“You’re such an idiot,” she whispered through clenched teeth.
Arland smiled. “Maybe. But I won.”
Ugh. She had no idea how badly he was hurt. He probably didn’t know how badly he was hurt. They had to get him out of the armor. She could just pull it off him here. Every House crest contained the basic supplies necessary for emergency medical intervention. But if she took the crest off him now and applied it, he would have to remain stationary in this tower. They had to climb the stairs, cross the bridge, and get to either his room or hers and they had to do it with Kozor and Serak watching. Any show of weakness would dilute Arland’s victory.
The value of the beating he delivered wasn’t in humiliation of Kozor and Serak. It was in fear and uncertainty. Both House Kozor and Serak came to the fight reasonably sure what to expect. They had done their research, they had watched the fight in the Lodge, and they expected Arland to be a superior fighter. They didn’t expect him to be invincible. If he had been carried off the field by medics or had limped away obviously hurt, they could quantify it. “We almost beat him with nine knights, we can kill him with ten.” But he had crushed them and walked away like it was nothing. Now they didn’t know how many knights it would take, and they didn’t know how many Arlands House Krahr could field. They feared what they couldn’t see and didn’t know. Arland had to appear invulnerable.
She slid her shoulder under his arm. He leaned on her. His weight settled on her and her knees almost buckled. It was bad. He wouldn’t have put that much weight on her if he could have helped it. He had to be on his last legs.
Arland bared his fangs, his face grim. “Stairs.”
“One at a time, my lord.”
They staggered up the stairs.
“The Road Lodge offered me seven,” she growled in her best Arland voice.
“That was different. The fight in the Lodge was a brawl against bandits and scumbags in outdated armor. You could kill them. You went up against nine knights in prime condition, in good armor, and you couldn’t kill any of them without ruining the wedding. You went into the fight with one arm tied behind your back. Who does that?”
“Well, sure, it sounds unwise when you put it like that. But I won.”
They paused on the landing. His breath was coming out in ragged gasps.
“Do you feel cold or drowsy?” she asked.
“I’m not bleeding out.”
“Well, we don’t know that, do we?”
“I would know.”
He grinned at her.
“We’re like we were before. At the inn.”
She glanced at his face. “Beat to hell and bleeding out on the stairs?”
“No. You are talking to me again. Really talking to me. You’ve been so… distant since you arrived. I like when we’re like this.”
They started up the second flight of steps.
“If I had to fight nine knights every week…”
“Don’t say it,” she warned him.
“…to keep you talking to me…”
“I will throw you down the stairs, Arland. I mean it.”
“No, you won’t. You like me. You are impressed.”
She rolled her eyes. “That you can’t walk, unassisted, up a flight of stairs? Yes, my lord, very impressive.”
He grunted and swayed. For a moment they tottered on the last step, careening back and forth, and she thought they would lose their balance, but they pitched forward and conquered the final stair.
“As I was saying,” Arland said, a sheen of sweat covering his face, “if I had to fight nine knights every week for the pleasure of you berating me, I would do it gladly.”
“You are an idiot. I abandoned my sister and a perfectly good inn and traveled half way across the galaxy for an idiot.”
The door slid open in front of them. The breezeway stretched in front of them, suffused with sunshine and impossibly long. They would be watched by the vampires on the lawn for every step of it.
Arland grunted again, gently pushed away from her, and stood on his own.
“You can do it,” she told him and slid her arm in the crook of his elbow.
They walked into the sunlight side by side, as if out for a leisurely stroll.
“If I fall, don’t try to catch me,” he warned.
“You are not that heavy.”
“Yes, I am.”
They kept strolling. One step at a time.
“Did it have to be nine? Couldn’t it have been five?” She knew the answer but talking would distract him.
“It had to be more than there was at the Lodge. Beating seven again wouldn’t be as exciting. I already did that.”
“You make me despair, my lord. Is there no common sense in your head? None at all?”
He gave her a dazzling smile. “No, not right now.”
Maud sighed. “Figures.”
“You should stay with me. Here. You and Helen. Don’t leave me. I don’t want you to go.”
Her heart sped up.
“Marry me, or not, I will take what you’re willing to give me. Don’t leave.”
There it was. He just came out and said it. He went for it. She had to give him an answer and this time it couldn’t be a maybe. “Lord Arland?”
He sighed quietly, his voice resigned. “Yes, my lady?”
“I’m not going anywhere, you fool. You are mine. But if you decide to fight nine random knights again because you want to make a statement, I swear I will leave you bleeding right there and walk away.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Yes, I will.”
“How about this: next time you can help.”
She swore, and he laughed. Slowly and deliberately they walked together across the breezeway.