What if the only safe place in the world for an escaped slave is in a king’s harem?
The last hope for escaping my vicious master crumbles to dust when the High Temple in Gretolia refuses me sanctuary. I know the warlord will stop at nothing to get me back, but I would rather die than endure more of his cruelty. There’s no place on the continent I can escape his grasp…until a kind stranger suggests I audition for the king’s harem.
It’s the only place the warlord can’t reach me, but rumors of the king’s strange bed habits have me wondering if I’ll be trading one tyrant for another. I’ll take the gamble – if the mage king will have a scarred woman like me – and then I’ll fade into the background among a throng of women.
But his majesty, King Jasper, is looking for something different, and I’ve caught his eye. The secrets of the king’s bedchamber will endanger not just my body, but my heart as well. Now, I’m not so sure I want to avoid his attention.
The high priest of the Gretolian High Temple shakes his head at me. “We only take virgins,” he looks me up and down over his broad nose, “from among our own people.”
So this is it? Five hundred miles of running, only to have my hopes torn apart and gurgled down a temple drain. I clutch at my dress and sink to my knees, my throat clamping around a ball of tears. What is the use of escaping Bane if there is no place I can go?
I press my hands together. “Please, sir, is there no way to make an exception? I have nowhere else to go.” Tremors run through my whole body. This can’t be the end of the line for me. I’ve come too far, run too hard for everything to stop here.
His nose wrinkles, and his distaste presses against me like a physical push. I can’t blame him. My feet are bleeding, and my ripped gray dress is missing a sleeve. Except for an occasional birdbath from an animal trough, I haven’t bathed for a week, and my skin is peeling from the constant sun in this country. Before coming before the priest, I braided my long black hair and tied it with a vine to keep it under some semblance of control, but dirty whisps have broken free to fall over my face.
His back stiffens. “There is no place here for you. Begone.”
I thought I had broken free, but the mad woman’s voice in my mind tells me I’ll never be free. A dog barks, and I flinch. Is it one of the warlord’s hounds, hot on my trail? I’ve seen his search party in the distance several times over the past three weeks. There’s no mistaking his giant black horse and the red banners on his soldier’s lances, even from a dozen miles away. Each sighting lit the fires of terror that lashed me to run further and faster. But not even crossing the border into a powerful nation has slowed him. Nothing is going to stop him from taking back what belongs to him. Tears burn up the back of my nose.
I was so sure that if I could cross the border into Gretolia and make it to a temple, I could gain sanctuary that I didn’t have a backup plan. No, the truth is, there is no backup plan. No cave, village, or city can hide me from the warlord’s wrath. It’s not affection that drives him to find me. No, by escaping, I’ve bruised his ego, which aroused his hunting instincts.
But I will not go back to the living hell of his embrace.
I rise and dust off my knees. “Then the grave is all that is left to me.”
“That seems rather extreme.”
I jump at the sound of the beautifully modulated male voice behind me. I spin, almost knocking the nose of a chestnut horse that snorts at me. A flash of alarm spikes through my veins, but the cluster of riders are not Bane’s men and besides some mild curiosity, my sense of their auras tells me they mean no harm. These men all wear plain black cloaks, yet I can see the tips of sword sheaths and hints of chain mail underneath. A nobleman’s party or merchant guard?
An unusual gold fleck sparkles under the speaker’s hood before I step out of their way and kneel beside the path. As I bow over my knees, a stir of warm air brushes across me, which feels like a trace of magic, but it’s gone before I can be sure.
“Welcome, noble guests.” The priest steps forward and bows his head over his flattened palms. “Will you come inside and be refreshed?”
I grit my teeth. Gretolian citizens are welcome, and these travelers warmly embraced. It is only me the world shuns.
“In a moment.”
I hope the lead rider speaks more so that I can hear that heavenly voice. Perhaps he is a public speaker or storyteller who has trained his voice to perfection. The glances I’ve snuck show healthy horses and quality leather riding gear. The fitted high boots of the riders are uncracked and well-polished. It’s clearly a wealthy riding party.
But even if this lord invited me to be his plaything, I can’t accept since Bane will take out his anger on anyone who takes me in, resulting in bloody destruction. I’ve seen it before. I shudder. Only the well-guarded temples, under royal protection and with their holy magic, have any chance of keeping him at bay.
The horse legs in my vision stamp restlessly as the man with the voice of an angel speaks again. “Woman, you seem to have journeyed a difficult road. Wouldn’t it be a waste to give up now?”
I have no idea what the correct address is for a man of his rank, but it will matter little in an hour.
“My lord, there is no choice left to me now.” Better to end it all than let Bane catch and torture me. Then perhaps I can be at peace with my husband and village kin and the women Bane sent ahead.
My stomach clenches. No, perhaps I don’t want to face some of them in death just yet.
The man’s aura sharpens on me, and the silence stretches. Again I feel a brush of magic, soft as a cat’s whiskers across my cheek. The nobleman clicks his tongue, tightening the rein as his horse stretches out its neck. “You seemed to me to be made of sterner material. If you seek to offer your body, may I make a suggestion?”
Here it comes, his offer to join his household. “I will listen, noble lord.”
“Why don’t you apply for the royal harem? I hear it is a safe and comfortable place and perhaps will offer what you seek.”
I bow my head to hide my silent laugh, so the nobleman doesn’t think I am mocking him. Me, Sira Fisher, a tainted woman with blood on her hands, scars on her body, and unspeakable horrors in her heart, fit for a king’s chamber?
I run my tongue around my parched mouth. “Perhaps my lord did not hear the honorable priest’s rejection of me. I am not suitable for a royal offering.” To be precise, I’m a widow who is far from having her maidenly innocence, but I don’t fancy admitting to that fact in front of a dozen men.
There’s a smile in his unmistakable voice. “A king has different needs than priests. Experience might serve you well. As for being foreign, people say his majesty quite fancies exotics.”
Heat burns across my cheeks as I realize he heard every reason the priest rejected me. As embarrassing as this situation is, the warmth in my cheeks tells me that not all my dignity turned to ash in the mountains of Trik. The idea tugs my lips upward. If I can still blush, does that mean there might be fragments left of the woman who was once a wife and daughter, who loved to dance and watch the fishing boats set out in the orange glow of the setting sun?
This nobleman says the king fancies exotic women. I can hardly claim to be exotic, having crossed only one border, but if he just means the word as foreign, then perhaps I fit. But would a king take someone into his bed who is not a virgin? A royal harem would be the most secluded, guarded place in the heart of the palace, far out of Bane’s reach. Maybe this man is having a jest, planning to send a dirty waif to the king’s door as an insult. Whatever his reasons, I can’t seem to stuff that tiny bloom of hope back into the crevices of my stone heart. My right hand moves instinctively to cover the scar circling my left wrist. Hope is a luxury of no value to escaped slaves.
I lick my dry lips. “What kind of man is the king of Gretolia?”
He chuckles, and the sound washes over me like a spring of fresh water bubbling out of the ground. “That I cannot speak to, but I can assure you his women are well cared for.”
I risk meeting his gaze. Even under the shadow of his hood, the man’s eyes glow as gold as the setting sun. His thin lips curve in a kind smile, highlighting a smooth, sharp jawline.
“Think it over. If you decide your life is worth more than your hardships, follow the highway beyond you another hundred miles.” He turns and murmurs something to one of his companions.
My gaze drops as he toes his horse forward.
His voice floats back on the breeze over the clatter of hooves. “Remember, there’s always a better choice in life.”
I clench my teeth to keep a bitter reply locked away. That’s easy for him to say when he was born in wealth and privilege and lives surrounded by burly men with hands hovering near their swords.
Dark-brown furry horse legs over black hooves stop before me. Two silver coins drop into the dirt, raising a puff of dust over my knees as a gruff voice sounds overhead. “If you seek the harem, apply at the Gate of Wool at the royal palace in Berenhein. If they turn you away, give them the word jago.”
The man leaves me kneeling in the dirt with my dilemma. He didn’t say the coins must be used for getting to the palace, so it seems I’m still a free woman. I reach for the money and brush the dirt off, holding their shiny surfaces to the sunlight. I’ve never held such valuable coins in my hands. Quickly I slip them inside my dress and look around to see if other eyes are on me. The priest is busy escorting the riders to the inner temple, and only novices are nearby, weeding the gardens and raking the gravel paths. Their curious glances fix on the party of nobles riding into the temple courtyard.
My breath catches as I heave my weary body upright. My muscles have spasmed from kneeling too long. The gleaming white domes of the temple tower over me, seeming like eyeballs glaring through the strong fog of the divine magics that protect the grounds. To most people, the power would be invisible and unfelt, but not to me. It’s a small ability and hasn’t ever been of any use. Instead, it has proven to be a curse because it comes with being able to sense people’s intentions, and when the warlord turns his focus on me, it burns with ill-will. I brush my arms down, banishing a shiver.
Turning my back, I follow the path out the gate and into the town. The highway runs straight through from east to west, and I hesitate at the junction. West takes me back to Bane and the cold mountains of Trik. Somewhere beyond that is the Sea of Yanheart, where I grew up and where my family was slaughtered.
East takes me to the unknown.
A low-flying bird swoops past me, and I cover my head. It shrieks and jerks to the right, catching a moth midair before zooming east. I shake my head. An omen, but whether for life or death, I can’t tell. I turn my face east and follow the highway.
The royal city of Berenhein is in the heart of Gretolia, which means that much further from Bane’s domain. In the capital, I might hear rumors of the king. I can change my mind at some point in the city if I hear only evil of him.
I check that the silver coins are still tucked securely in the folds of my dress, then begin walking. Before I go anywhere, I need to find food. I think it’s been two days since I ate anything more than grass seeds and wild berries, and my stomach is tying itself in knots.
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