Jura smiled wickedly. “He deserves such as her.” Her face changed. “But we Irial do not. Cilean, you must win.”
Cilean looked at her friend sharply. “Why is it that you hate him so much? Since he opened the gate, most of us are willing to give him a chance to prove himself.”
“Yes,” Jura snapped, “all of you are willing to forget how he does not belong here, how he is taking Geralt’s rightful place. You look at his pretty form and do not see the treachery inside his soul.”
“I did not know you knew him so well.”
“I do not know him at all,” Jura answered, and knew she was giving herself away. The man haunted her every waking moment, and in the morning before she fully woke, she reached for him in her bed. “I do not want to know him. Are we going to talk all day or train?”
Jura beat everyone at every contest during training. The Honorium was to be three long, hard days of games, and the contestants were awarded points for how they placed in the contests. At the end of the first day, one third of the entrants with the lowest scores were eliminated, another third at the end of the second day. On the third day, all the games were replayed but only with pairs of contestants. The loser of each match was eliminated. By the end of the day there would only be two women left and the winner of the final match, a hand-to-hand battle with wooden poles, won the prize—which happened to be the queenship of Lanconia. Twice Jura received messages that she was urgently needed in some dark, secluded spot but both times she refused to appear. He thought she was a lightskirt, someone who was easy prey for his lusts, and twice she had fallen under his spell, but she wouldn’t be such a fool again. She wondered how many other women he was secretly seducing. Every time she saw one of the trainees return from Escalon, her face flushed, her voice hushed, her eyes alight, she wondered if she had been with Rowan.
“And who has he chosen for his bed?” she blurted once to Cilean. She was drenched in sweat and her muscles ached but she wouldn’t stop training.
“Thal’s son, of course,” Jura said tightly. “Who else does everyone speak of? Who else is Lanconia obsessed with?”
“You seem to be also,” Cilean said thoughtfully.
“Me? I hate him.” She threw her javelin with ferocity and hit the target exactly in the red center.
“How can you hate someone you’ve met only once? You should come with me tonight and speak with him.”
Jura retrieved her javelin. “Is that all you do? Speak with him? No doubt he is as celibate as a saint and he does not bed a different woman each night.”
“I have not heard a whispered word of what he does in bed at night. If he has a woman, he is very discreet about it. Somehow, I do not believe he does. I think he sleeps alo
ne or everyone in the city would know about it. The chosen women would no doubt brag.”
“Brag about what? That some soft English—”
“Soft?” Cilean laughed. “Rowan may be called many things but soft isn’t one of them. You should come with me and watch him train. When he removes his tunic and—”
“I have no desire to see his nakedness,” Jura said shrilly. “Shouldn’t you be practicing your jumping? You are weak on that.”
Cilean looked at her friend for a long moment. “Jura, be careful that you do not protest too much or you will make people think the opposite is true.”
Jura started to reply, but she closed her mouth and threw her javelin with renewed vigor.
Jura had been training so hard for so many days that she was unaware of the preparations that had been made for the Honorium. Wooden seats had been built outside the city walls, sections of them canopied for Thal’s family and for any tribal leaders who might attend the games. Vast quantities of food, whole cows and boars, vats of vegetables, bins of loaves of bread, and barrels of ale had been prepared. Anyone who came to the games would be fed at Thal’s expense for three full days.
At dawn on the first day was to be a parade of the contestants, to walk through the watching, cheering, leering crowd and to pause before the stands and Prince Rowan.
The women gathered on the Irial training field before dawn and Jura had her first good look at her competition. There were two women from the Ulten tribe and Jura knew they had come only for the excitement and the chance to steal what they could. They were small women but she knew them to be quick and agile. How they rolled their big, liquid eyes from one person to another and smiled in their secret, infuriating way, she thought. There were a half dozen Vatells, each woman wearing about her upper arm one of the beautiful bracelets the Vatells made. These women could be fierce fighters.
There were eight Fearens, and Jura dismissed these women. On horses the people of this tribe were formidable, but they were like fish on dry land when out of the saddle.
No Poilen women came, nor did anyone expect them to. If the contest had been for the memorization of epic poems, the Poilen would have won, but they were people who did not battle unless forced to—and then they were unbeatable.
The fifty women left were Zernas and Irials. All the Women’s Guard of the Irials were participating, even the trainees, in hopes that they would win Rowan’s hand in marriage. The Zerna women were a sight to behold: big, muscular, many of them scarred from brawls with each other. Jura knew they would be the only competition, for although the Irials would win the contests of speed and agility, few could overcome the sheer muscle of the Zernas.
Cilean nudged Jura and nodded toward Mealla. She was the largest, the oldest, the most frightening of the Zernas.
The trumpets sounded and the parade began.
The women stood in a long line before the canopied stands, and Rowan, resplendent in a green silk tunic of Lanconian design, came down the steps to walk before them, murmuring good luck to each woman. He paused for a long time before Mealla, looking her in the eye. The tip of her nose had been cut off in some previous battle. Cilean smiled when he offered Mealla good luck also, but Jura did not.
When Rowan stopped in front of Jura, she did not look at him, but gazed fixedly somewhere to the right of his head.