It wasn’t until the pressing feeling of his isolation dissolving around him alerted his warrior’s senses that he opened his eyes. The quiet ambiance of the ocean’s waves had lulled him into something akin to sleep, leaving him rather languid, hypnotized somewhere between the soft breeze and the smell of saline. The sand upon which he lounged, the flesh of his back protected from the grainy texture by a large blanket, had muffled her approach, or it might have been her own nearly innate skill that had silenced her steps. Either way, Adan was surprised by the sudden intrusion.

When he sat up, she stood a few yards away from him, and her pensive expression caused him immediate concern. Such worry was unbefitting of her beautiful amethyst eyes, and the heartbreak that radiated from her forced him to his feet, and drove him to quickly approach her. “Kanai, what’s—” He was abruptly silenced when she threw herself into his arms, and clung to him as if he were her last chance at salvation. Instantly, he enveloped her in a warm embrace, tucking her head beneath his chin to bring her as close to him as possible. “My love…”

“Why did you leave me this morning?” her muffled question sounded, barely audible over the waves gently crashing upon the sand. He could hear the tremor in her voice, and her distress seemed to radiate off of her much like heat. The utter hurt in her question pierced his heart.

“I just woke up early,” Adan explained gently. “I felt you needed as much rest as possible, so I left to avoid disturbing you. Is this why you seem so upset?”

Shaking her head, Kanai slowly pulled away from him, and Adan felt a despairing anxiety, something akin to panic, begin to plague his heart. Knowing his wife to be a woman of deep thought, he worried that perhaps she had been considering the ramifications of all that had transpired between them, for it was something he fretted every time he laid eyes on her. Was she suddenly regretting their marriage? Did she finally realize that a Shintai Warlord was far better suited, and far more acceptable a husband than he? Willing the lump that had formed in his throat not to choke him, Adan made a silent prayer to the Gods he thought had forsaken him. They had already consummated their marriage; by the customs of her culture, Kanai was unable to wed another man. Had he ruined her life before she had a chance to properly consider her decision? He watched with confusion as she took a few paces to separate them, and folded her arms across her chest as if protecting herself from a chill. She refused to meet his gaze, causing the ex-Commander to wonder if his departure from the bedroom so early that morning had been some sort of transgression for his Shintai wife that he did not foresee.

“Yes,” she said quietly, then quickly continued, “well, no, not really. It’s just…” She sighed in frustration, and the sight caused his lips to quirk in the beginnings of a smirk. Adan always thought Kanai was adorable when she flustered or became frustrated. The way her full, pink lips would purse into a pout drove him to want to kiss her each and every time. “I’ve been alone with my thoughts for too long,” she confided. “And I…I’ve been thinking about this—” her hand gestured between them “—about us.”

Adan felt the color drain from his face, despite the hours he’d spent in the sun. It seemed as if a thousand questions bombarded his thoughts at once, but instead of voicing any of them, he remained silent. He knew better than to interrupt her when she paused to collect her thoughts, but the silence that stretched between them was enough to drive him mad. The uncertainty that reflected in her eyes caused panic to slowly encroach on his thoughts, and his heart started to thunder in his chest. He wanted to reassure her, somehow tell her how much he loved her. Unfortunately, the ex-Commander understood that love might not have been the determining factor in her concerns. He was married to the Empress of Shintai; he would have been a fool to assume this marriage would be an easy one. Adan was retched from his thoughts when Kanai’s voice drifted to him over the breeze.

“I have some concerns about us,” she said, and his eyes widened as he watched her cheeks redden. He was flooded with dread. “And I wanted to talk to you about them.”

“Of course,” he responded before he could stop himself. His answer earned him an almost shy glance from the corner of her eye. Approaching her tentatively, Adan extended his hand to his wife. “Come join me on the blanket,” he offered with a smile that spoke only of his love for her. She hesitated for but a moment before she took his hand and allowed him to lead her to the blanket he’d already spread across the sand.

They sat facing the sea with the sun to their backs, not entirely side-by-side, but also neither facing each other directly. Legs crossed in the sitting position of Shintai, Adan was reluctant to release Kanai’s hand, though she gently pried it from his grasp. “What is it that’s been troubling you?” he asked quietly, suddenly unable to meet her gaze. It felt as if storm clouds cast a shadow over his heart, he was so filled with dread. She had hesitated before taking his hand, she was unwilling to maintain any sort of physical contact, and just the night prior, they were unable to be separated.

“Adan, I…” She stopped suddenly, and frowned for a moment, her gaze falling to the blanket upon which they sat. “There’s no easy way for me to say this.”

The ex-Commander’s heart froze in his chest. Surely, she would inform him that she was leaving him, be it in search of a new husband, or something altogether different that would make her happy. His eyes drifted to the ocean as his mind wandered for a moment, away from the present and to the conversation they’d had just after his arrival to Shintai.

He’d been in shackles, something Kanai was forced to allow, despite the wounds he’d suffered during his imprisonment; he’d been a piece of property then, a slave. He recalled how, the moment the doors to her chambers had been closed, she’d immediately freed him of his bonds, and gently tended his wounds. Kanai explained, then, so many months ago, that in order for her court to accept him, he would have to become a citizen and take the Warrior’s Path. He would be Striped, and have to duel each of her Warlords to prove his worth. She had warned that it would be a long and painful process, and offered him the option of, instead, beginning his own life in Shintai, one that didn’t involve the hassles of courting her. But Adan had never wanted anyone but her. He didn’t care about Enaria, or what protecting her might have cost him. He loved her with everything he had in him, and was willing to do whatever it took to earn the right to pursue her. And he had done everything required, despite the opposition before him. Other Warlords, Darius DeSantis and Ande Ginjiro being two of the biggest threats to his romance with Kanai, tried to impede his success, and even tried to kill him.

He knew Kanai had suffered as well. Adan knew that none of her court approved of him, for both his deeds and his heritage. He’d seen the flush in her cheeks from her screaming matches with her advisors and the Warlords, and heard her tears when she’d cry in the privacy of her chambers. He hadn’t been allowed to comfort her, or to assure her of his support of any decision she made. Adan had attended her speeches, where she would preach peace and acceptance to her people, telling and retelling their story to rally support. It had been such a long and trying road to their marriage, that any doubt within it stole his breath like a physical blow.

“But I…I have to ask you if…if this is what you truly want.”

All cognitive thought halted in the ex-Commander’s mind. Sapphire eyes blinked in confusion, and Adan slowly turned to stare at his wife. His brow furrowed, and his heart sped up trice its normal pace. “Come again?” he somehow managed to stammer.

“Our marriage,” Kanai clarified, and the tremor in her voice was undeniable. She seemed unable to prevent her bottom lip from finding its way between her teeth, one of the few external indications she gave that she was uneasy. “Is…is it what you really want?”

Without hesitation, Adan positioned himself directly before his wife, and took both of her hands within his. Sapphire eyes met amethyst with an intensity strong enough to crumble mountains. “Kanai, I have wanted nothing more since the day you stole my heart,” he said fiercely. “I love you. I can imagine having no other woman by my side.” He brought one of her hands to his lips and kissed her knuckles. His gazed softened to something akin to a hurt confusion as he asked, “Why would you ever doubt that?”

Shrugging, Kanai looked away from her husband and to their interlocked hands. Her confidence seemed to abandon her, and Adan knew she feared she’d offended him for her insecurity and doubt. She always worried about offending him. What she didn’t realize was that he had the same fear and insecurity. She seemed to struggle to find some verbal justification, and just as it seemed to come to her, Adan leaned forward and captured her lips in a sweet kiss.

Relief flooded the ex-Commander as his wife instantly responded, and his eyes slipped closed as he savored her sweetness. Her reluctance and her shyness had vanished. She freed her hands from his grasp, and he soon felt her gentle hands on his face.  A loving caress, and their kiss deepened. Without parting, Adan wrapped his strong arms around Kanai, and easily gathered her close to him, and she instinctively shifted in his lap to maintain their intimacy. With each brush of lips, they reaffirmed their love and reinforced their bond.

When they finally pulled away from each other to honor the need to breathe, Adan’s voice was nearly a plea as he asked, “What must I do to prove that I love you, Kanai?”

“I feel like I’ve forced you into marrying me,” Kanai suddenly blurted. “I don’t doubt that you love me, but there’s more to a relationship than love, and there are many reasons people love each other.”

Adan stared at her for a long moment, and considered her plight.

“I realize that when I brought you to Shintai, I brought you to a life that would never be easy,” she said with remorse. “Whether you chose the Warrior’s Path to court me, or whether you left the palace to start a new life for yourself, you’d have been met with nothing but hardship, but at least with the Warrior’s Path, the end result would yield some familiarity. We’ve been through so much together, it seemed only natural that you would be drawn to me; I’m one of the few things you can be sure of in Shintai.”

“You are one of the few things I can be sure of in this life, Kanai,” Adan corrected.

“But did you pursue me for that sense of comfort, or because you truly love me and want to be with me? And if you do love me, do you love me for me, or for how being with me can ease the trouble you’d have from living in Shintai, amongst your once-enemies?” The ex-Commander could see tears in his wife’s amethyst eyes, causing them to appear glassy. Her questions were rhetorical, and Adan knew better than to answer them directly. Kanai was vulnerable, and he had to tread lightly lest he only hurt her further with a careless or callous word; he had made that mistake too many times to allow it to happen now, when her fears were such that they could destroy what they had.

“Kanai,” Adan said quietly, “I loved you before we parted ways to return to our respective countries. I loved you before I knew you were Princess of Shintai, and I loved you so deeply, my future never once crossed my mind when I slit General Thavara’s throat to protect you.” A small smile spread across his face as his wife stared at him in shock. “Just because it took such measures for you to realize your feelings for me, does not mean it took the same effort for me to realize my feelings for you.”

“Why didn’t you say something before Gavin and I left for Shintai?” she asked.

“I am a warrior myself, Kanai,” the ex-Commander responded. “You know me better than to assume I’d ever stand between you and your duty.”

“But Adan—”

“When you brought me to Shintai, I understood that the opportunity to have you would be what determined my fate,” he interrupted. “Not because of how it would affect my life objectively, but because I would not rest until I had you, nor would I ever truly be happy with any life that did not have you in it. Kanai, when I sat in that cell, shackled and beaten, I expected to die; it was a welcomed fate when compared to possibly never seeing you again. Even the life of a slave in your palace was preferable to a life of freedom away from you.” The ex-Commander met his wife’s gaze evenly, and he waited a few moments to be sure she would allow him to continue before he spoke further. “What troubles me is why you’re suddenly having these concerns. My wife should have mentioned these things before becoming my wife, I’d imagine. Is it really my devotion you’re questioning, or is it your own, Kanai?”

She opened her mouth to answer his rhetorical question, but before a sound could escape her, Adan placed a finger over her lips to silence her. “I don’t want you to answer, because you will adamantly deny any doubt you have of your own feelings. I know this.” He smiled gently to her, allowing his hand to fall to rest at her waist. “I know how you struggle daily to defend what we have, and I know gaining enough support for our marriage was an uphill battle. I would be hard pressed to believe such fighting hasn’t taken a toll on you,” he said as he nuzzled her and gave her a brief kiss. “If you wish to separate, I understand, and I will respect your wishes. I know your love for me cannot be the sole determining factor in whether we remain together.”

“No,” Kanai agreed hotly. “It cannot be the sole determining factor in whether we remain together, or so say my advisors, but it is the only factor that matters to me. I am the Empress of Shintai, and I determine what will and will not be in my country. Our marriage is something that I will have regardless of what my court may think, and in the grand scheme of things, it is the least of their concerns. Adan, I have wanted you for so long, and I’ve nearly lost you twice already,” and it was with this statement that her normally level voice broke, as her barely restrained tears finally fell from her eyes. “I cannot lose you again.”

“And you won’t, so long as you allow me to stay by your side,” Adan said soothingly, his voice a deep rumble in the back of his throat. Battle-calloused fingers freed Kanai’s beautiful face from any outward sign of her sadness with a gentle caress. “I do not wish to cause you any hardship, my love,” he continued. “But please never doubt my desire to be with you, or to what lengths I would go to stay with you. I married you to be with you forever.”

The smile she offered was weak, as fresh tears spilled from her eyes. Though he focused only on comforting her, Adan worried what could have caused such distress within Kanai, what it was that could have triggered such a display of vulnerability. He knew the people of Shintai to be proud, and had watched his wife often struggle with maintaining the cool Warrior’s façade while her emotions stormed within her. She’d only ever shed tears before him for two reasons: one was for her Wolf while he knocked on Death’s door, and the other was when he himself had been knocking on Death’s door.

“I suppose recent events are finally taking their toll on me,” she murmured as she nuzzled his hand. Her eyes slipped closed as a soft sigh escaped her barely parted lips, and the ex-Commander was pleased to feel her relax a bit. Their honeymoon was meant to serve as a vacation during which they could enjoy each other as newlyweds; there shouldn’t have been so much tension in her lithe form. Settling against him, Kanai rested her head on her husband’s shoulder, and he felt her soft and still somewhat shaky breaths on the sun-kissed skin of his neck and collarbone.  Adan rested his cheek against the top of her head, and relished how perfect she felt in his arms. Despite the obstacles they faced together daily, he knew she was what he wanted most in this world, and that he was utterly content.