"By not living it?" he demanded. "I've been there, Taj. You don't want to go down that path, believe me. I won't let you."
She took several deep gulps of air. Then the rage he'd seen building in her finally exploded. "No!" She thumped her fists onto his chest, pushing at him.
The force of her fury nearly knocked him over. He grabbed her arms as much to steady himself as to keep her close. She fought him, her long hair whipping around her shoulders.
He could smell her overheated skin, the fragrances they'd used in the spring, and the womanly scent that was hers alone. "I'm going to live," he said gruffly. "And I'm coming back for you."
"And what then? Even if you survive, even if you win your precious war, there will be years and years of turmoil afterward, especially for you-you, with your radical ideas about eliminating the monarchy, making a new form of government!" Her mouth twisted. "Your Vash Nadah. It might take years, and sooner or later poison will find its way into your drink, or a bullet will strike you in the back. Sooner or later someone is going to kill you, Romjha B'kah."
Her eyes filled with tears that she didn't seem able to blink away this time. "If I ever decided on a protector, it wouldn't be someone like you," she whispered. "You're destined to die in a blaze of glory. Your life is going to be as fleeting and brilliant as an oil-soaked rag thrown into the fire. I prefer a slower burn in a man. When death leers at you from every shadow, you look for someone dependable to hold the torch that lights your way. You, Romjha B'kah, want to wave it. You remind me too acutely of my own mortality."
Her chin lifted and she looked strong, but in that moment all she'd denied was revealed to him. He gave immediate thanks to the Great Mother, something he hadn't done in many years.
Taj loved him. And she feared that love with everything she was. Scrappy Taj Sai. Fear drove her denial now, just as guilt had driven him. She detested being afraid, and to beat it, she'd taken control of her life. Taken control of everything. No wonder she was loath to let him in. She couldn't control him. The realization hit him head-on.
He'd been a fool, battling for her heart from the wrong vantage point, and with the wrong weapons. Armed with his new knowledge, he launched himself into the final battle with his infuriated lover. This time he would claim what was his, once and for all.
Romjha released her. Taj stumbled backward, made fists of her hands and pressed them to her burning stomach.He watched her, his long, powerfully muscled legs set apart in a wide stance, his handsome face utterlydetermined, his eyes unconquerable. But she could see the real man he kept hidden behind the warriorfacade. Her heart fluttered. She knew what lay beneath.
And she was in love with both men.
Taj sucked in a breath as the knowledge exploded within her. Blast it all to hell! She was in love with Romjha B'kah.
She'd fought it for so long, confining her feelings to such benign terms as "admiration" and "respect" and
Her pulse pounded; her hands shook. Fury sizzled out of every pore. She'd been in a bad mood for most ofher adult life. But never had it been like this. Never had there been so much at stake.Romjha's eyes were burnished gold, penetrating.She scowled. "What in blazes are you looking at?"He dipped his chin. "You."Her frown deepened as his mouth curved inscrutably. "You use anger to defeat your fear," he said.She felt her heart jerk in her chest. Crat. He knew. He knew she was scared. She took a swing at his face.
He caught her fist.
Snarling, she yanked her hand back. Her voice was low and deadly. "Get out of my head, Commander."
She turned away, muttering, "Trust me, it's a place you don't want to be.""What makes you so sure?" he asked.Her throat tightened. She could barely speak. "Because most times I don't want to be there myself."He grabbed her by the biceps, dragged her close. "I don't think you understand. I want you, Taj. Inside and out. Everything." He spun her around and his mouth came down over hers.
She groaned and gave in to a new and uncontrollable hunger. The exhaustion of the past few days, the tension, the revelations-everything proved too much. The walls she'd erected to protect herself crumbled.
Romjha's arms closed hard around her, and she came apart. The terror and helplessness she so hated gushed out of the place where she'd long-ago stored it. She pulled her mouth away, buried her face against his chest and wept.
Distantly, she felt Rornjha crushing her in his arms. She clung to him as the full force of her fear tore at her, trying to drag her back into the dark abyss in which she'd wallowed after her father died. But she wouldn't do it. She wouldn't let it take her.
"I love you," she blurted out. Saying the words was almost an act of defiance, her last stand against the fear that threatened to render her helpless. "And it scares me to death," she whispered hoarsely.
Romjha framed her face in his hands. The dim light seemed overly bright. It took a few moments to see clearly, so long had it been since she'd wept. But when she could, she saw love shining in Romjha's incredible eyes. And something else. Something she could not believe. The one thing she'd so hated in herself.
Fear. The great warrior felt fear, too.
"You're afraid," she whispered incredulously.
"You didn't know?"
She thought of all the times he'd stepped in, trying to keep her from harm. She'd seen it as chivalry and later devotion. But a good deal of it had been fear. He, too, was afraid of what the world would take from him.
"All the raiders I've known have felt fear at one time or another." He paused to watch her carefully. "Even Joren."
Even my father.
"You are no coward, Taj Sai." He shook his head. "I'd rather not count all the times I've sought to protect you when you've put others ahead of yourself."
"I'd rather not count the times, either."
Romjha said nothing more. He regarded her, his gaze brilliant gold, intense, his facial muscles taut as he waited . . . waited for her to understand. To see.
The air fairly vibrated, charged and expectant. Taj swallowed hard and closed her eyes, turning her thoughts inward as she so often did when praying. Only this time she looked inside herself for inspiration. For strength. And saw a warrior. A fighter with vulnerabilities, with fears. But. . .
"Courage is the resistance to fear," she whispered. "The control of fear." The realization exploded within her, and her eyes flew open. "It's not letting the fear rule you."
"Yes." Romjha's gaze burned into hers. If he could acknowledge his fear, as did others she admired, even her beloved raider father, then by the heavens she could, too. Without anger.
She'd long believed that courage was the absence of fear. But she'd been wrong. Knowing that made the terror she felt now more manageable. If only she'd tried talking through her secret shame with any of the men. It would have saved her a lot of suffering and self-doubt. But that hadn't been in her nature.
Perhaps her guarded ways were why her relationship with Aleq hadn't worked out. He'd loved blowing things up as passionately as she set herself to making bombs. His mischievous eyes and cocky grin could infuriate her as well as make her laugh. But she'd kept her soul hidden from him, and Aleq hadn't bothered to seek it out. She wasn't sure what made Romjha so able to draw her out, but thank the heavens for it. Having someone so intent on dismantling her defenses was a new and exhilarating experience.
Slowly, wanly, she smiled at Romjha. It had taken the determination of this amazing man to accomplish what she hadn't been able to do alone. "I'm so blasted stubborn," she said. "So proud."
"It was your pride that first attracted me to you. And your passion. Not to mention your unpredictability." Romjha's smile touched her heart. "I knew then as I know now-a life with you will never be dull."
A genuine laugh escaped her. "Nor will one with you, my dear commander."
She held out her hands. Arms outstretched, he met her halfway, taking her fingers in his strong, callused grip. He lifted her hands to his mouth, pressed his lips to her knuckles. Heat streamed up her arms and made her shiver. Tears pressed behind her eyes, and yet she smiled. On the day of his departure, she felt both more miserable and yet more alive than she ever had. It made no sense. But what did anymore?
In silence, she walked with him to the door, and into the dark and quiet tunnel outside the sanctuary of her room. Her stomach churned; her mouth was dry. She wanted to rail at Romjha not to go, to grab at his clothing and beg him to stay-to stay safe, to hide, to try to eke out whatever pleasures they could in the dark manner in which they had lived before the Vedla prince had fallen from the skies.
Romjha squeezed her hand, as if he sensed her thoughts. Taj's vision hazed over. Somehow she held back a second onset of tears. It came with practice. She'd had lots of that.
She would let him go; he had great things to accomplish, her protector. Her father, she thought, would be so proud of the man he'd treated as a son. As was she. And when Romjha returned home, completing the promise he'd made-to their people, to her-she would be there, waiting for him.
They kissed, slow and long. When they finally moved apart, he clasped her hand in his. Fingers twined, they made their way through the maze of tunnels to where she would watch him embark on his trip to the stars.
Romjha B'kah stood before the visiting members of the embryonic and still-struggling Galactic Council. While technology again allowed communication without having to meet in person, he preferred such interaction when lobbying his life's work to the people tasked with implementing it.
If nothing else, the travels of the men and women of the council to Sienna and the other seven homeworlds of the men who had fought for and won the peace would prove to a galactic population of trillions that the space lanes were safe to traverse once again.
Or so Romjha prayed. Five standard years after he'd first left Sienna, and now five more since the last of the warlords had been defeated, the galaxy could still be a dangerous place. But it was improving. And it would be even more so with the hoped-for passage of the Treatise of Trade, an enormous document encompassing a framework for economy and commerce, as well as a stringent moral code for all. Throughout were sprinkled Taj's so-called proverbs as well.
As he thought of them, a corner of his mouth quirked up with affection. They had written it together, practically, with what they'd learned from being together: "The family is holy; sexuality enhances spirituality, and is to be celebrated, for sacred is the joy found in pleasing, consensual relations between a man and a woman." His wife had as much of a hand in the document's creation as Jal, Cheya, Aleq, and the rest. If they, the eight warriors, formed the body of this new Federation, Taj was its conscience.
Taj. . . Warmth filled him. He ached to end his speech and return to her. She didn't care for politics, never had, and stubbornly left it to him. Pregnant with their second child, another beautiful daughter, she waited for him now, protected and safe in the gardens of their sprawling home under construction in the desert highlands of Sienna. At the rate they were adding on to accommodate the constant influx of guests, it would someday be a palace! Kings, he and the other warriors were often likened to-a term Romjha disliked, but if anyone deserved to be a queen, it was Taj Sai B'kah.
He inhaled deeply and faced his audience. "The Treatise of Trade is unlike anything the civilized galaxy has seen. It will help stabilize the new federation, allowing it to mature. A worthy foundation for our society, it will someday, I hope, be an integral part of our culture, and our faith."
Quietly he concluded, "It is difficult to imagine a war so terrible, comprised of acts so heinous, that its psychological aftermath impelled warriors bred for battle to lay down their weapons. But we have seen that. And we have seen something better-the possibility of peace for all time. It is my goal, and that of the other warriors, to incorporate this intent, codify it in the proposed Treatise of Trade, so that we will never forget." He paused, took a breath. "I humbly ask the Council to see the importance of approving this holiest of documents."
All were silent at first. Then one man stood and went down on one knee. "You are Romjha, our light in the dark. Blessed be the Eight!"
Others followed, and bowed their heads. The silence was eerie. Applause he had expected; not this. But as he began walking amongst the kneeling council members, coaxing them to their feet, he saw tears in the eyes of many, and understood their passion, their appreciation. It had been a long and agonizing road for many, this path to peace that now seemed to be coming to an end in a good place, a safer one.
His shoulders heavy with the weight of a newly born civilization, Romjha left the council chamber behind, but the responsibility he bore lightened with each stride that carried him closer to the gardens where his family awaited. Soon he'd be transformed back into the man he was at heart-a private man with simple needs; a protector, a loving mate and doting father. He was no king there, in private with his family.
A high-pitched squeal indicated his daughter had sighted him in the shaded garden. As the child ran forward, Taj also stood, the flowing hem of her over-blouse undulating in the highland's unceasing breeze. Her smile told him everything. Nothing would ever break the bonds they'd forged through war and hardship, made perfect at last by tenderness and trust. Back in the council chamber was everything he'd dreamed of, but here in this garden of resilient desert plants was everything he ever wanted.
Romjha B'kah no longer waited for the future. No, indeed. He had achieved it.