It had been a long day. I must have been asleep soon after he left me. I certainly didn’t hear him return. I woke in the strange bed the next morning but had no recollection of crawling under the sheets. The cloak was neatly folded on a side table. Moshen must have been listening for signs of life before disturbing me. I was in the shower trying to clear the cobwebs away when he knocked on the door to tell me that breakfast was ready as soon as I was. So we had breakfast. But it was odd. He seemed to have lost some of his assurance from the previous day and wouldn’t look me in the eye.

With a curt message relayed to his men Moshen told them to get underway. Once the drive motors had started up he relaxed a little, took off his fatigue jacket and turned towards me. There were bruises running up the side of his neck. Without a word he lifted his shirt and I saw fist sized blooms patterning his ribs, already a sickly blue on his caramel skin. I was concerned in case he had been in a fight with one of his men, did they know what cargo they were carrying?

No, it was worse than that – the fight had been with me. He’d come in to check on me, found me still curled up under his cloak and had tried to wake me enough to get me into the bed. I’d lashed out at him. Apparently my speed and strength had surprised him. It was over so quickly he couldn’t even call it a fight, stranger than that he said it seemed to be a purely reflex reaction. I hadn’t even opened my eyes as I’d hit him … and then got into the bed anyway afterwards, still apparently asleep. We had one of those awkward silences. I mean really awkward. I was aghast at what I had done to my friend, he was more than a little embarrassed at being bested by … well, by whatever I was.

Thankfully it didn’t last. He was gracious in accepting the full apology I made on behalf of my unconscious self but I had clearly given him something to ponder.

The morning’s conversation was on the politics of the court and had I considered the potential repercussions of the Laird taking a male bride? I must have been thinking along the same lines as Moshen and his mystery confidant. I didn’t exist. A male bride? Who would believe such a thing? I’d already learned my lesson in reality. Even if the Laird did take an interest in me there would have to be an official bride, I would just be a shadow in the background. Even as the words were formed they gave me cause to look again at this smooth man with his shoulder length hair free from any wife braid. The thought must have shown on my face and I was gently, but very firmly, told that my thinking was mistaken. The soldier had no wife because he had no time for a wife; the whores in the palace serviced his needs while all his commitment was to the Laird.

The Laird, all life and health to him, was starting to feel his age Moshen said. The senior wives with older sons feared that he would dote on whatever new child came along in his twilight years and felt threatened by the prospect. (Don’t get carried away with the twilight years thing, I’m not into geriatrics, the man was in his forties when I met him and still a force to be reckoned with.)

Anyway, we played with the notion for a while. The senior wives would not necessarily object to a union that couldn’t threaten the status quo. Maybe some of the wives would be relieved that there was someone else to be the target of their master’s unmentionable appetites. Moshen Ibn al Haq, dutiful subject of the Laird, had hopes that that was the case – at once confirming the rumours that my father had heard but had first disregarded. The secret call had encouraged his belief that the Laird would be interested in me. My unexpected strength had made him think that I might prove a suitably resilient recipient of the less acceptable desires expressed when the mood took the old man.

The time passed with our idle speculations. Nothing could be certain, however, until all the candidates were presented to Failbhe, the Lion of Alba, our Laird and liege lord. The only thing we could put money on at that point was the uproar that my presence would cause in the seraglio. We were determined to follow the Chamberlain’s orders to the letter and would ask for no special treatment. I would be handed over to the Chamberlain and Eilionoir, the Laird’s most senior wife, just like all the other candidates. I would be held together in seclusion with them until the time one of us was chosen and then … and then Moshen assured me that he would make certain I was safe whatever happened.

Sunset. Even though we had made it to better roads as we neared the capital Moshen did not want to risk pushing on in the dark. We stopped for the night. His jacket buttoned up and his head down his men did not seem to notice any difference in him as he checked in with them and reassured them that they would be home to their wives and whores the next day. He’d quietly left his comm. link open one way so I could hear his progress around the transport.

He accepted an invitation to eat with the men so I looked after myself. I got treated to some of the wilder speculation from the soldiers wondering why he was spending so long with this pick up rather than riding with them. His answers about, oh, you know, having to keep an eye on those wild ones from World’s End, seemed to satisfy their curiosity and prejudices without saying anything too specific about what he had being doing. Whatever else was said, it seemed to be obvious that the occupant of the vehicle was off limits. A short while after the meal was finished he excused himself and left them to their suppositions. I heard him whisper that he was closing the link as he was going to make another call.

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