She did not come to him easily. He learned the curves of her body slowly in long nights and stolen days, the smallest, most exquisite details holding him enthralled even once he knew them with precision: the delicate hollow nestled at the base of her throat, the curve of breasts that were high and firm, the shadow of an indentation stretching between her ribs down to her navel . . . and so much more.
Her hands and feet fascinated him no less than did the more intimate parts of her. They were long and graceful, the hands well suited to difficult, precise tasks, the feet deceptively fragile. When he turned her over, it was to study the strong, slender line of her back swaying inward at her waist before flaring into the chalice of her hips. Her buttocks were round, firm, also muscled with a pair of twin dimples that made him smile, wondering as he did if she had ever noticed them.
He had not mastered her; never would he make the mistake of thinking that. Her face challenged him, and even now he did not know it absolutely. The mouth was too mobile to ever capture for long, the eyes too inclined to secrets.
Were that not enough, the woman Atreus held within his hands, which had carved her so carefully from pink-hued marble, had been without a name for far too long.
She had one now, he thought, as he returned the statue carefully to the velvet-lined box specially made to hold it. Very shortly, the box would be packed away in the last of the trunks being removed from his cabin. After a fortnight at sea, the journey made longer than usual by the clip of a gale brewing off the coast of Britain, the rhythm of the ship had changed as it entered the Thames. The tide was rising, lifting the great river and them with it. The damp chill of early winter, which had increased steadily with each day's sail farther north, eased a little as they were embraced by the heavily wooded banks of the river, but the air was still colder than any Atreus had ever known. Moreover, it carried an alien smell, not unpleasant, but a constant reminder that home was a thousand and more miles behind him.
It seemed a great distance, but he knew he had traveled farther, not in this world but in the passage to the next. Six months before, he had come very close to dying in an act of treachery and violence. The memory of that lingered--not in his body, which was entirely healed--but in his spirit. It steeled an already strong resolve and created within him a certain impatience. He wanted this journey over and done, its purposes achieved. Only then could he go on in the direction he knew he must take.
"That's the last of it, Castor," he said, and handed the small wooden box to his manservant, who waited by the trunks.
"Very good, Vanax. It appears we will dock shortly."
"Then I suppose it is just as well I am dressed." He glanced down and restrained a smile. "I am dressed, am I not?"
Castor surveyed him carefully. "I believe so, Vanax. That is to say, Prince Alexandros's instructions have been carried out and everything appears to be where it should be."
Atreus nodded. His half brother, who was himself half English, had provided both garments and guidance as to the wearing of them. Atreus did not doubt Alex's expertise in such matters; he merely wondered why anyone would go to such extraordinary lengths to garb himself.
He wore--from the skin out--linen drawers that covered him from his waist to slightly above his knees; linen stockings; gleaming black leather short boots; snugly fitted trousers of finely woven wool dyed a deep tan; a white linen shirt secured at the wrists by starched wristbands, and at the neck by a starched pointed collar encircled by the stock he had learned laboriously to tie; a tan waistcoat sporting its own high collar, and discreetly embroidered with dark gold thread; and, lastly, a dark brown cutaway coat.
The sheer quantity and variety of the garments amazed him. Surely protection from the damp chill could be achieved far more simply. As it was, not only was he wearing more clothing than he ever had in his life, he felt absurdly like one of the comically overwrapped packages given to gleeful children on their name days.
"It is not so bad, Vanax," Castor said in the tone of a man grateful not to be similarly afflicted. In a stab at consolation, he added, "In warrior training, we learn to adapt the cover of the surrounding countryside in order to conceal ourselves. Perhaps you would be more at ease if you thought of these garments in that manner."
"Perhaps I would be. Thank you, Castor. I'll come up directly."
When he was alone, Atreus stood in the center of the cabin. A big man, tall and broad-shouldered, with the lithe strength of a warrior, he found motion and action far more natural than stillness. Yet there were times . . .
He closed eyes of a dark brown bright with shards of gold and breathed slowly, deeply. The ability to separate himself from the distractions of the world was the fruit of long practice, first as a child following a path he could glimpse only dimly, later as a youth undergoing the rigors of the training Castor had mentioned, and finally in the fullness of his manhood, when he discovered that the stillness held within it great gifts of renewal and understanding.
"Come back. . . ." Her voice was soft, anguished, blurred by tears. He wanted to answer but could not. His body no longer responded to his will, which had become a thing apart, drifting on a current that seemed to bear him farther and farther away.
"Don't leave us." Formless, he frowned. Don't leave me. That was what he wanted her to say, for all that he had no idea why she should.
"Damn, Deilos!" It was later when he surfaced again into the pain that told him he yet lived. Pain and her anger, rage at the man who had done this to him. Deilos. No boyhood friend, but a companion turned traitor and would-be assassin.
Deilos, for whom there must be justice.
She smelled of honeysuckle. The scent and the thought of it on her skin pleased him. He breathed deeply, once more, and felt the . . .
. . . ship bump gently against the dock, recalling him to his present circumstances. The past slipped away, but the memory enshrouded him, inescapable.
He glanced around the cabin one last time and went out, up the narrow stairs to the deck where his men were gathered, also dressed in foreign garments, but of a simpler, more practical variety. Keen-eyed, hands resting on the hilts of swords that were in no way ceremonial, they parted for him. He heard the great rush of sound rising from just beyond the stone quay, the vast, tumultuous sound of a sea of humanity spilling from the docks, crowding the narrow streets, straining against the barrier of crimson-garbed soldiers. There was a band playing a raucous tune that involved a great deal of drumming and the clash of cymbals, but it was drowned out by the roar of cheers when he emerged.
He stood and took the full force of that wave of astonishing excitement and seeming pleasure for the arrival of a man the crowd did not know and could not possibly care about, save for the diversion he offered. He understood that well enough, yet it was still surprising. In the home of his heart, emotion was far more personal.
And yet, amid the mass of anonymous humanity, he caught sight of familiar faces set apart from the crowd. His spirit lightened. However strange the land to which he had come, it offered reunion with those he loved.
"Atreus! Atreus! Over here!" It was Kassandra, his half sister. Knowing as he did the need to present a properly dignified appearance, he could not help smiling at the sight of her. Wed but a few months, deeply in love with and loved by the tall, golden-haired man beside her, she glowed with happiness.
His men formed a guard of honor at the bottom of the gangplank. He walked among them and was caught in the fierce embrace of his half brother, Alex, who grinned and thumped his back hard enough to fell a lesser man. "Fine thing," Alex said, "you show up and immediately you're the most popular man in London. I should have expected it."
"You might also have warned me," Atreus said dryly. "I envisioned a quiet family welcome."
"For the Vanax of Akora on his first official visit to England? There was scant hope of that. Welcome, brother. It is good to see you."
"And you, Alex." He turned then and opened his arms to the young woman fairly bouncing up and down in her excitement. "Kassandra, sweet sister."
Hugging him, she said, "Joanna is devastated not to be here, but Amelia has had a little cough, so of course she could not leave her. Oh, not to worry, your niece is much better now."
"We have strict instructions to bring you home without delay," Alex said with the tolerant air of a well-married man. "Joanna is most impatient to welcome you herself."
"I look forward to seeing her," Atreus said, even as his gaze settled on the man standing a little to one side. Kassandra's obvious happiness disposed Atreus to think well of his English brother-in-law, but he had also taken the measure of the man on the training field and over a few carafes of wine. Royce had not disappointed him.
"It is good to see you," Atreus said.
"And you, Sire," Royce replied.
The Vanax of Akora, revered ruler of his people, winced. "Sire? Must formality descend upon us so soon? I had hoped to avoid it a little while yet."
Royce directed his attention toward the tall, burly man watching them both. Quietly, he said, "Unfortunately not. The Prince Regent is indisposed and sends his regrets. But Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, accompanied us."
Atreus looked at the man who had taken over the job vacated when his predecessor was assassinated earlier that year. Liverpool appeared to be what reputation claimed him to be: a solid, unimaginative, ploddingly dependable Britisher. Precisely one of those Atreus had come to . . . to what?
Impress, persuade, understand? Yes to all that, but far more, as well. Spurred by the new machines and factories spreading across the land, Britain was gaining wealth and power to a degree unprecedented in history. At war with both Napoleon and its own former American colonies, facing challenges at home that had brought bloody revolution to other nations, the sceptered isle sailed on, impervious to any interests but its own.
Such determination was to be admired, but it was also to be met with the greatest care. Atreus nodded. "Lord Liverpool, I have looked forward to meeting you."
The prime minister inclined his head gravely "Sire, you are most welcome. His Highness, the Prince Regent, and all of us in his government have anticipated your arrival most eagerly."
"As have I, Prime Minister. Apart from every other consideration, I have come to see what tempts so many of my family to make England their home, at least for a part of each year. You will forgive me, I hope, when I say the attraction apparently cannot be the climate."
The prime minister laughed uncertainly. Atreus was pleased. It was always best to keep one's adversaries, potential and otherwise, off balance. He might have pushed a little harder had not Kassandra diverted him.
"You remember Brianna, don't you, Atreus?" His sister drew forward a young woman in her early twenties, tall and slim, her hair the hue of red the painter Titian loved, the color hinting at deep passions even as the modest, confined style announced restraint. Her skin was the shade of cream, her eyes a light green shot through with gold.
And then there was that twin pair of dimples concealed beneath her demurely elegant garb. . . .
"Brianna, lovely as always." Because he saw no reason not to, the Vanax of Akora added, "You have been away from us far too long."
She colored and her eyes fell, but a moment later, her gaze met his. "I rejoice to see you so well, Sire."
Her voice was as he remembered, low and gentle but with the steadiness of true strength. They were speaking English, but he recalled that when she spoke Akoran, she had a slight, very charming accent. She also still smelled of honeysuckle.
"The carriages are over there," Alex said with a slight rise of a brow. Atreus caught it and smiled. Alex would find his behavior odd, but his brother would understand before long.
Atreus turned, and on impulse, waved to the crowd. The acknowledgment prompted a fresh outpouring of cheers only slightly muted when he stepped inside the carriage.
As protocol required, he rode with Lord Liverpool. Alex accompanied them as Royce escorted the ladies in a second carriage. Mercifully, the prime minister either felt no compulsion toward idle conversation or simply had nothing to say. Atreus was free to concentrate on the city, which at once shocked and astonished him.
It teemed with life, human and otherwise, crammed down narrow warrens and spread out over gracious avenues. In the space of what was really only a short ride, he saw poverty beyond anything he had ever imagined and grandeur that seemed intended to rival the gods. A city of contrasts, to be sure, and likely a reflection of the people who had built it. He would do well to remember that as he dealt with them.
He would, of course, for he always did as duty required. But that did not prevent him from turning his thoughts to pleasanter and far more personal matters. . . .
If she could keep her hands from shaking, everything would be all right. Only that, nothing more, just her hands. She ought to be able to manage that.
Seated in the carriage across from Royce and Kassandra, Brianna schooled herself to the appearance of calm. The reality of it was so far beyond her capabilities just then that she did not even consider it. Appearance would be victory enough.
He was here. Well, of course he was. She had known for several months that Atreus was coming. It was all arranged. The Vanax of Akora, chosen ruler of his people, would make a state visit to the royal court of the Prince Regent. The leaders would meet for purposes of mutual understanding and friendship. Difficulties between the kingdoms, arising from attempts by some in England to provoke an invasion of Akora during the past year, would be smoothed over. All would be as it should be.
Excerpted from Castles in the Mist by Josie Litton. Copyright © 2002 by Josie Litton. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.