“Was it really that obvious?” Daxton let the mercenary woman half-guide and half-help him into the hunting cabin. He couldn’t have run away if he’d wanted to and, concerned as she was with the ransom, she’d probably catch him. “I mean, that I’m not interested in…” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence the way she had, interested in rutting. “Um. Bedroom games? I thought I hid it pretty well.”
She opened the door with her foot. “You flirted with married women, grandmothers, great-great-grandmothers, and the occasional woman devoted to the gods. In other words, you were immensely friendly with anyone who would never take you up on it.”
“…You really noticed that?”
“I was looking.”
“I never noticed you.“
“Well, you’re not supposed to, are you? I mean, you’re the Duke’s son and I’m a mercenary. But I had reason, too.” She helped Daxton to a chair – a surprisingly sturdy one, that looked big enough to hold a bear comfortably. “I’m going to see to the horses. I’ll be just a moment.”
“But what was your reason?” He found himself calling after her back.
“We’ll get to that. Horses first.”
Daxton took the moment to look around the cabin. His first thought had been hunting cabin, the sort of place that nobility took to when they wanted to go deep into the woods. But this place was, while every bit as sturdily built as his father’s cabins, small, hardly bigger than the dungeon room Daxton had spent the last three seasons in.
It was a study in contrasts – tiny, but sturdy, everything made of humble materials and dull, faded dyes, but everything made with care and very very well. It was more comfortable, he supposed, than a dungeon, although every bit as much of a trap. But he had no chain here, and he didn’t know what she expected of him.
Bath she’d said, and he could see the big hook where a kettle might heat up over the fireplace. He couldn’t walk very well, but it was only a few steps to the hearth, and the wood was stacked – dry, split, cured wood – within arm’s reach of that hearth.
By the time the mercenary came back, Daxton had gotten a nice little fire going. It might be the end of summer, but that did not mean the nights wouldn’t be cold.
“Good idea.” She latched the door – it had a sturdy hasp, he noted, and a bar as well – and began shedding her leather armor. “You asked why I was looking. I thought you’d figured it out already.”
Daxton shook his head. “My brothers are more handsome and before me in succession.”
“Yeah. So a woman looking to marry or bed power or looks, they’ll go after your brothers. I’m not looking to bed anyone – and in a merc company, that stands out. I bet it stands out in a Duke’s son, too, if you don’t learn to hide it.”
It finally sank in, what she’d been trying to tell him. You’re not the only one who’d rather do anything else than rut.
“I thought…” He found he was staring at her as she stripped down to her underclothes, and found that he could still not look away. “I was born early, my father always said it stunted me. I thought it stunted, you know…”
“I’ve found a few others. Not many. A farmer, an armorer, another merc – and you.” The mercenary shrugged. “I figured, when your father raised the reward to your hand in marriage, that it would kill so many birds with one stone, if only I could manage to make the throw.”
Something about the way she said it made Daxton take a second look at her face. “Those people the Red Queen said had come for me -”
“Yeah.” She sank to the floor, her knees within touching distance. “I don’t know how many she told you about, or what she said, but we lost some really good fighters.”
Daxton swallowed. “Dead?”
“Some of them. I mean – we know about some. And there was nobody else in the dungeons, so if they were captured, they weren’t kept there.” She shook her head. “They were such better fighters than me, but I knew I had to try.”
“I was – “
“You were in danger, I know. And now – well, now we get to see what your father will do.”
That was a good question. “My father keeps his word.”
“But did he really expect a common mercenary to succeed? And does he really plan to give me your hand in marriage? To let us rule the little rocky earldom by the border?” She shook her head, this time more fiercely. “If he holds true on the marriage, that will be enough.”
Daxton blinked and blinked again. “You… you want to marry me?“
“That is what I’ve been trying to get across, yeah.”
“You want to…” Daxton coughed over a sudden lump in his throat. “You don’t know me yet.”
“Of course not. Neither would any noble or rich woman your father sold you to. Neither would the Red Queen. Neither would any other merc or knight or soldier or their sister or cousin or partner who found you. But what I know is that I can marry you and give us both a little respite, and that seems like a good thing all around.”
Respite. Daxton had feared marriage – and the likely-inevitable angry dissolution of such marriage – more than he had feared the Red Queen. But this had to be a trap. “You’d get an Earldom out of it, too,” he pointed out.
“We would. And I never claimed not to be a mercenary.”
“That… that is true. But you really want to, want to marry me? Me?”
“You are the one I rescued, aren’t you?” She poked his knee gently. “You’re not a spectre or a doppelganger, are you?”
“No, no, I’m me. Daxton.” He looked up at her, an unfamiliar smile touching his lips. “That was who you were sent to find, right? Daxton?”
“The one and only. Son of Duke Tebrin and the Lady Prediwan, right?”
“That’s me.” He suppressed a chuckle. “You should know them, if you want to be their kin-by-marriage… oh, dust.” His good mood soured as quickly as it had come. “What about babies?”
“Well, there’s always gritting our teeth and bearing the necessity, which I’m told works for most people. But,” and she had not stopped smiling, although the expression now was a bit more grim, “the war with the Red Queen has left a lot of orphans, many of whom are at least ethnically similar to your family line. If we time it right, nobody will ask unfortunate questions.”
Daxton found his jaw dropping. “You really have thought of everything.”
“I told you.” She bowed, as deep and as courtly as one could manage from a sitting position. “I do my prep work.”
If you want more of this story – and there is still more just dying to be written – drop a tip in, ah, the tip handcuffs:
This story written as technoshaman‘s commissioned continuation
Next: A Rescue in Hand
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