Two months later…
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I placed a small nugget of iron on a piece of fabric in front of me and concentrated. A quick, practised thought melted the metal. I caressed it mentally, savouring its desire to be shaped by me. Carefully I coaxed it to spread out across the fabric, coating the fibres in a thin, barely visible film. For my experiments I had cut up an old tunic and now the faded cloth took on a silvery sheen from the iron.
However, I wasn't finished yet. Holding the entire metal in my mind, I told it to blend with the wool fibres, becoming one, and to harden to strongest steel.
Releasing my breath, I straightened up and stretched. Had it worked? I picked up the piece of cloth and tried to fold it. Yes, almost as supple as before. My first trials had been stiff and brittle, making them useless. I still needed to improve my control, but with more practice I hoped to coat a whole tunic in a thin steel film: clothing that was lighter and much more flexible than armour, yet would stop arrows and cushion sword strokes. I had already demonstrated its usefulness with pieces of test fabric.
I grinned to myself. The abbess of Dancing Crane Temple had at first been scandalised by my ideas. Apparently a lady Metal mage traditionally used her talents to craft beautiful jewellery, not to devise a way to improve armour. However, the deference with which mages were treated here in Sikhand had meant that they had let me do as I pleased. Indeed, Kiarash's cousin Farnaz, the Water mage who had gifted him with his cloak, had even helped me apply the principle of water proofing to working with metal.
I picked up my piece of experimental fabric and put it away, looking forward to showing my progress to Kiarash next time he visited. The room had heated up, so I slid ajar one of the doors that opened out onto the garden. Dancing Crane Temple being of mixed Elements, the grounds were tended by Wood and Water mages, who had dotted little streams and ponds amongst the lush vegetation. The trees and shrubs were placed so skillfully that the garden seemed much larger than it actually was.
It was a surrounding as unlike a Khotai camp as imaginable, yet nevertheless I felt at ease. Of course it helped that my room had been transformed with hangings and carpets into a space resembling the tents of my people. Kiarash had organised it all within a few days of my arrival in Kharshaan, had even found a churn for making butter tea somewhere.
Kiarash… He had kept all his promises: the visit to the tea house with its tables placed on little islands and connected by arched bridges and stepping stones, eating dumplings at the Capering Carp, located in a much more disreputable area of town, spiriting me out of the temple for rides on Shar outside the city gates.
I knew a lot more about Kiarash now, amongst other things that his family more or less ran the province! One of his uncles served as governor of Kharshaan, his father was the commander of the province's border guard and various cousins held important posts in the city administration. To say nothing of Kiarash himself, who was in charge of seven forts along the eastern sector of the province's border, it had turned out – a position from which he had merely taken a short leave to recover Delyth, officially for a hunting expedition.
A couple of weeks ago, he had taken me along to his family's estates and introduced me to his parents. Lord Shahin, his father, had been keen to discuss Khotai customs and my particular application of Metal magic. He possessed an acute intelligence, while in her own quiet way Kiarash's mother had been just as impressive, though she hid her strength behind the mask of a polite, serene hostess.
Yes, I'd seen a lot of Kiarash, and whenever his duties permitted, he sought me out. There was just one thing missing: he had not kissed me again.
I frowned in thought. The Sikhandi did not like to show their emotions in public, and Kiarash was no exception. I thought he enjoyed our outings as much as I did, but though I had done my best to encourage him, he kept our touches to the briefest minimum. Why, he even insisted I always take a guard from the temple along whenever he took me to see some place.
Lately I had started to wonder what I had to do to get him to continue where he had let off that memorable day – hit him over the head and drag him into my bed?
Suddenly running footsteps sounded on the path outside. The next moment a young girl, one of the temple acolytes, burst into the room. "Lady Javaneh," she gasped. "Please come at once. Lord Kiarash is in the outer courtyard and asks to see you."
I stared at her in surprise; the message hardly warranted such haste. Though we hadn't arranged to meet today, a visit by him was nothing out of the ordinary.
"Very well," I answered. "Why don't you ask him to step into the garden, as usual. Could you bring us some tea and food?"
"He has sat down in the courtyard and demands to see you at once," the girl exclaimed. "Please, Lady Javaneh, we can't have Lord Kiarash tal Shahin sit on the ground in our courtyard. It's not dignified."
He had sat down? "Oh." I considered briefly. "Did he bring a mat?" I asked.
The girl looked confused. "Yes, a small carpet to sit on. And a cup," she added as a puzzled afterthought.
"I see." And finally I did. "You may leave," I told the girl.
"But what about Lord Kiarash? His uncle is the governor of the province!"
"I know. Don't worry, I will come along soon." I dismissed her.
Well. That was about time. And he was doing it in the proper Khotai manner. I considered for a moment. To practice my magic, I had put on a Sikhandi robe made from linen, nice and cool in this warm summer weather.
Now I changed back into trousers and slipped on my blouse embroidered with turquoise beads. The temple servants had washed and mended my clothes most meticulously, although they clearly did not approve of a woman wearing tight fitting trousers. However, I would do this properly, the Khotai way.
Soft cloth swished at the door to my room. "What is this I hear about Kiarash sitting in the courtyard, asking for you?"
It was his cousin Farnaz, beautiful as always, her robes falling in graceful folds about her and with her black hair caught up in a complicated hairstyle: the very picture of the perfect, elegant Sikhandi lady. We had become friends at once.
"Oh, just a Khotai custom that Kiarash has heard about," I answered. After a moment's thought, I undid a couple of the laces at my throat. After all there was nothing wrong with giving a little encouragement.
Farnaz was watching me closely. "Is that why you're wearing your Khotai clothes?"
I nodded. "Yes. I'm not a refined lady. I'm from the steppes, descended from wolves. And I will not turn myself into something I am not. Kiarash shall see clearly what he is asking for."
A smile tugged at the corner of Farnaz's mouth. "You don't mince your words, do you, Javaneh? You just are yourself. No wonder he's fallen for you."
"You think he has?"
She gave her enchanting, gurgling laugh. "Of course he has. That has been clear to anybody with eyes in their head for a long time now. Why, he's practically devouring you when you're not watching."
"But why did he wait so long?" I voiced my misgivings.
"Long?" she exclaimed. "Two months is a scandalously short time to resolve to get married. Most Sikhandi parents take longer than that just to arrange the first tentative visit. And it hardly gives you time to settle in here, before making such an important decision."
I rolled my eyes. "What nonsense. Well, I'm having no more of that."
"Does that mean we should start preparing for a surprise wedding?" she asked.
"Not tonight, so there's no rush."
"Not tonight?" She stared at me in shock. "Javaneh, I was joking."
It was my turn to smile. "I am not. But Khotai weddings aren't very elaborate: food, drink, horse races."
"I'd better start organising things," she muttered to herself. "When do you think…?"
"Oh, as I said, there's no rush. Another three days at least."
"Three days!" There was a hint of panic in her voice.
"Don't worry," I told her. "At a pinch we can do without the horse races. But let's go and see Kiarash now."
As the girl had said, we found him in the outer courtyard, in front of the temple's formal receiving hall. Word had spread, and most of the servants and many of the resident mages had come to have a look what was going on.
Kiarash sat on a small carpet, wearing full armour with his two swords in their harness on his back. Amongst the Khotai, this demonstrated the ability to defend a wife and children. In front of him he had placed his cup, which would be filled at sunrise and sunset with fresh water.
He watched me approach. Suddenly I understood what Farnaz had meant by his eyes devouring me. A spark of anticipation kindled in my stomach.
"I seek Javaneh of the White Horse clan," Kiarash announced.
"I am her."
He fixed me with his dark eyes. "Listen, Javaneh of the White Horse clan: I, Kiarash tal Shahin, of Fifth Circle rank, will not leave here until you agree to wed with me."
He had even found out the correct phrases! However, outwardly I showed nothing of the thrill running through me. "I hear your words, warrior," I gave the traditional answer.
Then I sat down in the shade of the receiving hall, waved for Farnaz to join me and sent one of the servants for a drink of lime juice and a plate of delicacies from the kitchen. In my mind I was already planning the next steps. For dinner I would order dumplings from the Capering Carp, I thought. They truly were the best in Kharshaan.
I made sure Kiarash, sitting in the full glare of the sun, had a good view of us when I poured Farnaz a cup of the tangy, chilled drink. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him watching us, his face completely impassive.
Farnaz chuckled. "Trust the Khotai to treat a marriage proposal like laying siege to a city. Still, Kiarash seems to have entered into the spirit of it. I never did think that a gentle, refined Sikhandi lady would do for him."
As if I was bored, I played with the laces of my blouse, loosening another pair. When I looked over at Kiarash, I saw in his eyes the promise of retribution mixed with something else. Something warm and possessive and exhilarating…
I matched him gaze for gaze. "No," I agreed, "but a daughter of wolves just might."
A/N: Many thanks to you all for reading and commenting! If you want to read this story on an eReader, it's available for free at Smashwords, iBooks, Nook and Kobo. If you have a Kindle, you can either get it from Smashwords or for a minimal price at Amazon (they won't let me offer it for free). Just search for Lia Patterson and you'll find it - or else use the links on my Website (link on my profile page).