“I feel like an ox being judged for strength,” Cilean said to Jura. She didn’t say any more because one of the women held a whip under her nose and made her meaning clear.
It took most of the day to unload the wagons and, exhausted, Jura and Cilean were led away to a tiny, empty stone building that contained nothing but two sleeping cots. The building was surrounded by at least a dozen of the little Ulten women.
“Jura,” Cilean whispered from her cot.
Jura sniffed in answer.
“We must try to escape,” Cilean said. “We have to get home. We have to explain to people what happened before there is a war. We must get to Yaine and…Jura, are you listening to me? I see no way of escape and I am too tired to think.”
“Why do you want to go to Yaine?”
“To continue what Rowan started,” she said as if Jura should have known that. “We must find a way to unite the tribes. If for no other reason, we Irials will unite them to kill these Ultens who sneak about and kill the King of Lanconia.”
To Cilean’s horror, Jura’s sniffles turned into full-fledged crying. Cilean had no idea what to do. Tears were not something one dealt with much in Lanconia. She turned on her side and tried to sleep. Perhaps tomorrow she could talk to Jura about escaping.
Jura also tried to sleep but she couldn’t stop her tears. Lanconia didn’t seem to matter; Geralt didn’t matter; Yaine’s brother or Brocain’s son didn’t matter. All she cared about was having lost the man she loved.
“And I didn’t even get to tell him,” she whispered into the darkness. “Oh God, if only I had another chance. I would be a real wife to him.” She cried herself to sleep.
Geralt’s laughter split the air and reverberated off the white marble walls of the Ulten palace. The three beautiful women before him smiled in delight as they looked at the ebony and ivory gameboard.
“You have won again, master,” one woman fairly purred. “Which of us do you choose tonight?”
“All of you.” Geralt laughed. “Or perhaps I’ll take three new women tonight.”
“We are yours to choose,” said a second woman.
The beautiful, luxurious Ulten palace was a product of centuries of “borrowing.” The marble had been on its way to a
cathedral in England when the Ultens had silently attacked during the night, killing all the merchants and their hired guards, and had taken the wagonloads of marble through the mountains to their cities. They had even “borrowed” the stone masons, worked them to death, then tossed their bodies off a mountainside.
The enormous room, long, narrow, tall, was walled with veined white marble and everywhere was evidence of the Ultens’ skill at “borrowing.” They were the scavengers of every battle. While the participants grieved over their dead, the Ultens moved about and took anything worth taking. They were like ants and could easily carry half again their body weight away with them. They raided cities without the cities knowing they were being invaded.
And they brought whatever they took back to their king and their city, so the palace was filled with wealth that was already ancient: beautiful swords, shields, tapestries, hundreds of embroidered cushions, gold cups (none of which matched), plates, candlesticks, eating knives. There was little furniture as that was more difficult to carry without notice, but there were some low, crude, long tables hidden beneath beautiful Irish linen cloths. The guests sprawled on the cushions and watched the many women walk silently about the room in their soft slippers, hurrying without haste to do the bidding of each man. The three Fearens sat at one end of the room together, frowning slightly in disapproval. They ignored the ten or so women near them and ate sparingly of the food on their plates.
Geralt leaned back from the gameboard and lounged against the pillows, one woman fanning him, another holding his feet in her lap and massaging them, two others gently massaging his calf muscles, another shelling almonds and feeding them to him. Four other women stood by in case Geralt should think of something else he wanted. He wore an expression of sublime happiness.
Daire sat farther down, engaged in intense conversation with a splendidly lovely woman, and from his expression he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
In stark contrast to the men behind the table, Rowan stood by the windows at the east end of the room, staring down at the people and buildings of the walled city.
Daire excused himself from the woman and went to Rowan. “Still worried about Jura?” he asked.
Rowan kept looking out the window and didn’t answer.
“They said they left the women there,” Daire said in the tone of a man repeating something for the hundredth time. “The Ultens do not kill. They will steal anything, including the King of Lanconia if they want him, but they are not murderers. They drugged all of us, took us, and left the women there. Why do you doubt them? They have no need of women, as you can see.” Daire smiled at the pretty woman waiting at the table for him. “They want only the men.” He couldn’t control his smile. “We must give them what they want from us and be on our way. Perhaps we can take some of these women back with us.”
Rowan gave Daire a cool look. “You are being seduced by them.”
Daire’s eyes twinkled. “A time or two.”
Rowan looked back out the window. “I do not trust this man Marek,” he said, referring to the man who called himself king of the Ultens. “And I do not like being held captive, no matter that the bonds are made of silk.”
“You have said you wanted to unite the tribes. What better way to do that than to…”
“To impregnate their women?” Rowan asked, frowning. “I believe I am better than to be used as a stud.” He turned his head away, and Daire, shrugging, went back to his table.
Rowan continued to stare out the window, cursing his helplessness. How could he fight women, especially such lovely, small women as these? Six days ago he had awakened to find himself in the back of a silk-clad wagon with a raging headache. He had shoved open the locked door with a few thrusts of his shoulder and the wagon had halted. He was greeted by six pretty little women who begged him not to be angry. Rowan’s anger had calmed somewhat when he saw that the other men were unhurt, but it returned when neither Jura, Cilean, nor Brita stepped from the wagons. The Ulten women said they had left the Irial women at the campsite.