully sweet curled up together like you were."

Now it was Ronan's turn to blush. "Well, whenever I was upset as a little, I could count on comfort and cuddling from Kira. She's first rate at making everything better."

:Oh, now you're fibbing,: Kira told him. :I remember your first broken heart. You were miserable for weeks!:

:Why bring that up?: Ronan asked, turning to stare at her.

:I'm just saying,: she said, getting to her feet.

Ronan and Nerys talked a while longer about nothing in particular, and Ronan was enjoying himself and feeling strangely cheerful when Aldiss came into the barn, looking very regretful at breaking things up.

"I'm sorry, Ronan, but a page has just arrived with a message from the queen, and she says that you're to return to the wedding suite right now," he said, sounding annoyed. "She wants to talk to you."

Ronan groaned. "I wonder if I could convince her I've gone mad and now think I'm a horse," he said, giving Kira a hug and a kiss on the muzzle. "I'll be back later, love."

"I could spread a rumor that I saw you out in the pasture grazing," Nerys offered, giving him a wink. "That could help."

"I'll think about it," he said, taking her hand in a gesture that was so natural that he was surprised. "I'll see you again soon, Nerys, if I may?"

She smiled, and he took that for an affirmative. He was able to leave the stable with a light heart, but as they approached the wedding suite it grew heavier. If she wanted what he was afraid she wanted...

She was waiting for him, seated in a chair and turning listlessly through a book. She looked up as he came in and closed the door behind him. "Ronan, I want to talk to you," she said, standing.

"So the page said," he said, looking at her. "What is it?"

She motioned him to a chair, but he did not take it. Ignoring that slight disobedience, she began to speak. "I wanted to apologize for last night," she said, surprising him. "I hurt you in order to punish you. You see, I was very happy, and when you spoke to me that way out on the verandah, I was furious and very upset. I didn't understand that I could be so happy while you were miserable. I thought if I were loving toward you you might gain some feeling toward me, but I think I expected too much too quickly. You were right in wanting to wait, in wanting to get to know one another. Even worse, I'd told you that I would help you enjoy our wedding night, and all I did was hurt you. I'm sorry, and I would like to make it up to you."

He stared at her and thought very carefully before speaking. "Your behavior last night was sadistic," he said, finally choosing to be direct. "It not only hurt my body, it hurt my mind. I could feel how you felt while you were doing those things to me, and the fact that you enjoyed them just makes me feel very, very sick." At her concerned movement towards him he held up a hand. "No. I don't think I could stand having you touch me right now," he said. "I really don't think I could."

"What can I do?" she asked, beginning to cry. "I want to help you feel better..."

"Then learn how not to do those things," he told her. "That will make me feel better."

"I still want to be a wife to you," she said, and he felt his stomach tighten.

He thought for a moment. "What do you mean by 'wife?'" he asked. "If you mean a companion, we could try that, but I don't think I could handle you as a lover. Not right now."

She nodded eagerly. "We'll start the way you wanted to, by getting to know one another first," she said. "I promise, I won't touch you unless you let me. Could we start being friends now?"

"What do you mean?" he asked, uncertain.

"Oh, just lunch together, and then we'll open our wedding gifts. After that I have afternoon court, so you'll have the rest of the day to yourself."

:She's in the palm of your hand, Chosen,: Kira said, sounding very smug. :I'm enjoying listening to her squirm.:

:So am I,: he admitted unabashedly. "All right," he said at last. "We can try a bit now."

She looked pathetically grateful, and Ronan realized that maybe things weren't going to be so bad for a while. There was just one worry that bothered him. Where was Stardancer?