An ebony haired girl backed into the cold stone walls of the passage, her face deathly white under the summer tan. Two delicate fingered hands gripped the edge of her crimson tunic as she closed her eyes in despair. No, it could not be happening. No…she opened her eyes again. There before her, for all to see, was the body of her mother, the Queen of Kestara, lying in a pool of blood that was steadily soaking into the rich carpets of the Throne Room. Her head had rolled to the other side of the room, golden hair stained orange with blood.
Turning her head, Caireatha could just make out the marching footsteps of the Artesian soldiers several passageways behind her. Kestara had been invaded. The brutal death of her mother proved it. Gasping for breath, the Kestarian princess gingerly stepped into the gilded room. Kneeling down slowly, she muttered a few words of farewell before fleeing down another hallway.
Kestara had been invaded. News had arrived only hours before of the slaughter of her father and brothers in battle. Her elder sister had fled from the Council Hall and then been discovered, her limp body hanging by a rope off the beam of her room's ceiling.
Now only Caireatha remained. Her feet clattering noisily down the hallways as she fled, Caireatha could think of nothing but escape. If she had been a prince, the worst she could have expected was certain death. But she was a princess…and the ways in which a princess of a defeated country may be used…the thoughts and images horrified her to such an extent that she stopped in mid-flight. A thundering burst of footsteps behind her forced her to bolt forward again.
Through the torch-lit hallways of crumbling grey stone she ran, knowing her destination: the servant's entryway into the castle, just ahead of her. She could smell the night air mingled with the pungent stench of horse manure and fresh blood, could almost taste freedom on her lips, when suddenly a dark shadow appeared in the hall ahead of her. Without even time to grab her knife, Caireatha felt a sudden blow to the head…and the world went black.
"Dallas…ain't pleased…ain't enough…profit's a-gonna be low…"
"Too…won't….'n then we…"
Voices flitted in and out of Caireatha's ears as she stirred, head pounding. Opening one bleary eye, she surveyed her surroundings. She lay on cold hard bare earth on the bank of a gushing river. Other prisoners surrounded her, whimpering and groaning. Somewhere on the other side of the campfire a baby's wailing filled the night air.
Trying to move her arms, the Kestarian princess winced as her long cramped limbs awoke. Her wrists were bound tightly behind her and cold iron encircled her ankles.
"'alf o'ese slaves ain't gonna be any better than fer de mines…" The harsh voices drifted closer.
"What 'bout tha' new 'un?"
"O 'er, she a-got knocked pretty bad by one o'em soldier-folk. She's a-been out' cold fer days! Reckon's gonna end up 'alf-wit by the time she wakes up."
Ignoring the two shadows speaking, Caireatha turned. Where was the pendant? If whoever had captured her had found it and read the emblem correctly…she did not even want to think about her fate. The ruby pendant suspended around her neck by a silver chain had the symbol of the double phoenix engraved on it – the sign of a female of the royal family of Kestara. Except, now there was no ruling family of Kestara and the symbol was nothing but a dead giveaway of her past. Struggling up to sit, Caireatha relaxed as she felt the warm stone on the bare skin beneath her tunic, then tensed again as she realised the two shadows – still muttering to each other – were heading directly towards her.
"'Ello? She's awake!" A withered claw-like hand reached out to grab her tunic, hauling her to her feet. Breath that reeked of garlic breathed down her neck, "'ow much d'ya think thi' pretty looter'll fetch on the whore-flesh market 'arry? Even if she's probably 'alf-wit?"
Horror overtook the princess as she realised that the two crater-skinned men bending over her body were slavers – and slavers in the pleasure-slave market no less. Struggling to get free of the slaver's vice-like grip, she bared her teeth.
"I will get you nothing, bastard! I refuse to be…"
Laughter interrupted her. "Oh she ain't 'alf wit George, don'tcha worry. Bit o' fire an' a bit slow, but she ain't 'alf wit. Pity 'bout the gold-lookin' skin though, if 't were ivory she'd a-fetch five thousand silver I reckon, but with 'er looks, she'll still fetch a pretty penny. An' besides whores dun need the wit, they just know how to do the job."
Laughing with his friend, George dumped Caireatha back on the ground like a sack of potatoes. "I'll agree 'arry. Whatcha say bout 'eading ta ol' Corin ta sell this one off? If she's got the looks, it'll be more 'n worth it."
Nodding, the two slavers walked off, still talking, leaving a panicking Caireatha behind. The capital? She had heard about the slave markets in the capital of Artesia, how the women were forced to strip publicly in front of the jeering crowd, to show how fit they were for the whore market…Caireatha shuddered involuntarily, struggling with her bonds. Escape seemed her only hope, but how she was to manage that, Gilèd only knew
Crown Prince Alexander paced the streets of Corin restlessly. He usually enjoyed the walks he took around the city, unnoticed and away from the smothering politics of the Artesian palace, but that morning, he felt as if a great burden had been laid upon his shoulders The recent invasion of Kestara had gone fairly smoothly and now, town by town, its people were gradually submitting to the rule of the Artesians. The few rebel groups that had sprung up were easily crushed, their members either beheaded or hanged.
Alexander turned the street corner and sighed. It wasn't the takeover of Kestara that was troubling his mind. His problems lay closer to home. Recently a shadow of doubt had been resting upon him; he was sure there was trouble afoot in the Artesian Court. The sudden death of his uncle, the oldest, most trusted advisor, and one of the most robust nobles in Artesia seemed point to a traitor in their midst. But of the nobles at the Artesian Court, he could only think of two that had the power and influence to be able to accomplish high treason, and they had far too much power to be openly accused without evidence. False accusations could lead to withdrawal of support, which could lead to revolts…and with a kingdom as large as Artesia to manage, Alexander did not even want to think about what could happen.
Stepping onto the main square, Alex paced the ground, oblivious to what was going on around him when with a sudden 'oof' a filthy figure pushed into him.
Caireatha ran along the market square. Her bare feet were cut and bleeding; her body ached with bruises but she didn't care. After three months of being held captive she had managed to escape.
The sounds of heavy feet behind her alerted her to the fact that her slaver wasn't far behind. Gritting her teeth, Caireatha continued running…if only she could make it out of the market square in time…she could easily lose the slavers in the back alleys of the Artesian capital – she was sure of that.
She was so intent on running; Caireatha didn't see the figure before her until it was too late. With a sudden 'oof' she bumped into a wall of hard muscle.
The first thing he saw was a pair of brilliant apple green eyes. Startled, Alex lent out an arm and helped the girl, who was near to collapsing, up. About eighteen, the girl clad in rags couldn't have been more than some street rat, perhaps running from a storekeeper she had stolen from. A cut scored her cheek and when the sleeve of her tattered shirt fell back, it revealed a blackened swollen bruise. The girl's whole body was covered in a layer of fine grime, as if she had not bathed in months.
Seeing she was about to run off again, Alexander tightened his grip on the girls arm, making her yelp in pain – another bruise. Sighing, he relaxed his grip.
"Don't le' go of tha' gal!"
A shout interrupted the prince's question. Looking up, he saw a red-faced slaver run up, whip in hand.
"Give 'er ta me. I'll take 'er from 'ere."
Alexander frowned at the man's commanding tone. About to reprimand him for insubordination, he realised with a start that the slaver could not possibly recognise him as a prince of the realm. He was, after all clad in the brown cottons of a commoner. 'And just when I thought I had the perfect disguise too.' The prince calmly raised an eyebrow at the huffing slaver.
'What is it you want with this street rat?" Alexander snapped. The girl twisted out of his grip. Turning, he grabbed hold of her arm again.
"Street rat? She ain't no street rat," the slaver's indignant voice rose, attracting the attention of the passersby, "She's a runaway slave! I gots 'er off some soldier-folk in Kestara! I was a-gonna put 'er collar on 'er when she ups and runs! I've bin chasin' 'er fer a ged 'our!"
The girl he held twisted out of his grip again. Walking up to the slaver, she spat at his feet.
"I am no slave! And even if I was there is no way…"
The girl's voice was cut off as a single slap swept across her cheek, knocking her already exhausted body to the ground. Her right cheek began to glow bright red.
"Yer lil' piece o' 'orse-dung! I'll teach yer ta mess wi' me lassie!" The slaver raised up his whip and brought it down. Twice. The girl flinched as the leather cut open the skin on both her arms, but jumped up anyway, ready to fight.
Alexander sighed and, with restraint, walked away. Every inch of him wanted to grab that whip and beat that slaver senseless, but he knew the law. He wasn't allowed to interfere. Public 'discipline' like this was normal between either a slaver or a master and their slaves but Alex knew he could never, ever look on without disgust.
Wincing slightly as the cries of pain rang out, Alexander could not help but take a look back. It was such a pity. She had such spirit…but with the kind of treatment she would get if sold, she'd probably either die within the year or become some whimpering, mindless dolt.
Turning away, Alex strode through the jeering crowd, shuddering. How people could enjoy such sights, he would never know. If there was only a way…Alex stopped for a second…perhaps…he continued striding through the rest of the crowd, an idea forming in his mind. Now when was the slave auction going to be held again?
Caireatha watched the audience below with hate. She had been so close! But no, that annoying commoner had to stop her run to freedom. And now she was next in line to be sold.
"A thousand silvers!"
"A thousand five hundred silvers!"
Caireatha glanced up at the girl on the auction block. The thin little thing was no more than eight, dressed only in a loincloth. But then, it seemed that the child-whore system in Artesia was more than active. The little mite was fetching the highest prices out of all the pleasure-slaves sold so far.
The former Kestarian princess looked again at the crowd and shuddered. They had found out about her neckpiece. After she had been recaptured, she was stripped of all her clothes and forced to kneel, naked while they branded her back and shoved the still-hot iron collar around her neck. It was then that they had discovered the symbol she wore…she could only hope the slavers were too uneducated to guess what it meant.
Caireatha's thought was interrupted as the two beefy arms of two male slaves unchained her from the rest of the slaves and pulled her, struggling, to the top of the auction block.
"And now we have, as promised, a Kestarian gem of a pleasure-slave, for you to have at your beck and call any time of the day."
Caireatha struggled out of grip of the two men and socked the announcer in the mouth. The slaves immediately pinned her down and forced her to her knees.
A murmur broke out among the audience.
"We don't want a whore who'll refuse to serve us!" The voice of one of the more outspoken men rang across the auction room. Heads nodded in agreement.
Dallas, the red-headed slaver conducting the auction shook his head. "Ah, but you don't understand. Is not the slave in front of you now the best piece of flesh you have ever seen? Look at that lovely silky hair, the satin skin, the well shaped breasts…" at this Caireatha was jerked back up, allowing the audience to view her, before she was pushed down again. Smiling slightly, Dallas continued, "How could you wish for more? And besides wouldn't taking her, a whore with a bit of fire be far more fun than taking a half-wit who just lies there?"
Another murmur broke out in the audience, this one of agreement. Caireatha tried to speak, but on her knees with her face to the ground and a foot on her back, she could do nothing.
"Only three hundred? I take five hundred!"
"Seven hundred silvers!"
"Eight! I take Eight!"
"A thousand five hundred!"
"A thousand seven hundred!"
Caireatha jerked her head up. That voice…there was something familiar…scanning the room, she met the stormy blue eyes of the commoner she had bumped into earlier that day, now dressed in fine silken robes, a smug look plastered on his face. For the first time in the three months after the invasion, Caireatha felt the grip of fear upon her. Why was he looking so smug? How did he, a commoner suddenly gain access to such rich clothing? And what was he planning to do with her?
The harsh voice of the red headed Dallas made her wince. Immediately, two arms hauled her up and dragged her off the auction block. The former Kestarian princess didn't even bother struggling as the two slaves holding her threw her into a pen with all the other sold slaves.
Alexander relaxed against one of the cleaner walls of the auction room, running a hand through his jet-black hair. He had arrived there just in time to hear a certain pox-marked lord's outrageous bid. No doubt, he had only wanted her for his own pleasure, nothing else. Lord Ramon, the pox-marked lord, had a rather notorious reputation of being the only Artesian noble who had, had more than three female slaves die within his service. What made Ramon go through twenty female slaves a year, no one knew – his slaves didn't usually live long enough to tell, and Alex didn't even want to guess.
"See this? I gots it from tha' beauty o' a Kestarian slave, yer knows, the 'un that's a-goin' fer nine thousand silva's."
A voice broke through Alex's thoughts; turning his head he caught sight of two fifteen year old slavers. One was holding up a ruby pendant that was engraved a double phoenix. Alexander gave a start. That was the symbol of the royal family of Kestara! But were they not all dead? How did his slave get hold of…walking up to the two young slavers, he tapped the one holding the pendant on the shoulder.
"Is that necklace for sale? My sweetheart's birthday is coming up."
The slaver turned, regarded Alex with a cold eye, and then shook his head, "Not fer sale."
Alex raised an eyebrow, "Not even for three gold crowns?"
The slaver's eyes bulged at the enormity of the price Alexander was offering. One gold crown was enough to see a six-child peasant family through a year with only a minimum of labour.
"Well, now tha' yer mention 't sir, I wouldna mind selling it fer tha' price…"
Smiling slightly, though his eyes remained cold, Alex held out the three gold crowns in his palm. Eagerly, the young slaver made the exchange. Alex fingered the pendant and the silver chain it was on before pocketing the trinket. Who was the slave he had just bought?
A tap on his shoulder, and again his thoughts were broken. A golden haired slaver shoved a paper and pen in his face.
"Sign this," the flat voice ordered.
Alex signed it and counted nine thousand silvers into the waiting palm. He was handed a chain lead on which his slave's collar was attached. The slaver turned to go, but stopped and handed Alex a long, thick leather whip.
"You'll need it." With a curt nod, the slaver was gone.
Alex looked into the apple-green eyes of his slave. Gently, he asked, "What is your name?"
His answer was a punch to the nose, which he easily blocked, dropping the whip in the process. Her other hand whipped around with a punch aimed directly at his face. With lightning speed, the Artesian prince grabbed her arm and twisted it around her back. His other arm choked the chain around the exposed part of the slave's neck. Turning to the girl's ear, Alex whispered with a shake of his head, "I wouldn't do that if I were you…"
The slave hmphed in response but seemed to submit. With a sigh Alex released her.
"I'm not going to hurt you, girl," he said quietly. "Now will you please tell me your name?"
"Do not Artesian lords name their slaves whatever they want to name them? What is the point of telling you my name?"
Alexander regarded the girl coolly. The musical lilt in her voice gave away the fact she was not of common descent. No Kestarian commoner could speak like that. Using a foot, Alex kicked the whip off the ground and caught it. "I would prefer calling you by what name you wish to be called."
The slave regarded him with hate. Alex almost thought she was going to attempt to punch him again, but she only turned away and spat out her name: "Caireatha."
Alex raised an eyebrow, saying nothing. 'Caireatha' was no common name either…but he had heard it before…though where he could not guess. Giving a curt nod he turned away, "Follow."
He anticipated the move even before he felt the giveaway burst of wind an inexperienced fighter gave off when aiming a punch. Twisting a hand behind him, he flipped the Kestarian onto her back; his foot pinned down her neck. "I do not wish to hurt you, Caireatha, but I will if I have to." He took his foot off, and offered a hand.
Glaring, Caireatha took it and was pulled gently to her feet. Jerking the lead slightly, Alex flashed the Kestarian a smile, his eyes still remaining steel cold, "Now when I say follow, I mean follow."
As Caireatha was led through the streets of Corin, she was fighting a panicking fear rising up within her. Who was her new master? He wasn't a peasant or any other lowborn commoner, but nor was he a merchant. It was even doubtful a high-ranking nobleman would possess the fighting ability he had. And for some reason or other, the man leading her seemed to be wearing an aura of hidden power, an invisible cloak to be revealed when necessary.
Finally working up the courage, the Kestarian asked roughly, "Where are you taking me?"
"Home." Her master turned and regarded Caireatha with the same look of steel he had before. Relenting, she looked away.
"I said I would not hurt you – or rape you, do not worry." His voice made her look back in surprise, but he had already turned and was walking.
Caireatha followed numbly, slowly digesting what he had said. 'So he doesn't want to use me as a punch bag, nor does he want to use me as a whore. Then why did he pay so much?'
Looking up and around her, Caireatha realised with a shock he was heading towards the palace walls. Panic rose within her again. Why was he taking her there? Did he know who she really was…?
"Your highness." The words cut through the Kestarian's mind like a knife through hot butter. They had arrived at the twin golden gates that were the opening to the thick red wall surrounding the Artesian palace grounds. Two guards were kneeling in respect…and they had called her new master 'highness'…highness…but it couldn't be! The was only one prince in Artesia, Crown Prince Alexander, heir to the throne…Caireatha glanced at the back of her master in shock. The prince was famous for his dislike of the slave trade…he never would go near an auction centre!
The shock slowly turned into hate, as she watched Prince Alex give out orders. If that was who he really was, then he was one of those who were responsible for her family's death. She would have her revenge.
In another corner of the palace, a figure sat in a darkened room, lit only by candles that threw his face into shadow. Another figure, dressed in the palace uniform of a lady's maid, walked up to him
"The Kestarians have agreed to the plan. Markus came with the message this morning. His grace will know of it by the eve."
The seated figure stood, the light of the candles glinting off his pearl white teeth as he smiled. "Wonderful my darling." He walked up and swept the female figure in a full embrace, kissing her gently. "And what of my message?"
The female figure smiled and laid her head on his shoulder. "All is done. The Kestarians have received the message. They have agreed. Soon his grace will have more than just his own planned rebellion to worry about."
The male figure swept the female into another kiss. "Excellent. If all goes well, my dearest, you will no longer be a servant to that bitch of a lady. You will be by my side, queen of the Artesian Empire."
"And you will be my king." The female smiled and answered his kiss with one of her own.