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Gerard Regan laid the copper down on the counter and took the mug from the merchant's grubby hands. He left the booth and moved into the crowd, his every step a carefully measured exercise in balance.
The mead sloshed over the rim of the mug, the sticky liquid oozing over his hand and through his fingers. He didn't care. Shoving aside any who dared to block his path, he made his way toward Lord Devi's tent which sat prominently at the head of the field. That's where he'd left Nerys.
"Nerys," he sneered as he neared the tent. "Nerys the fair, Nerys the beloved. Nerys Devi-my reluctant bride-to-be."
Gerard tipped the mug to his lips and drained its contents. Dropping it to the ground, he swiped his hand across his mouth and forced his way through the line of people gathered around the large table set before the tent.
He stepped into the clearing at the group's center just as Nerys bent her head low to allow a small peasant child to place a crudely-braided oak crown upon her head.
"Me lady," the boy whispered, his small hand lightly smoothing Nerys' wavy hair. "I crowns ye queen for the day."
Nerys raised her head and gave the boy a smile.
A faint pink colored his cheeks as the boy dropped down to one knee. "Wha's yer wish, me lady?"
"I-" she began.
"My lady," Gerard said, stepping forward, "wishes you to leave."
Nerys pursed her lips and glared at Gerard.
He sank down on the bench next to her. "I care not what these commoners think, Nerys."
She frowned and looked away.
Taking her hand in his, he said, "I see I've again met with your disapproval." He shrugged. "As youwish, my lady, I shall try to care. Who would dare upset the queen of this illustrious festival?"
Nerys pulled her hand away and placed it upon the boy's cheek. "I wish, my good sir, for the dance to begin."
The boy darted a nervous glance toward Gerard as he rose. Taking a step back, he flashed Nerys a toothy grin, snapped his feet together and said, "Aye, me lady, as ye wish." He delivered a quick bow, then fled toward the dance field.
Nerys continued to stare into the crowd long after the child had disappeared, his small form swallowed up by the throng. She kept her hands clasped tightly upon her lap, the knuckles white, and her expression closed, unreadable save for the tightening along her jawline.
Her displeasure hung in the silence between them.
"Take that thing off," Gerard growled, pointing at the crude crown encircling her brow. "You belittle me and my House by wearing it. As my bride, you will not disgrace me so."
"You forget, Gerard, we aren't wed."
He laughed. Leaning back, he rested his elbows against the table's edge and stretched his long legs out before him, ankles crossed. "Nay, I didn't forget. You don't allow me to. Yet you forget, it seems. 'Twas arranged long ago. I await only your father's final blessing on the day you turn twenty-one." He caressed one of her wavy curls. Winding it about his fingers, he forced her face toward him until her lips poised a mere inch from his own. "Then, you will belong to me."
Nerys pulled the slim dagger from her waist belt and sliced through the tresses of hair, barely missing his fingers. Leaning away, she stood and sheathed the blade. "Lest you forget-my father may have offered my hand, but 'tis my heart that must be won."
She followed the boy into the crowd.
Gerard lifted the hair and rubbed the soft brown curls against his cheek. Staring after her, he laughed, the sound harsh and cold. "'Tis not your heart I require."
Copyright © 2005 Sheri L. McGathy