With his back turned to her, he couldn't see if she was watching or not, and he didn't hear her echoing his own sobs. Should he go to her and tell her how much he loved her? It wouldn't have been the first time she'd seen his tears. He sniffled and drew a shaky breath. Too many tears had been shed and for what? It was time she knew how he felt, once and for all. "I l-left because I love you, Ari," he explained quietly, perhaps too quietly for her to hear over her own sobs. "Because I love you so much, and I don't want to hurt you."
The words cut deep, biting through her own tears as she sniffled quietly. "It hurt me more to see you leave," she sobbed, just as quiet as him, not brave enough to turn back to look at him, not again. "As though I shamed you, as though ... as though you could not bear to be near me any longer."
"No," he replied quietly. "It was not your fault. I am the one who should be ashamed. I did not mean to take advantage of you. I did not mean to ..." He swallowed another lump that was forming in his throat. "I want the same things that you want, Ariana, but I do not want to bring shame on you by ... I want you so badly it scares me," he told her, his voice not much more than a whisper in the gray light of morning. He turned slowly to face her, though he could not see her beneath the pile of blankets huddled around her.
She drew in a sharp breath, shocked to hear the implication in his words just hours after a married man had told her the exact opposite was true. Who did she believe? Shaking her head, her frown deep on her brow, she twisted, sitting up to stare at Rory in disbelief. "How is it shameful?" she asked him. "What makes it such a terrible act, when I love you? When I want you as much as you want me? Why should we wait for some unknown day when we are both sure of our hearts now? I know I am slow, and ill-educated in the ways of love, but I know my own heart. If my form is so repugnant to you, how can we ever grow close enough to share a child?"
"You misunderstand me, Ariana. How could you possibly think you're repugnant to me? When you are near, it takes all my self-control not to throw myself at you, not to smother you in kisses. Haven't I told you I want you and love you? What do you think I mean when I say such things? You said you don't want a child now, not when we are so close to defeating Velasca, but I'm afraid if I cannot control myself, that is exactly what will happen!" He exhaled a shuddering breath, having said far more than he'd planned and not quite in the way he had wanted to. He was not angry with her; he was angry with himself.
She visibly recoiled from the anger in his voice, afraid she had gone too far in opening her heart with honest words to him. Hurt rose in her eyes for his tone, the aggression with which he spoke, and she had to pause, to force herself not to respond in kind. "I never said that I do not want a child now," she said quietly. "Only that if I were with child, I would not fight alongside the army and the people who trust in me. I may not know all there is to know, but I am sure there are ways to prevent a seed from taking root. If every act of love created a child, there would be more of us than this land could sustain."
He saw the hurt in her eyes, the way she seemed to retreat into herself at his anger, though it was not with her, and he took a step toward her, his tear-stained face pale with worry. "Do you know what happened when I killed that man tonight? That-that bastard who would have seen you dead? Do you know the anger and hatred I felt in my heart for him? The terror and dread I felt for you? I have never hated anyone so much in my life as I hate Velasca and her cohorts. I dream of the day I drive a sword through her heart and she can hurt you no more," he said through clenched teeth, not quite trusting himself to speak for the emotions that were raging inside him. "But I would never hurt you, Ariana. I would rather die than hurt you. Don't you see that I love you? That this love for you is what's eating me up inside? Because I cannot be without you anymore, Ariana. If I do, I think I will die."
"Then why do you keep pushing me away?" she demanded to know, rolling onto her knees in the middle of the bed, heedless of the chill that hung in the air to bring gooseflesh up on her arms as she faced him. "If pushing me away, leaving me to weather the embarrassment of being caught together alone, insisting that you do not want to hurt me and leaving when I need you to stay ... if that is love, Rory, then I do not want it!"
"I did not leave because I was embarrassed or ashamed. I left because if I had stayed, I would have done things ... selfish things ... Why must we wait to be married, Ariana, when I want you now? Unless you don't love me, unless you don't want me the way I want you. If ..." His voice broke, catching in his throat, his heart breaking to think maybe she didn't love him the way he loved her, though she had said otherwise. "Why? Why can't I love you now the way I want to love you? Why must we wait? I cannot wait any longer, Ariana. It is driving me mad." He dropped onto the bed, his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking with sobs. Was she rejecting him finally? Had he made her hate him at last?
She was silent for a long moment, watching him as he sobbed beside her. So much of what he said could have come from her own lips, and yet ... hadn't she just told him that she wanted him as he wanted her? Hadn't she just said that there was no shame in consummating that feeling now? "Why can you not trust me to know my heart?" she asked, her voice tiny in the quiet. "I love you, I want you. These are not lies; they are the deepest truths of my being. No one has ever said that we had to wait for our marriage; if that were true, they would never allow us to share a tent, a bed. How is it so easy for you to trust and believe your own heart, your own desire, and so easy to disregard mine?"
He wasn't quite sure he knew the answer to her question. There was only one answer he could give her, only one he knew was true. "Be-Because ... No one has ever ..." He shook his head, struggling to find the right words, to steady his voice so that he could speak without stuttering. "I am no one and nothing and I do not deserve you. You are like the light that shines from the heavens, and I am only a farrier's son. How can I ever be worthy? I have no family, no money, no name. All I can offer you is my heart and my life. It is all I have, but if you would take it, I would give it to you gladly."
The frown that creased her brow was fierce as she edged to him, seizing his hands in her grip as she fairly glared into his eyes, needing him to listen and hear her for once. "You are not nothing. You are not no one. There is no just or only about you." She eased closer, releasing his hands to curl her own to his cheeks, looking deep into his eyes. "Rory, all my life, I have been loved for someone else's sake, for what I represent. Mila and Dalan love me, but they love me for the sake of my parents, not myself. All these people who have declared for me, the rebels who gave their allegiance to me ... it isn't me they love. It's my bloodline, what I represent to them. Of everyone I have ever known, you are the only one who has ever loved me for myself. Don't you know how truly beyond price that is?"
The trouble was that he did - more than anyone else, he knew and understood. No one had ever loved him, not since his father had died. His mother - she had not even seen fit to be part of his life or to make herself known to him, for whatever reason. It had been only himself and his father, and then his father was gone, and he was alone. Until now, until her. She had been his friend first, but now, things had changed, and he found he wanted so much more from her than just friendship. Titles were meaningless. What was a consort anyway, if not a companion? He wanted what Liam and Shaye had; what Liayna and Conall had. What he knew so many others in the camp shared with a special someone who knew and loved them better than any other. That is what he wanted, and he wanted it with Ariana. He nodded his head, meeting her gaze with tear-filled eyes. "I do love you," he whispered back, his chin quivering with the threat of fresh tears. "I will always love you."
"So trust me," she told him. "Trust that I know my heart. Trust that when I draw your hands to me, I want your touch. Love is not love unless it is shared, rua. I would share mine with you; everything I have, though I know nothing of how to do it. I want to learn with you, in your arms." And morbid though it seemed, there was one last frightened wish to share, spoken in a whisper that no one would ever hear but him. "I don't want to die without ever having known what it is to truly love you."
He sniffled again, lifting a hand to wipe the tears from his face. There had been too many tears tonight, too much pain, but there had been love, too, and that was what they needed to hang onto. "We will learn together, lea. That is my promise to you. And you will not die. I will not allow it. I promise that, too." He took her face in his hands and kissed her, not as passionately or as fiercely as before, but with love and tenderness and the yearning of young love.
She drew him down beside her, not to love or touch, but to sleep, as she knew he had not since their violent awakening hours before. No one would disturb them while they slept, they knew; the entire camp would be on high alert, determined that no one else would ever sneak through their lines and endanger the True Queen of Arctra.
And not too far away, in another royal tent, the Usurper sprang from an uneasy sleep, her mad eyes wild as she looked into a face she had thought was now utterly destroyed. She fell back with a strangled cry, reaching for her sword to plunge it into the chest of the figure standing over her.
Brother smiled his cruel smile, looking down at the blade that could not hurt him, and stepped toward the gibbering Velasca. He reached out, touching an almost loving hand to her cheek as she cowered in fear.
"She is coming, murderer. She is coming for you."