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Rain at Midsummer

By Teresa Noelle Roberts



Description

An escaped slave daunted by freedom. A nobleman fighting his destined birthright. Their love defies logic, but when the spirits of the land speak, you’d better listen.

Nikos curses the day his brother died and left him as Lord of Thermanae. What’s an educated man to do in a place so backward his tenants expect the Lord and Lady of the estate to bring rain through sex-magic? Jaenna, a runaway Kulchu slave, curses the fate that forced her to flee a murderous master to the neighboring Soranian Empire. Freedom means frightening choices for a woman whose entire life has been spent serving men’s sexual whims, and she can’t communicate with the spirits of the land enough to work the healing magic that might earn her a respectable place here.

The forbidden desire that burns between Nikos and Jaenna could save them both, if they see beyond what they think they know. But it takes desperate need—and advice from a madwoman who may be crazy like a fox—for Nikos to see that magic isn’t merely a metaphor and Jaenna to learn that love is the most powerful magic of all.

Note: Rain at Midsummer is set in the same world as Lady Sun Has Risen and is part of the Seasons of Sorania cycle.


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Excerpt

“Dry spring here,” Dela commented, as if Nikos hadn’t noticed. “Are the crops doing all right?”

Nikos took a deep breath. Dela had grown up on a small farm—she’d be sensitive to the state of the land even though she’d left that life behind for a soldier’s. And he was used to Dela assuming he was a good-natured idiot. For a while, she’d outranked him, and even though he’d been promoted ahead of her, everyone including General Ancius acknowledged that Dela deserved lieutenant’s rank at least as much as he did—but when there was only one promotion to be handed out and two candidates, a lord, even the lord of a small, obscure holding in the Empire’s most backwater satrapy, was going to beat out an equally competent hill-country farm girl.

It was just that everyone was asking him the same questions, as if people who’d been in Thermanae all along wouldn’t know better than he would. Worse yet, everyone was expecting him to do something about it, as being the Lord gave him power to end the drought.

Not Dela’s fault he’d been away from home for the past eighteen months with the Army, or had spent two years at the University in Poldar before that. Or that this was all supposed to be Naso’s problem, Naso who had a feeling for the land and the farmers under their protection.

Naso who died and made him Lord of Thermanae. Gods cradle his soul—and damn him to seven hells for trying to be a hero on the Peshtari front, when everyone knew that was the younger brother’s job, not the elder.

He thought a prayer for patience to gods he wasn’t sure he believed in. “If we get rain soon, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. They’ve been able to irrigate—we had plenty of snow this winter, from what Theos says. But that’ll only last so long.” And their irrigation system dated from before the last Kulchu invasion, meaning it was only slightly more efficient than hauling buckets to the fields by hand. Hells, in one of his villages, they were doing just that because the aqueduct had collapsed after an otherwise minor earthquake and no one had the skills or time to rebuild it. “The headmen of the villages will be able to tell us more today.”

“So, is your betrothed coming to Thermanae for Midsummer and help you bring the rains?”

“First, I don’t believe in that old-fashioned nonsense. The seasonal festivals are just celebrations. Who you fuck or where, or whether or not you spank them while you’re doing it, doesn’t make the crops grow or bring rain or anything. They’ve proven it at the University in Poldar. It may please the gods that we celebrate, but the rain comes when the rain comes.”

Dela raised one eyebrow. Like most country people, Dela no doubt believed the legends about having sex in the fields to bring rain at Midsummer and seeing visions of the gods at Spring Festival if you’d found your true love and spanking women to ensure good spring weather and thrashing men in autumn for some fool reason he’d willed himself to forget—but she politely waited for him to continue.

“And second, I don’t have a betrothed. Yet.”

“I knew you’d have told me, but it’s all anyone’s been talking about since Anat and I got here.” Dela let out a barking, boyish laugh. “Anat says it’s so outrageous it must be true, but who would marry a Thelanese lout like you? Unless the lady had a thing for goats or spankings.”

Nikos wouldn’t have taken it from anyone but Dela, also a native of this backwater satrapy—not to mention his best friend. “Got it in one guess. She likes goats. I’m hoping she may settle for me because the goats are all pining for you.”

“Only the females, my boy, but they can’t have me. Anat doesn’t share.”

She smiled the smile of a satisfied woman before continuing.

“But seriously, Nikos, what’s going on? The servants have been talking of nothing else since we got here, trying to pump me for information. The rumor must have started somewhere. So is this just something your mother dreamed up or have you really set your heart on some rich woman from Poldar, even if it’s not formalized?” She didn’t add that Lalage Thermanae was out of touch enough with reality to invent a betrothed for her surviving son, but her tone implied it.

Unfortunately, it was true.

Nikos forced a smile. “Mother’s eager to see me married. I did meet a woman in Poldar, but…” He shrugged. “It’s nowhere near that point, and it won’t ever reach that point while I’m stuck in this backwater. Sarakia doesn’t see me as worthy of anything but a light flirtation.”

“Seven hells, what is the woman looking for in a husband? If I liked men, I’d at least consider you. You’re not half bad-looking, you’re just stupid enough to be entertaining, and you’re a lord!”

He snorted with laughter, then stifled it. Very uncouth to laugh that way, not the way for a young officer on the rise to behave, even in front of an old friend like Dela. “Oh, the Lord of Thermanae—that’s going to impress a sophisticated woman from the Imperial capital. I may have the blood of seven satraps and a king in my veins, but you’ve seen the villa. The roof has more holes than tiles. All I stand to inherit is an olive grove, a mediocre vineyard, and high expectations. Oh, and three border villages that look to my family for defense against the Kulchu. She’d never want to live here. She’s a spice merchant, a wealthy woman. Refined.”

He sighed, remembering Sarakia’s soft hands, her cultured voice, her elegance, her wit and spirit.

And the way she’d laughed when the gods’ blessings during seasonal festivals were mentioned. “It’s a great excuse to have an adventure with someone you’d otherwise never meet,” she’d said, “but everyone knows it doesn’t mean anything. The priests invented it to make sure we go to the temple at least a few times a year so they keep their jobs.”

No, Sarakia would never fit in here, where people still took the old ways seriously and women, no matter how strong and competent they might be, kept up a veneer of deference to men.

Which was why he had to get out. “I need to make a name for myself, either on the battlefield or in Poldar—maybe take the Thermanae Senate seat that no one’s actually bothered with since the days of Tallius the Unifier and do something impressive. Otherwise she’ll never notice me.”

“And I know that’s where I come in: someone to keep an eye on the defenses while you’re away.”

Even though he was the Lord, and in theory, master of all he surveyed on his own lands, he looked around before answering, to make sure that no one was listening. He just wasn’t ready to reveal his plans to his dependants yet. “To take over the defenses indefinitely, more like. I don’t belong here anymore. Father and Mother raised me to see the world, to be the Thermanae who went to Poldar and made the connections we need to pour some money back into the land—not the one who tends the land. If Naso hadn’t died…”

“But he did, Lord and Lady embrace him. You’re the Lord of Thermanae. You have duties to the land, and to the villagers.”

“Spoken like a true Thelanese.” He said it with a slight, cultivated sneer, the one he’d learned to put on for his more urbane acquaintances.

At the same time, her words tugged at his heart, reminding him that, like it or not, he belonged to this little corner of his harshly beautiful, remote satrapy as much as it belonged to him.

More than it belonged to him. The land and the villages had been there long before his birth, would be there long after his death. He was just the one who, thanks to an unluckily aimed arrow in a far part of the Empire, had the responsibility to steward them.

Seven hells.

He let go of the sneer, knowing it wouldn’t impress her and probably wouldn’t fool her. She was Thelanese to the core—and she knew him well. “That’s why you and Anat finishing your Army term and wanting to come back to Thelana was an answer to my prayers. I can make sure my land and my people are in good hands, do a good turn for old friends, and still keep my sanity.” Anat, the eldest child of her local lord’s steward, could help out their steward Theos until he finally admitted he was ready to sit by the fire and tell stories to his grandchildren, and Dela was the best rough-country scout the Seventh Legion ever had, not to mention the best at training other scouts and skirmishers. And between Dela’s dirty jokes and Anat’s pretty face, even the old curmudgeons were starting to say “those two bossy Army women aren’t so bad.”

Dela and Anat loved Thelana, really wanted to make a life among the goat farmers and vintners even having seen more civilized parts of Sorania, but they couldn’t go to back to their hill village after running away from home together to join the Imperial Army. In Thermanae, if the young lord vouched for you and the Lady Lalage liked you—hells, if she came out of her melancholy and noticed you on a regular basis—you were accepted.

Especially if you could fight off Kulchu raiding parties.

The nomads loved to harass the border villages, carrying off livestock and kidnapping unlucky villagers into slavery. Dela’s job was to whip the villagers, the few men-at-arms, and anyone else she could recruit into a passable border patrol.

For decades, Imperial forces had been stationed here, patrolling the borders, protecting the borderfolk from Kulchu raiders who, if they couldn’t steal back the territory the Empire had wrested their control, were happy to steal from it. But since the invasion of Peshtar, and its attendant troubles, only one legion was stationed in Thelana, and that was spread far too thin to do much good.

“You and Anat are godssends, Dela. Now if I could just find someone to keep an eye on Mother…” He sighed. She was getting worse, more withdrawn from the world, more melancholy. Valaria and Theos and the rest of the staff could manage the day-to-day matters on their own, but Lalage needed someone to drag her from her shell or she’d sink so deep into melancholy she might never find her way out, leaving Thermanae without a Lady until he could wed. And he couldn’t leave home again, in good conscience—and thus couldn’t wed—until he found a suitable person to watch over her.

Which could be a long time. Practically any adult villager knew how to tend someone infirm in body, but afflictions of the mind and spirit were another matter.

And physicians, even frail, elderly, slightly crazy ones, made terrible patients. The person who had Lalage Thermanae in her care would have to be on her toes.

Dela smacked him on the shoulder. “Stop wool-gathering. Let’s see the countryside, meet some of these villagers of yours and see how bad this drought really is. See if we can find us some slavers to beat up.”

“Let’s hope not. I want my visit home to be nice and quiet. No profit in excitement here.”