It was no use. Zaeraiah did not like—could not like—her betrothed. For one thing, he barely spoke to her, preferring instead to address her father or whichever male was present, rather than talk to her directly.
To Zaeraiah, who had always had her mother and father’s attention, as well as Dame Cilva’s, the Crone’s and of course, Korbin’s, this was an unwelcome change. She did not like it at all.
She did not like the way his eyes traveled over her body, and the way he would lick his lips afterwards, as if he wanted to taste her. But she wasn’t the only woman whom he looked at in that way, his eyes followed even Dame Biani, who was old enough to be Zaeraiah’s mother, but still dressed fashionably, showing off her curves. Lord Jarrad’s eyes would linger over the serving girls at meals, just long enough to make his thoughts transparent.
She began to have nightmares about her Name Day, which was approaching rapidly.
Zaeraiah was captive to Dame Biani and Dame Oshetta in her mother’s chambers every morning, as arrangements for her dress, the flowers, the food had to be made. Truth be told, the two Dames were making the most decisions, while Zaeraiah nodded like a puppet, worrying over her mother, who lay on her bed with a cool cloth over her eyes.
Because Zaeraiah wanted the arrangements to be done as quickly as possible, she said yes to everything that the Dames suggested, in order to give her mother some peace.
She saw very little of Korbin, who worked by his father’s side, an apprentice steward. She thought of him many times over the course of her day, but did not try to make contact through her thoughts.
Lord Jondell was making refurbishments on the Great Hall for Zaeraiah and Lord Jarrad’s wedding, which kept Willem, and by extension Korbin, busy indeed.
The afternoons were spent with her father and Meister Fenwyck, who was teaching her about the customs and culture of Keat.
On a few mornings she did see Korbin, as he would come and report to Dame Biani and Dame Oshetta about the state of the Great Hall, and what Lord Jondell wished for the ceremony. But it was never for more than a few minutes, and never alone.
Three nights before her Name Day was her Betrothal Dinner, with a great feast, and there was to be music and dancing afterwards.
Zaeraiah, deprived of sleep and her time outdoors with Korbin, had grown pale and listless, and could barely eat.
Lord Jarrad, on the other hand, had a hearty appetite, eating and drinking whatever was put in front of him. He and Zaeraiah sat side by side, hardly talking, but Zaeraiah was near enough that she could see Jarrad’s hand, when the serving girl came around to pour him more wine, make its way up the girl’s thigh. The girl blushed deeply, dropped her eyes, and hurried away. Jarrad’s eyes followed the girl’s swaying behind.
Zaeraiah knew that she was not the only one who saw what Jarrad had done. At least a couple of others from his retinue had witnessed the scene, and turned away.
Zaeraiah suddenly felt ill. She excused herself and walked into the covered terrace outside the Great Hall, letting the night air cool her cheeks. Her mind was a whirlwind, and she held on tightly to the stone railing lest she fall.
Unbeknownst to her, Lord Jarrad followed her. He stood behind her on the terrace, placing his hands on either side of hers.
“I wondered where you went, my Lady,” he whispered in her ear silkily. He slid his hands up her arms.
“It was suddenly too warm in the Great Hall,” she replied.
Grasping her arms, he turned her around quickly, so that she faced him. He was so tall that the top of her head barely reached his chin.
“Oh?” he said, “Does my Lady not enjoy the…heat?” he asked, pressing her to him.
His left had slid over to her neck, his fingers caressing her skin. “So soft…” he murmured, and his hand closed slightly, his fingers pressing her throat.
“Do you know what my Gift is, Lady Zaeraiah?” he asked, saying her name for the first time.
She swallowed and shook her head slightly, fear rising in her throat. “I have not been told.”
“You should have asked,” he said again, this time placing his thumb at the center of her neck. “Go on. Ask me what my gift is.”
As if spellbound, Zaeraiah heard herself whisper, “What is your Gift, my Lord?”
“Strength,” he said, pressing his thumb down slightly, but Zaeraiah felt there was an iron bar pushing against her windpipe. “I have been given extraordinary strength.” He pressed his thumb down a little more.
“Consider this a mere sampling, my Lady.” He moved his hand up to tilt her chin, and bent to kiss her, his mouth covering hers roughly. Zaeraiah felt her back bend against the stone railing. She put her hands on his shoulders and tried to push Jarrad away, but he barely budged.
He stood back suddenly, and she almost fell. Laughing, he said, “Oh, you are feisty indeed. I cannot wait for the night of our wedding.”
He moved toward her again, as if to kiss her once more.
Zaeraiah heard footsteps approaching. It was Meister Willem, accompanied by Korbin. Zaeraiah’s eyes met Korbin’s in a desperate appeal for help.
Meister Willem spoke up, “Dinner is over, my Lord and Lady, and you are wanted for the first dance.”
“Ah yes,” Lord Jarrad replied smoothly. “We shall come, sirrah. Shall we, my Lady,” he bowed slightly to Zaeraiah, holding out his hand.
Zaeraiah placed her hand above his and together they walked back into the Great Hall.
* * *
‘Zaeraiah, what did that brute do to you?’ Zaeraiah felt Korbin’s thoughts intrude on hers as she danced with Lord Jarrad.
‘Not now, please, Korbin,’ she begged.
‘Yes, now. I saw you outside. You looked stricken. Did he hurt you?’
‘Korbin, please. I cannot do this now. If I think about it again I will burst out weeping in front of all these people. Not now,’ she said again.
Zaeraiah could hear the anguish in Korbin’s thoughts.
‘At the tower, later. When everyone is asleep. You must risk the watchmen seeing you. Use the secret ways. We know them well.’
‘Please Korbin. I am asking you.’
‘All right. Later then.’