She had been so careful to cover her tracks and avoid just this happening. Now she was on her back in the well of a van, wrists manacled behind her but far enough apart that she wasn’t lying on them, gagged, ankles and knees taped around her trousers and one of her abductors sitting astride her hips. At least they were trying not to hurt her, actually they were trying to make sure she wasn’t hurt which was a completely different thing. The man astride her held a cushion up where she could see it and said, “I’m going to lift your head and slide this underneath so you’ll be more comfortable. Now, don’t try to be silly, m’lady.”
M’lady. This was as bad as she’d feared. She let him raise her head and slide the pillow underneath. It was indeed more comfortable that way. The man on top of her smiled in approval. Under other circumstances she would have thought it a nice smile.
“Shit!” That was from the front seat in the cab. “Road block already. Stow everything away back there!” The masks and unmarked jackets they’d worn when they snatched her from the bus queue went into the well near her feet. The man astride her leant forward, put his hands beside her shoulders and lay down on top of her in one fluid movement. His confederates put a lid over the well and they were in the dark. His weight and position prevented any struggling she did from being effective. His weight on her and the faint odour of honey and sandalwood, reminiscent of a male Apophesian, suggested things in her head. She closed her eyes in humiliation.
“Good girl, m’lady. Don’t struggle and no-one will get hurt.” He chuckled in her ear. “I’ve no doubt you could give me the ride of my life if you wanted, but now is neither the time nor the place.”
They remained in darkness for the rest of their journey, with only the occasional soothing comment from her captor to break the engine and road noise of the trip. To his credit he remained still and relaxed on top of her, bracing only to stop them sliding around in the small space when the vehicle turned or cornered.
The van stopped. There was the sound of the rear doors opening, then the noise of men getting out. The lid opened and she had to blink hard to readjust to the light, holding her eyelids closed for just that moment longer to make sure she was fine. The man was off her in another fluid motion. The tape binding her legs was cut free and she was carefully lifted out of the van by two of her abductors then stood on her feet. While the gag was removed the one who had restrained her in the well was doing stretching exercises as if to loosen joints and shake out kinks. He was wearing a tee shirt, jeans and human-style combat boots. He was unnervingly distracting so she looked away, a faint blush on her cheeks.
A small group of male Apophesians came around the round the corner of the van as the manacles were taken from her wrists. She could tell immediately from their positioning which of them was their leader and his clothes identified him as a nobleman before he opened his mouth or got close enough for her to see his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak then turned abruptly to the stretching man. “This is the wrong girl,” he said flatly.
“We did ask for a photo of the lady,” the man who’d been on top of her said mildly, “And she fits the description you gave us. She was in all the places you told us to look.”
The young nobleman waved his hand dismissively. “She certainly has a passing resemblance to my beloved, but she is not Lady Adrihana t’Shanasalt Inhara.” Everyone looked at her expectantly.
“I agree with his lordship,” she followed the lead of the two men and spoke the human lingua franca, “I am certainly not the Lady Adrihana.”
“So, what do we do with her now?” asked one of the human men from the van adding in, “My lord,” as an after thought.
“She obviously has Apophesian blood,” pointed out one of the nobleman’s retainers.
The noble came closer to her. Close enough that she could see that he did indeed have the slit pupils of his cast. “Round pupils,” he said dismissively, “Commoner blood.” His face brightened. “My beloved is obviously skilled. She must have woven a glamour to protect herself as soon as she sensed a possible danger, otherwise you could not have mistaken this girl for one of noble caste.”
“Nevertheless,” she spoke up firmly, “I have been abducted, in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. You can hardly expect me to return to my usual milieu without a Consort.” It was taking an effort not to flare her nostrils in distaste at his personal scent – the honey tones of his personal odour were overly sweet for her taste and the sandalwood component was disappointingly sour.
“True,” the nobleman conceded with a nod of agreement, the beginning of his caste rank plait becoming visible to her on the crown of his head when he did so. “However, I will be taking Lady Adrihana as my Primary Consort so I am not in a position to take you as a consort at this time.” He turned his head towards his escorts, “Guard Captain, to me please.”
The senior most of them hurried forward. “Yes, my lord?”
“This, as you may have observed, is the wrong damsel.” The Guard Captain’s body language might have indicated a certain amount of ‘I told you so.’ “Having been abducted, she requires of us a Consort. What think you of her for yourself?”
The retainer, short haired and discretely armoured, looked her up and down. “A neat damsel, my lord, but my family would never accept a half breed.” Her chin rose at this comment. “The other men are either in the same position or they already have as many consorts as they can support.”
The nobleman considered his options. “What is your relationship to your Apophesian parent?” he demanded of the girl. “Do you know who it is?”
“I’m his acknowledged child by a Secondary Consort,” she replied calmly. “He is a soldier.”
The lordling swore vividly in the Apophesian Noble Dialect. “The last thing I need is some grizzled veteran war hero complaining that I’ve dishonoured his child by his trophy.” He thought for a moment. “What about him?” He pointed at the man who had lain on top of her in the well of the van. “The mercenary is half Apophesian.”
She considered the suggested man carefully. “He would be acceptable to me,” she agreed. “Would that be an acceptable solution to him?”
“Master Gidaut,” the lordling was peremptory, “This girl you mistook for Lady Adrihana needs a Consort. As the only available Apophesian or,” a half pause, “Part Apophesian male, are you prepared to be her Consort?” He took in the other man’s look. “Damn it, I’ll double your fee as a dowry and nothing said about grabbing the wrong girl on your first attempt.”
Gidaut looked her up and down, then walked over to her. “If you will pardon the intrusion, m’lady.” He thrust his nose into the bangs of her long, dark hair on her temple and breathed in. “You really do smell like honeysuckle and cinnamon,” the words were a murmur against her forehead, “I thought I might have imagined it.”
“Mmmm,” she was breathing in his smell again too, “You need to get used to paying more attention to your nose.” She was whispering as well. “My name is Eshevariv.”
He straightened and pulled back half a step before speaking to the nobleman. “My Lord Darouvcay, I would be delighted to satisfy this lady’s needs.”
“All we need now,” she again spoke firmly to the nobleman herself, “Is a priest and his register. I assume your lordship has them on hand?”
“Of course,” Lord Darouvcay waved a hand negligently, “He will be fetched and a table set up for the certificate and register. I take it, Master Gidaut, that you do know how to behave at your own wedding?” His retainers began to scurry around in the background.
“I’ve done the cultural courses,” Gidaut’s body language was beginning to appear stilted to Eshevariv, as if he were annoyed with Darouvcay and trying not to show it. She quietly smiled to herself.
The priest was a tall, skinny, noble caste, male Apophesian who acted as if he was of lower status than Lord Darouvcay despite the priestly lack of a plait. The slight shabbiness of his robes suggested that he was without a post, needing to make his living by conducting rituals for those who could not attend a temple. His thick register of names and marriages was kept carefully wrapped in three layers of silk, the blank marriage certificate he supplied for completion along with the register in the ceremony was beautifully illuminated and the rope of beads he produce for the ceremony were of at least second quality jade.
Gidaut did indeed know how to behave at his own wedding and it was with their wrists bound together with the jade beads that she found out that his personal name was Harliss. The priest almost said something when he read the name she put into the register and on to the certificate in the High Script but she glared him into silence and he sanded both of them before the witnesses came to the table to add their signatures.
“What was that about?” Their wrists were still bound and so Harliss was able to whisper in her ear while the three witnesses, none of them Lord Darouvcay, played their part.
“For some reason people are always surprised that I can write properly,” she smiled up at him, sapphire and ruby lights glinting in her eyes.
The ceremony ended. Their wrists were unbound and the priest handed Eshevariv the signed certificate, rolled and tied with a crimson ribbon. Lord Darouvcay settled his accounts with his hirelings and then they were ready to go.
“I will borrow your lordship’s priest, if I might,” Eshevariv said calmly and politely to the nobleman. “His presence will make explanations to my father easier.”
“Yes, of course,” the nobleman waved his hand both graciously and dismissively, “Take him with you.”
“Also, if I might add a feminine observation on your lordship’s plans?”
He raised a surprised eyebrow but said nothing. His retainers might have been seen to tense slightly.
“In the Lady Adrihana’s position, a woman might take offence and think you were not serious about her or did not value her properly if you had her fetched to you by hirelings instead of taking steps to obtain her yourself.” Eshevariv kept her face carefully neutral, Lord Darouvcay looked thoughtful and his retainers looked – grateful.
Then they were outside, the doors of the warehouse closing behind them. Eshaevariv finally had her tote bag back, her purse, the red flashing mobile phone and everything else intact. “The cars are this way,” said Harliss, going to lead her by the elbow.
“No,” she spoke firmly, “You can pick them up later, after they’ve been checked for booby traps.”
“You think that Darouvcay would-” It was one of Harliss’ human companions, the one who’d been driving the van.
“No,” Eshevariv corrected. “But his guards might. To restore their honour. It’s supposed to be their job to assist him with this sort of thing. He insulted them when he hired you for this. It’s probably best to leave your vehicles to be picked up later. Lord Darouvcay,” she observed, “Seems to lack empathy for others.”
“So we walk.” Harliss offered her his left arm which she took. “I have a room at the Belle View.”
“I,” replied his new Primary Consort, “Have a flat three bus stops from the university.” He nodded his head in appreciation. “Also, it’s probably best if we duck through the alleys rather than stay out in plain sight,” she made an upwards circular motion with her forefinger, “In case they have a shooter out who’ll take the shot instead the call telling him to stand down.”
As they made their way along the alley that bent its way through the block one of the men who’d been in the back of the van asked, “So what’s your surname now, H? Don’t Apophesians take their wives’ surnames after marriage or something?”
“Apophesians always marry up, Grundy.” It was almost a growl or a rumble, Eshevariv wasn’t sure which. “I have no Apophesian caste or status, so I will join Eshevariv’s family but we will pick a household name.” He looked down at her and she thought his glance was almost affectionate. “So what is our family name, m’lady?” He almost sounded as if he might be teasing her...
“Skl’ Dragckysteld.” The way she said it, the first two vowels were almost swallowed. All the men stopped and looked at her. Several of them looked suddenly scared. The priest looked like he didn’t know quite how he should behave now the penny had dropped.
“You’re not a half breed, are you?” asked Harliss, suddenly still and withdrawn in his body language.
“No,” she agreed and relaxed her control on her irises so they appeared in their natural Imperial Apophesian cross-shape. “I’m three quarters Apophesian. My closest human relative is my maternal grandmother.”
“And you’re not just an Imperial Apophesian,” he swallowed and she decided that she never wanted him to be afraid of her, “You’re an Imperial Princess.”
“A very minor one,” she conceded. “Ordinarily,” she offered, “I would suggest we use Gidaut as our household name, but it’s already in use in the family. Perhaps, after you’ve given it some thought, you could suggest something else we could use?”
“Who would we offend if we use Gidaut too?” He cocked his head and squinted as if considering the long view.
“I’ll work on a list of suggestions.” The calculating look was gone. “Anything else I should know?”
“You will meet my grandfathers,” she warned. “They’ve liked to tag team on my siblings’ Consorts and they don’t play good cop/bad cop, they play bad guy/badder guy.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, but I think I’m more worried about meeting your father,” he confessed.
“Don’t be,” she advised. “Father is the soul of reason compared to them.”
Harliss started walking again. “What were you doing running around the University unguarded?”
“Pretending to be a half breed of uninteresting background seemed the best protection against the men who would have wanted to be my Primary Consort to get into my family. As for why I was at the University, I was directed to participate in some research His Majesty considers important.”
“Running people through mazes?” One of Harliss’ companions put a cynical turn on that.
“Actually, I’m one of the subjects,” she corrected quietly. Then, “Ozone?” She sniffed. “I think we have a travel spell incoming.”
No sooner had she spoken then solid grey armoured forms appeared around them. Man-shaped and of Apophesian design and make. Uniformly grey except for a black sigil and a green, front and back, with the black on the viewer’s right. The black sigil was identical on every suit; each suit had a different green sigil. The sole exception to these markings was the suit that stopped in front of Eshevariv; it had only the sigil the others carried in black, but it had it in gold.
“Father.” Eshevariv bent her head in greeting and the helmet’s face divided in half and retracted sideways to reveal an almost stereotypical male Imperial Apophesian: oval face; olive skin; purple-black, lamb curling hair cut short to sit flat on his head; bifurcated eyebrows from long lost Indraasi; and thin, masculine lips. His idiosyncrasy was a miscellaneous set of long healed scars that made no sense until you realised that they represented years, if not decades, of combat survival on battlefields past.
“Eshevariv.” His eyes rested on her hand tucked into Harliss’ arm. “And this is?” One of his hands dropped to the hilt of a short sword.
“My Primary Consort, Harliss.” She raised her chin out of submission. “You may examine this priest’s register if you require confirmation of the rite.”
The priest shuffled forward, apparently almost overwhelmed or afraid, the wrapped register held out towards the armoured prince on his hands and forearms, his head bent so far forward his chin touched his chest. “Highness?” The voice may have been breathy but he didn’t quite stutter.
The prince waved him aside. “My daughter’s word is sufficient for me.” He spared the priest a glance. “The two of you should take him into your household. He appears to require feeding and maintenance.” The priest looked up in shock while the prince turned his attention to his new son-in-law. “So, how did this happen?”
Harliss did not pretend to misunderstand him. “Lord Darouvcay t’Lonaha Bidtron hired us to abduct Lady Adrihana t’Shanasalt Inhara so he could take her as his Primary Consort. He refused to provide us with a picture and, based on his description, we misidentified Eshevariv as Lady Adrihana. Lord Darouvcay misidentified Eshevariv as a half breed of commoner blood. Eshevariv still required a husband, and I was offered.”
“I see,” the prince’s eyes narrowed in a look of calculation, “And if you’re going to be a member of our family the word is gasteiw, not commoner.” He took another look at Harliss. “Do I know you? You look somehow familiar.”
“We have not, to my knowledge, met before, sir.”
“Ah, well. We’ll have years to work it out, probably.” The prince gave Harliss a wolfish grin.
“Father,” Eshevariv put in quickly, “I like the way he smells.” Her voice almost had dimples in it and Harliss looked down at her in confusion.
The prince raised an eyebrow, “Then I’ll see you both after I’ve had a word with a certain little lordling. Eshe, don’t forget to call your mother – she’s worried.” He closed his helmet and strode off in the general direction of the warehouse.
“I think,” Eshevariv said thoughtfully, looking at his retreating back, “That you’ll have to admit to owing Lord Darouvcay a favour of the first water.”
“Why?” Harliss looked puzzled, “It’s not my fault he didn’t give us the means to identify the right girl.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “But he did arrange for you to marry a minor Imperial Princess.”
“There is that,” he conceded.
“And there’s what’s about to happen to him.”
“Getting into trouble for abducting said minor Imperial Princess?”
“No, that’s sort of expected. Someone was always going to abduct me – it’s how we arrange marriages of Primary Consorts. If he’d done it himself, no-one would have had any issues.”
“So, what’s going to happen to him then?” It was the driver who asked the question.
Eshevariv smiled. “He’s going to have to explain to an armed and armoured Imperial Prince why his daughter, the Princess, wasn’t good enough for his lordship’s family.”