The barbarian ceremony was surprisingly simple. She wore a different robe, red rather than black but as shapeless as the previous one. There was no priest and no altar; what there was of ceremony was carried out by her uncle and brother. Her uncle put her hand over Alario’s, her brother poured some water over their feet, and a cloth was tied from his ankle to hers. Thus, wordlessly, they were married. Two hours later, she was up on his horse, to be carried home his wife, and he took her the same night, in his tent at the camp on the far side of the river.
Her hair was long, a waterfall of silk to the waist, and black as promised. Her body wasn’t as exquisite as Julia’s and of course she had no earthly idea what she was doing, but he enjoyed himself anyway, as he’d known he would. There was an undeniable piquancy in the cold silence and bitten lip and the eyelids that resisted closing to pleasure. He’d never had a woman who scowled so. He’d visit her bed often, he decided afterwards, smoothing his hand over her trembling side. At least until there was a son, of course, but not only for a son.
Her breathing steadied, settled. After a while, he fetched her a cup of water and watched as she drank it all down thirstily, her long white throat damp with sweat. She gave him the empty cup and then turned her cool gaze on him.
‘And what now?’ she asked. There was an edge of mockery in her voice. He’d reached the end of his little game, she was saying, his bluff was called, and now how was he to escape the trap? He grinned. She really was a find.
‘Now sleep,’ he said lazily. ‘I’ll want your help with the empire in the morning.’
‘I don’t know anything about your empire,’ she said.
‘No,’ he agreed. ‘But I’ll expect you to learn.’
She fell silent again, turning her head to stare at the roof of the tent, and he looked at her sharp composed profile.
‘I’m your husband,’ he said. ‘You owe me obedience. Yes?’
She didn’t turn her head, considering this. He watched her mouth tighten, then relax. She closed her eyes.
‘Yes,’ she said, after a long pause, and he kissed her shoulder in mock-apology.
‘Sleep,’ he ordered and she huffed a breath and kept her eyes closed. Satiation was creeping up on him, warm and satisfied, but there was a glint of something like a tear on her cheek and he felt a sudden sharp turn of compunction in his stomach. He hadn’t meant to hurt her. Punish her a little, yes, and make the best use of her, but -on a confused instinct, he put his hand out to her, a little clumsily. She looked at the hand and her eyes slanted up to him. Her mouth curled a little. There was still a faint dampness on her cheek but it suddenly seemed deeply improbable that she had wept. He felt a prickle of embarrassed heat at the back of his neck and almost jerked his hand away guiltily – he managed, instead, to turn the touch into a fondle but the faint amusement in her face told him she saw through the gambit. Her face was already intensely familiar to him, as if he’d been studying its secretive lines for years. He wanted to say her name and, with a sudden startled shock, realised that he didn’t know it.
‘You couldn’t pronounce it,’ she said dryly, reading his face. ‘In your tongue, it would be Sophia.’
Sophia. His wife, Sophia. The Empress Sophia. There was a trace of colour in her face now, a reaction, he hoped, to his touch. Triumph surged in him again and subsided. There were things to do. He would have to buy her a lady’s tunic for her entrance into the city. The people would hate the idea of a barbarian queen; if he brought her into the gates in one of her exotic sacks, they would never forget or forgive. But if he made the wedding enough of a spectacle, and had her dressed like any other royal matron, he could get round that. She was very soft, plush and delicate, but there were hard calluses on her palm. An archer’s calluses. She shivered a little as his fingers passed over them. No, she wasn’t Julia but – he bent his head to kiss her again, and stopped thinking of Julia or the people or anything at all.