"Have I ever mentioned that your daughter is damned stubborn?"
Charis looked across the dinner table at Zahn and smiled. "She gets it from me," she said surely.
"But I get along with you. Half of the time, I don't even know why I bother with Cora," Zahn grumbled.
"Because you love her?"
"Yes, well, at least you seem to believe that. She won't even let me talk to her long enough to tell her."
Charis sighed and shook her head slowly. She had been doing that a lot during the course of the past month. Rizal had remained with them during this time, practically prostrating himself at Charis's feet to beg forgiveness for locking her in a closet and nearly killing her daughter.
Charis had admitted to Zahn in private that she really didn't blame Rizal, that she just wanted to have him kiss her feet for a little while, now that he actually could. After booting Mitzell out of the palace computers, both the chip and Rizal had turned off right along with the computers. Once the systems were up and running again, so was Rizal. The chip had been wiped clean, the program loaded onto it completely erased. Thus he was free to touch whomever he pleased.
And there was a lot of touching going on. Much of Rizal's 'prostrating' occurred in the bedroom, a place Zahn would like to find himself in sometime soon. He'd been sleeping on the couch in the main sitting room for the past month because Cora refused to unlock any of the doors in the house for him. She was trying to drive him out with discomfort, but Zahn refused to be daunted. He didn't mind using the outdoors as a restroom, and there was a pond near her Estate where he could bathe. Eventually, she would realize that he wasn't going anywhere and give in.
"Did you tell her what Zuri told me?" Zahn demanded.
"For the fiftieth time, Zahn, yes. She knows she wasn't raped. She even talked to Zuri himself just to confirm the story."
"And she's still mad at me?"
"Perhaps she is just pretending to be mad so you will continue to suffer for her," Rizal suggested, smiling teasingly at a blushing Charis.
"I cannot believe that she would talk to Zuri, but she won't spare a word for me," Zahn grumbled.
"You speak of him like he's still the villain, and yet you were the one who convinced Alexander to let him go instead of executing him as he'd originally planned," Charis reminded him. "I for one still don't trust that he wasn't somehow involved in all of this."
"He's halfway to Woodlandia by now, so it doesn't matter." Rizal was speaking around a mouthful of beef. For some reason, he was eating particularly quickly tonight.
So was Charis.
"Why did he decide to go to Woodlandia, I wonder?" she asked around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
"Undercivilized. They don't even have projectoscreens there, so no one will recognize him as the former Blood Emperor. He's just an ordinary Zythalian now. In spite of what everyone thinks, I wish him luck. He went through a lot. I don't ever want to see him again, if only because his face is the one I place with Mitzell's deeds, but I hope he can move on and do something good with his life," Zahn said just as Charis and Rizal both wiped their lips, threw down their napkins, and announced that they were done eating.
"See you tomorrow," Zahn grumbled as they excused themselves from the table.
They fled upstairs to their bedroom, leaving Zahn alone at the table. He'd spent a lot of time alone this past month, savoring the moments Charis and Rizal kept him company. Most of all he enjoyed those rare times when Cora slept and Charis was able to sneak little Kazi down to him. Zahn had been thrilled that she had named the boy after both him and his brother. Kazi Alexander Laussen. She gave the boy her last name since Zythalians didn't bother with surnames. What mattered most, though, was the fact that if she had named the baby after him, then surely she did not still despise him.
Zahn lost track of how much time he spent in the dining room, trying to figure out what Cora's problem was and just how to fix it. Hours must have passed, because the evening sun had finally set when he heard the sound of footsteps approaching the dining room. He expected to see Thom or Medea coming to clean up after the meal. They always waited a good hour or two after everyone cleared out of the dining room before they tidied up. Once they'd seen Zahn leave and returned to pick up the dishes, only to find Charis and Rizal making full use of the table for something unrelated to eating…food. Ever since then, they made sure to give the occupants plenty of time to vacate.
When he turned his head to greet the old servants, with whom he'd grown quite chummy over the past month, his eyes widened as they fell on a weary Cora, garbed in a thin dress that matched the exact violet shade of her eyes. The silken material clung to her curves, more pronounced after the birth of their child, and Zahn felt a surge of unmitigated lust. After nearly a year of having only memories, now she was standing before him in the flesh, and not even the frown that marred her brow could reduce the joy in his breast at the mere sight of her.
"I thought you'd be asleep," she muttered even as she slowly backed out of the room.
Zahn watched her departure for one stunned minute before he leapt from his seat and chased after her. She was just about to retreat behind a door, where her computer system would bar her from him once again. Refusing to accept defeat this time, Zahn snatched her wrist and yanked her back against his chest, wrapping his thick arms around her body to imprison her there.
"Don't go," he pleaded. "Please, Cora. Talk to me. Tell me what I must do to get you back."
For the longest time she said nothing, but he could feel her body trembling in his arms. "Don't," she finally whispered.
"Don't what? Tell you how sorry I am? Tell you that I go to sleep every night regretting that I did not do more to protect you from what almost happened? Don't tell you I would do anything, anything to have you back in my arms again? Permanently?"
She was crying now, and he could not tell if they were tears of sorrow or tears of joy because she refused to turn around and face him.
"I'm s-sorry," she sobbed.
"I'm sorry!" she wailed.
When he did not immediately say anything, she elbowed him in the gut, causing his hold on her to loosen enough that she could escape him. She turned around, her cheeks stained with tears, but her eyes burning with anger. "Damn it, Zahn, I have spent the past month trying to work myself up to saying those words to you; the least you can do is accept my apology!"
His jaw dropped. "You have refused to see me for the past month because you didn't want to apologize to me? What the hell do you even have to apologize for?"
Her eyes shifted down shamefully. "After what happened…I started to blame myself, but I did not like it. Not one bit. I felt violated. Dirty. Disgusting."
He reached a hand out to her, to offer her comfort, but she took a step back, shying away from him. For the thousandth time in the past year, he felt overwhelmed by a feeling of helpless anguish, but he forced himself to wait, to be patient with her.
"I blamed you because it was easier than blaming myself, even though it was not really your fault. I said all sorts of terrible things about you, ignored all of your wonderful messages…all because I thought you had failed to protect me. But then I talked to Zuri, and he told me the truth…"
"Cora, if hating me made it any easier for you to deal with what happened, then you damn well don't need to apologize for it. Hell, I've dealt with your hatred for most of the time we've known each other," he reminded her.
This time, when she looked up at him, there was a hint of a smile on her lips. "I've been pretty consistently awful to you, haven't I?"
"And vice versa," he admitted.
"But there were good times, too."
"Yes," he agreed hoarsely. "Definitely."
"I am still waiting…"
"Apology accepted," he said immediately. "Now…"
She held up a hand to stop him from approaching. Whatever she still had to say, she'd damn well better make it quick. His body was fairly buzzing with the need to mate with her.
"I want to be with you, Zahn," she admitted, but then she sighed, shaking her head with a rueful smile on her lips. "Hell, who am I kidding? I love you. But if I am going to let you stay here, if we are going to have any sort of relationship, be it marriage or simply exclusive sexual partners, then we need to work out a few ground rules."
"All right," Zahn agreed, managing to bypass her defenses long enough to grab hold of her arms. As she talked, he started to slowly pull her back into the dining room.
"First of all, I am not your property anymore. The contract has been destroyed, so you no longer own me. Therefore, I am under no obligation to call you master," she began, speaking in a very business-like manner.
"Also, all of my assets, every last coin of money that I own, belong to me. You will have no control over them except what I allow you," Cora added even as he leaned back against the elegant mahogany table and hoisted her up so she was straddling his hips.
"Do you have any stipulations?" she asked, her voice losing a bit of its intensity as Zahn leaned forward to brush his lips against hers.
"And what's that?"
"That you marry me." He kissed her quite thoroughly after that, not leaving her enough time to respond before he completely dazed her with his lips. It took a moment for her mind to clear enough to say anything in response to his demand when he finally pulled away and moved his lips down to her neck.
"A political contract?" she wondered breathily.
Zahn took advantage of her silk dress's scooping neckline and freed one of her breasts for his hand to hold. "No."
"Then what sort of marriage will this be, General?"
"The forever kind." His lips descended to her breast even as he yanked her skirt forcefully up over her hips.
"You love me then?" Cora half-asked, half-gasped as his teeth pulled gently at her nipple.
"Haven't I told you so at least a thousand times this past year?" he growled, turning his playful nips into a gentle suckling.
Struggling for some semblance of control, Cora reminded him, "You have written the words, but you have never said the words."
Regrettably, he pulled back from her breast so he could look her directly in the eye. "Cora, I love you. Can we have sex now? Please?"
It was a terrible admission of love, but even as he impatiently waited for her response, she was discreetly working free the buttons on his pants.
"Well?" he snapped, and then he sucked in a breath as her fingers closed around him.
With a sultry smile on her face, Cora leaned up and pressed a loving kiss beneath his ear as she whispered, "Yes, master."
Author's Note: Okay, so...what did you think? Did it suck? Honestly, I hadn't intended to post this one at all because I just didn't feel like the writing was up to par with some of my other stories. The story itself, I think, is pretty good. It just needs a lot more description. This was actually supposed to be a trilogy (and might still be, if I ever decide to go back and write the other two books). Book 2 would be about Zuri, and I actually already know the general plot outline for the story. Book 3 would be about Alexander/Azair. It will probably be a while before I post again, though, because I'm pretty sure I have now posted everything I have written that is even remotely postable. Then again, I could always throw up some poems from back in the day...