A pounding came to the front door. Idira sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Outside, the sun was up, but only just. Shouts came from the entrance hall, escalating as the pounding at the door increased, a heavy boom made her ears ring. Fighting. Another boom. Silence fell. The double doors burst open. Benny rushed in wild-eyed and panting, carrying something Idira had never seen before, like a metal tube. One end of it smoked. He didn't look stupid now, he look big and dangerous. Myra sat up, her face all puffy from crying. She made a little sound, something between a cry and a sob, her hands moving over her dress, pulling the pieces together once more.
He looked her over, his expression anguished. 'Ye're coming wit' me. He'll not have ye. I'll die first.'
Hope bloomed in Myra's eyes. She ran to him. He caught her with one arm and held her against him, possessive, eyeing the big bruise on her face.
'Did he do this to ye?' he asked, his voice as hard as rocks.
Myra shook her head, clinging to him, tears sliding free, staining her face even more. She hiccupped. 'No. Papa did it.'
Benny's eyes narrowed. 'I'll kill the bastard.'
'Oh, I don't think so, Mr Blaanco.'
VanCleef strolled into the room, wearing only a pair of dark leather breeches, boots, and a white shirt. The ties of his shirt hung open. Idira glimpsed sleek, defined muscles. He didn't have any weapons, at least none Idira could see. Benny tightened his hold on Myra and held the metal thing up, pointing it at VanCleef's face.
VanCleef glanced at the thing, unimpressed. 'You aren't going to shoot me, we both know that.'
He walked around the room, his back to Benny, looking at the fine things on display as if he had just popped around for a visit. Idira watched him, wary. He looked like danger. He glanced over his shoulder.
'You see, Benny, Jac Northshire is really rather useful to me. A brute, to be sure, but useful all the same.' He turned and looked over the pair, locked in their desperate, defiant embrace. He nodded, a look of respect flickering over his features. 'I admire you Benny, you aren't going to give up your woman without a fight. I like that.' He plucked a piece of fruit from a bowl on the table and popped it into his mouth. He wandered around some more, chewing, taking his time. When he was done, he propped his booted foot up onto one of the fine chairs and rested his elbow on his knee.
'However, I am also not going to give up Ms Northshire without a fight. Here's what I propose: a duel. Whoever yields, loses Myra. You may choose the weapons.'
'Fists,' Benny said without hesitation. Idira glanced at VanCleef, hoping to see a reaction. Benny had often bragged he had never been beaten in a fist fight, not even when it was three against one. Looking at Benny's solid bulk and massive fists, she could believe it. There was no way VanCleef was going to beat Benny in a fist fight.
VanCleef smiled. He looked pleased. Idira had to admit he was very nice to look at when he smiled, although she couldn't see what there was to smile about, he had lost Myra for sure.
'Let's finish this then, shall we? Follow me.'
He strode past Idira, elegant, graceful, a hint of scent, warm and spicy, followed in his wake. He even smelled expensive.
Myra moved out of Benny's embrace. VanCleef slowed, noticing her battered face. His eyes darkened.
'Did Jac do this to you?' he asked, his voice low.
VanCleef didn't say anything, but Idira could tell by the way his posture stiffened just a little he was angry. He swept out of the house and down the steps, silent, like a cat.
Benny turned to Myra and pressed his lips against hers, gentle since she was sore.
'Cover yerself and come wit' me. I can't lose. I want ye ta see him yield ta me.'
He found a cloak for Myra and they left. Idira hesitated for a moment, then hurried after them. No one seemed interested in her anyway. She skirted the little groups of servants huddled around the injured in the front hallway, and ran out after her sister and Benny. The town was only just waking up, but the few who were about gaped at the sight of them. They must have looked strange going after VanCleef with Benny still holding that metal thing in his hand and Myra trailing after him, holding her cloak tight around her, her face all smeared with cosmetics and half-covered in a big, ugly bruise, followed by a little girl in her nightdress and bare feet. Idira would have laughed if things didn't feel so terrible.
She looked up at Benny as he went into the big house, his face hard and mean looking. He wasn't going to be nice. He was going to be scary. Idira didn't want to see it. She turned to go back. Myra caught her hand and held it so tight, Idira's eyes watered.
Once more they were led through the house and into the central courtyard, where this whole mess had begun. A bad feeling welled up inside Idira. Benny wasn't going to win. She wanted to be wrong, but she could see it. She could see Benny falling. She shook her head, trying to make the image in her mind go away. But it wouldn't stop. She rubbed at her eyes, frantic, trying to clear her vision.
'What's wrong with her?' The scent of VanCleef surrounded her. He took her chin in his hand. She couldn't see anything except that same image over and over. Benny falling, losing to VanCleef. Not getting back up. She started to cry.
'Look at her eyes,' VanCleef said. 'They're glowing.'
'Please! Make it stop,' Idira cried, rubbing her eyes, desperate to make the images go away. 'I don't want ta see it.'
'See what?' VanCleef asked.
'I don't want ta see Benny losing ta ye.'
'How can you—' VanCleef began. Something heavy and hard slammed into her, knocking the breath out of her. She tumbled back, her legs and arms flailing. Myra's hands came to her, catching her, pulling her away.
'What's happening?' Idira cried, clinging to her sister, blind but for the image filling her mind.
'Benny started the fight while VanCleef was lookin' at ye,' Myra said as she pulled Idira tighter against her.
Violent sounds filled Idira's ears. She tugged on Myra's cloak, begging her to tell her something, anything, but Myra wouldn't answer. Her sister's breathing turned shallow, matching the heavy pants of the two men. The dull thud of fists hitting flesh and bone punctuated the quiet. A crash at the opposite end of the courtyard, then another crash, louder this time. One of the men yelled, furious, but Idira couldn't tell who it was. Running feet, silence. A heavy thud. Myra screamed. Idira blinked. Benny lay on the ground just as she had seen it in her mind. VanCleef stepped over Benny, straddling him. His fists bloody, he lifted Benny up by his collar.
'Yield,' he spat. 'Or my next blow will be a killing one for harming the little one, you devious cheating bastard.'
Blood bubbled out of Benny's mouth, his face had been so badly beaten, he was almost unrecognisable. He stared at VanCleef, filled with hate, and said nothing, defiant.
'Yield!' VanCleef bellowed.
Benny spat at him. A bloody gob splattered against VanCleef's mouth.
VanCleef let go of Benny's collar. Benny's head hit the flagged stones with a smack. His eyes cold, VanCleef wiped the back of hand against his mouth and went to one of the weapon tables still left intact. He picked up a stiletto and strode back to Benny, spinning the blade round, preparing to strike.
Myra cried out and bolted across the courtyard, putting herself between them, her arms spread wide. Her cloak fell open, exposing her breasts once more. They heaved up and down, following her ragged breaths. She looked like a banshee with her torn gown, wild eyes and tangled hair.
'He yields!' she screamed. 'He yields! Ye have won me. Please don' kill him, I beg ye.' She fell to her knees, sobbing, overcome. 'Please . . . if ye love me, don' kill him.'
VanCleef stopped, rigid, his fingers tight around the stiletto's grip. Benny groaned and blacked out. VanCleef's lips twisted, and Idira knew Benny had made an enemy for life. He shouldn't have cheated, that was a bad thing to do.
VanCleef threw the stiletto aside, its clatter loud and jagged as it ricocheted against the stone flags. He went to Myra and pulled her to her feet, yanking her cloak off, then her dress, and finally her shift until she stood naked before him, surrounded by a puddle of clothing. Idira gaped. Was he going to 'walk' with Myra right now? Idira stood rooted to the spot, afraid to move. VanCleef walked around Myra surveying her, his eyes glittering, dangerous.
He took hold of her shoulders and kissed her, hard, angry. Myra let him, even as her tears for Benny slid down her face. VanCleef pulled back, breathing hard, the muscles of his chest rising and falling, straining against the material of his shirt.
'Your things will be brought here,' he said, his voice hard. 'This is your home now. No one is ever going to hit you again. Ever.' He glanced at Idira. 'The little one stays, too.' He let Myra go. She staggered. Without looking back, he went into the house. A door slammed. Silence fell.
Shaking, Myra picked up the cloak and pulled it around her shoulders. She knelt beside Benny and reached out to him, whispering his name.
Footsteps approached. Two of VanCleef's leather-clad men made their way across the courtyard and put themselves between her and Benny. Myra fell back onto her haunches, watching, helpless as they hefted Benny between them and hauled him toward the back of the house.
His head lolling, Benny's feet dragged behind him, banging against the stone steps up from the courtyard. It looked like it hurt. The little group disappeared into the house. Another door slammed. The men returned and began the work of removing the broken tables and collecting up the scattered daggers, knives, and stilettos, neither of them looking at Myra.
Idira went to Myra and knelt beside her. Myra stared at the place where Benny had been, her body quaking. Not knowing what else to do, Idira collected up Myra's clothes and wadded them into a ball. A woman appeared at the edge of the courtyard. Idira glanced up. Lanira. Idira shrank back against Myra. Not her. Not now.
Lanira hastened over to them, nervous and skittish, nothing at all like the dominant, bossy woman Idira had come to dislike. Lanira's hands fluttered together. She wrung them, fretting.
'Please,' she whispered, glancing at the two men setting a table upright. 'Come with me, you can't stay here. I must remove you, he is coming back with his men, to practice.'
Myra didn't look at her, Idira wasn't even sure if Myra knew Lanira was there.
A door slammed in the house again, the footsteps of a dozen men approached. Lanira jumped, her eyes darting to the doorway.
'Idira,' she gestured, frantic, towards Myra, 'help me.'
Lanira crouched down and hoisted Myra to her feet. Still holding Myra's clothes, Idira wrapped her arm around Myra's thin hips and followed Lanira up the steps out of the courtyard. They stumbled into the shadows of the house just as VanCleef returned, wearing his armour. A maid rushed over to take Idira's place, her face full of pity. They went up the grand curving staircase and down a wide hallway into a sumptuous room, its high-ceilinged opulence far too overwhelming for Idira's mind to comprehend—at least not while her sister sat slumped on the floor, staring at her hands, locked in a world of grief.