Realm of Askara, City of Rihos
Impact jarred my bones as one swift kick from Emma introduced my back to the floor of the courtyard. My head thumped dully against the ground, snapping together teeth over tongue and filling my mouth with a fresh burst of coppery liquid.
Through the dust stirred up by our sparring, her brows knit together over serious azure eyes.
We weren’t blood related, but she was my sister in all the ways that mattered.
“You win.” Shooting pain stabbed my lungs on each shallow inhale. “I think something’s broken.” I curbed the whine from my voice before she heard it too.
“Maddie, this is the third time this week.” The training stick fell from her hands to land with a hollow thud.
I watched the stick roll just out of her reach and breathed easier.
She dropped to the hard ground beside me and dug her knees into my tender side. Another whimper forced its way out over my bruised lips. “Stop whining.” Emma inched closer. “It’s not that bad. The bone didn’t even break the skin this time. Just hold still for a minute.”
Her brows gathered again as she walked her fingers across my chest, tracing the lines of each rib from base to tip. Midway down my sternum, I hissed, “That’s the one.”
She acted like she hadn’t heard and tapped the sore spot with her pointed fingernail. “You mean this one?” Tap. “This rib right here?” Tap. Tap.
Pain flared bright red behind my eyes. “Poke me with your finger one more time and I swear to Zaniah, I will rip it from your hand.”
One side of her mouth quirked upward in a wry smile. “If you had the nerve to back that up, I might be scared.” Her gaze raked me from head to toe. “But you don’t.” Soft curls bounced around her face. “You’re pathetic. The first female born of the two demon houses and you’re weaker than a kitten.”
The insult was so unexpected, so brutal, I couldn’t think past it. I didn’t register the decision my brain made to punch Emma, so I’m not sure which of us was more surprised to find my fist planted in her face. Cartilage crunched under my knuckles and blood ran from her nose like a sieve. My mouth opened on a gasp.
“If you say you’re sorry,” she growled, “I’ll thread your rib through your lung for you. It’s about time you started sticking up for yourself.”
I bared my own bloodstained teeth in a grin and rolled the shoulder she’d dislocated earlier. “I was just going to ask if you could bleed someplace else. You’re drenching me.”
Her pale pink lips were painted red and swollen, much the same as mine. She spat on the ground, then dropped into a sprawl across the patch of dirt beside me and took my hand in hers.
Her fingers squeezed. Mine squeezed back, our injuries already forgiven and forgotten. Emma’s minor wounds would mend within the hour, mine knitted together even now. We knew from experience the bones she’d broken in me would heal after a solid night’s rest. We had no cause to hold on to insults or anger.
“So.” She cleared her throat. “Tomorrow is our big day. Have you given any thought to the color you’ll choose for us?”
I willed the vibrant blue sky overhead to hold my attention. I didn’t want to think about tomorrow while we had borrowed time left today, but the thoughts tumbled out one after another.
My ascension was the final step in claiming my title as an Askaran heiress, not that I wanted it or even needed the confirmation as second in line for the throne. I would never rule Askara. That unpleasant task fell to my elder sister, Nesvia. Still, the kingdom expected a spectacle and Mother did enjoy putting on a show.
“Maddie?” Her elbow jabbed my side.
I winced. “I chose lavender.”
Her fingers traced lazy circles, loops and swirls across her cheeks and pert nose. “My favorite color.”
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
For all the difference it would make. By this time tomorrow, ritualistic tattoos would cover our bodies. Mine would denote my lineage. Hers would be an ornate branding to identify her owner, the royal house of Askara.
Emma tensed and dug her fingernails into my palm seconds before a long, dark shadow cast across my face. Squinting into the sun, I glanced up and caught a hint of tailored black velvet breeches adorned with the silver threads symbolic of First Court consorts. The pants were topped with a similar dark shirt and matching vest. The heavy embroidery indicated how high up the social ladder my stepfather had managed to climb.
I didn’t miss his flicker of interest when his gaze roved over the blood and sweat slicking my skin. I’d seen the same expression too many times to mistake its cause.
Formality hardened the tone he used when calling on business rather than pleasure. Emma’s grip loosened. He hadn’t come for us. Not this time at least.
I offered thanks to the divine goddess that Askaran nobles prized virginity. I could not be touched until after my ascendancy, and as my chosen handmaiden, neither could Emma. But our meager protection’s expiration date was fast approaching, as evidenced by his arrival.
“Queen Eliya wishes me to remind you that your ascendancy ceremony is tomorrow, and that you are to be prepared for her personal inspection no less than one hour prior to its commencement.”
Archer nudged Emma’s shoulder with the toe of his dress shoe, then stomped the ground below her ear as if he would enjoy crushing her face beneath his heel.
Assured of her attention, he addressed her. “Emmaline, you will prepare your ward to the queen’s exact specifications. Tomorrow is a very important day for the royal line.” He glanced between us. “Even the bastards.”
Emma pushed from the ground to her feet and leaned down to offer me a grimy but much-needed hand up. “Careful.” She lifted me slowly until my feet bore my own weight. Halflings were remarkably stronger than either their demon or human parentage, and she was no exception.
He appraised me a second time. His icy fingers brushed a trail from the waistband of my bloused white pants, across my bare midriff and upwards until they touched the fabric ending just below my breasts. Loathing caused me to shiver beneath his touch.
Slapping away his hand only elicited another spark of sickening interest. He lifted the hand he’d caressed me with and inhaled the tips of his fingers. My lips curled with disgust.
“You cannot find my stench appealing.” Blood mixed with dirt to crust my palms and knees. Salt stung my eyes and dusted my skin as sweat dried.
His eyes gleamed brighter. “You have no idea.” His ensuing laughter smacked of his superiority, as if he knew something I had yet to guess. Any secrets he held could only be as vile as I found him, and I wished them to stay locked in his conscious rather than burdening mine.
“What happened to her?” he asked Emma, the unspoken without my permission clear behind his words.
“It was an accident while sparring, Father,” she said. “It’s nothing serious. This type of break never takes more than a few hours to heal.”
“I’m well aware of her regenerative capabilities.” The smile he turned my way made gooseflesh ripple across my chilled skin.
“I never dreamed she would have such an unexpected genetic quirk. That marvelous ability to heal shouldn’t be wasted.” His lips pursed. “I suppose we’ll simply have to continue testing her limits.”
“Is that what you call it?” Emma snapped. “Testing her limits?” She held her hands outstretched for us to see. “You use my hands to break her. It’s my hands covered in her blood and my shoulder she cries on while her bones mend.”
His eyes hardened. “You aren’t suggesting I enjoy what has to be done to Madelyn?”
“Oh no, Father. That would make you a monster.”
The crack of flesh meeting flesh resounded in the enclosed yard.
My shoulders bunched, bracing for an impact that didn’t come. Glancing up, I watched Archer’s struggle for composure in the tense lines of his shoulders and the sweat dampening his brow. Emma’s scowling face bore the imprint of her father’s hand.
“Never take it upon yourself to hurt Madelyn this way again.” His gaze swept the scuffed-up earth beneath our feet and passed over the training stick a few yards away. “She’s too weak to be properly trained. It’s a waste of your time and talent.”
“And he wouldn’t find me half as amusing if I could defend myself.” Shaking my head, I tried to clear away the rebellious thoughts streaming through my mind.
“Bite your tongue, girl.”
I almost told him I already had. I’d awakened today transformed with an odd sense of purpose. I wanted to train, was ready to fight, ready for something. It was the only reason Emma agreed to the quick match even knowing Archer was on his way. She had known I needed to dull the edge of whatever consumed me.
“Maddie’s fast. With more training she could become a valued—”
Archer’s mirthless laughter cut off her retort. “Her greatest value lies in breathing.”
One hand caught the end of my wheat blonde braid, snatching my head back as he used my hair like a rope to drag me against him. Hair ripped free of my scalp, making my eyes water as his other hand cinched around my rib cage and squeezed until the tears overflowed onto my cheeks.
I couldn’t breathe through the acute agony of his hold as each caress dug his fingers deeper into bruised and aching flesh. I sank a sharp elbow into his soft gut, but he only pulled harder, rewarding pain with pain.
“So long as her heart beats, her mother’s throne is secure.” The arm banding me tightened as he leaned in, brushing my cheek with his nose before drawing my scent into his lungs. “The queen requires an heir to keep her title.” He shrugged. “In the unfortunate event something happened to her elder sister, Madelyn would enable Eliya to keep her crown. The royal line must be kept established…and fertile.” He hummed gruffly in my ear then shoved me away from him.
Humiliation warmed my cheeks as hatred filled my heart for the man who was father to me by name, but sire to Emma by blood. For a tense moment, I thought he might come at me again, but he didn’t get the chance.
“My lord Archer,” an Evanti slave called from across the courtyard. He broke away from his peers while jogging steadily in our direction. The familiar black-skinned courier wore only a thin scrap of leather around his hips and the great, carmine wings that marked his breed. He advanced until he stood squarely between Archer and me.
A move not lost on my stepfather.
“Harper,” Emma whispered just loud enough for him to hear. “Don’t do anything foolish.”
Harper’s wings twitched in agitation and tucked closer against his bare back before he addressed Archer.
“Your presence is required at First Court.”
“Is it now?” Archer tilted his head, catching my eye over the curve of Harper’s shoulder. He reached just behind Harper’s back and tugged the thick wrist of one wing. “I wonder, slave. Will Madelyn’s virtue be found intact on the morrow? Or will we discover she’s been lying with her guardian?” His thumb stroked the thin, filmy skin of Harper’s wing. “Unfortunately, sometimes the apple does not fall far from the tree. Her mother suffered a similar taste for darker flesh.”
Fear tightened my gut. “Harper has nothing to do with this. Release him, now.”
I didn’t dare to breathe until Archer’s hand dropped. This time he left the silky skin intact, and I could have thanked him for it.
“Harper, is it? How quaint, you’ve named him.” He smiled as if amused. “You’re really not so different from your mother. She would barter her soul to keep her seat upon the throne.” He stroked a finger down Harper’s forearm. “And I know the price of your soul as well.”
I met Archer’s level stare with disinterest, unwilling to let him see how his dawning comprehension terrified me.
Then he spoke to Harper. “You do realize how far beneath her you are, don’t you? Her bloodlines alone will harm her chances of finding a proper consort. Her affection for you only lessens her prospects,” he said with false sincerity. “Even her Evanti father had some status within your race. What could you possibly think you have to offer her? She’s Askaran royalty and you’re just…her pet.”
“I am in her service, my lord, nothing more.” Harper stood silent and unmoving.
Archer stared a moment longer, seeming to decide something before losing interest and wiping his fingers across his thigh. He turned on his well-tailored heels and stalked towards the arched metal gate leading through the heavy stone wall of the summer castle and out into the desert sands of Rihos.
Once Archer reached the gatekeeper and boarded his transport, Harper followed in steady, measured strides. He glanced over his shoulder and pointed once towards the entrance to the grand hall. Beside me, Emma nodded her agreement.
I held my breath as his wings outstretched and thrust downward to launch him into the sky. He would follow Archer to the border before returning home to me. If his flight took longer than the few hours necessary to make the round trip, I never said a word. His face shined with joy as he made the leap skyward, making me smile for long minutes after he became a distant dot on my horizon.
I jerked upright in bed as a scream ripped from my throat. I slapped a hand over my mouth while my body fought to flush the surge of adrenaline making my limbs tingle and muscles tighten. My heart pounded a deafening cadence in my ears as the remnants of my dream faded from memory.
Like all females of my line, I was night blind. Nothing permeated the absolute darkness surrounding me. My nighttime curfew had never been enforced since I didn’t dare leave my room after dark. Not all Evanti were as forgiving of my parentage as Harper, and their flawless night vision wouldn’t miss my bumbling attempts to find my way through the gloom.
Only the tangle of silken sheets around my ankles and the give of soft mattress beneath my palms assured me I was in my room and safe. Falling back into the pile of pillows littering my bed, I rested my palm across my chest. My heart punched urgently beneath my hand.
Was my nightmare the same night after night or something new? I didn’t know. I never remembered more than the sound of my own screams and the shattering sense of loss I felt upon waking.
The groan of metal twisting drew my attention in the direction I knew the door to be. Heavy wood creaked on worn hinges, spilling light into my room and illuminating the stark outline of my guest before the tumblers clicked back into place, locking him inside with me.
I heard a sharp, rasping sound seconds before the room began to glow.
“Bad dream?” Harper asked around a tongue still thick with sleep.
“No, at least, I don’t think so.”
I heard him move closer. The dim light cast from his oil lamp focused my eyes. The flame flickered and danced while painting fanciful reflections on the walls and floor. “I think tomorrow…” I glanced over at him. “I’m afraid.”
He didn’t waste words on placations neither of us would believe. “Move over.” His velvety whisper tickled my ears as the mattress dipped and he joined me on the bed. “Sit up.”
I arched a brow at him, watching his angular face soften with amusement.
His black eyes caught the light and shined with warmth while his full lips broke into a crooked grin. Then he softened his command. “Please.”
“You really shouldn’t have come.” He reached for me, but I batted away his hands. “You know what will happen if you’re caught in here after dark.” Thick scar tissue crisscrossed his back. Vivid reminders of the price he had already paid.
“Yes, Zaniah forbid the wolf bed down with his sheep.” His derisive snort brought a faint curve to my lips. “I was bred to serve you. I’m only doing what I was born to do.” His finger traced the slope of my nose. “Lucky for us both I enjoy my work.”
“Harper…” Archer had been right. I would have sold my soul to buy his freedom. What good were his wings if he would never be free to use them?
“Shh.” He pressed that same rough finger to my lips. “I’m yours, lady, and I will never leave your side.” He glanced around, seeming to survey not just the room, but the entire kingdom beyond the castle walls. “I could never leave you in this place.” Then his bright white teeth flashed. “And don’t think for a moment I would remain if not for you, and Emma.”
I playfully slapped his chest, content to pretend he, at least, had other options. Even if a haven existed, I doubted an Askaran royal would be welcomed there. Most likely I would be turned away, if not worse.
I’d heard whispers of an Evanti uprising. All of Rihos buzzed with the news of slaves gone missing under the cover of night and stores of food and supplies being raided. I was likely the only member of the nobility hoping, praying, that the rumors were true and wishing my slaves would vanish next.
Harper captured my hand where it still rested against his chest and pulled me into a sitting position. I flinched as pain seized my upper back.
“You don’t have to do this every time, you know.” I could only imagine how I appeared to him. Puny and pale, wingless and weak, nothing worthy of the devotion he gave me so freely.
“You might as well cooperate. I won’t leave while you’re in pain.” He tugged the hem of my nightgown up around my hips and exposed the pale coral of my silken undergarments.
“Stubborn male,” I accused.
Harper laughed, the sound as dark as the night surrounding us. “I’m not the stubborn one.” He tugged the sweat-dampened nightgown over my head to land softly on the stones. “Now, roll over.”
I growled at him, but the sound lacked any real heat. In truth, I needed the relief he offered me.
Flopping onto my stomach, I pushed my face into my buckwheat pillow. The hulls shifted and sifted around as they conformed to my new position. “Fine,” I groused. “Just don’t look, all right?” As if he hadn’t seen my back bared a thousand times since childhood. “I hate for you to see me this way.”
Wearing nothing but the same scrap of leather tied around his narrow hips, Harper straddled my legs and leaned over me, kneading away the aches sandwiching my spine.
“Oh, Maddie.” Sadness laced his voice.
The sound of his pity grated in my ears. I pushed up, but he forced me down with a gentle hand to the small of my back.
“I know they’re hideous,” I snapped, closer to tears than I cared to admit. “I told you not to look.”
“They” I called them, making it easier to forget they were a part of me.
His fingers dug into the skin of my lower back still pinned beneath his palm. “You’re beautiful.” His warm breath fanned my skin. I shivered as he kissed the bony knuckles protruding behind my shoulder blades. “And you can have the use of my wings whenever you need them.”
His chest lowered to press against my back, and his leathery wings enfolded us like a living blanket. His bare skin warmed me. His chin rested on my shoulder, placing us cheek to cheek as his fingers interlaced with mine and tightened.
The steady beat of his heart soothed me, guiding my own to rest.
Copyright © 2010 Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication