The Emperor is a vile man.
Without her dagger and staff close at hand, Chione might as well have stood naked before the masses. Sole offspring to King Akih of the Eastern Lands, her fate, her future, and the hopes of all her people lay beyond the palace entrance, just a few steps ahead, and at the whim of a man she’d rather see dead.
Her torment deepened as she glanced at the throng of people, mostly women competing for the attention of a selfish Emperor. Hundreds packed the narrow enclave, the air hot both from the bodies and the departing day’s sun. A few guards stood at either end, barring further entry into the complex. Dark orange streaked the sky, beckoning night.
She rubbed the side of her temple, easing the growing pressure in her head. Too many people crammed into one spot, far different from her beloved open lands of the desert. Court would begin shortly for the evening, a time of day when the city dwellers finally came out of hiding from the intense heat of the summer sun. Weak, so weak.
These languid people needed to stop their wasteful ways. They were no better than that open fountain in the midst of the courtyard, carelessly splashing its waters on the saturated ground as the air steals each precious drop. How could these people live with themselves?
She wrinkled her nose, the intense moisture eliciting a sneeze. A heady aroma of strong violet and rose gagged her further. A wide array of silks and linens swept about exposed flesh. Skin as dark as black onyx or as pink as a newborn child sparkled. Nothing practical or decent. All nobility of some form or another, recognizing the opportunity to climb that social ladder.
“I hear the Emperor can last through a hundred women without tiring,” one girl whispered behind Chione.
“I’ve heard he can satisfy four women at once, one with his penis, one with his mouth, and two with his capable hands,” another to her left answered.
A shiver assaulted her at the image. Why were these women concerned only with one thing? Sex.
To the River Styx with these fools. She had a higher purpose here, a higher calling that transcended these petty sexual desires. Didn’t they know trouble brewed out there? Real danger, like that which killed her father.
A loud click vibrated against the tan stucco walls, followed by a cymbal’s gong heralding the approach of the imperial household. The throng pushed forward.
Her heart sank in beat to the steady, rhythmic whisper of metal rubbing metal. Each guard wore a thick plate that sculpted the lines of their chest. Beneath each of their uniforms, a tan skirt flicked just above their masculine knees as they marched. Dark and light, none had her deep olive tones. Just another sore reminder of her differences.
An etched scorpion was embossed into each of their shields—emblem of the Northern Emperor. In her beloved desert, scorpions ruled the night, digging from their cool burials to walk among the living and feast like kings. Powerful arthropods these weak people did not deserve as their heraldry.
As the men parted, a lone woman stepped forward. A simple white tunic was accented by the blue sash about her waist. A golden scorpion banded her bicep, marking her house, and six rings dangled from her upper earlobe. A concubine. The rings showed her place in the hierarchy—the mother to the current Emperor.
“Settle, please.” She waved her arms gently downward, the control in her pitch perfect. At least four-cycles old, the woman looked nearly as young as any other woman seeking audience tonight. Her creamy skin showed no signs of age, and her body was toned and shapely.
Chione’s heart throbbed with anticipation. The moment she had anticipated this whole journey stood only steps away. Her mind raced, replaying every detail of her prepared speech: My liege, I come to you as a servant, to give myself for the sake of my people. She should be pushing forward, assuring she would receive one of the limited audiences this evening.
Yet, her arms hung heavy at her side, the blood throbbing in the ends of her fingertips. Her legs stiffened as grass planted firmly in an oasis against the torrent of sand. She fought to regain control only to be forced further into a sated acceptance, as one waking from slumber.
Could it be? Could all the stories be true, that the Emperor’s mother was a mystic? Even worse, an empath?
She’d heard of their existence, skilled negotiators and manipulators of others. There had been rumors that the concubine had killed off any other offspring of the late Emperor and when he reached of age, her powers had helped bring her son to the throne.
But she never imaged she’d succumb so easily.
“The Emperor will not be available for court tonight.”
Every last ounce of breath left Chione hollow inside. Straining against the unseen force, she stared into the eyes of the empath. A purple haze encircled her brown iris, piercing into Chione’s mind like a sandstorm.
Who did this Emperor think he was? How could he refuse to have court when so many of his people needed him?
Anger boiled within her, building with the murmur of the crowd. Churning. Growing. Heating her skin. Her eyes narrowed, focusing on the woman, the mother of such an unpalatable man. Bodies all around, unsettled. Pressing. Pushing, demanding for the attention they rightly deserved.
If the Emperor does not send reinforcements, we will perish to those barbarians.
The barbarians, the Xiong Hu, were a nomadic race that dwelt in the deserts to the East. For as long as she could remember, they raided her homeland. The latest surge had humbled her father, forcing him to ask for assistance from the Emperor. And when none came, the barbarians had her father slain. Her last recourse was to come herself to deliver the news of her father’s death and beg for help in reinstating her throne.
Her future lay in the Emperor’s hands. And this woman simply brushed it off with a wave of her hand. Was this how they had treated their messengers? Dismissed them along with the rest of these useless nobles? Chione glared at the mother of the Emperor, pouring all her hate into the narrow stare. She would not be ignored this time.
Fisting her anger, she pressed forward. Even without her dagger, she had ways of convincing this white-clad woman to let her in. All she needed was to be closer.
From all around, a mist of water descended upon them. The babble of the fountain echoed in her ear. The flush of the watery sound surrounded her, ebbed into her, through her, and beyond. Draining the heat of her rage from her body.
Chione broke her stare to shake her head as if waking from a horrid nightmare. She stood alone at the foot of the steps, directly below the Emperor’s mother. The others, who had also come for court, rubbed their temples or whimpered as they scattered slowly out of the courtyard. One by one, the crowd departed, leaving her alone.
Looking back up at the concubine, Chione tried eliciting the anger that had been her life since her father’s death. She’d run from the enemy under the cover of darkness, barely evaded the filthy ruffians along the coast that tried to barter her as goods. But the most powerful image of all was watching as her father slipped to the ground in a pool of his blood.
These memories did not fail as her skin once again boiled to life, freeing her of this false calm. Barely. Daring to breathe again, Chione forced her body still, demanded it to stand here and wait.
She would not be turned away.
The concubine turned. Her gazed locked with Chione’s. Only inches away but she had not the energy to even touch this woman.
“Interesting.” Raising a single, slim eyebrow, the mother of the Emperor tilted her head. “You think you’re special, don’t you? Very well then, stay if you must.”
* * * *
Osorkon, Emperor of the Northern Lands, watched from his secluded balcony the departure of the crowd until only one woman remained in his courtyard. Even the lavish silks that draped about him or the heady perfumes of high society couldn’t ease the tension from his neck. Six straight days and he had neither rest nor slumber as they journeyed back from talks with the Empire to the South. Six long days traveling where every shadow had carried an assassin’s dart.
How much longer could he last at this pace?
He closed his eyes, feeling the wave of exhaustion threaten to cascade over him. No, there was still work to be done tonight. He’d dismissed court to buy him some time, but all the hours in the world wouldn’t be enough. He needed to ready the troops. There was trouble in the air, and he could smell it just like the shaman could the coming rain.
“How long are you going to leave her out there?” His mother’s voice boomed as she entered the room behind him. His ears prickled to trained alertness as her slippers scuffled lightly across the marble tiles of his study. If she be an assassin, he’d know exactly where she was at in the room.
“Until she leaves.”
He raised his arm to pull the curtain back and stared out across the lands, beyond the walls of his complex. The sun streaked the sky with its final good night for the day. The smells of cooked foods mingled in the air from the small hovels about his palace. Striped canopies crowded the far end, where merchants would soon begin their nightly chants in hopes to strike a deal. The bell of the water seller chimed as he wandered the streets, announcing his welcomed appearance at each house. Down there, everything was dirty, filled with people in all their crude forms. People connected in the most basic ways. By touch, by emotions, by living. Real people who needed him to protect them.
And the only way he could do that was to keep detached from everything and everyone.
“I don’t think she will be leaving so quickly. You underestimate the strength of a woman enraged.” A brush of warmth pressed against his neck as Mother’s aura neared. He ground his teeth together, blocking out the all too familiar pulsation of insatiable need radiating from her.
Male or female, all the nobles were the same, all like his mother, constantly taxing him for attention. Or worse, like King Akih, who dared to call him a pompous ostrich in public. What game did he play now with his daughter’s life?
As an empath, his mother used her mind to sense auras and manipulate those about her. She had passed her gift to him. A gift said to come to their family from an ancestor bitten by a scorpion.
Though neither of them could read minds exactly, they could tell what people were thinking. A handy skill during negotiations and interrogations—and a complication when it came to relationships.
To love a woman would mean his death.
“Perhaps. You would know best,” he snapped, refusing to move even as he felt his mother probe his mind. The black cape of protection caressed his mind, threatening to take his consciousness as it collided with his mother’s. He strangled the silk curtains at his side and forced himself to focus on the first thing visible. King Akih’s daughter.
“Osorkon, how dare you block out your mother,” she hissed behind him. The pressure ebbed away as his mother pulled back.
He whirled about, letting her feel the anger boiling within him. “How dare you probe the Emperor’s mind!”
His mother lowered her eyes for a moment then nodded. ”So, the talks did not go well, did they? I can see it in your aura.”
“No, the treaty was rejected.”
Why did his mother always demand more of everything? Especially power. He let out a long sigh to ease out the wall of protection he had built. His mother had clawed her way up the social ladder, and ever since he had taken over the throne just a few seasons ago, she had found her way into every imperial decision.
Now, his lands sat in turmoil with wars raging on every frontier.
“I am sorry, my son.” Her tone dropped to a gentle whisper, like a mother soothing a crying baby. She closed the distance physically between them. Her unusually tall stature for a woman came up to his brow. She shared his light caramel skin, a feature that had attracted his father to her in the first place. This close, he could see the early signs of aging, the small raven claw lines visible beneath her heavy makeup. “You know, your father always enjoyed a little pleasure to soothe his tensions.”
She paused and ran her fingers through the ends of his hair. A gentle caress, a trained lover’s touch. Repulsion forced him to turn away, and he found himself staring down again at the olive-skinned girl still standing below. Dressed in the heavy canvas of a desert-walker, she showed just enough skin to be practical in this heat. No flaunting of her wares like the other women who visited his court. Her hair was gathered simply atop her head, dark tendrils drifting freely about her face, as wild as her origins. Her arms hugged her chest. She seemed so small, so frail.
Every fiber of her echoed it up to him, like a siren beckoning that same sentiment in his heart.
His mother’s breath came hot upon his neck as she leaned in. “You know, she’s even more beautiful up close in a unique, exquisite way. I could have the guards bring her to your chambers.”
Beauty, however, did not hide the vile nature of these women, all women who dared to seek audience with him. As nobility, they only sought their own social gains, to flaunt themselves before him and be pampered for the rest of their lives. His station demanded he maintain appearances, his own need drove him to bed them. But he found no comfort in their company.
A shiver passed through his body. “Do you know who she is?” His voice cracked through his dry throat.
“Does it matter?” A lighthearted chuckle shook against his shoulder as his mother rested her head against him. “You’re Emperor. She will do what you command.”
“She is the daughter of King Akih.” He felt the shiver pass through his mother’s body. Even that motion had been delicately trained to be sensual to most common men. The mere fact that she was his mother kept him from full arousal. ”Yes, I knew who she was and even perhaps why she’s here.”
The signs were obvious this girl came from the East. No fashionable, shoulder-length haircut. No silks that did nothing to protect the body from the cruelty of the desert. Arms that had none of the pampered water-fat of city dwellers.
When she had first entered the courtyard, he had been intrigued by this outsider. She floated through the crowd as if surrounded by an aura of protection, glowing yellow as bright as the sun itself. No one could touch her or harm her. A stirring massaged its way through his body as he watched her weave through the groups, finding her way closer to the entrance. Letting his curiosity get the best of him, he had asked a guard to obtain her name only to be disappointed in the man’s answer.
Osorkon pounded the cold, stone rail before him. “King Akih thinks that by sending his daughter, I would overlook the obvious indiscretions he’s made. He thinks I do not know he plots against me with the Southern Lands. Let him think this. It will make it easier to strike when the time is right. One of these days I will put that man in his place.”
Meanwhile, he would leave King Akih’s damned daughter outside to rot. She’ll get no better treatment than the filth beneath the feet of his people. If she thought the desert was harsh, the unprotected days in the courtyard would sear her flesh to leather and burn her beauty away. She and all the conniving, manipulative nobles deserved no better.
He fisted his anger, dismissing this girl and the outside as he let the curtains fall. No, he had no time to worry about these petty nobles. He had to gain his focus back and concentrate on the preparations for the coming danger he smelt in the air.
“Prepare a girl for me. Maybe it is time I release some of this tension.”
To continue reading, close this window, click the ADD TO CART button, and checkout.