Chapter 5 Part 6 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book One
Her lips were so soft; her small hands rested against his chest, and without opening his eyes he kissed her again, groaning into her mouth. The feel of her mouth against his went straight down his body; he pulled her closer, but her back tensed under his touch, and he realized her hands on his chest meekly pressed him away.
Jenks came to his unwilling mind: "Promise me you'll leave Miss Dannikson and the other maids alone." But then, there was Fennows: "You can tumble a maid any time." Fennows was a prat.
And then there was Allis.
He looked down into Arta's flushed face and saw Edmerka, aroused and horrified at the same time. He let Arta go.
Arta slumped in relief, and brought a hand to her throat. "I'm very sorry, sir," she whispered. "This is all my fault. I'm so sorry!"
"Ask me not to tell Affton and I swear I will," said Temmin in a false, jolly tone; she gave a rueful laugh. "This is no one's fault," he added.
"I s'pose. I just needed to know that even if Fen doesn' think I'm pretty any more, someone did. And then, everyone thinks you an me--already--"
"I'm sure Fen still thinks you're the most beautiful girl in the world. I've told you a dozen times now how beautiful you are."
"Oh, sir, you can't mean that, not with you an the Holy Ones--oh, I've gone too far again!" she fretted.
"What do you know about that?"
"Servants see things, sir," she murmured.
Temmin threw his hands up in exasperation. "Privacy. I have none!"
"But sir, we're all so very happy about it! I mean, assuming you qualify," she stammered. "But I'm sure a handsome young man as you--"
"Don't tell anyone, Arta, but I do qualify. I'm serious. Don't tell."
"Oh, I never should, sir! Such good luck for the common folk it'd be--well, it's just an expression as far as I know, but my gran used to say, when Nerr gets the Heir, our fortunes really will change, an my gran was always right about those things!"
"You really believe that?"
"I do, sir," she declared.
"So does Jenks," he said, "and he's always right about those things, too." He glanced at her face, nearly restored to its usual open cheerfulness. "Arta, you are a prize, and if your Fen doesn't come to his senses, I'll beat some sense into him for you."
"Oh, please don' do that," she said, alarmed and delighted in equal measure.
"For your sake, I won't. Let me walk you back to the Keep," he said, helping her stand.
"No, sir, oh, please don'! If anyone sees us alone together again--especially coming out of the Woods--!"
"Listen," he said. "You hold your head up high against the gossip. You and I know it's not true." Yet, said a tiny, insinuating voice in his head. "If I can help dispel any rumors, I shall."
"If you chase the Lovers, no one'd believe you an I had any dealings a-tall, sir!"
"But we will have dealings, Arta." She gazed up at him anxiously, head turned to one side. "I want you to consider me a friend."
"I could never do that, sir!"
"Nevertheless, you will come to me when you need me. I command you," he grinned.
She drew her eyebrows together, happy but puzzled. "Yes, Your Highness!" she curtsied, answering his grin.
"Now, off with you. Go back to the Keep and make up with your young man." She curtsied again, and ran down the path to the Keep.
Temmin watched her go with regret. He knew where to find her if he changed his mind, he supposed, but more and more, his path seemed to lead to the Lovers' Temple.
As it happened, Temmin was the topic of a pressing conversation at the Lovers' Temple among the senior staff at that very moment. "The Heir?" said High Lover Gan, shifting to find a more comfortable position on the pillows of his low couch; his old body seemed to complain the loudest in the spring. "Are you sure that's wise?"
Issak and Allis stood before the couch, nodding. "Teacher has promoted his candidacy to us, and now that we've observed him twice, I am inclined to agree," said Allis, "though we will learn more about him before we decide. The signs are subtle, but we see them."
The High Lover shook his white head. "I don't know. There has never been an Heir of Tremont accepted as a Supplicant in the thousand year history of this Temple. Is he willing?"
Issak smiled. "Oh, yes, he's willing. He doesn't understand what it entails, but even once he does I'm sure he'll be quite willing."
"I don't know," Gan repeated. "Usually we don't even look for Supplicants at this time of year--they've been chosen by now. We thought we'd give you a chance to settle in, let you pick one next year."
"Royal patronage is always good for a Temple," said High Beloved Malla beside him, patting his knee with her wizened hand. "Princess Finnia was a Supplicant."
"Finnia's been dead some 700 years, sweetheart," said Gan.
"Ah, but she became High Beloved. It was this Temple's golden age," Malla said. "Even without a royal Supplicant, our most influential times have been when members of the royal family have joined our clergy."
"It's true," said Gan reluctantly. "But should we aim so high, then? The prophecy--the nobility are bound to object, the fools. Why not pursue Princess Ellika? She's already a devotee, isn't she?"
"Nominal at best," said Issak, shaking his head. "I fear the Princess is not the most serious of ladies. She hasn't even taken her training."
"What's this young man like?" said Gan, flexing his aching hands. "He can't possibly qualify. A virgin nobleman, at age eighteen? I find it extremely hard to believe."
"You wouldn't if you'd met him," said Issak. "For some reason, he's been quite sheltered growing up--innocent as a puppy."
"Puppies have teeth, no matter how innocent," said Gan. He sighed. "Old age is making me suspicious and cranky." Malla brought his hand to her lips and kissed his bony fingers, and he gave a happier sigh. "Well, we will see, eh, dear? Has he declared chase?"
"I'm to go riding with him soon, and I expect it then," said Allis. "At the least I'm sure I can persuade him to tour the Temple."
"And that should be that," said Issak.
"Hm. What do you think?" Gan asked his partner.
"I am of two minds," said Malla. "The sacred mind says, I trust the Embodiments to make this decision on the Temple's behalf. The secular mind says, I must encourage acquiring the Heir as a Supplicant at all costs for the benefit of this Temple, regardless whether he is a good candidate."
"And which mind is winning?" said Gan.
Malla raised a wispy eyebrow. "The secular mind says, now that I have planted the thought, let the sacred mind prevail."
Gan laughed and kissed her. "You are still the same girl who seduced me in Kennerton."
"You seduced me!" she said demurely.
"No, you only let me think I had," said Gan. "Took me a few years to realize it, but we've had a few years, haven't we?" Gan turned to the twins. "Examine him thoroughly and make your best decision, keeping all we have spoken of here in mind. Now," he added, lying his head in Malla's lap. "Your Most Highs are tired. This Most High is, at any rate. Off with you, pretty children. It's time for our nap."