Cardelia didn’t want to think too deeply about it, but she’d shamefully enjoyed kissing Valerius. In fact Valerius had been the one to break it off, pushing away from her when they heard footsteps outside.
Cardelia sat up and they stared at each other, both gasping for air. He looked as stunned as she felt. He dusted the straw off his clothing and stood up. Then miraculously, he held a hand out to help her up. Reason returning, she slapped his hand away and got up on her own.
Valerius straightened the saddle on Cardelia’s horse and tightened the straps. His eyes were bleak when he said “Go then,” holding the reins steady so she could mount up.
She grasped the pommel but then released it, turning to Valerius. “What was it you wanted me to hear?”
“I wanted to tell you how Xavier got his scar.”
“I assumed it was it battle.”
Valerius released the horse and sat back down in the straw, his back against the a wall. “It was the fifth day of fighting. Every part of me ached so badly that I could not sleep for the pain. I could barely lift my sword arm anymore. The pain bothered me so much I got careless. I slipped in the mud and the enemy raised his sword. I knew I was bound for Avernus, and the River Styx.
“But Xavier, he threw himself between the enemy and me.” Valerius dragged a hand over his face. “Took the blow that was meant for me. It would have killed most men.”
Cardelia noticed the slight tremor in his voice.
“He…he told me later, he did it because he wouldn’t be able to tolerate my whining over the loss of my pretty boy looks.”
Cardelia sat down in the straw next to him and took his hand. “I’m glad you told me,” she said.
“I wanted you to know the kind of man my brother is. He’s a little rough to look at, but he’s loyal, trustworthy, brave…valiant. You will not find a better man in all the empire for a husband.”
Cardelia nodded, stood up, and unsaddled her horse.
Dianthe’s heart sang as Xavier’s arms tightened around her, and his lips came to join with hers. She tried to memorize the feel and taste of him as she knew the sensations would have to last a lifetime.
It was she who broke the kiss. When her breathing calmed, she said “Come, we need to prepare for the journey ahead,” and walked back towards the inn.
The next morning, Xavier and Cardelia rode out in front, hiding their anguish behind their regal bearing. Valerius and Dianthe followed behind, less adept at masking their emotions, their unhappiness apparent for all to see.