Kemen relates this scene from his point of view in A Cold Wind, and I thought it would be fun to tell it from Riona’s point of view… they have very different perspectives. If you have the paperback version, the scene starts on page 99 with I left the main company far behind…
SPOILER WARNING: This is a scene close to the middle of the second book. There aren’t huge spoilers in here, but there are some pretty big clues, so if you don’t want anything spoiled, don’t read any further!
Kemen arrived back from Rikuto in the middle of a rainstorm just before midnight. No one had expected him back yet, so his room wasn’t ready and dinner was long put away. Nori woke the king, and then woke Sinta and me so we could prepare his room and meal.
Sinta asked if I wanted her to ready his room so I could go meet him, but I was strangely nervous about seeing him after several weeks. I told her to go ahead, and I started the fire in his room. Perhaps it was his absence that made me remember how honored he was, how different our stations were. The king himself leapt out of bed when he heard that Kemen had returned. Who was I to think that Kemen might feel more than friendly affection toward me? The roses he’d left at my door spoke of a love that did not fit the image that now filled my mind.
I told myself such feelings were silly, but I couldn’t help the nervous flutter in my chest when I slipped into the hall. The king thanked him and brushed past me with barely a glance. Sinta had taken Kemen’s dripping cloak and was holding it out from her as she hung it on a drying rack in the corner, trying not to soak her own gown.
Kemen saw me, and he bowed with a smile.
“You’re wet!” My words sounded inane as soon as they left my mouth. It was true, though; despite the hood that he’d obviously pulled over his head, his hair dripped into his face and his boots squelched against the marble floor. His thick overtunic and the white shirt beneath it were plastered to him, his trousers drenched, the water slowly dripping into his boots. It showed his body in detail I’d carefully avoided imagining.
“It’s raining.” His smile widened, but he didn’t seem to notice my embarrassment.
Sinta was not so kind, and as she left, she whispered, “Can’t help looking now, can you?”
My face heated.
“I trust you’re well?” he said, his eyes never leaving my face.
I nodded. “Come. I’ll get you dinner.”
We walked through the halls without speaking, except for when he gently took the lamp from my hand to carry it for me. Sinta had stirred the logs in the hearth and the fire was going strongly by the time we reached his room. He set the lamp on a table and stepped behind a screen to undress. I fed the fire more wood, taking the opportunity calm my thoughts.
“Will you want a bath tonight?” I asked.
“Just a basin of water. I should, but I’m tired. I’ll bathe in the morning.”
I didn’t wonder that he was tired. He must have ridden ahead of the rest of the company, alone in the darkness for hours while it rained buckets on him. I heard the soft rustle of fabric as he scrubbed briskly at his face and hair, then more rustling as he dressed. I lit another lamp.
“I’ll bring you some dinner in a moment. There’s wine here for you while you wait.” I looked up to see him standing beside the screen, the light playing across his bare chest.
He might have been carved of ebin wood or dark stone by some master sculptor, a flawless study in muscle and bone. I sucked in my breath and looked away, even as he stepped toward the fire and knelt. The flickering firelight caught the strong lines of his cheekbone and jaw, his lips set in an expression I couldn’t read. The lamplight, from behind him, highlighted the prickles of chill on his broad shoulders and the tight, hard muscles of his torso. The faded star-shaped scar on his back, at the tip of his right shoulder blade, caught my eye for a moment. What had happened to leave him with that? I wondered if I’d ever have the courage to ask him.
My life seemed boring and safe in comparison to his, and though I didn’t mind the safety, the reminder of his courage made me doubt again what he might see in me. If anything. Perhaps I was too forward, assuming too much about his feelings.
He poked at the logs and sighed, a soft, tired sound that I don’t think I was meant to hear. He didn’t look at me.
“Sir? The king had pheasant pie for dinner tonight, if you’d like that. But I can make you anything you want.” I knelt beside him, close enough to see his face better but not too close. “Are you cold? I can get more wood for the fire.”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
I stood and he sighed again, closing his eyes for a moment. I found a robe in the chest at the end of his bed and stepped close again to drape it over his shoulders. He looked up at me, blinking against the dry heat of the fire.
“Sir, come sit. You must be tired. What can I bring you?”
He stood, the movement not quite as effortless and graceful as he usually was. He was already stiffening from the ride, and that, more than his expression, told me how hard he must have ridden. The king had been grateful for his news, though, so it must have been good. “Whatever is easy.” He coughed.
“Are you sick?”
“No. Just tired.”
I hesitated, then leaned over to pull the robe closer around his neck. My boldness startled me, and perhaps it startled him as well, because he met my eyes with a sudden glance. My face heated, and I turned away, clasping my hands together to unsuccessfully hide their trembling.
I left him there, sitting with his bare feet stretched toward the fire, to prepare his dinner. The hallways of the palace are rarely quiet, but between midnight and dawn even the servants are sleeping. Sinta had stirred the coals in the oven before she’d retired. I found a lamb tart and cut a large piece for him, then stuffed a few hot peppers into the open sides before putting it in the oven to heat. A piece of pheasant pie went into the oven as well, along with a plate of beans with nuts and stuffed tomatoes. Then a plate of cool items, almond pastries, slices of four kinds of cheese, a roll of sticky rice sealed in a leaf left over from the king’s breakfast, grapes, and a few other things I hoped he’d like.
I waited impatiently for the tart and pie to finish heating; after the long, cold, wet ride, I imagined Kemen would prefer his food hot rather than lukewarm. Finally everything was ready, and I arranged it on a tray. It was heavy, but I managed to make it to his room without dropping or jostling it. I had to put the tray on the floor for a moment to open the door, and stepped inside.
He didn’t move, and I crossed the room to put the tray on the table by the window that looked out onto the darkened courtyard. I turned to see him asleep, his head propped on his right fist. I stepped closer, unable to look away for a moment. I hadn’t known a man could be so beautiful. The white robe had loosened as he sat, showing his neck and a triangle of his chest, smooth and hard, though it moved with each soft breath. His hair curled a bit at his temples, especially now as it dried from the rain. He sighed, gave a soft cough, then his breathing deepened as he relaxed further into sleep.
I felt cruel to wake him, and I wondered if I was wrong to do so. But surely he would be hungry too. I touched his shoulder.
“Sir, I’ve brought your dinner.”
He blinked into sudden, startled wakefulness, then smiled when he saw the tray. “I guess I look hungry.” He pulled the robe tighter and belted it around his lean waist.
“I wanted to be sure you had something you liked. Did you have any trouble on the road?”
“No. The trip was easy enough.” He coughed again, a short dry cough.
I took a deep breath, reminding myself that we were courting. I should be bold. I should trust that he would not be offended if I did not behave exactly as any other servant would. So I reached across the table to touch his hand, just resting my fingers over his. “Have some tea. The lemon might help a little.”
He smiled and sipped the tea, not moving his hand beneath mine. In the dim, flickering light, I found it difficult to read his expressions, and I wondered if I was too bold after all.
“How long did it take you to get back?”
“Eight days.” He hesitated, eyes bright on my face, and then said, “I wanted to see you again.”
I blushed. “I’m glad you’re back.” Perhaps I was too cautious. Perhaps he was; if he was afraid I’d be offended if he were bolder, he was wrong. Slowly and gently I interlaced my fingers with his long, strong ones. They were warm, and he opened his hand to let me do as I wished. I wondered if he thought I were some wild animal, and that he had to be so cautious in order not to scare me away. Or perhaps he did not know how to be bold with a woman. “I missed you.” The words did not help the heat fade from my face, but I was glad I said them.
He tightened his hand on mine, grip still gentle but more firm now, and he lowered his head to kiss my fingers. His lips were warm, and I wished they lingered longer. I smiled at him as he looked up again.
I asked him about Rikuto as he ate, and he told me about the Rikutan court, how Ashmu Tafari welcomed him, the Rikutan music and Tafari’s garden. He told me about the sad beauty of the countryside, how the farms were slowly beginning to thrive again, though drought still plagued them. He didn’t ask much, just whether I’d been well, and about Lani, whether she’d met any potential suitors during his absence. He reached across the table once to touch my hand again, and I slipped my fingers between his.
His voice rasped a little with tiredness, and I knew I’d stayed far too long, though he didn’t seem eager to have me leave. It must have been near dawn; my eyes were burning, and I imagine his were too. Finally I stood and bid him goodnight. I let myself run my hand across his shoulders as I stepped around his chair, and he caught my hand and brought it to his lips. The kiss was too short, too chaste, and my hand lingered in his.
I smiled at him, and he smiled back, green eyes clear and gentle. I felt his gaze on me as I carried the tray out of the room, and the warmth of it made me smile all the way to the kitchen.