Gavril of Aquina Excerpt
The Kingdom of Aquina, 1278
Heavy boots and painful death pounded the ground, growing closer. Varic Gavril Khalon ducked under a tattered yellow-and-red striped awning, leapt over a table piled with fruit, scattering oranges to the ground, and ran. The sweet scent of citrus filled the humid air, making his stomach growl, but he couldn’t stop. He darted through a side alley, out into the next row of stalls, then back again to the original row, leading the palace guards on a winding chase. If they caught him, they would take him to the dungeons where the secret he’d guarded for seven years would be discovered. Lorcan would finish what he’d started and the last of the Khalon line, the greatest ruling family of Aquina, would die out. As well as any flicker of hope he kept of helping his people.
Onlookers parted as he ran. Some stumbled out of the way, dropping their goods in his path. He dodged the debris, ducked low behind a large family having an animated discussion in the street, and darted into an unattended culinary stall. Pots of all sizes teetered in high stacks on the market table, blocking the soldiers’ view of his hiding spot.
He knelt in the dirt and held his breath, desperately trying to get his breathing under control. The proprietor of the stall didn’t seem to be about, giving him a moment of relief. As he waited, he caught his reflection in the silver polish of a pot. Sweat dripped down his brow, trailing through the dirt caking his skin. He looked down at his filthy, ripped tunic and breeches, despising what he’d become. But not willing to die for it. Varic, the king he’d been, was dead. Only Gavril, a broken man who worked on the streets to feed himself, remained.
Four burly men in dark green tunics bearing the garish gold seal of Lorcan, king of Aquina, thundered by his hiding place. At their head was Qadir, captain of the palace guard. The group paused just steps away. Qadir looked to his left and right, searching the crowd, then ran into the busiest part of the market. His men followed, dodging rolling oranges as they ran.
Gavril drew a shaky, pain-filled breath and held a hand to his ribs. After the space of a few heartbeats, he stood and moved quickly in the opposite direction. A shout rose behind him and he cast a glance over his shoulder to see the Guard back on his trail. He ran as fast as he could, fear of being caught driving him hard. He wasn’t the thief Qadir thought, but with the Captain, innocence didn’t seem to matter. If captured, Gavril would be taken to the dungeons. His secret would be discovered, and then Lorcan would finish the job he’d started seven years prior.
He turned a corner and tumbled into an old man carrying a load of fabric, falling to his knees. Pastel silks in pinks, blues, and greens fluttered around him. He shrugged them off and gained his feet. The seconds lost were sure to close the distance with the soldiers. Gavril could practically feel Qadir breathing down his neck.
Shouts of “He’s there!” and “This way!” rang out behind him.
Gavril turned another corner and ducked past a curtain into the dark interior of a shop. A feminine gasp sounded as he collided with a woman. They went down in a tangle of limbs. He rolled and landed with her sprawled across his chest as his head cracked against the floor. Gavril gasped in a fragrant breath of peaches and cinnamon and blinked away the spinning room. Shards of pain radiated from the back of his skull to behind his eyes and down to his ribs. He groaned.
The woman’s breath came quick, blowing warm across his skin like a caress. She pushed herself up and helped him to his feet. Her hands were soft on his arm. For a moment, the unexpected warmth of her skin on his flesh startled him and a shiver of delight ran through his body at her silken touch. It had been entirely too long since a woman touched him.
Outside, the shouts of the guards grew louder and then passed right by the door he’d come through. The woman looked their direction, then back at him.
“Are they looking for you?” she asked.
Gavril nodded. Stars swam in his vision with the slight movement. He touched the back of his head, fingers skimming over a tender bump already forming. A deep, steady throb began behind his eyes and in his temples.
She stepped closer, brushing his hand aside. Her fingers gently stroked over the lump, then trailed down his chest to trace his bloodied ribs. “You’re injured.”
He didn’t move. Just stared at the woman and tried to gather his scattered wits.
She was lovely, with midnight hair falling over her shoulders in waves and the plumpest pink lips he’d ever seen. Her skin was fair, unusual for their warm climate, and looked so soft he ached to touch it. A simple blue dress clung to her amazing curves from shoulders to hips and then flared to her feet.
Something passed in her crystal-clear green eyes as she looked him up and down. Those lips pressed into a brief line. He cringed at the image he must make. Dirty, beat up, and shaggy. Not the kind of man who would draw the eye of a woman like her unless it was filled with scorn.
“Come with me.”
She took his arm and pulled him into the back room of the shop and to a small closet. “Stay here and do not speak until I come for you.”
Gavril opened his mouth to respond when she pulled a curtain across the closet doorway and blocked him in darkness. He listened to her footfalls as she left the room. Why had she hidden him? Why not point him to the door? Or hold him for the guards? Perhaps that was what she meant to do all along. Maybe she would lead the guards to him. Could he trust her not to?
Suddenly weary, Gavril sank to his knees. He didn’t know this woman. But in that last moment, he thought he’d seen compassion in her eyes. He sent up a silent prayer to the goddesses that he was not misguided and waited for Fate.
* * *
Shyla brushed the dirt and dust from her dress and hurried through her atelier. Sketches of clothing designs covered three of the walls. Rolls of cotton and wool, leather and muslin lay in folded stacks on every table. One day, she promised herself as she hurried to the front of the store. Soon she would have enough saved to expand her shop and sell her own designs.
She gathered up the scarves she’d dropped when her unexpected visitor plowed into her and moved to the counter to finish displaying the finely crafted silks. He was filthy, smelled awful, and his clothes were torn and grimy. But through that single touch, she felt his anxiety, his honor, and the distant sparkle of his magic. It confused her. She’d always felt magic in others, though that talent was considered small and useless by everyone, including herself. How much use could it be when all of the people of Aquina had at least a little magic?
Somehow, this man was different. His magic wasn’t small or limited like most Aquinians’. More like far away, though that didn’t make sense. She’d never felt its like.
The mystery of his magic, coupled with the panic in his blue eyes and the shouts of the guards, made her heart swell with sympathy for him. She’d seen what became of the poor at the hands of the men who were supposed to protect the people. Sometimes they were hunted or even bullied for nothing more than being unable to feed themselves.
Such was the state of the kingdom. Ever since King Varic died without an heir and his throne went to the highest member of the council, the people of Aquina had suffered. Year by year the people became thinner, the streets dirtier and more dangerous.
Shyla fingered a magenta silk scarf, her thoughts turning back to the man. He was striking, though she couldn’t specifically say why. His dark blond hair and wild beard were far overdue for a cut, and he bled freely from a scratch on his cheek and another that soaked through his shirt. He looked like he’d been on the streets for some time. It was a bit like looking at the future of all the people of Aquina if King Lorcan continued on his current path.
She wrapped the last scarf around the display pole as the bronze bells on the curtain across the front door rang and a small contingent of palace guards stepped into the darkened interior of her shop. She turned in surprise.
“Where is he? We know he came through here,” the man in the back said. He stood half a head taller than the rest of the men, with shoulder-length hair the deep brown of coffee and the forest green tunic of the palace guard. His eyes were dark as molten chocolate and a scar bisected his left eyebrow, making him look fierce.
Shyla opened her mouth to deny the presence of the man she’d helped, but he cut her words off.
“Do not think to lie, lest you find yourself in a similar position.”
She worked not to react to his threat, though his words made her angry. According to Dianthe, the guards were never so bold when King Varic still reigned. She lifted her hand, purposefully making it shake, and pointed to the door across the room leading out to the other street. “He... he went...”
The guard nodded to his men, wordlessly telling them to follow. To her dismay, he stayed behind and turned that savage gaze on her.
He smiled, eyes alight with interest. “You are very beautiful. What is your name?”
Shyla’s heart began to pound. She licked her lips and wondered how she could get him out of the shop without drawing further interest in herself. “Shyla de Aven,” she said.
“Qadir, captain of the palace guard. It is my duty to keep our people safe.” His gaze flicked over her form and lingered on her breasts. “One I take very seriously. I have not seen you before. Are you new to our kingdom?”
Shyla’s stomach churned at the way he looked at her. She brushed a lock of hair over her shoulder and thought best how to answer. Certainly not the truth. “I came with the trades and decided to stay. I find the kingdom beautiful.”
Qadir smiled and leaned against the counter, crowding her. “Not nearly so lovely as—”
“Captain, we’ve lost him,” a guard panted from the doorway.
He growled a curse, then gave her a sheepish look. “Sorry. I’ve spent too much time with my men. Perhaps another time, Shyla.” He dipped his head in a brief bow and disappeared out the door after his man.
Shyla put a hand over her pounding heart and drew a shaky breath. A shadow drew her attention back to the door Qadir had gone through and she caught a flash of green at the edge of the curtain. Had he turned back to watch her reaction after he’d left?
She waited another full minute to make sure they didn’t return before going to retrieve the fugitive she’d stashed in her back room. All had been quiet since she’d tucked him into the closet. There was no other way out of her small shop, so she knew he remained. Had he hit his head too hard when they collided? Was he unconscious on the floor? She parted the curtain to the closet to find him sitting on the ground, knees drawn up, head resting on his arms. His shaggy blond hair fell around his arms like a shield to block her view.
“They’re gone. You can come out now,” she said, relieved that he looked well.
His head snapped up and he stared at her.
When he didn’t move, she held her hand out to help him up.
He looked at her hand, then her face, and pushed himself to his feet.
She wrinkled her nose as he brushed by her. The man needed a bath. She eyed his attire. He also needed clean clothes, new shoes and undoubtedly a meal. She sighed. She couldn’t help the entire kingdom. Not when so many of them suffered under Lorcan. Still, she did what she could with discounts to the occasional citizen who didn’t earn much coin or a donated warm meal where needed.
Perhaps she could at least offer to clean the wound on his cheek and provide fresh clothes. She followed him out into the store area. “What is your name?” When he didn’t answer, she asked, “Why were they following you?”
His silence frustrated her. She planted her hands on her hips and blocked his exit. “I kept them from finding you. Can you not answer me?”
He scratched his whiskered jaw and closed his eyes. “Gavril.”
She paused at the first sound of his husky voice. It sounded familiar, though she couldn’t place it. Perhaps she’d heard him in the market somewhere. “Gavril. My name is Shyla. Why were they following you?”
He looked away and fidgeted a bit. Was he nervous?
His eyes flashed fierce when he finally faced her again. “I did not steal.”
“You didn’t steal?”
He shook his head.
“But they think you did? That is why the guards were after you?”
He nodded once.
Talkative he was not. “What did they think you stole?”
Just when she thought he wouldn’t answer, his stomach responded for him with a loud growl. His tan cheeks flushed under the dirt.
Shyla’s heart ached for him. Whatever his gift was, it wasn’t strong enough to help him feed himself. “Why is your magic suppressed?”
He frowned at her. Then he shook his head and skirted around her toward the exit. “I have no magic.”
Shyla blinked at him, confused. She ran to catch up with his longer strides and grasped his arm. “But I felt...”
He rounded on her so quickly she almost collided with him a second time. “You are mistaken,” he growled.
She shivered as his gruff voice rolled over her. Her heart suddenly pounded in her breast as she took in his clenched fists. Perhaps she’d misunderstood what her magic whispered about him. That he was different in some way. Now uncertain, she took a step back. Aquina was a dangerous kingdom and she faced a stranger alone. Suddenly it didn’t seem wise to have sent the guards away.
“Do you intend me harm, Gavril?”
The aqua blue of his eyes narrowed further. He looked affronted by her question, which didn’t bode well since she sensed she’d angered him by asking about his magic.
“No,” he bit out.
His gruff answer confirmed the honor she felt when she touched him. Still, she reached out once more to be certain. Her fingers trailed lightly over his elbow before he stepped away from her. Shame and uncertainty radiated from him with an underlying course of magic. Her inner knowing whispered of honor, not malice. She chewed her lower lip, knowing she should send him on his way. Under normal circumstances she would never consider what she was about to do. But in her heart, she knew this man wouldn’t harm her, especially as he professed to have no power. Gavril was special. Her magic said so.
Straightening her shoulders, she decided his wellbeing was worth the risk to her safety. Besides, though she rarely used her power, she trusted it. This man needed help. “Good. It is time to close the shop, and I need to stop by the butcher and produce vendor on my way home. Would you like to join me? I cook a good meal.” She turned to a shelf of men’s clothing and removed a couple of tunics and breeches, drawers and a pair of boots. She added a hat to cover his blond hair.
He licked his lips. “No. Thank you.”
Shyla frowned. The man was starving enough to be accused of stealing, but turned down food. “I don’t intend you harm either, Gavril.”
His lips twitched but he shook his head.
Stubborn man. “It would be better for you to remain hidden until the guards are drawn away to another assignment. They will continue to look for you tonight. I offer a warm meal and a bath. You are in need of both and I won’t allow you to refuse.” She could also puzzle out the mystery his magic presented in the process, and why a man like him would deny having any.
He huffed as if put upon.
Shyla scowled at him. Really, she’d never met a man so disinclined toward small comforts.
Before she could argue further, he grumbled, “I accept.”
* * *
Gavril kept to the growing shadows, watching as Shyla purchased vegetables for their dinner. She’d told him to stay out of sight while she purchased what they needed, just in case the guards returned to this area of the market. He snorted as he adjusted the ridiculous hat low over his brow. Not that they would look for him here, where the awnings weren’t torn and coated in dirt and the stalls were mostly intact. The wealthier citizens of Aquina paid to keep the guards close, which meant that thieves kept their distance.
The poor sections of Aquina grew at an alarming rate, thanks to Lorcan’s rule. The man ruined his kingdom as each day passed. Gavril ground his teeth, wishing he were worthy of taking back his throne and helping his people. That he couldn’t ate away at his very soul.
He clenched and unclenched his hands as he watched Shyla, trying to decide if he should leave now or allow this madness to continue. He glanced down at his torn and dirty clothing and broken shoes. He wasn’t fit for her presence and her home. Or anyone’s really.
He’d just made the decision to leave and appease his hunger with whatever scraps he could find when she turned and smiled at him, a dimple appearing in her cheek. She gathered her purchases in a burlap bag and walked toward him. With each of her steps, his desire to leave faded. Why he tortured himself this way, he couldn’t say. But the closer she came, the more he realized that he wanted the company of this lovely woman, if even just for an hour. In some small way it would remind him of the man he’d once been.
Shyla’s hips swayed as she walked and his gaze dropped to their rounded fullness. The curves of her body were amazing. The way her waving, dark hair brushed those hips had him itching to reach for her. He clenched his fist, knowing he never could.
When she was within reach, he took the burlap bag and stepped away. Her smile dimmed a bit, but she waved him to join her as they walked through the market.
A balmy breeze blew away the unpleasant smells of overheated bodies and carried in the tang of the Sea of Aquina and a light peach scent. Heady images filled his head of their bodies entwined. His body immediately responded to the sensual thoughts, and he shifted his breeches to ease the discomfort. Seven years was too long for a man to be without the comfort and pleasure of a woman’s body. Without her hands sliding along his skin and arousing him. Beside him, Shyla kept darting little glances his way, her bottom lip tugged between her teeth. When she released it, the delicate skin plumped pink and glistened with moisture. Gavril swallowed hard. He wanted to taste her. Trail his mouth over those lips and down her neck.
He was so focused on his fantasy of tasting her lips and skin that he hadn’t realized they’d arrived at her modest home. He stopped himself just shy of running into her back and breathed deeply of her. Peaches and cinnamon. Sweet and musky. He shuddered all the way to his toes. Taking a step away, he forced himself to focus on anything else but the woman.
He stood on a quiet street lined with houses in a better part of Aquina. Before them lay a small, whitewashed house with flowers lining the short walkway. Wrought iron oil lamps lit the small yard, door, and garden, and a gate on the side twined with thick green foliage. In the distance, he could just make out the glimmering blue sea.
Shyla opened the wooden door and stepped within the dim chamber that made up her living area. He followed, unsure of what to do. She turned up an oil lamp and set to lighting the wicks of others. Her home was a myriad of bright colors. Deep red cushions woven with gold welcomed the weary, and rugs of blue, green, gold, and red flowers covered the floor, giving the room warmth. Plants filled tables and lamps spilled golden circles of light. It was a home fit for a princess. She could surely be one.
“You can set the bag there,” she said and gestured to the counter.
Gavril did as she instructed, and then reached in to remove the vegetables and wrapped lamb. He stopped his hand over the leafy greens. Dirt coated his fingers, the palms of his hands, and his forearms. Clenching his fist, he dropped his arm back to his side.
Shyla touched his shoulder, a smile on her lush lips. “Thank you, Gavril. Would you like to clean up while I make us dinner?”
He looked back at his filthy skin and clothes and nodded his head. She led him through a curtained doorway into her inner sanctum. A low bed covered with pillows the colors of gemstones sat to the right in full view of the arched window, where fading sunlight spilled in. To the left was a large brass tub.
She moved to the wall and turned the handle on a spigot. Water flowed into the tub, steam starting to rise. She set a pile of clothes on a low stool near the tub and took a bath sheet, scissors, razor, and soap out of a cabinet.
“How do you have running water?” he asked. She must be wealthier than most.
“It’s connected by pipes to a rain barrel that heats in the sun. The water is kept warm through flames along the pipes. I bartered items from my shop for the system with a man whose magic gives him the ability to manipulate water through metal.”
He nodded, amazed at such a thing.
Shyla set the bath supplies down on the stool and held the soap out to him. Their fingers brushed as he accepted it, sending warmth flooding to his gut. She smiled and looked quickly away.
“Take your time,” she said and slipped from the room, pulling the curtain closed.
Gavril breathed deep of the cinnamon soap. If this was the source of the spicy cinnamon he smelled, were the peaches her natural scent? He forced the thought from his mind, shed his clothes, and stepped into the heaven of the first warm bath he’d had in seven years.