Time passed in snatches of sight, glimpses of the sky through a dropboard window propped open with a wooden stick. Clouds skidded along nearby and dark storms roiled in the distance above gold-green grasses that rose into view and then fell away again as the world rolled beneath her. Sometimes the clouds were gray, sometimes bright, and sometimes red fading to purple and night, but always there was a voice saying there was nothing in their beauty for her, in time to the rolling beneath.
When Ember was hungry, hands fed her. When her body was full, hands brought her to the chamber pot. She knew it all as if it was shrouded in gray mist. Faces fled, words were jumbled. Always there was weakness and exhaustion.
How long had she been here?
How long would she be here?
Once she caught the dawn, a brief crack of white-gold light painting the expanse pink and gray-blue shot with striations of shadow and dotted with blazing puffs of cumulus and pink swirls of cirrus. Above the horizon and to the left of the sun the bright points of the planets Sky and Rock both winked at her. As a whisper on a breeze the view spoke to her, and she felt a tear fill her eye and roll down her cheek onto the cot she was tied to. But then the voice returned, pressing in with darkness, and a door opened and hands were there with something to drink that made everything flee away.
Ember came to in a great city suffused with the noise of hundreds of thousands of people and the faint stink of marsh, with the soft regular jolting of many footsteps underneath her. Great buildings of white sandstone rose above, covered in plaster frescoes depicting Garagrans and armies and battles. Pillared entries, covered with arches decorated in deep reliefs of soldiers, merchants, ships, slaves and even more Garagrans, lead from the streets to wide doors of carved woods from many lands.
Many of the lintels glistened with fresh blood. She remembered that custom from Tenkreille, practiced by the faithful with the blood from the altars. Here it was even more common.
She looked to the side and saw people in white and gray robes with sashes of every color, peasants in cheap mepi and cotton trousers and tunics died in subdued reds, greens and browns, steel armored soldiers with muskets and halberds, and any number of man-drawn carts bearing goods and people. Underneath her was what had to be some kind of palanquin. As her awareness expanded she saw that she was strapped into some kind of chair. Yes, a palanquin, but not a fancy one.
There was only one place she could be.
Westruhl. The capital of the Third Skahllian Empire.
Why wasn’t she dead?
The Emperor must have wished her captured for some reason.
She tried to sit up, but her limbs still felt numb and her heart felt cold. She didn’t want to do anything. Didn’t want to fight.
She almost went back to sleep. She did lose focus again and the city became a blur as she stared up at the sky. Far overhead she saw a Garagran sweep between her and the sun, it’s great form and wide wings casting a shadow.
The palace rose up over her, first the walls which were at least seven heights high, and then a series of great arches, each more than high enough for the largest Garagran to walk under.
Then the palace itself, glittering white sandstone set with mirrors in geometric patterns to catch the sun and decorated with more reliefs, all gilded to make them intensely bright.
Garagrans. All Garagrans. Ruling over the lands of Eddenloe.
They drew near to a pillared entryway grander than any she had seen so far, set with ebony double-doors centered with a great golden sun.
The Temple of the Most High, the center of the Emperor’s Palace and the place he held court.
The palanquin turned to one side and she was carried to another building, through a different set of massive double doors, and set down in a grand room of high stone arches with windows of stained glass.
Ropes came off, hands pulled her up, and the stone floor shook under her feet.
A huge Garagran, larger than her mother had been and very male, with gilded horns that curved forward from above his forehead, entered the room through another set of doors at the far end. She stared up at him, feeling his presence grow as he approached with measured, graceful steps, every scale glittering gold at the edges in the multi-colored light from the windows. He stopped in the brilliant circle of light from a dome-shaped skylight filled built with small panes of clear glass, close enough to tower over her.
She gasped at the power in his form, the perfection in every detail of his scales and bearing. It had been a while since she had seen a male of her kind outside of a fight.
Never had she seen one so attractive.
She realized she was breathing fast. Her body felt hot and the gleaming male Garagran seemed to expand and fill her vision. She felt a tingling sensation in places of her body that she was certain she had forgotten about.
Memories rose of being enfolded by strength. Entered. Taken.
She pushed the memories away.
“Princess Ember Rehksskarri, I am Crown Prince Woldmant Vohrskrain,” he said in a deep, melodious voice, with all the consonants sharp and precise. “If you would please change into your true form? I despise speaking down to one of the Ascended more than necessary.”
Could she do it now? She hadn’t been able to before.
She felt. Pushed.
The force that had been holding her down outside Salshira wasn’t now.
She looked around. The people who had brought her in had disappeared. She and Prince Woldmant were alone. She started to strip off the ankle length shift she was wearing, then looked up at Prince Woldmant and stopped.
He snorted and looked away.
She pulled the shift off, set it down, and changed.
The pain set in immediately, with a vengeance. It took her a moment to rise out of the ache and connect with reality again. The room appeared much more her size. Prince Woldmont as well, though he was still taller than her at the shoulder by as much as a height.
She noticed a large flat bed, sized for a Garagran and then some, and covered in–silk?–sheets. She longed to lie on it and take the weight off her legs.
“Better, though I didn’t expect you to look so… shabby. Living as a human has not treated you well.”
Ember looked at Prince Woldmont. He was studying her again, this time with more intent, eyes roaming over her whole body. Mapping. Assessing. Like he was surveying territory for addition to his kingdom.
“Is it true you foreswore the Elder Gods? No. I can feel it, and they say it is so. It seems you aren’t doing very well without Nk’drak’sil’s contract.”
The pain spiked as he said it.
“Why am I here?” she hissed.
“You intrigued my father, avoiding us as you did, and the Elder Gods tell us you have potential, small as you are. Size is far from the only thing in rulers.”
So they did have some use for her somewhere. But where? What?
They had hunted her to ensure peace in Tenkreille. But now… she had potential. She was a runt, but smart. Good for… mating.
The way he was looking at her… yes.
If Prince Woldmont, or one of his siblings if he had another brother, took her as a mate, the offspring would have bloodright to the throne of Tenkreille. That would anchor the Empire’s grip on the kingdom, and silence any issues of old loyalties.
“You want legitimacy. Am I to be a wife, or a concubine?”
“Whichever you are worthy of. I can’t have a wife who has forsworn the Elder Gods, now can I?”
Forswear Yahsaw and have power again. Be a queen.
Or continue as she was and just be used. Be nothing. But be alive.
Or say no to it all.
Be a queen.
She could have been a queen with Ean. Even if…
Her eyes roamed over Prince Woldmont again, and every line of him seemed to press into her mind. His presence. His voice.
He had the smell of confidence. It filled the room till it was almost overpowering. This was a male used to other Garagrans deferring to him. Used to females lusting after him.
And with good reason.
A flicker of what it would feel like to have that body pressed against hers. A sliver of pleasure shot through her core. She remembered again what it had been like with the Duke, after the first shame of being ordered to entertain him. To be gripped by such power, to surrender to it, be part of it.
She felt hot again. She tried to ignore it but it was hard to think.
Think of Ean. Think of…
When she had been with the Duke she had forgotten everything else. Forgotten her mother’s disdain. Forgotten how small she was.
Pleasure washed everything away.
It would do the same with her pain.
No! I won’t!
She thought it. Knew she couldn’t give herself up like this. What she had done with the Duke had been before, but now… she had made oaths. Promises.
It was not right. Kai said so.
She could not break the oaths she had made. Could she?
She ached. Everything hurt.
She should pray. That was what Bethania would say.
But… it would feel so…
Prince Woldmont was watching her, his eyes focused on her. She met his gaze and his gaze seemed to bore into her head.
He was so strong. So powerful.
He smiled again and moved toward her. Then past her, circling around. She watched him, swung her neck to follow.
“You do not need to make a decision today,” he said. “Today we will just enjoy ourselves.”
He brushed against her.
A shiver of pleasure ran up her spine.
He circled again, closer. Caressed her with a wing.
A moan escaped her as arousal began to burn within her.
He moved in. His neck twined with hers. He pushed her down.
She had to resist! She couldn’t…
She wanted this. Wanted to feel it again.
So powerful. So strong.
She woke on the bed. The first thing she noticed was that the pain was gone. The second, that it was night. The third was that she was chained to the wall. It was a long chain, but still… She thought to shift to a human form, but found she couldn’t. The force that had bound her in human form had returned, and now it bound her to be a Garagran.
At least the aching was gone. She felt drowsy and sated, nothing more.
The reason returned to her.
Her stomach heaved. If there had been anything of substance in there it would have made a mess, but she was empty.
After a long fit of retching she stopped, panting and staring at the floor, feeling the pain returning and an even worse emptiness opening within.
Tears rolled from her eyes.
“Kai. What have I done?”
Author’s Note: I’m sorry about the delay in getting to the next chapter. I am presently finishing up the last bits for my final class in the English Master’s Program at my college. So, I’m a bit distracted at the present. It should all be over in a few weeks, and then I’ll have a span of freer time to finish up the novel.