The Promise of Rain
She was sitting on the pallet of furs, staring glumly at the untouched platter of roasted pheasant before her. She didn’t look at him.
He settled down in front of her on the other side of the tent. “Is it not to your liking?”
She didn’t seem to want to answer him, but then she sighed and said, “I’m sure it is fine.”
“You haven’t eaten any.”
“I am not hungry.”
“Not very gracious of you.”
That got her attention. “Gracious?” she repeated, astonished.
“My finest hunter went to all the trouble of finding you a pheasant. Not just any pheasant, mind you, I told him that wouldn’t do. I told him it must be the king pheasant, the grandest bird out there. And I assure you it was no little feat for him to find it. He had to pass up a great many lesser birds. But here it is, the King of Pheasants, just for my lady, and you too proud to take even a bite. Most ungracious,” he finished mournfully.
She studied him, puzzled, as if what he had said might be true and not some silly nonsense that popped into his head. Roland reached over and plucked a sliver from her platter to taste. It was dry, bland, and burnt on one side. He smiled. “Definitely the king.”
“You have a very odd sense of humor.” She tucked her hands under the furs covering her legs, then eyed him cautiously, as if unsure of what he might try next.
Roland looked affronted. “King Pheasant didn’t find it humorous, I think.”
A tiny furrow creased her brow, such a serious silver look, and he found himself wanting to charm it away all the more. It pulled at something inside of him, that tiny wrinkle, a short stab at the softness in him reserved for her alone, apparently. Roland racked his mind to think of something to say to bring peace to her, but before he could speak she pushed the platter away and lay down on the furs on her side, facing him, and he was too wrapped up in the elegance of her movements to catch his thoughts.
“Why are you called the Hound of Hell, my lord?”
“You don’t know?” he hedged, not wanting this conversation.
“Oh, well, I have heard different things, of course. Battles, victories, that sort of thing. Nothing in particular that could explain it.”
Roland pushed the platter of pheasant back to her. “Eat, and mayhap I will tell you.”
“Eat,” he ordered, and somewhat to his surprise she reached out a hand and took some. She brought the bite to her mouth, watching him as she did it, closed her lips around it, began to chew. After a while, she swallowed. “Well?” she prompted.
“I suppose,” he said slowly, “it is because the hounds from hell are supposed to be...” She took another bite. Her lips distracted him, luscious ripe berries, or velvet rose petals, he didn’t know which was more apt...
“Wicked,” she said flatly, finishing the sentence for him when he lost his thought again.
“Relentless,” he said instead. That was it. Relentless in pursuit of their goals, fiendish though they were, forever and ever. Relentless in the destruction of their enemies. Roland gathered himself. “Henry named me thus.”
Whatever he had said had affected her. She jumped a little at his words, her eyes darkened. He caught a bitter spark there; the curl of her mouth was derisive.
“So”— she took another bite—“you are his dog.”
He smiled sharply to show she hadn’t offended him. “Some would say so.”
“A lapdog?” Her eyes were bright now; the pheasant was disappearing faster.
“Nay,” he replied, his voice low. “A hunter. What else?”
He saw her glance at the mark she had made on his throat with her dagger, that night in the inn. “You hunt down the innocent.”
“I serve my sovereign.”
“You have no will, only a master.”
“You have a biting tongue and a quick wit, my lady, but I’m afraid you’re wrong in this. I am my own master. I choose to serve, because it will get me something I want.”
She paused in eating. “And what would that be?”
He hesitated, unwilling to spill his inner self to her so openly, not when she obviously had such a low opinion of him and could skewer him with a single, well-chosen word. “Nothing of interest to you, Lady Kyla.”
She finished the meal, licking her fingers, watching him, and then stretched out fully amid the furs. “Well, hound, you dogged me into eating. You should be pleased with that, at least.”
“Tomorrow perhaps you shall have the pheasant queen.”
“Yes,” she said, turning her head to study the tips of her toes, peeking past her coverings. “She would be better off on my plate than living the rest of her life alone. Don’t you think?”
And of all the things she had said, that was the one that stabbed him. For he knew she meant herself, but he saw himself there as well.
Roland grabbed the plate and stood. “Sleep well, Lady Kyla. Tomorrow we ride hard.”
He left without another look.
Excerpted from The Promise of Rain by Shana Abé. Copyright © 1998 by Shana Abé. 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.