“Shaia?” A male voice curled around her and she frowned and looked around as they entered the fringes of the village, seeking the source of it.
None of the males coming and going along the avenues between the thatched houses were familiar to her.
“Do you know that male?” Eirwyn said and she glanced up at him, catching him scowling in the direction of the village square as he smoothed his ponytail, his actions clipped and reeking of irritation.
Shaia looked there.
A handsome male strode towards them along the broad road between the grey stone two-storey buildings, his fitted black tunic detailed with elegant pale green embroidery around the edges of the two long panels at the front that reached his knees, the matching ones at the back, and around the cuffs. Tight black trousers hugged his lean muscular legs, tucked into polished black knee-high riding boots. Their silver clasps reflected the light, dazzling her as much as his wide smile and bright violet eyes.
Eirwyn pulled a face beside her, and she could understand why. While his own tunic and trousers were fine and tailored for him, they couldn’t compare to the ones the male wore.
They bore symbols only those high in the court of Prince Loren could wear.
The male’s smile became a grin and he waved, glanced over his shoulder and said something to someone behind him, and then picked up pace, heading towards Shaia.
She blinked as she finally recognised him.
The miller’s son.
The last time she had seen Bleu, he had been a scrawny lad and had come home to the village to announce to his parents that he had been given the position of commander. His family had held a celebration in his honour, and Shaia had been invited, but had refused. The thought of seeing him in the finery of a commander and attending the celebration had been too much for her, and she had spiralled back into a depression.
Bleu had visited her the day after, and had apologised. He hadn’t been the one to send the invitations to the entire village. She had been grateful when he had told her he wouldn’t have invited her if he had and that he understood, and hoped it hadn’t hurt her too deeply.
She had lied then too, telling him that it hadn’t, when it had cut her deeper than any blade could have.
She moved forwards to meet him, pulling herself away from the past and managing to smile for him. This time, it felt genuine, warming her and chasing away some of the cold that seemed a permanent part of her now.
Her step faltered when a tall, beautiful female stepped out from behind Bleu, her violet-to-white hair matching her striking eyes. Those eyes darted around, taking everything in, not seeming to notice the way the males in the village looked at her, a mixture of admiration and fear in their eyes.
Shaia could understand their shock. It rippled through her too.
She had never seen a female dressed this way before.
Violet leather trousers hugged her long legs, paired with matching boots, and a white leather corset fitted snug to her torso, revealing a strip of toned stomach and a startling amount of cleavage.
Bleu glanced back at the female again, and then did the most shocking thing of all.
He snarled and flashed fangs at the males who were looking at the female, his pointed ears flaring back against his wild blue-black hair, and snapped in their native tongue, “Get your fucking eyes off my mate.”
The males bolted, leaving the female looking around her with a confused crinkle to her brow.
“Bleu?” the female whispered, her incredible eyes landing on him, and continued in the mortal tongue, “I said it was not wise for me to dress in my usual manner.”
“And I said I like you that way and people will deal with it. You don’t have to be something you’re not.” He caught the female’s wrist and tugged her into his arms, banding them around her in a way that caused a fierce sting in Shaia’s heart. “I love you just the way you are.”
The female blushed and pushed against Bleu’s shoulders. “You are making a scene.”
He shrugged and refused to release her. “Let them all stare. They’re just jealous.”
“That they might be, but I believe you are being rude to the elf female and her male looks displeased.”
Shaia risked a glance at Eirwyn. He looked positively aghast.
She wished she couldn’t understand why, because she wanted what Bleu and this female shared to be the accepted way of things, that such public displays of affection between a male and a female were not a faux pas or frowned upon by society.
That love in all its forms could be celebrated not scorned.
Bleu nuzzled the female’s neck and then drew back, and Shaia ached as she saw the marks on the female’s throat, twin scars that confirmed what Bleu had said. This female was his mate.
“I barely recognised you,” Shaia said, hoping to pull Bleu away from his female, because Eirwyn was rapidly losing patience and she feared he would pull her away if Bleu didn’t speak soon.
She wanted to know why Bleu had called out to her, and wanted to know more about the female, because she wasn’t elf. She was something else. Something strong, and powerful, and independent.
Bleu finally pulled himself away from the female, but kept his arm locked tightly around her waist, pinning her against his side in a way that sparked envy in Shaia.
She had been held like that once.
Eirwyn placed his hand against the small of her back and a weight instantly descended on her, pressing down on her heart and making her want to twist free of his touch. While Bleu’s grip on his female was possessive, it was born of love and a need of his female, a desire to be in contact with her at all times.
Eirwyn’s touch was possession of another nature, a show of dominance over her, marking her as belonging to him.
Bleu’s violet eyes narrowed on Eirwyn and he was silent for the longest time before he said, “I know your brother… Leif. He serves in my legion. I served your father, Commander Andon, once too. It was an honour.”
“Your legion?” Eirwyn’s tone held a trace of venom and a slight note of disbelief, and she had the sinking feeling that things were about to turn dire.
Before he could offend Bleu, Shaia stepped forwards and captured his focus. “Bleu is a commander, serving Prince Loren directly.”
Eirwyn cast a glance over Bleu from head to toe and back again, and she was surprised he didn’t curl his lip. “The same Bleu who was born to the mill on the outskirts of the village?”
“And now I see where Leif gets his lovely temperament and that lofty air. It clearly runs in the blood. I’ve had to beat it out of him a few times… so don’t think I won’t beat it out of you too.” Bleu held his free hand out to Eirwyn. “You may call me Commander Bleu.”
Shaia stifled the smile that wanted to curve her lips and schooled her features so Eirwyn wouldn’t see her amusement. If she had thought he had looked aghast before, she had been mistaken. Now he looked aghast, his mouth hanging open and face reflecting his astonishment.
It had probably been centuries since someone had spoken to him with so little respect.
It had probably been longer than that since someone had pulled rank on him.
Bleu’s steady gaze dropped to her as he lowered his hand. “Speaking of the legions… I have spent time with another male recently, one from the legions and one you know.”
Shaia frowned at him. She didn’t know anyone from the army but Bleu, and she barely knew him. She couldn’t think who he was talking about.
“You must be mistaken,” she said.
He cleared his throat and spoke very carefully, pressing each word home. “I believe you did know him once. I recall you telling me so in a town near the free realm. Do you not remember? It was forty-two centuries ago now so I can see why you have perhaps forgotten.”
Her heart started a slow, hard thump against her ribs. It wasn’t possible that he was talking about the one she thought he was, but she had only ventured near the free realm once in her lifetime, one reckless grief-fuelled moment four thousand two hundred years ago.
One moment where instinct had driven her there and she had come upon a battlefield, drenched in blood and scarred as deeply as her heart.
“Are you unwell?” Eirwyn’s hand against her back pressed deeper into her spine and she fought for air, for the words that would make him leave her alone and give her space to breathe.
She managed to shake her head and muttered, “I will be fine.”
Bleu watched her closely.
He was so different to how he had been that day, when she had gone looking for her love, desperate to find him alive even when she had known he was gone.
Bleu had told her then that the male she was looking for hadn’t come in with the wounded, that he was dead.
Now he was telling her that male was alive?
It wasn’t possible.
But what if it was true?
Gods, what if he really was alive and had been all this time?
Her throat closed as all her strength rushed out of her and she struggled to breathe, rasped as she sucked down shallow pants of air and her mind raced as quickly as her thundering heart.
She could feel Eirwyn’s eyes on her, intent and focused, and could sense he was close to making another attempt to smother her. She had to speak.
“Would you introduce me?” Her voice shook and she quickly gestured to the female beside Bleu when he cocked an eyebrow, making it clear she hadn’t meant the male he had spoken of but his mate.
Or had she?
If she asked it of him, would he take her to that male?
Was it really possible that he was alive?
Everything in her screamed that it wasn’t and Bleu was mistaken. Her heart had shattered when her love had died. She had felt it.
“This is Taryn, my mate.” He beamed at her, male pride and a lot of love shining in his eyes.
“I am pleased to meet you, Taryn.” Shaia turned to Taryn and focused on her to subdue the questions racing through her mind and give herself a moment to breathe.
The contrast between them struck her again. Suddenly, her green elven dress felt as if it was swamping her frame, designed to hide her body rather than make the most of it. The long sleeves had always irritated her when other females were allowed to wear dresses without them, and the fact it dragged on the floor was often highly impractical, but it was another elf tradition, and one she would dearly love to shatter.
She tried to picture herself dressed as Taryn was, wearing tight leather and a revealing corset, and failed dismally.
Her own corset sat over her dress, made of wrought silver swirls that felt as if they were crushing her ribs and her breasts rather than supporting her, cinched down the sides with ribbons. Some elf females dared to wear dresses that were lower cut, and corsets that revealed more bosom.
Shaia had tried that once, and had been banished to her room in her parents’ home for one cycle of the moon.
She couldn’t openly dress as she wanted, but she often did her best to break with convention when she could.
She always wore sturdier and cheaper clothing at her small home away from the village, a basic blouse paired with a long skirt. She would roll up the sleeves and open the buttons down the front to allow air across her skin as she worked, and sometimes lazed in the private garden with her skirt hitched up to reveal her legs as she soaked in the sunlight.
“Where do you come from?” Shaia couldn’t even guess at what species Taryn was, but every instinct she possessed said that the female was strong, born of a breed with powers possibly more impressive than her elf mate’s ones.
Taryn pointed north-east, to a place beyond Eirwyn and the high peaks on the horizon. “The land of dragons.”
Shaia’s mouth dropped open and she snapped it shut before anyone noticed. A dragon? Incredible. She had a thousand questions she wanted to ask Taryn, but Eirwyn was watching her closely again, seemingly waiting for her to break with convention.
She smiled and forced herself to respond with just a single word. “Fascinating.”
It wasn’t against society’s rules for her to be fascinated by something. Eirwyn couldn’t pick her up on it.
The pang of envy returned as Bleu tugged Taryn a little closer, gazed at her through adoring eyes and looked as if he would die if she asked it of him. Taryn stood tall beside him, her head high, and violet-to-white eyes leaping around, taking everything in again. She glanced at Bleu and then away again, and began speaking in another tongue.
Bleu responded, a smile in his eyes as he spoke with his mate.
Shaia’s heart beat painfully hard at the sight of them, at the way Bleu indulged her and the way Taryn stood at his side like an equal, commanding his attention and not held back by him. He didn’t stop her when she broke away from him, turning in a slow circle, her eyes leaping back to him from time to time as she spoke. She pointed towards the mills and he turned, carefully caught her hand and swung it towards one in particular.
The one his family owned.
Her eyes lit up and she said something else.
Bleu smiled again, spoke to her and then looked back at Shaia.
“She’s eager to meet the family. She’s convinced she won’t be accepted and until I get her there and she sees that they’ll love her just as much as I do, she’s going to keep slipping into the dragon tongue. Either that or she’ll get so wound up she’ll want to fly and people in these parts are jumpy enough about a stranger, let alone a dragon.” He grinned, as if he actually liked the idea of Taryn shifting and terrifying everyone.
Shaia found she liked the idea too.
It would certainly brighten her day, if not her life and this dull little village.
Eirwyn pressed harder against her spine. “We should be going.”
Panic lanced her and her eyes shot to Bleu, and she blurted, “How is our friend?”
Her voice shook as badly as her hands and she feared her intended would see it, but there was no way she could contain it, not when she was speaking about him.
Her lost love.
Bleu’s expression turned grave. “Unwell. The perils of being an assassin I suppose. It is dark work.”
That terrified her as much as it delighted her. Bleu was trying to tell her everything she needed to know in a coded manner. He was giving her clues that she could follow. The male she had thought had died was alive, but terribly sick if she was interpreting Bleu’s words correctly.
Gods, she needed to find him. She needed to scour every assassin’s guild until she was with him again and could pull him back from the darkness.
That desire shattered when Eirwyn spoke, reminding her that she wasn’t free to do as she pleased. “We must move on now.”
Shaia’s eyebrows furrowed and she looked to Bleu, desperate to learn more from him but aware that she couldn’t remain any longer. Her purple eyes shifted to the dragon beside him, and courage bloomed, strength that she thought had died long ago with her male.
“Thank you,” she said to Bleu as Eirwyn caught her wrist and pulled her away, her heart soaring as she looked back at him and his mate.
The dragon was free, powerful and independent. Bleu’s sister lived her life that way too.
All it took was courage.
She could be independent too.
She could find the male she had thought she had lost.
She could find her mate.