Chapter 14 Part 3 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book 1
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"Arta, what are you doing here? Why are you dressed like that? Not that you don't look nice--you look wonderful, actually, quite beautiful...Gods, really, really, quite, quite beautiful." She stood now, very straight and rigid, her small, shaking hand still in his. She was blushing, and she wouldn't meet his eyes. "Arta," he said more forcefully, "what are you doing here?"
"I...I am bid to say--that is, no, not bid to say..." She blinked rapidly, and began again, her voice stronger, working hard if not successfully to overcome her northern Valmouth accent. "I am here to comfort you in your disappointment, Your Highness. They--I mean, I thought you mightn' want to be alone tonight, an as you an I are friends...we might be better friends," she finished, daring a guilty glance up at his face before fixing her eyes on his shoes again.
Suddenly, she wobbled on her feet, her eyes rolled, and Temmin caught her with a "Whoa!" just as she toppled over; a whiff of perfume hit his nose, heavy roses and lilacs, not at all her usual clean smell of hay and tea. He half-carried her to the green velvet couch and sat her down, reclining against the cushions at one end with her feet still on the floor. He found the brandy decanter on a table by the wingback chair he never sat in, poured her a glass, and ordered her to drink it as soon as she could hold the glass herself.
The brandy brought color creeping back to her face. "Oh dear," she whispered. "Oh, dear, dear, I got all rickety-tick. I'm so sorry, Your Highness, I don' know what happened."
"You locked your knees. Happens every inspection back at the Estate, especially on Farr's Day. Some new man in the Guard, or a postulant Brother, always goes down from trying to stand up straight. One Farr's Day when I was eight, a whole platoon went down one after another, boom boom boom, like ninepins. That was funny," he smiled. "Feeling better? Good. Now, tell me what you're doing here, all dressed up like this."
"I told you," she mumbled into her glass. "I'm here to keep you comp'ny." A tear found its way out of her eye, and she scrubbed at it in alarm.
"And so happy to do it, I see."
"No, no, sir!" she said, sitting up all the way. "No, I like bein with you!"
"Then why are you crying? Arta, tell me. You're under my protection. No one can do anything to you, I won't let them."
"Yes, they can," she said, stumbling over words and tears. "They can! They can turn me away without a ref'rence, an Fen, too, an if I lose my position without a ref'rence, I can' get a new one, you know, an my family needs the money, sir!"
"Stop, stop, stop! Who's 'they!'"
Arta's nervous babbling stopped. "Did I say 'they,' sir?"
"You certainly did." He gave her the handkerchief from his pocket. "Now, don't give this one to Fen," he said.
She laughed and wiped her eyes, but the tears kept falling. "I shouldn' cry, I really shouldn'. T'isn that I don' like you, sir, I do! I do, very much! You're kind, an handsome, an you make me laugh. I know we should get on very well together."
He took her in again: the perfume; the carefully loosened hair; the dress that left just enough to the imagination that removing it seemed best. "Someone sent you to seduce me."
"Why did you think I was here?" she said into the handkerchief.
"Merciful Amma, d'you think girls just show up at my door at all hours? Who sent you, Arta? No tears! Just answer!"
"Mr Winmer, sir," she said, wrenching herself into such a knot that he took to rubbing her back, soothing her loose again.
"And what did he say you were to do?"
"I was to lie with you, sir. That's why I'm all dressed up." She glanced up, guilty. "He knows you like me. You do like me, don' you, sir?"
"I don't know any man who wouldn't. You could charm Farr Himself."
"Oh, I don' think so, sir, especially with my eyes all puffy an red." She wiped her nose. "Mr Winmer knew you liked me because he saw us dancin in the hall that night. I am so sorry, Your Highness! It was my fault for peekin. He caught me just after, an said he could either tell Mr Affton an have me turned away, or I could owe him a favor. So I owed him a favor. An here I am."
A clear image of Winmer came to mind, the little man's eyes bulging as Temmin throttled him. "Why tonight?"
She bit her lip, and took his hand. "Mr Winmer said you'd gotten some bad news an couldn' go to the Temple after all, an that you were sad an lonely, an that I should make you feel better because you think I'm pretty an you'd like it if I did. An that wouldn' be so bad, would it, because we do like each other, an then he'd make sure I was taken care of an that Mam an Dad would be, too, an if you liked me well enough, you'd take care of me even better, so here I am, to make you feel better."
"He threatened you."
"Oh, no, sir! He just...he explained things to me. It's all right." Arta gave him an unsteady smile, and cradled his cheek. "You're so kind to me. If this is what you want, if this will make you feel better, then..." She rose up on one knee, her breasts nearly spilling from the neckline of the dress, and kissed him.
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