Once Hope had departed the interior of the carriage, Ayla reached out and removed the gag from Nive’s mouth.
“I don’t think this is necessary,” she said kindly. “Once more, I must say how sorry I am you’ve been through such a traumatic experience. If it were possible to have conducted affairs more gently, we would have done so.”
Nive squirmed around to a seated position and gave Ayla her best expression of princessly refinement. “How much ransom will you be asking for?”
“No ransom,” Ayla replied. “We are not interested in returning to your father, or Iskendar for that matter.”
Nive frowned. “What use have you for a princess?”
“Fairly little,” Ayla confessed. “None, in fact.”
“Then what do you want me for?”
“I could answer that question directly, but my answer would make little sense to you,” Ayla replied, folding her hands in her lap and regarding Nive with a wise green gaze which made the princess feel tingly and hot all over.
“You are a confusing woman,” Nive said, feeling her face blush. Ayla was almost certainly one of the most enchanting women she had ever laid eyes on. There was more than a touch of elf about her features, a slight slant to her eyes, an angular set to her face which made her all the more exotic.
“Yes, I suppose I am,” Ayla said with a smile which made Nive’s heart flutter.
She was no longer afraid. Surely nothing could happen in the company of such a beautiful, refined woman such as this Ayla. The behemoth driving the carriage, she was a different proposition, but Nive was quite certain that this Ayla wielded power over not just the brutal warrior, but likely all those her fascinating green gaze should land on.
“Are you a queen?”
“No, my dear, I have no royal blood.”
“That cannot be true,” Nive said emphatically. “I can see nobility in your bearing, in your words, in the very modulation of your voice. I have tutors who would have wept to have met a woman such as yourself.”
“That’s very kind of you to say,” Ayla said with a gentle smile. “But I’m afraid all this is simply a product of age. I am a relic.”
“You can be no older than… well, I would not be so indelicate as to guess a lady’s age, but you are surely no more than a decade or two older than I.”
Ayla let out a laugh of what sounded like surprise as well as amusement. “If only you knew how very many decades separate the two of us,” she said. “You could barely fathom the time.”
“I am older than I look,” Nive said in confessional tones. “My father told Iskendar that I am eighteen, but I am at least twenty-five. I have not seen my birth certificate, but I remember my eighteenth birthday and that was at least seven years ago, perhaps even more. Why I might even be thirty.” She looked at Ayla with a half-hopeful expression, as if being older might hold some merit in Ayla’s eyes.
“A few years here and there hardly seem to matter, do they,” Ayla replied, her cheeks dimpling with amusement at some secret.
“I suppose not,” Nive sighed. “It really is a great pity that you will be captured soon. I will ask my father to spare you. I think he will.”
“That’s very kind,” Ayla said. “But we will not be captured. Where we are going, even your father’s most experienced trackers will not be able to follow.”
A smug expression passed over Nive’s not even close to thirty year old features. “My father can do anything,” she said with the sort of certainty reserved for the very royal and the very young. “My father once made a star fall from the heavens and had a crown fashioned from it just for me. It was one of the many treasures your barbarian on a leash took from me.”
“Barbarian on a leash,” Ayla smiled. “Now that is quite a way to describe Kira. I don’t recommend you do so to her face.”
“I have nothing to fear from her,” Nive replied, once again speaking with unshakable confidence. “You will ensure that I am safe. There is no point capturing a princess, transporting her in comfort, then allowing one’s bait dog to have at her.”
“I would not advise you call her a bait dog either.”
“Too lofty a term? Perhaps. I will simplify my words then. Not a bait dog, simply a bitch.”
At that moment, the carriage came to a sudden halt, the wheels screeching as steel brakes were applied hastily, the horses protesting as they were reined in roughly. Nive was catapulted from the seat opposite Ayla neatly into the woman’s lap, her bound limbs flailing as she found her face buried in the softest, most ample bosom she had ever beheld.