Knights rode in on their metal steeds, their etherlances held at the ready. The tips of each lance ended in two feet of glowing Ether. She saw her brother Redrick, looking radiant in his dark power armor traced with white lines of Ether. His lance’s tip was the same color. His Spark was like any other Medani. Caden would be there as well, but she did not look for him.
House Querra had arrived as well. Their Ether was a brilliant green. She saw a dozen knights on their steeds, all of them beating with that powerful light. It was beautiful to look on them. A knight was a powerful position even if they held no starkeep of their own. She would never marry a knight.
I will never marry even a steward. Even stewards must power a keep’s lighting.
“Have the groundlings arrived yet?” The voice startled her and she bit back a squeak of fright. All that escaped was a sharp breath and she covered it with a hand. When she turned, a rather short, thin young man smiled up at her.
Aderyn was not a short woman but most men towered over her. This one seemed merely a child, though he had stubble on his cheeks and chin. His hair was brown and disheveled and a pair of translucent glass wound from ear to ear, yellow Ether glowing at the edges. She had never seen spectacles like those before.
“I’m sorry?” she asked, then added. “M’lord?”
“M’lord… m’lord,” the young man said as he sat on the edge of the table, causing it to creak. “No, no m’lord here. You must be Aderyn Medani mm?” He pointed at her back. “Only Null in the place.”
She felt her cheeks grow hot, her neck burn. Mother will have heard that. I will be strapped for sure. No words came to her and her promise to impress fled her mind. Charm was beyond her, so she said nothing and gazed into the field where the armies lined up.
“Yes, I can see that you are. No Ether Mark on your back, though that silly bit of silk does distract the eye. You look pretty enough, the dress does suggest you’re a tad on the thin side but with children that will change.”
Aderyn refused to look at him, feeling the heat of her rage rise from her neck and touch her cheeks. The young man bit into a piece of fruit and chewed loudly. When he spoke, his mouth remained full. “Say something, I would like to know that your voice is pleasant to hear. Do you sing? You must have some talent at the least?”
She felt so stiff she could hardly move, much less turn to regard him. Closing her eyes she forced herself to think of Ian and their walks on Meda’s shores. She had been so shy then, wanting to reach out and take his hand but never dared. He had smiled at her, all the time. No other men smiled at her the way he had. The memory of his smile loosened her joints enough that she could take a step back and look at him.
“Ah, she acknowledges me. I’d almost wondered if my mother had wasted her time.”
“I sing,” she said in her sweetest voice, even forcing a small smile that hurt to wear. “I can dance every court waltz short of Hyperion’s Symphony most excellently, and the last fairly well. I read and write and can recant the ancient epics as well.”
The young man smirked. “So you’re intelligent. Not always a sought after trait in a wife but since you’re a Null I can look passed it. Tell me, in all that learning, did you find time to train in the seductive arts as well?”
Aderyn felt her cheeks grow hotter still and her jaw clenched tightly. How dare he. The Seductive Teachings were a private matter, given from governess to young woman. Such things were never spoken of and Aderyn would not divulge them here. Where Ian’s smile had warmed her heart, Jessaline’s hands and kisses had warmed her soul.
“Good,” he said with a short nod, perhaps seeing that he had stepped poorly. “I had hoped so… being Null there will be little use for you beyond the marital bed. You will most likely have to bear several children until a true born is given… I’ve heard that. You are how old? Seventeen?”
Aderyn managed a nod, trying hard to hold onto that image of Ian’s hair flipping in the breeze, blonde strands obscuring his eyes. Duwen Nevan, whom he must surely be, nodded absently to himself. “Very good, plenty of time then. You will, of course, not be my only lover. I will have others, as you would expect. You will treat them as they deserve, which is to say that you will submit to them. They will be your betters.”
He rose then and tilted his head, looking her over. Aderyn’s rage built to such a level that she could have screamed. She would bow and scrape to courtesans and whores? Be nothing more than a lordling’s plaything and child-bearer? Unable to help herself, she turned her head to look for her mother. Lyana Medani did not even spare her a look.
His fingers closed around her chin and brought her face around so their eyes met. They were of a height and behind those spectacles of dancing lights, cruel brown eyes bore into her. In that instant she saw her life stretch out before her, a used, broken thing in a bed of birth blood and despair.
His breath touched her cheek as he leaned close. “Your mother informed mine that I could take you for a test run during the War should I wish it. Perhaps… yes, why not?” His hand had slipped to her thigh and, the action hidden from view, slid between her legs. He groped her through the fabric of her skirts and she could not help herself.
She slapped him.