Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chapter Seven

Word Count: 3,164

A few moments passed, and Malik-Tor shifted to Syndra-Kai’s side, his manhood slipping from her, one leg remaining entangled with hers. Careful not to wake him, she slid out of the bed and strode to a basin filled with cool water. She felt a stickiness between her legs, residue from their lovemaking, so she took a cloth and wet it to wash herself.

As she pulled the cloth away, she saw faint smears of blood, and her eyes widened. She darted a glance at the sheets on the bed, and sure enough, there was a stain there as well. That was evidence she was no longer a virgin, and more than enough to satisfy anyone that everything had gone as custom demanded. Even the air was pungent with the heavy smell of their lovemaking.

She watched Malik stir in his sleep. The dull ache between her legs was a vivid reminder of the joy she had experienced in his arms just a few moments before, and she sighed softly, knowing that when he woke, everything between them would change.

Wrapping a towel around her, she went to the door of her room, opening it silently, and darted a quick glance into the hall. No one was in immediate sight, but one of the ever-present servants had brought a tray of food as she had commanded earlier. She brought it inside and shut the door again, careful not to wake Malik.

Setting the tray down, she quickly crossed the room to the secret passage. As the wall slid away, she reached inside and grabbed a pile of clothing. She dressed quickly, a pair of soft linen pants and an overskirt, split down each side so she could move freely. A linen blouse and a laced bodice completed the ensemble. The bodice ended just above her waist to allow freedom of movement, and rose to just above the soft swelling of her breasts. The collar of the blouse was loose but concealing, and the sleeves were full.

Syndra-Kai stepped into a soft pair of leather slippers and reached for two bags and bundle of clothes. She dropped the clothes on the bed, and crossed to the tray of food, which she started to wrap and pack into one of the bags. Soft and fragrant bread, still warm from the oven, thick slices of cheeses, meat and fruit. The other bag contained additional supplies for the journey. She took a few bites, tasting nothing, as her nerves made her belly twist.

When she was finished packing the food, she stood by the bed and called Malik’s name. He stirred, opening one eye drowsily, and gave her a gentle smile. Suddenly, he recalled where he was and sat bolt upright.

“How long have I been asleep?”

“Not long. It is time to dress; we must leave soon if we wish to be far from the palace before our absence is noted.” Syndra-Kai tossed the bundle of men’s clothing to him.

Malik started to clothe himself, and then he realized her choice of words. He looked at Syndra-Kai, taking in her commoner’s clothing as she gathered a few last belongings, packing them into her bag, which she then shouldered. When she reached for a hood to cover her hair, he stopped her.

“Wait, what do you mean OUR absence? Where do you think you are going?”

“I am going with you. I wish to see my country, and you will be my guide,” she answered coolly, meeting his fierce yellow stare with her own violet one.

Malik pulled on the last of his clothes, a leather jerkin over a linen shirt, tucking the shirt into his pants. “Oh, no you are not, Princess. That was not part of our bargain. You are staying right here and becoming Empress as we agreed.”

“I must wait a year to be pronounced Empress, and I wish to spend that time traveling. I have my father’s permission to do so. We did not discuss whether you would be leaving alone, if you will recall,” she said. She took a pair of boots from the hidden corridor and held them out to Malik.

Malik shook his head. “Princess, your place is here. Do you wish to see me dead for kidnapping you? Because that is certain to be my fate when it the palace realizes you are gone. This is insane, you cannot go with me.”

“I have already made arrangements, Malik-Tor. In the morning, a note will be delivered to Xan-Rul, and another to my father, explaining that I am relieving you of your duty as Companion, but as a final service to me, you will take me on a tour of my country. I will return before a year’s time to marry the man my father shall choose for me while I am gone. It is very simple, and my father will oblige, he has given his word.”

Malik stared at her in shock. “You cannot be serious.”

“I most assuredly am,” she replied.

He dragged a hand through his hair. “What if I refuse? I could just leave you here and make my way through this tunnel by myself.”

“You will get lost in that maze. There is a network of tunnels throughout the palace and beneath all of Lunatium. I have roamed them since I was a small child, and I have memorized the path we need to take from a map I found in the library. It is not there,” Syndra-Kai said as Malik-Tor reached for her sack. She retreated from his fierce glare.

“Let’s say I take my chances. I am not leaving here with you in tow, Princess.”

“Let me remind you how quickly I could have a guard pursuing you, and then where would you be? The exact position you wished to avoid by bargaining with me in the first place. You will take me with you,” Syndra insisted.

“You would negate our bargain, just like that?” Malik-Tor said, his voice rising. “You really are a spoiled brat, aren’t you?”

“I would ask that you keep your voice down, or else we will be discovered, and all will be undone,” she scolded him. Her feelings stung from his name-calling, but she pressed on. “I do not go back on my word. You will leave Lunatium in one piece, and upon my crowning as Empress, you shall be a free man. I wish to see my country, unfettered by the procession and parade that my father would insist on displaying. If I am to see how my country truly is, I must see it through the eyes of its people. You are one of its people, Malik-Tor, so who better to guide me?”

Malik’s mind raced. She had him, and she knew it. He could risk it in the tunnel without her, but he had no doubt she would set the guards on his trail. Even if they did not find him, if the tunnels were as vast as she claimed, he was bound to die without a guide himself. Time was passing quickly, and if he was going to make his escape, he must move now.

“Very well, Princess. I will show you how your country truly is. But you had best keep up, or I will send you packing back to the palace at the first word of complaint from you,” he said. It would not take her long to tire and begin whining. Raised within the palace walls, she would be unused to hard travel. He would push as hard as it took to make her change her mind.

Syndra-Kai smiled brightly. “Let us be off then!” She gestured toward the dark passage, pointing to a bundle of torches on the ground. She lit one from a sconce in her chamber. “It is a long way to the edge of the city, we will need plenty of light,” she said.

She held the torch in one hand while she pulled the door shut behind them. Malik heard the mechanism of the door click, and knew there was no turning back. He turned and followed her.

** ** ** ** ** ** **

After what seemed like hours, Malik-Tor stopped Syndra-Kai, saying, “How much further must we go?”

Syndra-Kai turned to look at him. “We passed the outer edge of the palace wall about two torches ago, and the floor is beginning to slope upwards again, so I would say... we should be there by the time this torch burns out.” She glanced at the torch in question, burned about halfway through.

Malik looked at her doubtfully. “Is it a straight path from here?”

“More or less, there are a couple of turns once we reach the wall; we have to travel inside it for a few minutes before we reach the exit.”

Taking the torch from her, Malik-Tor moved to lead the way, passing the last two unburned torches for her to carry. Syndra-Kai said nothing, but her arms were aching from the effort of holding the lit torch aloft. With Malik’s height advantage, it revealed more of the tunnel’s walls as they walked.

Syndra-Kai continued to follow him in silence. She wished she could think of something to say as she watched the glow of the torch’s flame flicker his face, highlighting his cheeks and brow. She could see the faint shadow where his beard was beginning to sprout, and she barely restrained the urge to stroke the line of his jaw. She frowned, and then noted that the walls of the tunnel had changed, indicating they were under the city wall.

“We should be coming up on a passage that curves away to the left, just ahead,” she said.

Malik nodded and continued to lead the way, raising the torch a little higher. As promised, there was a passage and a set of stairs on their left, so they turned and started to climb.

“Where we will leave the city?” Malik-Tor asked.

“There should be a garden on the other side of the exit,” she said.

“There are no gardens outside the city, Princess. At least, not for some miles. There are slums and trash heaps,” Malik-Tor said.

“Slums? I was not aware there were slums in Lunatium,” Syndra-Kai said.

“Technically, they are NOT in Lunatium, since they are outside the city walls. Just the first of many surprising sights I’m sure you will see on this journey you insist on taking,” Malik retorted.

Syndra-Kai stuck her tongue out at Malik’s back. She noted that the air in the tunnel had changed. It no longer held the stifling, musty aroma of the underground passages. A fresher note lingered in the air now.

Finally, the stairs ended, and a glimmer of natural light appeared in the tunnel. At some point in time, the door had partially opened. It was no more than a crack in the otherwise smooth wall, but it had to be the door they were looking for. Reaching it, Malik-Tor pressed an eye to the gap to get a glimpse of what lay outside.
Satisfied there were no potential witnesses to their emergence from the wall, he extinguished the torch so the light would not betray them. It was still night outside, but the sky showed indications it would soon be lightening. They would need to hurry if they wanted to be far from the city walls before their absence was discovered.

Syndra-Kai had found the mechanism that should open the door, but it was broken, and the door would not move. “We need to force it open,” she said.

Malik-Tor nodded, and put his shoulder to the task. Thick brush and vines had grown along the wall, concealing the opening, but also keeping it closed. Despite the gap that indicated the doorway, it was apparent that the hidden passageway had remained undiscovered.

It took a few minutes of concerted effort, but eventually the door began to move. With a final groan and much tearing of vines and leaves, he was able to get the door open enough for them to pass through. The door moved back into its original position much easier, and he piled brush and vines over the entrance so curious explorers would not spot it easily.

Syndra-Kai stood still, looking around her. They were standing in a trash heap.

Malik joined her, trying to determine where they were. They stood along the northern edge of the city, in one of the dumps that had begun to accrue the trash of the city years ago. Huge piles of refuse, grown over with weeds, were everywhere.

“I don’t understand,” Syndra-Kai said. “There is supposed to be a garden here.” She began to walk through the tall mounds of trash, looking from side to side beneath the lightening sky. “Look!” she pointed at something that rose out of one of the piles.

Malik-Tor moved to investigate. The object was indeed a strange sight. At one time, it must have been a fountain or statue. Trash and debris built up high around its base, disguising its figure at first glance. On closer inspection, it appeared to be the image of a woman, holding aloft a crescent moon. Vines had obscured the woman’s face, but Malik felt certain this was a statue of the first Empress of Lunatia, holding the symbol of the nation. He let out a low whistle.

“At one time, I’m sure this must have been, if this statue is any indication,” he said. “But centuries ago, the city ran out of places to dump its trash, and to keep it out of sight, they started throwing it over the walls. The slums grew up as a result, housing people who live by scavenging on the remains of the city’s inhabitants,” he explained.

“This is awful,” Syndra-Kai whispered as she followed Malik, who was beginning to work his way further from the wall, towards open land. “I must order that this be cleared. The city looks terrible from this side of the wall,” she said.

“It has been a long time since the Empire concerned itself with matters outside its walls, Princess. It will take years to clear all of this.”

“It does not matter; Lunatium should not look like a dung heap. What must people think?” Syndra-Kai said.

Malik-Tor shrugged. “They think no one cares, Princess. People have become used to things this way,” he said.

Syndra-Kai said nothing. They spent the next half-hour or so maneuvering through the accumulated debris, and finally came out on a road that encircled the city. Taking stock of where they were, Malik-Tor turned to Syndra.

“Which way now, Princess? Dawn is not far off, and if you really plan on going through with this, we should be as far from the city as possible by then.”

Thinking for a moment, she replied, “I think perhaps west, towards the mountains? My chambers face the mountains, and I have always wished to see them up close. We might venture to one of the silver mines, so I can see how they operate. They are the largest source of income in Lunatia; I think I should know more about them.”

“You certainly do not like to make things easy,” Malik-Tor said. “The silver mines are also the most highly guarded places in the country, aside from the palace itself. We don’t stand a chance of getting very close, Princess.”

“I think you should stop calling me ‘Princess’,” Syndra replied huffily, irritated at the way he said it. “People might look at you strangely, and if anyone should ask, we might be found out.”

Malik frowned. She was right, of course. “What should I call you then? Everyone in the country knows your name as well.”

Thinking for a moment, she said, “I have always liked the name ‘Inaya’, and you could call me that.”

“Very well. While we are thinking of aliases, you should not call me Malik-Tor any longer, either. As soon as the gates to the city open and people can speak to the outside world again, everyone will know about the Princess’ new Companion,” Malik said, sarcastically emphasizing ‘Companion’.

“What would you like me to call you then?” Syndra asked.

“Call me Asim,” he replied. “It’s a name I have used before, so I can remember that.”

Syndra wondered where he might have needed to use an alternate name, but she held her tongue. He was already angry with her, and her efforts at conversation largely ignored. She opted to wait for another time to satisfy her curiosity.

“Alright then, Asim. Could we perhaps get close enough to the mines to watch their activity from afar? I brought a spyglass with me,” she asked.

“Hmmm, we might be able to climb higher than the mine and overlook the main shaft offices and road,” he said.

“Excellent! We shall do that then,” Syndra-Kai said. She started to walk westward.

“Hold on there, Syn… Inaya. We should avoid the main road, at least until mid-day and we are far from the city. Let us travel north a bit, and then we can turn west. Did you bring any money along for this journey?” Malik could have kicked himself for not thinking of such a thing earlier.

“Yes, it is right here,” Syndra said, reaching for her pack. Malik stopped her.

“Never pull out your money in plain view,” he said. “A thief would not think twice of snatching your pack from you. You should hide it someplace on your person, perhaps under your shirt.”

Seeing the sense in this, though she could not believe someone might be so bold as to take the bag right off her back, she took out the purse she had filled with coins taken from her father’s room. Malik groaned when he saw the size of it. She had brought along a small fortune. The silver coins gleamed, their newness obvious. Most money to found in Lunatia was in the form of gold or copper. Only wealthy nobles carried silver. They would have to find some place to trade the silver for older and less valuable denominations.

“Very well, come along. Perhaps we might come across a farm and purchase some horses, so we can travel faster and carry more gear. We don’t even have bedrolls.”

Malik headed off at a quick pace into the trees that bordered the road. Syndra followed, envying his long stride, as she hurried to keep up. She kept her silence though, knowing that any word of complaint and he would send her back to the city without another thought.

Dawn came a just a few hours later, but by then they had traveled miles away from the city. If her father got it into her head to form a search party, it would be additional hours before one could be organized. She hoped to be well on her way to the mountains before that could happen.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sorry for delay....

Sorry about the delay everyone, my job officially started last week, plus I had a few exams and research papers to wrap up... But two chapters posted today, so check em out! You also have probably noticed I've added an "Adult Content" warning... You'll know why after reading these chapters, they are pretty hot stuff! Enjoy...

Chapter Six

Word Count: 2,965

“Oh, I hate that man,” Syndra-Kai whispered as she and Malik-Tor followed a servant down the corridor leading to her chambers.

“Who is he?” Malik-Tor asked.

“He is my father’s Chief Advisor. He is a pompous ass though, and I hope I can be rid of him soon.”

Malik-Tor laughed at Syndra-Kai’s language. “I did not think Princesses knew such words.”

“Have you seen the size of our library? You would be amazed at what you can find in books,” she said.

“I think you might be surprised at what might amaze me, Princess. However, I would have thought the palace library to be filled with dusty old volumes of history, government, and the like.”

“Oh, well, there are plenty of those as well, but any books that are made in Lunatia must have a copy sent to the palace. There is also a large collection from other countries as well. Your books are there.”

“My books? Surely you have not read all of them,” Malik-Tor said.

Syndra-Kai laughed. “Yes, every word. Even the dirty parts.”

Malik-Tor had the good grace to blush. Some passages in his books detailed sexual practices as they differed in other countries. “I was merely an outside observer, Princess. I felt it my duty to report what I saw, wherever I went.”

“Your command of words is commendable, Malik-Tor. Xan-Rul disapproved highly of my reading those parts, though he did comment that they were quite ‘educational’ in certain aspects,” she said.

Leaning close to her, she felt again his breath as it caressed her neck, and she shivered in delight. “If you feel it might be beneficial to your cause, Princess, I would gladly give you a proper ‘education’ this evening.”

Syndra-Kai was without words, her breath having caught somewhere in her chest by the furious pounding of her heart. Again, she was spared his scrutiny by the veil, but its cover would not protect her much longer.

They had arrived at her chamber door, and she stopped, looking up at him as the servant who had led them this far opened it and retreated the way they had come. Malik-Tor pulled her inside and closed it behind them.

He stood in front of her and reached for the lower edge of the veil. Finding it, he lifted it away from her face and over her head, removing it completely. The soft waves of her hair floated around her face, and her violet eyes impaled him with twin spears of desire. Her cheeks held a rosy flush, and her lips parted sweetly. He lifted a hand to stroke her cheek.

“You are so beautiful, Syndra-Kai.” He cupped her face between his hands and drew her to him, bending low to capture her lips with his. She offered no resistance as his tongue darted insider her mouth and then traced the line of her lips. She moved her own in a natural response, and lifted her arms to entwine her fingers in his rich black hair.

Without breaking the kiss, Malik moved his hands down the lithe curves of her body, settling around her hips, and lifting her. Her legs unconsciously wound around his waist. Their kiss deepened, tongues diving in and out of each other’s mouths and exploring each thoroughly.

At last, Malik pulled away. Syndra’s eyes were closed dreamily, and she opened them slowly. Passion lay banked in their depths, ready to rouse into a raging inferno at his slightest encouragement.

“I would see all of you, Princess,” he whispered huskily. She looked at him confusedly. He moved to sit on the edge of the bed, taking her with him. “All of this,” he lifted layer upon layer of obscuring fabric that lay between them. “I want to see the beauty of the rest of your body.”

Syndra-Kai’s eyes flew open as she realized what he was asking. She had never been completely bare before anyone other than the maids who bathed her. She pulled away from Malik-Tor and stood nervously in front of him. Her violet eyes gazed at him, taking him in.

He lay sprawled casually upon her bed, his doublet having somehow come unbuttoned, and his tanned chest lay bare to her eyes. It was free of hair, aside from a small, dark trail that dipped down into his waistband. The muscles of his chest and stomach were clearly defined, rippling like those of a cat when he moved, and she longed to stroke the smooth skin there. His golden eyes also gleamed like those of a cat’s, taking her in from head to toe. Her hair was coming down from its pile, and her chest heaved beneath her concealing clothes. She was the picture of dishevelment.

Sensing her nervousness, Malik-Tor grew serious. “Syndra, look at me. If you are unsure, I understand. You do not have to do this if you do not wish.”

“I wish this more than anything else in the world at this moment,” she objected.
Glancing down, a blush suffused her face. “I just do not know what to do. I want to please you.”

He reached out a hand and put a finger beneath her chin, raising it so her eyes could meet his. “You please me, Princess.” He reached for the layers of her costume, unsure where to begin. “I assure you, you know more about ridding yourself of these ridiculous garments than I do. How does this thing come off?”

Syndra laughed, comforted by his ability to easily joke at a time like this. She turned and presented her back. He could see the laces that held her outfit together as they traced down her back beneath the floating layers. He undid the knot at the top, and pulled the laces free of their loops. The fabric parted beneath his fingers, and the smooth, golden skin of her back was revealed to him.

She clutched the front of her clothes as his hand separated the cloth and his hand began to stroke the skin he bared. He slipped one hand inside and followed the curve of her shoulder blade until the cloth slid off her shoulder. He set his lips there, warm in comparison to the cool air of the room. She shivered again.

“Are you cold?”

“No, your touch stirs me, Malik-Tor,” she whispered, turning to him. Their lips met in another soft kiss, and Malik pulled away again.

“Show me,” he demanded, his tone roughened by the desire he was holding in restraint.

Syndra-Kai gathered her courage again. She could plainly see the desire in Malik’s eyes, stirred even more by the sight of her bare skin, and she grew emboldened. She let the top half of her outfit fall from her hands, and heard Malik’s sharp intake of breath.

Her breasts lay bare before him, small precious curves. They were adorned by nipples that were a dark rose in hue, stiffened and erect by the cool breeze and Syndra’s own excitement. She reached to cover them, and he stopped her, holding her hands by her side. He lowered his head and took her left nipple into his mouth, suckling gently. She gasped and arched her back, leaning into his embrace.

Letting go of her hands, Malik stroked her hips, and Syndra brought her hands up to clasp his head to her. He shifted his attentions to her right nipple and she groaned in pleasure. A warm tingling bloomed between her legs and she pushed against him harder.

Malik held himself in control, releasing her nipple and setting her away from him again. To his eyes, it appeared as though her breasts had swelled in response to his touch, becoming no longer the gentle blossoms of a young girl and shifting into the ripe curves of a woman. He was fascinated.

There might have been something to this Initiation after all, he thought to himself. She was indeed becoming a woman, before his eyes, and all because of his touch. It was a heady power that made his head swim. He knew that something special was happening tonight. Many men married virgins, yet he had never heard of this particular feeling before. He had reserved his own pleasures for women well versed in the art of seduction, but this sweet girl in front of him had roused him beyond anything he had ever experienced before.

Syndra-Kai’s eyes were glazed with passion, and her hands unconsciously stroked her breasts where his mouth had been moments before. She passed her tongue over her lips and stared at his mouth, pondering how she might best capture it again.
Malik took her hands in his and placed them on her hips, pushing the rest of her outfit downwards. Taking his cue, she loosened the ties further in the back to allow room to slip over the curve of her hips. Suddenly, the yards of fabric were pooled at her feet, and Malik got his first sight of her in all her glory. He was certain he had never seen anything so magnificent in all of his life.

Her hips flared out generously, tapering into legs that were slender and shapely, yet strong. A triangle of dark hair lay at the apex of her thighs, stark against the milky goldenness of her skin. As the firelight lit her skin with a warm glow, he noticed she had been stripped of any other body hair, leaving the skin smooth to the touch.

“You have skin like heavy cream when the sun strikes it in the morning,” he said. “So soft, golden. Do you taste the same?” he put his hands on her hips and pulled her closer. She was so tiny in his grasp, he felt like he might break her. She was not in the mood for gentleness now though.

Leaning forward, she put her hands on his chest and pushed the leather doublet from his shoulders. He gave a shrug and tossed the garment to the floor. Her lips grazed his skin as his own had done hers, finding the pulse that beat furiously in his neck. He felt sharp teeth nip at him, followed by her velvet tongue as it traced its way downward.

He leaned back into the softness of the bed as she lathed his nipples as he had done her, and moved her hands up and down his ribs. Growing bolder, she climbed onto the bed and sat astride him.

“Do I still please you, Malik-Tor?” Syndra-Kai whispered against his lips, her nipples grazing his chest.

“More and more with each moment, my star,” he replied. He pushed her back and settled his hands on her hips. “Lift your hair away from your neck for me.”

She did as he asked, arching her back, breasts thrust forward, eyes closed as she stretched her arms heavenward, letting her hair fall down around her. She pushed it back from her neck, and as she did so, he slipped a finger between her legs, finding her sweet wetness. She jerked in shock as his finger found its way inside her tender warmth. He felt her body shudder and the muscles inside her contract tightly around his finger. He kept it still for a moment.

“This is where the rest of me shall be in a moment. You are still sure?” He whispered.

In response, she ground her hips against his hand, and he felt a fresh rush of excitement take her over and engulf his hand. “Please,” she begged.

He slid his finger out of her slowly, dragging it forward and finding the tender nub of her womanhood. As he circled that sensitive bud, she tossed her head back and opened her eyes. She pierced him with her violet gaze and he needed no further urging.

Turning Syndra-Kai so she knelt before him on the bed, he stood and reached for the laces of his own pants, and her hands joined his. Freeing them at last, he lifted his hips to pull them down, and his throbbing manhood finally thrust free. He kicked his legs free floor as Syndra-Kai looked at him.

“Are you sure it will fit? You are so large, I did not know…”

“There is only one way to find out, Princess, but I think it will be fine. I must warn you though, since it is your first time, it is likely you will have some pain. There is a barrier shielding you from me, and to become a woman in truth, we must break it. I will do my best to make it easier for you, and the pain will not last long.”

Syndra-Kai swallowed. She had heard of this. Nevertheless, she desired him so badly at this moment, she felt if she did not have him inside of her, she might be consumed completely.

“May I… may I touch you?”

His answer was to take her hand and place it on him, a groan escaping as she touched him. She marveled at the contrasts between their bodies. He was so hard, and she was so soft. She moved her hand to stroke the length of his manhood, and it leapt in response. She gave a soft laugh, and he smiled as he watched her. She dipped her head and kissed the tip of it. He jerked.

“Did I do something wrong? Did I hurt you?” Malik had moved so violently and suddenly, she was concerned.

“Oh, stars, no. I just was not expecting such boldness. That feels incredible to a man. It was like when I touched you here,” he said, tapping the tender bud he had stroked earlier. She throbbed in answer.

Delighted that she had found a way she could make him feel as he had made her, she kissed him again. He closed his eyes and arched his hips up to her. She was a little intimidated by the size of it, but she placed her mouth on the head of it, circling it with her tongue.

He groaned, pressing forward with his hips again. Syndra-Kai felt supreme power over him at that moment. She stroked her tongue along the underside of his shaft, and Malik’s eyes flew open. “Princess, if you keep that up, we won’t get to finish the rest of it.”

She leaned over him, touching him softly with her fingers. She followed the line of him down, threading her fingers though the hair at the base, and cupped the pouch that held the most vital of manly organs. He jerked stiffly.

“Well, Princess, you have found that which custom demands you take from me when we part tonight. You will fulfill your bargain?”

She released him and lay back on the bed. She pulled his hips toward her, the length of him pressing against her soft wetness. He could feel the moisture there rubbing against him, readying him for his invasion. She was more than ready to receive him.

“I do not go back on my promises, Malik-Tor. You will leave here intact tonight, I swear it.”

With that promise still on her lips, Malik thrust forward, penetrating her fully. She felt a sharp pain that shot through her entire body, and she arched in response, crying out. He held her still, until he felt the muscles inside her relax, and begin to mold to his shape.

Her eyes met his as they discovered this new feeling together. She moved her hips experimentally, and finding no pain, she thrust against him. He lifted her hips, nearly pulling out of her completely, and thrust again into her. She gasped. “Oh, Malik, I didn’t know…”

“Shhh, my star, let me bring you all the way.” He rolled her over, plunging into her again as he moved. Now that she lay beneath him, he saw his vision of earlier come true. Her face was suffused with all the passion he had sensed in her, and her violet eyes blazed at him.

He pulled back again, only the very tip of him still within her, and leaned back so there was room to insert a hand to touch her most sensitive point. He felt her contract around him as he stroked, and her legs splayed wide. He began to thrust in rhythm with the movement of her fingers, and her hips moved in time with his.

She tossed her head from side to side, as she climbed that peak of awareness, Malik guiding her way. Each thrust penetrated her core deeper and deeper until she felt they were no longer separate beings, they had become one. Her skin felt flushed with fever, and she felt a new, strange pressure begin to build within her very womb. It grew and grew, and Malik’s thrusts grew more powerful, until suddenly, her world exploded in a shower of falling stars.

Syndra arched her back and Malik was still for a moment, as her body convulsed around him. As she came to the surface of consciousness once more, she was able to meet his eyes. She focused on his face, and he began to move again. In just a few thrusts, he joined her in ecstasy, releasing his seed deep within her.

Syndra-Kai wound her legs around him and held him tightly to her as he collapsed atop her, the sweat from their efforts mingling between them. Malik succumbed to sleep, and Syndra-Kai lay awake, holding him as she marveled at her transformation.
She was even more certain that she must free Malik-Tor from his duty as her Companion; she would not have him maimed after giving her such pleasure. Beyond that, she was even more certain that she needed his help even more, and a tear slipped from her eye as she contemplated what he would only see as her betrayal.

Chapter Five

Word Count: 2,707

Sunset approached, and Syndra-Kai’s insides started to flutter, as if a bird was struggling against the confines of her ribcage and her belly. As Xan-Rul took her hand to lead her to her last dinner as the child Princess of the Empire of the Silver Crescent, she laid a hand over her heart, as if to still its mad pace.

“It is normal to be nervous, Princess. Calm your fears, you have met everyone present at some point in time, and they are all here to serve witness to your transformation into womanhood. It is a blessed thing.”

“Is Malik-Tor already inside?” Syndra-Kai asked.

“Not yet, you will take the seat of honor, and the Chosen one will be announced and join you there. Since you cannot show your face yet, you will not eat. You will serve Malik-Tor the first bite of each dish, after the poison-taster, of course.”

It was an unfortunate fact, but attempted poisonings at Imperial dinners were quite common throughout its long history. As a preventative measure, the palace employed a poison-taster, whose sole job was to taste each dish before serving to the rest of the guests. If the poison-taster showed signs of illness after tasting a dish, servants removed it from the table and a new poison-taster brought in. This would prevent guests from being disturbed in the event a poison-taster should fall dead at their feet. Luckily, no assassination attempts had been made in Syndra-Kai’s lifetime.

“I am to serve him?”

“Yes, Princess. Now, come. You know all of this already. Are you trying to stall?”

Xan-Rul knew her so well. If he could have seen her face, he would see a flush creep over its lovely countenance. Syndra-Kai desperately wished that she could be anyone at this moment than the Princess of Lunatia. More than the farce of this evening’s dinner concerned her; final preparations were complete to carry out Malik-Tor’s escape from the palace, and she was worried she might fail.

Xan-Rul pulled her forward to face the double doors leading to the Great Hall, where only days before, she had Chosen Malik-Tor to serve as her life-long Companion. He gave her a gentle nudge in the small of her back, and she stood straight, summoning her strength.

I am Princess Syndra-Kai, future True Empress of Lunatia, the Empire of the Silver Crescent, she told herself. I am the most powerful woman in the world, and I shall not show weakness.

The double doors opened slowly, and she heard Du-Karel’s voice ring out in the Hall, crying her name. There was a loud rustling as her guests rose to their feet in honor, and faced her. Long tables filled the Hall, spaced apart along the axis of the room, creating a wide path for Syndra-Kai to reach the dais at the northern end. A table and two chairs stood there for Syndra and Malik. They would be the only people at the head table, and every eye in the room would be watching them.

Raising her head high, Syndra-Kai began the long march to the dais. She did not nod to acknowledge anyone in the vast audience, though she did indeed recognize many of the nobles present. As she passed, the company regained their seats in her wake. When she reached the dais, a servant came forth to take her hand and lead her to her chair. She did not sit, instead turning to face the assemblage and the doors that had been closed behind her.

Du-Karel’s voice lifted again, announcing her Chosen one, Malik-Tor. “All arise, the Chosen one comes! Malik-Tor of Lunatium!”

The doors opened again, revealing Malik to the curious stares of the palace guests. Syndra-Kai glowed with pride. He had bathed and changed into an outfit that had been designed specifically for him. It was simple in style, but his physique showed off the cut to perfection. It was a simple leather doublet, cut away at the shoulders, to reveal the powerful muscles beneath. Malik-Tor’s tanned skin gleamed from the bath oils he had been pressured to apply.

Malik-Tor moved forward into the Hall, not an ounce of fear or uncertainty present on his face. Like Syndra-Kai, he cast not a glance to either side, holding his head proudly, almost arrogantly. Syndra-Kai could see the women present in the Hall turn to each other to murmur in appreciation of his form, and she grew warm, her body tingling. She was thankful for the disguising veil for once; as she feared her face would display the shameless lust she was feeling at sight of him. She could not have been more proud at how he was handling the situation. For a brief moment, she had a vision of him coming towards her, not as her Chosen one, but as her husband, with all of her guests looking on with pride as well. She shook the impossible thought away almost as suddenly as it arrived.

Malik-Tor waved away the servant’s assistance, and climbed the dais to stand at the side of his chair. He did not look over at Syndra-Kai, and she felt disappointed. No doubt, he was still angry at the part she had chosen for him to play.

Du-Karel’s whining voice rose again, and Syndra-Kai cringed, as did most of the audience.

“Proud guests, noble families, we have come together this day to honor Princess Syndra-Kai. She is this evening on the cusp of entering her womanhood, and she has Chosen a man from among the common population to usher her into it.” Du-Karel placed an unseemly amount of emphasis on the word ‘common’, and both Syndra-Kai and Malik-Tor stiffened in anger.

“Join us, dear friends and honored guests, as we feast in their honor!” He lifted his goblet to the dais. As usual, he was standing next to her father, at the table closest to the dais. Her father’s face shone with pride, and not a little sorrow. She knew he remembered the day her mother had sat here in her place. As well, he grieved as parents grieve, when their child reaches adulthood.

Every goblet in the Hall raised, and every guest took a drink. When the goblets lowered, Du-Karel finally took his seat. This signaled the beginning of the meal, Syndra-Kai and Malik-tor took their seats as well. Musicians hidden behind the dais began to play softly, lilting music that floated around the room and lent a surreal aspect to the atmosphere.

Syndra-Kai leaned nearer to Malik and whispered, “You did well, Malik-Tor. You have honored me. I thank you.”

“’Tis no less than you deserve, Princess. I have sworn I would play the role for you, and so I shall. No thanks are needed.”

Syndra felt a little ashamed at his reminder that this evening was just a performance. They were merely going through the motions to impress their guests, and as soon as he was able, he would be gone from her life forever.

Servants began to line up in front of them, presenting dishes. Syndra took a small piece from the first dish with her fingers, and raised it to Malik’s lips as custom demanded. He grabbed her wrist. “What are you doing?”

The servants in front of them blocked the view of the audience, so no one could see the drama unfolding upon the dais. The servants however, gasped in shock that he would dare touch the Princess yet, let alone speak to her in such a harsh manner. Syndra-Kai did not waver.

“It is custom, Malik-Tor. You are honored today as well. I am to serve you the first taste of each dish. You may tell the servants if you approve, and they will give you a portion for your meal.”

Malik’s brows drew together. “No one told me of this, I am sorry.” He did not release her hand, however. His golden eyes searched for her own behind her veil. He lifted her hand to his lips. His mouth closed over her fingers, and he tasted the rich meat. She felt a slight suction at her fingertips as he sucked the juices there. She shuddered.

Malik released her hand and nodded to the servant. They continued the ritual, Syndra-Kai reaching for each dish, and raising each bite to Malik’s mouth. Every time his lips closed around her fingers, she felt a sharp jolt, and she was thankful for her chair. It was a surety that her legs would not have been able to hold her steady as he continued his sensual onslaught. Her very innards seemed made of jelly.

Bemused at his own behavior, Malik-Tor pondered his own reaction to Syndra-Kai’s presence; he had no intention of bedding her, or did he? He knew what her face looked like beneath her veil, and he imagined those full lips closing on his own fingers as he was doing to her. He knew how he was affecting her by what he was doing, and yet he deliberately continued. His imagination continued to lead him down a path of lust, and he saw her face contorted in ecstasy as he pleasured her.

The torture continued, as the stream of dishes to taste seemed never-ending. At last, Malik saw there were only one or two servants waiting. He turned to Syndra-Kai and said, “I was beginning to think I would never see the end of these dishes. I feel near to bursting.”

She laughed merrily. “Indeed, I think the cooks have outdone themselves this time. I myself am starving. I haven’t eaten a thing since this morning, I’ve been too nervous,” she admitted.

“You haven’t eaten? With all this food in front of you? Take some, then.” He reached out for a morsel of pastry.

“No, I can’t lift my veil yet! Not until tomorrow. I am fine, I will have the servants bring some to my chambers,” Syndra said.

“Nonsense. You have been feeding me all evening. I can reach beneath your veil and feed you. Is that permitted? I am, after all, your Chosen one,” Malik said.

Syndra-Kai hesitated. It was not expressly forbidden that she not eat in public, just that she not show her face. Abstaining from food in the presence of others was merely a precaution. She could not see the harm in it. She nodded assent.

Suddenly, Malik-Tor found the tables turned on him, and the same exquisite torture he had been inflicting on Syndra-Kai all evening now found him. Beneath the cover of the veil, Syndra’s lips fastened onto his fingers and began to suckle gently, long after the food he had given her was gone. He stifled a groan, and reluctantly withdrew his hand.

Leaning very close to her, he whispered, “Princess, you do not know what you do to me. I must ask that you stop or we shall have to end this meal prematurely.”

“Oh no, is everything alright? Why would we need to stop the meal? We must stay until we are escorted…” She gasped suddenly, as Malik-Tor had taken her hand, and under cover of the table and its drapery, he had placed it in his lap. Hard evidence of his arousal shocked her, and she froze. A soft ‘oh’ was all she could say.

Malik-Tor’s eyes sparkled with mischief as he reached for another morsel to feed her. He would have given his life at that moment to see the expression on her face. He found his way beneath the veil again and placed the food against her lips. He felt her small teeth nibble at it delicately. He laughed, attracting the attention of the tables closest to the dais, including that of Du-Karel, who eyed him suspiciously. Syndra-Kai giggled as well.

“Very well, Princess, you win. We shall have food brought up to your chambers instead. I cannot take this much longer.” He pressed the hand he still held in his lap, a quick hard nudge against his inflamed manhood, and released her.

Suddenly feeling quite naughty, instead of removing her hand immediately after he released it, she explored its hidden length with a leisurely stroke. Malik-Tor’s breath caught in his throat and he snatched her hand away quickly.

“Princess!” He whispered fiercely. “I beg you, leave off. If you wish, we can continue this later.” He leaned in very close to her ear as he said this, and she could feel his warm breath on her neck through the intervening veil. It was like the softest caress, filled with promise of excitement and pleasure to be had. She wished fervently for the dinner to be over.

Whispers filled the hall as the guests watched these intimate exchanges from afar. Though they were not privy to the extent of the teasing that was taking place upon the dais, it was apparent to every eye in the room that Syndra-Kai and Malik-tor shared a special connection.

“It is such a shame; a man like that should be preserved wholly,” one woman commented.

A man near her clutched himself in mock agony. “Better him than I!” The entire table laughed.

“I heard that he is the same man that convinced all the Eligibles in the city to avoid the Choosing. Why do you think he would do such a thing?” Another woman said.

“The whole idea of forcing a young girl like that to give her virginity to a commoner off the streets, it is just appalling. Not to mention what they do to him afterwards,” yet another said. “The whole thing should have been stopped years ago.”

“Judging by the looks of things up there, it would appear that our Princess seems much taken with her Chosen one. I don’t think there will be much forcing on anyone tonight,” a man said.

“Where do I know the name Malik-Tor? It sounds familiar,” someone asked.

“He is the explorer that writes about the other countries of the world, their customs and governments and such,” was the reply.

“Oh! Is he the same one? What a pity! Tutors throughout the country are beginning to use his work as texts to teach their students. Will she make him a prominent advisor do you think?”

“What she should be able to do is make him her husband. We could use a strong hand in the palace. Unfortunately, being born a commoner makes him ineligible for that. I suppose our little Syndra-Kai is showing some of her mother’s spark in Choosing such an intelligent man. Maybe now we can get some things accomplished in this country,” said yet another person.

Conversations such as these swirled around the room. Du-Karel heard snippets and his frown continued to deepen into a scowl. Indeed, the very thought of a commoner serving alongside the Empress was preposterous. He thought the Princess’ choice very fitting for another reason. Any commoner that would presume to become a learned man, a position normally reserved for those of the nobility, by rights should be brought down a notch or two. He, for one, anticipated with great joy the moment this rabble would be unmanned, and the Princess could be openly courted. He had spent every bit of energy he had insinuating himself into her father’s graces, and waited many years for this day. He intended to become the man destined to wed her. It mattered not what she had to say about the matter, he knew that so long as she was not yet the True Empress, she must abide by her father’s wishes, and marry whom he chose for her.

Unable to take the flood of admiring comments about Malik-Tor any longer, he rose to announce that the Princess and her Companion would retire for the evening. He felt Malik’s eyes boring into him as he spoke. Du-Karel was cutting the festivities short, and his action had been duly noted by those glowing amber eyes. Du-Karel shrugged off the niggling sense of disquiet that steady gaze caused him and proceeded anyway.

Syndra-Kai and Malik-tor both rose, and he assisted her from the dais. They walked down the aisle of guests, who were still dining, yet had stood awkwardly when Du-Karel had spoken. In their wake, the guests sat once more, motioned to continue their meal.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Chapter Four

Word Count: 2,501

The morning of Syndra-Kai’s Initiation dawned clear and bright. Today was a day like no other. Today, she became a woman, but not quite yet. Her actual transformation from child into woman did not begin until sunset; at that time, she and Malik-Tor would be alone in her chambers until morning.

First, she was bathed and perfumed. Next, she spent in a period of meditation. She prayed for tranquility and the courage to face her coming challenges. Unbidden thoughts of flesh entwined and the murmur of voices heated with passion had come to her in the night, and she wanted to feel free of their influences on this most important day.

Syndra-Kai received a pleasant surprise after her meditation. Her father came to dine with her; fortunately leaving Du-Karel to his own devices. Syndra felt guilty for her angry words of the day before, and greeted Na-Jakar warmly.

“My sweet Syndra-Kai, how wonderful it is to see your face. So often we have others that disturb our privacy, but after today, everyone in the Empire may gaze upon your loveliness.”

She blushed at these words of praise. “I too am happy to see you, Father,” she said as they sat down to eat.

“I remember the day of your mother’s Initiation,” Na-Jakar said suddenly.

“You do? Had you known her yet?” Syndra-Kai asked. Her father rarely spoke of her mother, but when he did, she hung on every word. The love and loss he felt apparent in his voice when he spoke of his beloved Heta-Nar.

“Yes, although of course I had never seen her face. I was already in love with her though. Her laugh at meals warmed my heart, and she was so intelligent and witty. She was the envy of her sisters to no end.” Na-Jakar paused to take a sip of wine, and to clear his throat, which was already thickening with emotion. Thusly refreshed, his voice grew steadier as he spoke.

“I was jealous of Xan-Rul. Even though it might cost me my manhood, I would have been more than willing to make that sacrifice to be the first man to lie with her, to see her face. Being of noble birth, however, I could never be her Chosen one.”

Syndra-Kai stared in wonder at her father. Usually their conversations were light, of no import. Today, he was very serious, though, and she dared not interrupt him. These moments were too precious.

“The day before her Initiation, your mother whispered to me that she was scared. We found ourselves in a corner, apart from the rest of the room, but without spies to overhear us. We used to live for such moments.”

“I asked her why she was scared, she should be excited that she would finally become a woman and be able to do more to help her mother, learning all she would need to someday become Empress herself. She confessed that she did not know what exactly would happen. They did not bother to educate her as to what ‘lying with a man’ meant.” Na-Jakar looked at his daughter carefully and tenderly. “Later, when you were born, I told Xan-Rul to not let that mistake happen again. I trust you are prepared?”

Syndra-Kai blushed again. “Yes, Father, Xan-Rul has prepared me as much as he is able. I know what is expected.”

“Good, then,” he nodded. “I have always meant to tell you that I am sorry for this. I know your mother intended to discard this custom. Taken from us as she was, she never had the opportunity. She thought she had so much more time. Xan-Rul tells me of your intention to do the same.”

“I assure you Father, it is one of my first priorities when I become Empress,” she said.

“You are so much like your mother,” he said. “She was so small, but so strong. Not like me. I know I have failed you as a father, I have probably failed your mother as Regent as well.”

“Father, I know you loved her. Your souls entwined and part of you left with her when she died. I understand, and I still love you. You have always been loving and kind to me, and have given me everything you could. As far as the handling of the Empire, she was raised for this; you were unprepared. I am sure you have done what you thought best. Being taken from us so soon was a tragedy no one could have foreseen.” She reached out and took his hand in hers, tears in her violet eyes.

“I would see you happy, daughter. What wish could I grant you on this most momentous day? It is your birthday after all.”

Syndra-Kai thought for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Xan-Rul told me yesterday that I will not be pronounced True Empress for another year. I would like your permission to travel. I want to see my country, talk to its people. I want to see faraway places that I may never have the opportunity to see once I am Empress, because my duties will keep me here. Will you grant me this, and guarantee no interference?”

“But what of marriage? When will you have the time to find an appropriate suitor if you will spend your year traveling instead?” Na-Jakar asked.

“I will return before my year is up, Father. Plenty of time to find me a suitable husband,” she replied.

“Very well, daughter, you have my permission to travel, and see what you may. We will make plans tomorrow, and you may gather your entourage.” He smiled, taking her hands and drawing her to her feet. “I will see you later, at the dinner in your honor. Every noble in Lunatium is here today to be present for your Initiation. Perhaps one of them may catch your eye as a potential mate, yes?”

Syndra-Kai laughed. “Yes, perhaps. I think I will walk in the garden today. It is always so peaceful, and this early warm weather is welcome.”

“That sounds like a splendid idea, my dear. Go in joy,” Na-Jakar said.

“Go in joy, Father,” Syndra replied.

As the door closed behind him, she burst into tears.

** ** ** ** ** ** **

Malik-Tor was dealing with his own fears in his room. He had not been permitted to leave the palace, but Xan-Rul had granted permission for his family to visit, and they had just arrived. His brother, sister, and mother hugged him tightly as they sat down to talk.

Roi-Iman was the first to speak. “This is madness, brother. Are you really going to go through with this?”

Malik leaned forward, “Yes, and no, Brother.”

Roi-Iman whispered back, “What do you mean?”

“I have met with the Princess, and she has no love of this farce any more than I. She has promised to help me escape tonight.”

Malik’s mother exclaimed in fright, “No!”

“Sh, Mother…” Malik started, as the door to the hall opened and a guard looked in.

“Is everything alright?” he asked.

“Yes, my mother is just distraught and overjoyed at the same time over my honor today,” Malik-Tor answered.

The guard looked doubtful, but shut the door again.

“Mother, please listen. This is probably the last time I will be able to see you, at least for a long time.” He hugged her tightly. “We must be quiet, I am sure I am watched in case I try to escape before the Initiation. Anything that is overheard here will be reported to the Chancellor.”

“But, Malik, if you flee the palace, where will you go? You will be outlawed!” Thankfully, his mother had lowered her voice to a fearful whisper.

“Wherever I wish, Mother. I will go back to the life I have been living for years now. I only came home to see Father, and he is gone now. You do not need me, you have Roi-Iman, and it is right he should take Father’s place.” He laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I thought I could help this country, and I think this is how I am meant to do it. Princess Syndra-Kai is her mother’s daughter, and has been taught well by Xan-Rul. We spoke much yesterday, and he told me some of what she hopes to do as Empress. She will be a good leader, despite her youth. He will be there to guide her; she does not need me as her Companion.”

Malik’s sister hugged him tightly. “Go with joy, Brother. I am sorry you will miss seeing your family grow, but I understand. We all do. It has never been your destiny to be a mere commoner in the city. You are seeing wonders that even our future Empress will never see. Through your words, you bring enlightenment. I wish you well, and I will pray for you.” Da-Faren was a woman of few words, but she spoke with certainty.

Malik looked to his mother and brother. “Wish me well?”

His mother began to cry, softly. “Go with joy, my son.”

Having received his family’s blessing, Malik’s heart lightened. His mother and sister left the room, leaving Roi-Iman alone with Malik.

“What makes you so sure this Princess means what she says?” he said doubtfully.

“She has shown me her face,” Malik replied.

“But that is forbidden!”

“Yes, she did it as a show of faith, so that I would believe her. She broke a taboo, and by that single act, she proved herself. She means what she says, Brother, I saw it in her face.”

“So was she pretty?” Roi-Iman waggled his brows.

Malik-Tor laughed. It was just like his brother to joke at such a serious moment. It helped relieve the tension in the air.

“She was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, Brother. Her husband will be very lucky.”

Roi whistled through his teeth. “It seems to me that you might be the lucky one, Brother. You shall be her first. It is rare a woman impresses you, let alone one that will someday be Empress. You must teach her well, and then her husband will truly thank you.”

Malik shook his head. “No, Brother, she may be beautiful and smart, and someday she will be an admirable woman, but she is still very young. I would feel wrong to take advantage of her when she is doing so much for me. She does not wish it; she told me herself that she intended to discuss alternate methods when the time came.”

“And just how does she intend to fool her husband when he discovers she is still a virgin on their wedding night?”

“I shall just have to tell her to find some young fool that won’t know the difference,” Malik replied. “Or she may be one of those few women that have no pain and show no signs during their first time.”

“That is still a great risk she takes.”

“Well, that is her risk, not mine. Once she is Empress, she can do whatever she wants anyway. All I care about is leaving this palace in one piece. The whole thing is just madness, as you say.”

Roi-Iman nodded. “You have the right of it, Brother. I must be going; we have permission to walk in the garden. Go with joy.”

“Go with joy, Brother. Until we meet again.”

The brothers embraced; a quick, fierce hug that spoke more than words of their sense of loss. Just when fate had brought Malik home, it was tearing him away again. Alone again, Malik-Tor hoped he was right in his convictions and that the Princess indeed would not betray him.

** ** ** ** ** ** **

Outside, in the walled garden, Syndra-Kai strolled, lost in thought. She wished she did not have to wear the stupid veil and many disguising layers of her costume. As she lifted her arms to the sun, she could feel the cool breeze against her skin where it was exposed. She stopped to smell one of the sweet flowering vines that climbed one of the palace walls. She heard crunching gravel behind her.

“Princess? I beg your pardon.”

Syndra-Kai turned and saw two women coming towards her on the graveled garden path, a young woman about twenty years of age, followed by an older woman who must have been her mother. She turned and nodded, her veil fluttering in the breeze.

Both women bowed low, and as the younger woman raised her eyes, Syndra knew she had to be Malik-Tor’s relative. The same tawny gold eyes shimmered as they tried to peer through the concealing veil. Seeing only a vague shadow, Da-Faren summoned her courage and spoke softly so her voice would not carry on the wind.

“I have just come from my brother, Malik-Tor, Your Highness. He told me of your plan to help him escape his fate as your Companion, and I hope you do not think he betrays your confidence by speaking with his family and saying good-bye.”

“I am happy to hear that Malik-Tor’s family was anxious about his health, given the regrettable circumstances that brought him here to my aid,” Syndra-Kai replied. “I am not distressed, so long as what you have learned today remains known only to us and none other. Loose tongues could be everyone’s undoing.”

“I assure you, Princess; only my mother, brother, and I know of your plan. My brother stayed behind for a few last brotherly words with Malik and will be along in a moment to escort us home,” Da-Faren said.

Syndra-Kai nodded, and Malik-Tor’s mother spoke. “My son has long been away from home, and we have always known it was not his destiny to remain with us for any long period of time. I can only thank you for sparing him what you both feel is the indignity of an antiquated ceremony. I hope one day he might return to us, and I will pray for that day. Until then, go with joy, Your Highness.” Her eyes filled with tears, and she turned away. Espying Roi-Iman standing near the gate of the garden that would lead them away from the palace, she hurried to his side.

Da-Faren lingered just a moment longer. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears as well. Syndra-Kai could see the strength and the effort it cost her to keep her emotions in check.

“I love my brother, Princess. Swear to me that you will do what you can to enable him to come home to us one day,” she said.

“I swear to you, as your Empress, I will bring your brother home. Go with joy, sister,” Syndra-Kai replied.

Da-Faren turned and joined her mother and brother. He ushered them through the gate, and Syndra-Kai was once again alone with her burden of responsibility. More than ever, she felt the pressure upon her to change the way things were.