Author's Note: One of my characters' name is Ti. I just noticed that that also happened to be the name of one of my reviewers. So, Ti, ifyou are in any way offended at the use ofyour name in this story,tell me and I'll gladly change it.I'm sorry. I didn't notice the name problem until I was finished with this chapter.
The rhythmic tug of the bone comb through my hair was putting me in a serene mood. My Eema insisted on brushing my hair every night before I went to sleep.
"Hey," a male voice said, entering my room. I turned my head, causing my Eema to frown.
"Hey," I smiled back at Ti.
"I brought you a present," he told me, his hands behind his back.
"Really?" I asked excitedly, standing up. At this point, my Eema saw no point in continuing to force me through the routine hair brushing and resignedly put the comb down.
I rushed towards Ti, my pants swishing around my legs. He was no longer the boy that led me to Master Illan after my bath. A faint hint of facial hair was tinting his lovely olive complexion. He was tall now, towering above me. His dark hair was a messy mop on his head and his light brown eyes were always sparkling.
"Yes," he said, his eyes twinkling now more than ever. He thrust out his fist and uncurled his palm.
I smiled, and took it from his hand. It was molasses candy. Sugar was absolutely forbidden to me, and kind Ti was my only access to those little pieces of heaven. "Thank you," I laughed. I stood on my tip toes and wrapped my arms around him. I snuggled my head in the hollow between his neck and shoulder.
"It's not candy again, is it?" my Eema asked, narrowing her eyes disapprovingly.
I bit my bottom lip guiltily and turned around, looking at my Eema. "I haven't had any in weeks," I told her.
She sighed and crossed her thick arms. "You have just gotten over your last eruption of youth spots. Is it really wise to have candy?"
It was true. My last bout of those pesky red spots was so recent I could still feel the rawness on my face from the herbs my Eema forced on my skin. Whenever I found spots on my face, the entire household entered a state of tension. Everyone put in efforts to rid of it. Any outbreak of spots was treated with scolding and hours after hours of treatment.
But for molasses candy, it was worth it.
"Please?" I asked. "I'll just have one piece. Just one."
"She has been very good," Ti said in my defense. "Her hearpe tutor said that she had made tremendous advancements in playing the instrument."
My Eema frowned, but I could tell she was on the brink of giving in. "That has nothing to do with her skin, Ti," she argued.
Ti and I put our efforts together, giving her the most heart melting smile we could muster.
"Fine," she finally said unhappily. "But when Master Illan comes back from the palace and he finds out that you've been eating sugar, I won't be blamed for it."
"Of course you won't," Ti assured her, grinning at me. "And Master Illan will be so drunk celebrating that he probably won't even find out."
"I never approved of drinking," my Eema said, pursing her lips together in the fashion she does so well.
"It's the Second Son's birthday," I said, popping a piece of candy in my mouth. "And Master Illan is the Younger Prince's Keeper. Drunkenness can only be expected."
"How old is he turning again?" Ti asked, furrowing his brows slightly. I grinned at his serious expression. Everyday, he was losing more of his boyishness.
"Nineteen," I answered automatically.
There was a silence as I sucked contently on my candy. Finally, my Eema said, "That's enough. You've got to go to sleep. I will not be responsible for dark circles under your eyes." She came towards us and herded Ti out of the room. When he was finally pushed out, my Eema put her hands on her hips. "Now, spit out the candy. And then, sleep." She pointed to my mat.
Frowning, I did as she told me to. She was just starting to put out the lights in my room when Master Illan walked in, the smell of food and alcohol following his entrance.
"Good, you're still awake," he said to me. Master Illan strode over to my closet and fumbled around, pulling out the only dress I owned. I untangled myself from my blankets and quickly stood up again, bowing my head respectfully.
"Is this the only dress she has?" he asked, turning to my Eema. He held out the light blue dress for her to see.
"Yes, it is," she replied, looking confused.
He considered this for a moment. "It's fine. Put it on her. Dress her up," he finally said, handing my Eema the dress. She thinned her lips, but beckoned me to her nonetheless. Master Illan looked around the room briefly before leaving, adding over his shoulder, "Do it quickly. I'm waiting."
As soon as he was out of the room, I turned to my Eema in confusion. "Why?" I asked her although it looked like she didn't know what was happening either. She stayed quiet as she quickly stripped off my clothes and slipped the dress over my head.
"It's the Second Son's birthday," she said. "Perhaps that why." She arranged the skirt and pinned the dress together at my shoulder.
I looked at her excitedly. "You really think he'll take me to the palace?" I asked.
She shrugged her broad shoulders and pushed me onto a chair. Deftly, she lined my eyes with kohl. As she colored my lips red with rose paper, she muttered, "You're lips are so dark. It's almost purple." I pouted, just to annoy her. "Stop it," she ordered sternly.
I slumped my shoulders and submitted to her in silence. She braided small sections of my hair and added small silver ornaments to it. Finally, she looked me over; just to make sure she didn't miss any detail. "Go, now," she finally said.
I stood up and smoothed my dress. "I'm so excited," I told her. "I always wanted to see what the palace looks like from the inside. Why do you think Master Illan wants me there?"
"Not too many questions," she warned. She sighed and hugged me. "Try to be careful."
I laughed at her overprotective words, but patted her hand comfortingly. "It's just a banquet. I just don't understand why I'm going so late. The feast started from sun up."
She smiled at me and brushed a strand of hair from me face. Pushing me lightly, she said, "Go."
I left hurriedly, stopping at the archway of my room to wave over my shoulder. And that was the last time I ever saw her.
Once inside the royal palace, it became clear to me that the celebrations had been over for awhile. I furrowed my brows, still unable to grasp the concept of exactly why I was here. Instead, I followed Master Illan obediently as he twisted and turned his way through the halls.
Soon, we arrived in front of a set of doors. Royal guards staged themselves at the entrance, weapons firmly held in their hands. As they saw my master, they bowed their heads and opened the doors for him.
"Keeper of the Second Son," they greeted him uniformly.
Master Illan offered them a nod of acknowledgement before entering the room. I hesitated but entered as well. As we entered, a servant boy bowed.
"I'll inform the Younger Prince of your presence," the servant said to Master Illan.
My master, who was obviously used to this, waited patiently as the boy entered the inner chambers. As we stood quietly, I looked around. The room was simply furnished, dotted with a few chairs, a bowl of fruit, and a few oil lamps. Gauzy curtains hung from the ceiling, fluttering softly from the breeze outside the balcony.
The boy returned moments later. "You may enter," the servant boy told my master, holding the inner room doors open.
He nodded and walked in. "You come, too," my master said, noticing that I hadn't moved at all. I paused for a moment before following him inside.
Inside, a tall youth greeted Master Illan. He was not as tall as Ti, though, I thought. His fair skin was lightly tanned and a few unflattering freckles perched on his nose. His black hair fell neatly in place and a blue diadem circled his head.
"Good evening, my lord," Master Illan greeted, bowing his head.
"Illan, it's just the two of us," he drawled lazily, sinking into a chair.
"Customs can't be forgotten," my master responded, looking pointedly at a seat.
"Sit, old man," the Younger Prince said, gesturing to a chair. "And who is this?" he asked, looking at me. I looked away, nervously grabbing a fistful of my dress.
"You'd be pleased, I think, Ren," Master Illan said, smiling. "She is your present. I thought it would be proper to give it to you in private."
I looked at my master sharply, disbelief written plainly over my face. I had to have heard wrong. A present? What did he mean, I was a present?
"You didn't tell her about it, did you?" Ren laughed. "My gods, did you fear she would run away in horror?"
My master shook his head. "I didn't plan on giving it to you today, but I thought your birthday would be a good a day as any."
Ren didn't answer. His roan eyes looked me over. "Interesting skin," he commented breezily. "Well? Come here," he ordered. I shifted me feet but didn't move.
"Do as he tells you," Illan told me.
"I don't need your authority in this," Ren snapped, looking at Master Illan coldly.
I still didn't want to move. My feet felt as if made from stone and I couldn't move. I had to be mistaken. But before I even finished that thought, I knew I was wrong. I've been given away plenty of times in the past. Given and sold…the whole thing shouldn't have been new to me anymore. But this time, it was all too clear I won't be used to clean his rooms.
"Is she hard of hearing?" Ren asked him.
"Excuse her idiocy, my lord," Illan replied. "She is usually smarter than this. Aliana, come here."
However unwillingly, I did as he commanded. I shuffled forward, my eyes keeping to the ground.
"Don't you know to kneel in the presence of a prince?" Ren asked me, cocking a brow.
"One is only obliged to kneel at the feet of the mortal gods and the True Prince," Master Illan reminded him sharply.
"True Prince," Ren echoed. His was attention off of me for a moment. He looked at Illan, frowning. "Don't remind me of my failure to be born first."
"I am merely reminding you of the laws. The only people in Deshret that are approached on bended knees are the King, Queen, and True Prince."
"Don't irritate me," Ren growled, standing up. He glared at Illan for a moment and forced a dangerous smile on his face. Following the customs of Deshret, Ren thanked Illan graciously. "Old man, your gift pleases me. I shall keep it and you have my favor. I will remember you in my prayers tonight."
Illan stood up as well and bowed his head. "Thank you, my lord," he said. "Rest well." With that, he left.
I looked at his retreating back with betrayal and hurt in my eyes. He was leaving me. Oh gods, what about Ti? I didn't even have time to say a proper goodbye…
My thoughts were cut short as I felt the warmth of Ren's hands on my shoulder. He was standing behind me and I could not see his expression. However his large hands that rested possessively on my shoulders filled me with heavy dread.
He bent his head so that his mouth was right beside my ear. His heated breath was tickling my neck and I bit my lip, my heart hammering rapidly. "Your name is Aliana?" Ren asked, sliding his hands slowly down my arms.
I shivered and clenched my fists. "Yes," I answered.
"My lord," he added for me. "You will always address me with 'my lord'. I deserve some privilege as a prince." And there was silence. "Say, 'Yes, my lord'," he told me finally.
"Yes, my lord," I echoed blankly.
His hands returned to my shoulders and grasped them. With one motion, he turned me around to look at him. "Aliana, I don't think you understand." He smiled and examined his nails for a moment. "You are a present. A present for me. And a present is a toy. A toy is less than human. Do you understand or do I need to simplify the language a bit more?"
"I understand, my lord," I answered.
"So tell me what I mean."
"I am a toy, my lord."
He shook his head. "A wife," he corrected. "You will no longer be a slave, but one of my wives. But that doesn't change your position at all, does it? Perhaps it even lowers it." He laughed at his own wittiness.
I remained silent.
"You are incredibly boring," he declared. "Can you do anything at all?"
I thought back to all the useless lessons I endured. All the hours of riding and all the grief wasted over youth spots on my face. It all came down to keeping an insolent boy happy. "I can sing, my lord," I answered dully. I started to list off an overview of my talents. "I can sing and play the hearpe quite well, in addition to other instruments. I can also recite poetry, perform plays, discuss politics, ride horses-"
"Shut up," he told me slowly.
"What, it doesn't please you?" I asked with false sweetness, anger suddenly surging through me.
Without a warning, he slapped me hard across my face. I clutched my cheek, too used to this sort of treatment to care. Without even looking, I already know I have his palm imprinted on my face.
He laughed. "I would tread carefully if I were you. I am not Illan, that useless old Keeper. If you don't learn my rules quickly, then don't be surprised to discover poison in your cup."
Again, I remained silent.
He smiled. "I'm afraid we started off all wrong. Let is begin again. Your name is Aliana, yes?"
"Yes, my lord," I answered.
I sucked in a breath as he put his hand on my thigh, touching me through the cloth of my dress. His other hand somehow managed to wind itself at the small of my back. With a tug, he pulled me against him. His touch made me shiver and recoil at the same time. I stepped back quickly. He caught my wrist and kept me where I was. "Am I correct to believe that you've never served a man before?" he asked.
"Let me go, my lord," I said, trying hard to keep my voice steady.
"No," he smirked. "I don't think I shall. You'll soon find that my will is to be kept like the law." Ren bent his head. He ran his lips lightly across the exposed skin on my shoulder. For a moment, I froze, my body completely ridged. Then, I roughly pushed myself away from him.
I was sixteen but I somehow managed to remain as ignorant as a child. It was impossible to grow up without gossip so I have always heard of the older girls whisper about their little escapades with their lovers. To me, it was all a big joke. Half the time, I thought they were making it up. To me, there wasn't a difference between men and women. I grew up with most of my playmates as males. I looked like a boy, mud and gods know what else smeared all over my clothes. And I smelled like a boy, too. My playmates saw me as one of them and I saw myself as simply Aliana. I did not have a mental barrier that separated the sexes. At least, I didn't until Ren touched me.
"You're denying me?" he asked. His voice was so soft that malice rippled out. A large knot of fear settled itself comfortably at the base of my stomach and I looked at him. My face had confusion and panic scrawled all over it.
I didn't answer his question. I didn't know how to. It seemed that either way I answered was the wrong one. Thankfully at that moment, his bedroom door opened. I quickly looked away, my cheeks flushing a deep crimson. I stared fixedly at my hands that were twisting my dress with a vengeance.
"You," Ren greeted, speaking to whoever had entered the room. "I mean…brother. Forgive me."
"Of course," the other male voice answered. "I am merely here to offer you my sincere apologies for not attending your birthday feast. I've brought you a gift, but I see that you're…busy."
"Oh, her?" he asked and tossed me a glance. "She's a gift. Pretty little girl, no?"
"And thus, your harem grows," the other voice commented dryly.
"Of course, brother. I've forgotten that you are not permitted a harem. Pity. I suppose being the True Prince is not all its cracked up to be," Ren answered.
"I don't want a harem anyways," the other voice said.
"You're missing out," Ren assured him.
"And you're missing out on abstinence," the other man said sarcastically. "Oh, the joys are innumerable."
Ren laughed mirthlessly. Finally, he said, "You're here for a reason…"
"Oh yes, your present. Should I give it to you another time?"
"I'm not doing anything vaguely interesting right now," Ren said, shooting me a glance.
"Oh." There was a sound of footsteps. "It's a new set of robes for you. The ambassador of Helin brought with his visit. It's their best cloth."
"My," Ren said with a bored tone. "I'm pleased."
The other voice sighed. "I'm glad. Rest well, brother."
"Rest well, True Prince. Don't let those assassins kill you in your sleep," Ren replied.
"It's impossible to leave your room in a good humor," the other voice said with annoyance. Then, it was followed by the light shutting of doors.
It was only when the visitors were gone did I dare look up again. Ren was glaring at the closed doors venomously. Slowly, he turned his focus on me again. "Oh yes. You. What should I do with you?" He looked at me for a moment. "Boy!" he cried sharply, causing me to jump.
The servant boy from before came bumbling in. "Yes, my lord?" he asked.
"Take her to the harem," Ren yawned, turning around. He went to his bed. A robe was already laid out for him. Without waiting for me to leave, he started undressing.
"Come with me, lady," the servant boy said quickly, bowing to me. I looked blankly at him, not even registering his presence. Everything was whirling in confusion around me. "Lady?" he asked with uncertainly.
I looked at him. It was the first time I had ever been called 'lady'.
He bowed to me again. "Come with me, please."
It was also the first time anyone has ever bowed to me. Silently, I followed him out of the room. I didn't look back, I was so relieved to be free.
This was to be my room. I looked around the small chamber. There was no window so the lights were cast by the flickering oil lamps. A straw mat was spread on the floor, covered by a few wool blankets. Embroidered pillows clustered at different parts of my room to serve as seats. An open shelved closet completed the bedroom. I glanced at the items wearily. It suddenly felt as if none of the things mattered. I wanted my Eema back. And my Ti. I wondered if I would ever see them again. I closed my eyes, but their images only came in shaper in my mind. Biting my lip, I lowered myself on the mat and curled under the blankets. I still had paint on my face. For the first time in three years, I didn't bother to scrub it off.