Friday, October 17, 2008

Chapter Ten

Word Count: 3,859

At last, the sun began to sink behind the mountains, and Malik-Tor maneuvered them off the road to set up camp beside a stream. They had been riding steadily all day, taking breaks only to relieve themselves or to water the horses. They even ate on horseback. By this time, Syndra-Kai felt drained in body and mind, sliding off her horse and staring blankly as Malik instructed her to fetch firewood. She stumbled into the trees, filling her arms with dry wood from fallen branches that littered the area. Returning to camp, she dropped the firewood and sank to her knees in exhaustion.

Glancing around, she noted that Malik had already unsaddled the horses and hobbled them, piling their packs nearby. He was occupied with erecting their tent, a meager cover, but still needed shelter. He cast a glance at Syndra and felt no pity for her. They had not traveled so far that it would be impossible to turn back if she changed her mind.

“I don’t suppose you know how to start a fire?” he asked. She looked up at him, eyes glazed with exhaustion. She nodded, and he tossed a fire starting kit at her. She picked it up, moving mechanically, and began to arrange kindling and small sticks to start a fire.

She was irritated with Malik-Tor, he knew how tired she was, and then to assume she did not even know how to start a fire! It was the same principle as lighting a fire in a fireplace, just outdoors. She grinned with satisfaction when the fire took hold, pleased that she had not had to ask for his help. She knew there were many things she did not know about living in a rough camp, but she was not stupid.

Glancing in his direction, she hoped he had noticed her success, but he was ignoring her, setting up bedrolls inside the tent. She continued to feed the fire until it was a good-sized blaze.

“In one of those packs is a pot, go fetch some water and set it in the coals to boil,” Malik said.

His voice startled Syndra-Kai, but she did as she was told, fetching the pot and setting it to boil. She happened to glance at her reflection in the stream, and was horrified at her appearance. She returned to the stream to wash the dirt from her face, chest and arms. Feeling better, she contemplated washing the rest of her body. She had disrobed and was bathing when she heard Malik-Tor come up behind her.

Startled, she spun to face him, standing proudly and not bothering to hide her nudity. “Can I help you? I thought I might bathe while the water boiled. It has been a long day and I am filthy.” Her dusty rose nipples stood erect in the cool evening air, and her hair drifted lazily around her hips. The moon had risen and was peeking through the trees, casting a silvery hue to her skin. Even naked, she was the picture of royal dignity.

Malik leaned against a tree, taking in the sight before him. She learned quickly, he thought. Compared with her shyness of the night before, she was already wielding her body with authority, knowing it might rouse him. Luckily, he expected such an action on her part, and merely smiled politely at her.

“Not at all, I just came to advise you not to take too long. It gets cold at night, and I wouldn’t want the death of the future Empress to be on my hands.”

Syndra-Kai whirled, snatching at her clothing and pulling it on quickly, ruining the effect of her regal pose. He seemed unaffected by her display, indeed only somewhat amused at her efforts to challenge him with her nudity. Angered, she stomped back to the campsite and plopped down on the ground. Malik had set sausages to fry, and she could smell fried bread as well. Her mouth started to water and she forgot her irritation as she remembered her hunger instead.

A few minutes later, Malik emerged from the trees, his hair shining wetly. He had obviously taken some time to clean himself up as well. He turned to the fire and pulled out the sausages and bread, not flinching as he touched the hot pans. He made a plate for Syndra-Kai, adding an apple and some cheese, before feeding himself.

Syndra-Kai was surprised that he took the time to feed her first. When it suited him, his manners were always impeccable. She ate hungrily, and when Malik finished, she took his plate without asking and went to the stream to wash them before tucking them back into the packs. Her action surprised Malik, and he wondered what game she might be playing now.

Stifling a yawn, Syndra-Kai’s exhaustion caught up with her, and she headed for her bedroll, with a murmured, “Good-night.” She was asleep in an instant.

Malik listened to the sound of her even breathing and the night sounds that surrounded them. He hesitated to join her in the close proximity of the tent, but he had to give in to his own tiredness sometime. He had pushed them to the limit of endurance in his efforts to force Syndra-Kai to turn back to Lunatium, but her stubbornness had won out. Grudgingly, he had to admire her determination.

He crawled into the tent, wrapping himself in a blanket as he lay beside Syndra-Kai. In her unconscious state, she sensed his heat and scooted closer to him, her buttocks touching his thigh through the blanket as he lay on his back staring at the roof of the tent. He could smell her skin; even the rigors of their travels had not obliterated the sweet scent that was uniquely hers.

He found himself responding to her proximity, and he succumbed to the sweet torture that arose from not being able to slake his desires immediately. He let the memories of the night before (was it really only one day past since then?) wash over him, and he remembered her wanton submission to his touch. Her body had woken to the pleasures of the flesh beneath his own, and neither one of them would ever be the same.

Quashing his desire, he rolled onto his side, facing away from her and the temptation of her body. He adjusted himself, suppressing the urge to turn back over and plunge himself into her until he was satiated. There was no place in her life for him, and it would be foolishness to give in to desire when so much was at stake.

She had given him a mission of great importance, to show her the ways of her country in a way she could never experience from within the confines of the palace. He had to place that thought before all else. One day, she would be married to another, and he would be free to satisfy himself with any wench he desired. All the same, thoughts of Syndra-Kai disturbed his sleep throughout the night.

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

Syndra-Kai woke first the next morning, the sounds of birds in the trees startling her. She had never heard so many birds singing at one time. Birds heard in the city usually consisted of pigeons or the raucous calling of seagulls, neither of which was particularly melodious.

As she gave a cat-like stretch, she noticed something else that was peculiar. Sometime during the night, Malik had rolled towards her and thrown an arm around her waist. She smiled, arching back against him, and felt something entirely new as well.

He was aroused, though soundly asleep, and she could feel his manhood firmly pressed against her backside. He stirred in response to her movement against him, nuzzling his face into her hair and the curve of her neck, thrusting gently with his hips. She suppressed a giggle and experimentally stretched again, pushing back against his hardness. Her heart gave a little start as he pulled her closer, one hand claiming her breast. She realized she was fully aroused as well.

Her nipple stiffened as his hand closed around her breast, and she felt herself grow warm and wet between her legs. Still unlearned in the art of love, she was not sure what to do next. Malik was still soundly asleep, but she was now fully awake, and desperate to feel him thrusting between her thighs as he had done on the evening of her Initiation. She stifled a groan as Malik ground his hips against her again and she felt his arousal press between the cleft of her buttocks.

There were still blankets between them, so Syndra-Kai gently pried them free, careful not to wake Malik and ruin the moment. This left just the thin layers of their clothing between them, and Syndra grew more excited. She slipped a curious hand between them, to cup his urgent manhood and stroke it through the fabric. It excited her that she could rouse him like this, his body responding to hers naturally, with him blissfully unaware.

She explored his length; slowly stroking him and feeling him grow harder and press more urgently against her. His manhood seemed to take on a life of its own, thrusting forward at her touch. Malik-Tor let out a soft groan and pulled her closer. She took her hand away in order to feel his hips grind against hers, and gently tried to shift so she could face him.

Unfortunately, this action stirred Malik to wakefulness, and he blinked sleepily at her. Awareness struck him forcefully when he realized their positions and he processed the look of naked desire in her violet eyes. He bolted upright and jerked away from her, snatching his hand from her breast and tossing the blanket over his lap to cover his arousal.

She raised herself on an elbow and reached out a hand to touch his shoulder. “I desire you too, you know. It is just the two of us; should there be shame in what we feel?”

She yanked her shirt over her head, baring her breasts. He kept his head turned away, and she reached for his hand to bring it against her, the hard nipple in the center of his palm. She arched her back, pressing against his hand, and scooting closer to him at the same time.

Suddenly, he jerked away, tossing her shirt back at her. “Normally, I would agree with you, if you were any but the Princess of Lunatia. You and I are not meant to be, regardless of what desire might lie between us. You Chose me for one night only, Syndra-Kai, no more. That night is over, and you do not know what you play at.” He got up and left the tent, leaving Syndra-Kai alone.

She shuddered with the repressed desire that coursed through her body. Tears started in her eyes that she could not understand. He had rejected her, and the pain of that feeling overwhelmed her. She felt awful as she thought of how she had thrown herself at him like a common whore. Certainly not proper behavior for a Princess, as he had said. The idea brought her no comfort as she tried to soothe her wounded pride.

It was plain that he was determined to keep her at a distance. Perhaps he did not desire her at all; she knew the act of copulating could be accomplished without it. Her stirrings against his body that morning had roused him, but he only ran when he realized it was her doing the rousing. She felt more miserable than ever.

With an effort, she regained her composure, vowing that she would not throw herself at him like that ever again. No matter how she tried to look at it, Malik was correct. She had coerced him into this journey, and that was what she needed to focus on. She grew angry with herself for letting her own desires get in the way of what she was trying to accomplish.

She dressed herself and left the tent, dragging the blankets out with her, shaking them and rolling them back the way they had been the day before and securing them with leather ties. Malik had stoked the fire and was re-heating some of the bread from their previous meal and frying up the last of the sausages. He did not look at her but said, “We will eat and then pack everything back up. I will show you how to take down the tent.”

Syndra-Kai nodded, and accepted a cup of a strong brew she did not recognize. The taste was faintly bitter, but not unpleasant, and it perked up her spirits considerably. “What is this? I have never tasted it before,” Syndra asked.

“It is not considered a drink for the rich,” Malik-Tor said, plating the food and passing her one. “It is a drink called ‘Gak-Ke’. It is a roasted seed, ground and brewed like tea, which is what you are used to, I’m sure.”

Syndra sipped carefully, keeping her face still. Malik still had not met her eyes after their uncomfortable awakening. The hurt feelings she was trying to hide surged up to overwhelm her again, and she began to feel resentful towards Malik, though she was not sure why.

He ate quickly, taking the cooking items to the stream to clean up, and then packing them away. Syndra-Kai finished her own meal and followed suit. At last, the only thing left to do was to take down the tent and saddle the horses.

Malik demonstrated how to pull out the poles and take them apart, then shaking out the tent and wrapping the poles in the canvas. It appeared simple enough, and when Malik asked if she felt she could do it on her own, she nodded. He told her that from then on, it would be her responsibility to set up and take down the tent, in addition to other regular camp duties while he hunted or fished in the evenings to keep them stocked with meat.

With nothing left to do but mount their horses and continue on their way, Malik doused their fire, kicking dirt over the remains and scattering the ashes. They took a moment to relieve themselves before resuming their journey.

On the road once more, Syndra cast a quick look back, marveling at what little evidence of their passing they had left. Nothing to indicate the passion that had almost consumed her that morning. She pondered that thought, wondering if all passages in life were that brief, and how few of life’s moments had lasting results. She made a promise to herself then to make each moment of this journey count, and turned her mind towards her goals and the things she would ask Malik to find out as they traveled. She started a mental list to keep her mind from wandering down the more lustful path that had begun that morning.

Malik struggled with his own thoughts as he led the way towards the mountains. He thought of times where he had awoken in exactly the same way before, with other women. Women whose faces he could not even remember, let alone their names. Had she been anyone but who she was, he would not have hesitated to continue what had been started that morning. He had already crossed a line he should not have, when he took her that first night.

He could not place exactly what it was about Syndra-Kai that disturbed him so.
Visions of her violet eyes swam before him, shooting sparks in anger, twinkling with laughter. The feel of her hair as it fell around him while she kneeled over him, and as his fingers twined in it when he was cutting the silver beads from it. The sleek lines of her body, breasts jutting forward as he lathed them with his tongue, her golden skin covered in a sheen of sweat, glistening as she writhed beneath him.

It went beyond a physical attraction, which was undeniable. She had a quick mind, and she knew what she wanted. She had let nothing, not even her virginity or the ridiculous rules that applied to a Princess’ behavior stand in the way of what she desired to achieve. She was determined to learn what she must about her people, her true people, the common people, in order to serve them better as their Empress. She recognized that all was not well with her country, and she sought to fix it.

It was enough to make him laugh, because he had told his brother only a few days before that his intentions now that he was home were to help the Princess in any efforts she might make to improve the country. All he was doing now was attempting to thwart her efforts to do so. He vowed that from this point forward, he would show her every courtesy, and do his best to aid her in her quest. Now all he needed to do was focus on the task at hand and avoid situations like he had encountered that morning.

Feeling more settled in his role as Syndra’s guide, Malik motioned for her to ride beside him. As she pulled her horse even with him, he noted that she held her head proudly, though she nodded politely to him. He had seen enough examples of bruised egos to recognize the signs, and he sighed.

The sound of his sigh caught Syndra’s attention, and she met his eyes. His held a twinkle of laughter, and she quickly looked away. How dare he laugh at her! She would set him in his place soon enough, he was here to show her the countryside and ensure her safety; she need not be mooning about whether or not he liked her.

“How far would you say until we near one of the mines?” she asked haughtily.

Malik raised a brow at her, noting her icy tone. Very well, he would play along. Strictly business. “We should be climbing the mountains by nightfall, and we will camp then. If I remember correctly, there a series of five mines in the mountains, tracing the vein of silver through its center. The nearest is about a quarter of the way up the slope. There is a road leading there, but we need to go around it and climb above the mine itself if we wish to avoid notice. That should take a day of hiking itself. The horses will not make it on such steep slopes.”

Syndra nodded. “The same five mines have served Lunatia for centuries. The silver ore appears nearly endless, but the volume of silver traded lately had decreased. I need to know why that is.”

Malik considered this. Lunatia, the Empire of the Silver Crescent, gained its fame and fortune from the mountains they were preparing to climb. Silver appeared in minute amounts in the rest of the world, but the mountains of Lunatia overflowed with it. Long ago, the streams that flowed down the sides of the mountains held silver by the fistfuls, but as Lunatia became more powerful and the demand for silver in the world increased, it became necessary to open mines to tap the veins deep within the stony peaks. A reduction in the silver supply could have serious effects on Lunatia’s standing with the rest of the world.

The legend of Lunatia’s silver stated that once, a great star fell from the heavens, crashing into the world. When the dust settled, and the oceans reformed, Lunatia was born. Shaped like a crescent moon, Lunatia's mountain crests ran down the center of its length, heavy with the star’s remnants, the shiny metal called silver. Therefore, in addition to its rarity, the idea of the silver coming from the heavens increased its value, and Lunatia’s power.

The legend continued to tell of the first woman, who came from the sky with other falling stars. Upon meeting man, who rose from the earth, they joined, and their children became the people of Lunatia. Like the first woman and the stars in the sky, the Empresses of Lunatia were beacons of hope, protection, peace, and wisdom.

Malik-Tor did not know whether the story of the stars was true or not, but looking at Syndra-Kai, he was willing to believe that gifts from heaven were indeed possible. He never would have imagined finding a woman that intrigued him so, and he would never have met her had fate not intervened. He was an observer of life, never a participant. Being a part of her fate was a new experience for him.

He had imagined becoming one of her advisors, true, but in all likelihood, he probably would have taken off on one of his travels again had she not made him her Chosen one. Syndra-Kai possessed a sense of justice and fairness that he admired, but had never felt a need for in his own life. Lunatia was lucky to have her as its leader, but who was he? Just a guide along the way.

She had Chosen him because he viewed life in all its harshness, describing the things he saw without passing his own judgments. He would be able to tell her how things really were in the world; he had no need to be dishonest. So many around her were, he realized. She took great risks to travel like this with him, and his admiration for her grew to include her courage and her perception. Years of watching people had taught him about human nature, but Syndra-Kai possessed a natural gift for assessing people at a glance. He decided now might be a good time to be humble.

“Princess, I feel that I owe you an apology.” He did not look at her, but he could feel Syndra’s violet gaze boring into him.

“An apology for what?” she asked.

“I am sorry for not considering what risks you were making by deciding to take a journey like this. I have been entirely selfish in my actions, and so I apologize,” he said.

Syndra-Kai said nothing for a few moments. “I have also been considering a number of things you have said to me, and I am in agreement with you. I feel that I can learn what I need to know about my country in less than a year, as you say. Your services will not be required for long. I accept your apology, and would like to extend my own; I should have advised you of my intentions when we first met. It was wrong of me to take advantage of you when you were not in a strong position to negotiate.”

Malik-Tor nodded in acceptance of her apology, though her wounded pride leaked into her voice. She had managed to sound both gracious and disdainful. Malik shrugged. Now that they had reached a tentative truce, he felt more at ease, even if she felt less so. “Well, then, let’s continue on our way.”

Friday, October 10, 2008

Chapter Nine

Word Count: 4,087

Shortly after leaving the farm, Malik-Tor and Syndra-Kai arrived at a crossroads and turned west. They continued to travel for about an hour, when Malik finally took pity on Syndra, who was obviously uncomfortable, perched precariously on the saddle and hanging on for dear life. Her horse was prancing as well, sensing that her rider was unskilled.

Syndra slid down from the horse and stood on wobbly legs for a moment before saying, “People travel on these things willingly? My body feels like it has been jolted from top to bottom!” She rubbed her buttocks to ease some of the ache there.

Malik laughed, saying, “You will get used to it in time. Let me give you some suggestions. First, you are sitting all wrong. You have to move with the motion of the animal, that is why you are being bounced about so. Next, you must hold the reins in a firm grasp, yet loosely enough to allow the horse to move her head. You have had a death grip on those reins and the pommel, and the horse cannot sense you giving her direction. You can also indicate how you would like her to move with your knees.”

Syndra-Kai looked doubtfully at the horse, comparing her small size to the mare’s frame. “I don’t think she likes me.”

“At the moment, you are probably right. She knows you are a new rider, and it makes her nervous. I’m sure you will be friends in no time,” Malik assured her. Taking the reins of both horses, he led them down the road, giving Syndra-Kai a chance to stretch her legs and work out some of the cramps from riding. He grudgingly gave her credit for not uttering a word of complaint since they had been traveling, yet at the same time he wrote it off as royal stubbornness.

Walking at his side, Syndra-Kai checked out their surroundings. She had never seen such wide-open spaces; the trees, grass, and small animals she occasionally spotted fascinated her. Malik watched her out of the corner of his eye, marveling at her innocence. Charming though it was, that same innocence would land them in trouble if he did not give her some words of advice.

“You must learn to watch your reactions around people, Syndra,” he began.

“Inaya, remember?” she said, not looking at him but at the road ahead.

“Inaya. As I was saying, we are lucky that couple back there was not suspicious of us. People do not trust each other when times are bad, and they have been so in Lunatia for some time.”

“I am beginning to recognize this. And I have every intention of remedying things when I return to the palace and assume my rights as Empress,” Syndra said.

“It is not that simple. If you are going to travel among your people, you must act like one of them. Right now, you still have the mannerisms and the attitude of one noble-born, and amongst us commoners, that will not get you very far. Argh, it is too complicated, why must you do this?”

Syndra looked up at him, her violet eyes shining. “Why? When my people are being deprived of their property, or robbed of their rightful earnings, like that farmer described back there? When there are slums feeding on the scraps of Lunatium, one of the richest cities in the world, and nobles sit inside their fine homes, oblivious to starvation and disease?” Her voice rose as she continued.

“I have not been outside the palace one day yet, and already I know I am doing the right thing. I have to see for myself what is wrong, or how am I supposed to make things better?” She turned to face him, her tone accusatory.

“I thought that is what you wanted to see in Lunatia. Is that not why you really returned home? You have traveled the world, seen atrocities, and seen wonders. You could have stayed gone, yet you chose to come home. Did you not feel your country crying to you? Is that not why you agreed to help me?”

“I chose to come home because my father was dying!” Malik shouted. “And because of your stupid little custom, I foolishly waited, to avoid being caught up in the games nobles play with commoners. I did not get to see my father before he died, and all the same, still managed to be dragged to the palace to ‘service’ you! You are no better than any other noble; you are using me to do what you want, without taking into consideration how I might feel about it!”

Syndra did not back down from his ire, but she did lower her voice. “If there had been any other way to accomplish what I felt was necessary, I would have done so. I thought I sensed in you a true desire to help me achieve the things I wished. I guess I was wrong. All the same, if you did not want to lie with me, no one forced you when it was just the two of us. You touched me of your own free will, and we lay together as two equals, not as noble and commoner. It does not matter what you say now, there was no objection from you last night at all when it came to using my body. Or was that just your form of revenge for my ‘using’ you? If that is the case, then we are even.”

Malik glowered at her reminder of what had passed between them just the night before. “That was a mistake, Princess,” he sneered, “And not one that will be repeated, I promise you.” He started down the road again, but then stopped abruptly and spun about to face her.

“If we are truly even, and I am nothing more than your guide on this quest, then you must listen to me. We are going to set some ground rules.” He looked at her carefully, waiting for any sign of rebellion. She stared back, the passion in her violet eyes still apparent, but the fires were banked. She nodded in acquiescence.

“Very well. First, when we are around other people, you will not speak; until I think you are ready. You may tell me what you wish to know, and I will ask the questions. You listen. Understand?” She nodded again.

“Fine. Second, you must learn some basic survival skills. You are like a child out here, and you cannot run free without being aware of the dangers. I can help you with this, but you must do as I say. Are we clear?” She nodded again.

“Good. As far as anyone else is concerned, we are brother and sister, traveling to visit family. That is all anyone needs to know. Now, there is a village ahead, and we are going to see if we can exchange some of this silver for something less conspicuous, and purchase some more supplies. You will learn how to do everything, and you will do it without complaint.” He ran a hand through his hair.

“I cannot believe I am agreeing to this. I still say you are quite mad to embark upon this journey, but I can see that you are determined. However, I will not escort you around Lunatia for a whole year.”

Syndra opened her mouth to object, but Malik stopped her. “No, and here are my reasons. I can show you what you need to see, and you will learn much in a very short amount of time. Lunatia is not so large that it will take a whole year to travel to every corner. I will take you to each province, and through the mountain pass, which should be passable for travel in a few weeks. It would not be wise to linger too long in any one area, or we might arouse suspicion. When we have completed our route, you will return to Lunatium, and you will let me go my own way. I think it might be a good idea for you to travel abroad if you can. Lunatia thinks it is the greatest nation in the world, but you can learn much elsewhere as well. Spend the rest of your time doing that.”

“How long do you think it will take to travel through each province? I want enough time to find out what troubles each face in particular,” Syndra said.

Malik thought for a moment. “This is a good time of year for such a journey, so if we are lucky with weather, and you are able to learn what you want quickly, we might be able to return within about three months time.”

Syndra considered this. At least he had seemingly resigned himself to the task, even if he resented it. She would need to take some time to consider precisely what she wanted to learn to maximize the time he was giving her, but she felt no real concern about that.

The notion of traveling this way had not even occurred to her until she heard the boy, Kin-Tal, mention Malik-Tor in the Great Hall on the day of the Choosing. She had been fully prepared to take the throne and begin making sweeping changes, such as her mother had proposed, but as she had mulled things over in the last few days, she had realized how unprepared she was.

When she had heard that she could not become Empress for yet another year, she decided she would take advantage of that time to learn more about the needs of her country, and Malik-Tor seemed perfectly suited to be her guide. Though he had spent most of his time abroad, he would be familiar with the rigors of travel, and would be capable of protecting her from danger.

The fewer people she had around her, the more honest the people she might encounter would be, and Malik’s writings told of his dealings with people. He could get them to talk about anything he wanted to know. That would be a useful tool for her to have at her disposal.

Syndra met Malik’s eyes again, and nodded her agreement. She held out her hand to confirm the deal, and Malik took it. His eyes were wary, and it saddened her to see the mistrust in them. She had no desire to hurt him; she wished he would see that. She lowered her head, and as she did so, a few of the braids wound through her hair tumbled free of the hood she had worn to cover her head. The silver beads that capped their ends caught Malik’s eye.

“Those will have to go,” he said, lifting one of the braids up. Only nobles wear silver decoration. We will look for some copper or wood beads for you instead. You can no longer wear your hair in the royal style, either.”

Syndra-Kai snatched the braid from his hand. “These beads were my mother’s, I thank you not to touch them.” She knew she was being deliberately rude, but could not seem to help herself when confronted with his brusque treatment of her.

Malik frowned. “Well, get them out of your hair and hide them before we get to the village.” He stomped away from her, taking up the reins of the horses again and walking at a quick pace down the road.

Syndra-Kai followed behind, picking at the beads in her hair, trying to remove them. She had never done her own hair before, and after the adventures of the night before and the day so far, her hair was a hopeless tangle. Her efforts to free the silver beads only made it worse, and she stopped in the road, stamping her foot. She had managed to snarl her hair so badly that the silver beads were entangled and catching up more hair as she tugged at them.

Malik turned at her mews of frustration and chuckled at her dilemma. This angered her further, and she glared purple fire at him as he approached.

Brushing her hands away from her hair, Malik looked at the mess. “Do you have a knife?” he asked.

“In my pack, why?” Syndra-Kai said.

“Because the only way these things are going to come out now is by cutting them free,” he replied, as he started to scrounge through her bag.

“What? No! I have never cut my hair; do not touch it! I can get them!” She began yanking harder at the silver, tears coming to her eyes.

Having found the knife, Malik tried to still her hands and tackle the beads in her hair. She struggled against him, the tears falling faster. “Please, don’t,” she whispered.

He caught her chin in his hand and tilted her face up until his yellow eyes caught hers. At first, he was angry, but the sincere look of distress and sadness he saw in her face touched something deep within him. Against his better judgment, he bent down and touched his lips to hers, softly as a butterfly landing on a flower. Her breath caught in her throat and her efforts to get away from him stopped abruptly.

Lifting his head, he said, “I am not going to hurt you. I will only cut out the silver, I promise. We will find you a comb in the village, and you can fix your hair later. If you are going to continue this journey, they have to come out one way or the other. Will you hold still?”

Stunned into silence by his kiss, and gentled by the tenderness she felt from him at that moment, she nodded silently. She sniffled as she tried to still her tears. “I am sorry; I am acting like a silly little girl. Do what you must,” she said.

Malik turned her around, and cut the small silver beads free from her hair, trying to cut as little hair as possible. He dropped each bead into her open palm. There were twenty-five in all, and when he was finished, she put them in the sack that contained their money and put it back under her shirt. Malik clucked a little as he gathered her hair, winding it into a bun at the base of her neck and securing it with a leather tie. He handed her hood back to her, which had fallen to the ground in their struggle.

Syndra-Kai was ashamed of herself. Carrying on so, over her hair, for the Empire’s sake! She would not have blamed Malik a bit if he had turned back in the direction they had come and insisted on bringing her back to the city. She was relieved that he did not, yet bemused by his tender actions towards her. She caught up to him a moment later, hood secured, and walked beside him silently as they approached the village.

The ‘village’ was in fact a good-sized town named Lucilium, indicating they were still in the province of Lunatia, as town names began with the same letter of their province. Malik-Tor strolled down the main street with purpose in his stride, checking shop signs. At last, he spotted a moneylender and tied up the horses outside. He grabbed Syndra-Kai’s arm and dragged her behind him through the door.

The shop owner came from the rear of the store, which appeared to serve as his residence as well, since he seemed sleep-tousled and was brushing the crumbs of his breakfast from his shirt. It was apparently far earlier than the normal time he entertained customers. Malik dropped a few silver coins on the counter. “I was wondering if you might be able, and willing, to exchange these coins for me?” he said without preamble.

The clerk’s eyes brightened at the sight of the silver. He picked up one of the coins and polished it on his shirtfront, examining it closely. He cast a dubious eye at Malik, taking in his clothing and stubbled countenance. He tried to peer around him to get a good look at Syndra, who kept her hood pulled close around her face. Their clothing was travel stained, but of good quality, so the clerk cleared his throat and agreed to the exchange.

“It’s not often I see coins of this quality outside the city,” he said, obviously fishing for information. Malik ignored the man, waiting patiently as coins of gold and copper were painstakingly counted out. Syndra-Kai’s eyes boggled as she watched the growing mound of coins. She had not realized the silver coins she possessed were worth so much. She realized now Malik’s wisdom in exchanging the coins and insisting on the removal of the silver beads in her hair.

After taking his share for the exchange, the clerk thanked them, and the pair entered the street again. Malik stopped every so often at various shops, delighting shopkeepers as he entered and made his selections. Syndra-Kai helped carry goods and load them onto the horses in neat packs. There was far more involved to traveling than she had anticipated. They purchased a tent, blankets, extra clothing, cooking items and utensils, and other camping accoutrements.

Finally, Malik appeared satisfied that they had purchased all of their immediate needs, and turned his eyes to defense and hunting. In addition to a bow for hunting, Malik purchased two deadly looking short swords and a pair of daggers. It was illegal to own weapons greater than arm’s length, but both the swords looked dangerous enough. He packed one on each horse. Syndra-Kai questioned him about this, saying, “Why should we require a sword? Let alone two of them?”

“Recall the story I gave the farmer and his wife about being robbed?” Syndra nodded and Malik continued, “That is all too common an occurrence, I’m afraid, and some protection is necessary. When we have time, I shall teach you the rudiments of self-defense.”

“Really? You will teach me to use one of these?” She reached out a hand to touch the hilt of one of the weapons. Malik forestalled her.

“Eventually. Come, we still have much to do. At this rate, we will need a separate packhorse.”

When she was not watching Malik-Tor’s skills in negotiating with the merchants of the town, Syndra turned her attention to its inhabitants. She saw children walking with their mothers and she smiled and waved her fingers at them. They giggled and hid behind their mother’s skirts. There were only a few children in the palace, but Syndra always enjoyed playing with them when she could get away from her tutors and Xan-Rul.

She looked carefully at people’s faces, noting the general expressions of resigned capitulation to life. There was not much laughter to be heard anywhere, except where it entered the street from some drinking house. She avoided the rude stares from the men of the town, but also noted the curious glances and twittering of women they passed as they stared at Malik. A stirring of some new emotion welled up in her at the women’s looks of open lust. She glared at them when Malik was not paying attention to her.

Malik-Tor strode with an air that might have been called arrogance had it been on a lesser man. He nodded politely to those he passed, and spoke quietly to shopkeepers. He never encountered someone he did not treat with respect, but he was distant all the same. Merchants hurried to do his bidding, and he walked unchallenged in the street.

Syndra-Kai began to see some of the man Malik-Tor had been as he traveled in foreign lands. He had the unique ability to blend into the crowd, yet stand out from it at the same time. He commanded respect, yet responded with diffidence. It was an intriguing mix. She was thankful for his quick and efficient handling of their business, and in less than two hours time, they were fully equipped and ready to resume their journey.

Malik stopped outside one last shop, gesturing Syndra-Kai to precede him. Until now, she had been his dogged shadow, saying nothing, as he had instructed, only listening and watching intently. When they entered the shop, Syndra let out a gasp of delight. There were in a shop for women’s accessories, and like any other woman, Syndra-Kai lingered over the brightly colored ribbons and beads for sale. The shopkeeper approached them. “Can I help you?”

Malik spoke, saying, “Yes, I am looking for a few trinkets for my sister, here. We were unfortunately robbed on the road late last night, and she is lacking some, uh, womanly items she is used to.” He nodded to Syndra-Kai, and took a step back to see how she would react to the new situation.

The shopkeeper turned to Syndra expectantly. She removed her hood, and although her hair was still a snarled mess, her beauty could not be denied. The clerk was taken slightly aback at first, but quickly resumed his poise and directed Syndra’s attention to a few pieces he said would complement her.

Malik watched Syndra’s actions carefully, hoping she would not demand he buy the whole store for her. She had been watching him carefully as they toured the shops in town, and seen him bargain and strategize over their needs, and she had learned quickly. She selected a small hand mirror, a comb and brush set of polished bone, and a few ribbons and beads for her hair of diminished tones. He was surprised at her choices, but pleased that she had followed his example and been frugal.

The shopkeeper thanked them, and Syndra-Kai clutched her package close to her chest as they turned to leave. Malik helped her astride her horse outside, and she found the packs surrounding her made her feel more secure in her seat. She tucked her items in a pocket of the new saddle, and took hold of the reins with newfound confidence. She had conducted her very first piece of business with success and she was inordinately proud of herself. She turned her mare to follow Malik as they left Lucilium and turned toward the mountains.

Syndra-Kai pulled out her comb and started to tackle her hair as they rode, gently teasing the knots loose, until her hair was floating in loose waves down her back, shining brightly under the spring sun. She put the comb away and pulled out a ribbon, which she tied around her hair tightly to secure it away from her face.

Finished with her toilette, she urged her mare forward and caught up to Malik.
Malik looked at her out of the corner of his eye as she approached. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he noted the improvement in her appearance and her look of joy as she rode. She met his golden gaze with her violet one, and an unbidden surge of warmth blossomed in his chest. He looked away, but Syndra-Kai nudged her horse closer to his and laid a hand on his thigh, which was even more disturbing than her look had been.

“Thank you,” she said. “You have taught me a great deal today.”

“It was nothing,” he said, pulling his horse away to lead hers again, thereby removing her hand from his thigh, and delivering him from succumbing to temptation. “Come along, I want to be well on our way to the mountains by nightfall. We will set up camp then.”

Syndra-Kai’s face fell as she resumed her position behind him. She glared at his back, remembering his words from earlier about not repeating his ‘mistake’ of the night before. Her intuition told her that he still desired her, and every glance they shared reignited a heat within her own body as well.

She stubbornly turned her thoughts to their destination. She had read many things about the silver mines of Lunatia, and heard overseers as they made their quarterly reports to her father. Silver production had fallen in recent years, and she was curious as to the cause.

Although she occupied the working parts of her mind with thoughts of the mines, her subconscious was still struggling with her attraction for Malik, which she felt certain was returned in kind. It would be interesting to see if his promise to stay away from her would be possible to keep, as it became a secondary intention on her part to see if she could tempt him to break it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Chapter Eight

Word Count: 3,364

Xan-Rul typically rose with the sun, but the evening of Syndra-Kai’s Initiation left him feeling unsettled, so he woke earlier than usual, and opted for meditation instead of sleep. As the sun crested the eastern horizon, there was a soft knock at his door. When he answered, a small child handed him a folded piece of paper and quickly darted back down the hall.

Opening it, Syndra-Kai’s neat handwriting filled the page, and another note was enclosed in the first, addressed to her father.

Dear Xan-Rul –
I am writing to tell you of my plans, so you will not worry about me. By the time you read this, I will have left the palace, in the company of Malik-Tor. You know it has always been my intention to stop the practice of Initiation, and I will not condemn this man to a life of sacrifice, as yours has needlessly been.

I have aided his escape from the palace and from Lunatium, on condition that he serves as my guide as I travel my kingdom. It is my sincerest wish that I be allowed to see my kingdom as it is viewed by the common people, and to walk among them and share their worries and hopes for my reign. I will not be exposed to these truths from within the palace or within the confines of an entourage, as my father would insist upon accompanying me.

I ask you now, as my dearest friend, that you intervene with my father, and give him the letter I have enclosed, preferably before my absence is discovered, so that a search for me might be forestalled. My father has given his permission, unwittingly, for me to pursue this plan, and he shall abide by my wishes, I feel certain.

I have asked my father to seek out a husband for me, so that upon my return I can be married and assume my rightful place as Empress. I shall return within the year I am allotted before becoming Empress. If for some reason, I do not; my father will need your guidance.

I beg your forgiveness for not informing you of my intentions, but I know that your efforts to protect me would have prevented my doing this.


Xan-Rul gazed out the window, mulling over what he had read. He felt that he should have seen this coming; Syndra-Kai was always very headstrong. Malik-Tor seemed like quite a capable and responsible man, he would be a good protector for Syndra-Kai. At least she had Chosen her Companion well.
He sighed, rising to dress in order to face her father. He was sure to be displeased, but he could be managed. He was unsure of the wisdom in leaving the choice of a husband in Na-Jakar’s hands. He hoped that Syndra-Kai’s willfulness and the memory of Heta-Nar would lead him to make a good choice.

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

Na-Jakar answered the knock at his door, bidding Xan-Rul to enter. He was in high spirits, for the day had come when his daughter would begin to be involved in Imperial business, and he was relieved. When he took the note from Xan-Rul though, his face fell, dissolving into disbelief.

“Have you checked her rooms? Is she really gone?” he asked.

Xan-Rul nodded.

“And the Initiation… did, uh, everything…” Na-Jakar stammered, unable to put into words the question he needed to ask, whether the Princess was still a virgin or not.

“Malik-Tor did his duty. I have had the servants collect the sheets should anyone protest in the Princess’ absence,” Xan-Rul said.

Na-Jakar began to pace. “What shall we do, Xan-Rul?”

“Did the Princess ask for your permission to travel with Malik-Tor?” Xan-Rul asked.

“Yes, but I assumed she would follow protocol and travel with an entourage. A Princess of the Empire never travels without one.”

“If she has your permission, that is all that is required. Since she is no longer a child, she is free to decide if she wishes to travel, and with whom. I do not think it wise that we allow the circumstances to become public knowledge however.”

“No, no of course not,” Na-Jakar said. “We shall let it be known that Princess Syndra-Kai has departed, under cover of darkness, to travel as she might, and will return in one year’s time.”

“That is wise, Highness. And her instructions to search for a husband?” Xan-Rul inquired.

“I shall do as she has asked, and begin requesting audiences with the sons of all the noble families in Lunatia. There should be no shortage of suitors,” Na-Jakar said.

Xan-Rul nodded in response. “Is there anything further you require?”

Na-Jakar turned blank eyes of dismay to Xan-Rul, his heart in his expression. “Find her, Xan-Rul. Bring her back, I feel it unsafe with only one guardian to protect her, capable as she might feel him to be. She is still very young, and I would not have her lost and unable to assume her throne. I know that you will keep her safe.”

Xan-Rul bowed and exited the chamber, passing Du-Karel as the Chief Advisor entered. He did not meet Du-Karel’s eyes, and as he watched the eunuch leave, he missed Na-Jakar’s movement as he tossed the Princess’ note on the fire.

“Is aught amiss, Highness? I trust the Princess’ Initiation went smoothly?” he said.

“Yes, yes, Du-Karel. The Princess has expressed a wish to travel abroad for the year, until it is time for her to wed. She has entrusted me with finding a husband for her. I shall need your assistance in the search for a suitable mate for the Princess,” Na-Jakar replied.

Du-Karel’s brows lifted at this news. “The Princess has left the city?”

“Yes, she left late last night to avoid a crowd,” Na-Jakar said. “Xan-Rul is leaving now to meet up with her. Would you please see to it that a letter is drafted, summoning all eligible sons of Lunatia’s noble families to visit the palace? We have much work to be done before Syndra-Kai returns.”

He turned away, and began to dress for the day. In doing so, he missed the look of calculation on Du-Karel’s face. This was indeed most fortuitous. With the Princess and Xan-Rul both absent from the palace, he would be able to sway the Regent’s decision of a husband, and put himself in that place. One year was a long time to be sure there were no difficulties upon their return, and his assumption of power would be complete. He smiled a nasty look of foreboding.

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

The rising of the sun seemed a signal to Malik-Tor, and he gestured to Syndra-Kai that they would take a few moments to rest. Syndra sank wearily to the ground beside the stream they had been following for some time. She cupped her hands and drank, the cold liquid soothing her parched throat. It was a struggle to keep up with Malik-Tor’s grueling pace, but she had maintained, despite her weary limbs. Her lack of sleep the night before was catching up with her as well. She glanced at Malik, who rested with his back against a tree, eyes closed. It irked her that he seemed hardly winded.

Malik-Tor was tired as well, and not a little impressed at the diminutive Princess’ determination. She had offered no complaint, trailing behind him doggedly as he trekked through the wood. He had deliberately taken a rougher path than was necessary, hoping it might encourage her to turn back. If it was not for the fact that she had blackmailed him into accompanying her, he might have been pleased with her tenacity.

Syndra-Kai reached into her pack, pulling forth an apple and a hunk of bread, which she held out to Malik. He accepted her offer, touched that she would think of him first, though he knew she had not eaten at the feast and only a little before they had begun their journey through the tunnels under the city. She dug again into the pack and brought forth another apple and some cheese.

Sinking her teeth deep into the tart fruit, a dribble of juice traced its way down her chin, and without thinking, Malik reached over and wiped it clear. Syndra’s eyes widened and the look in her violet eyes caused him to jerk his hand back quickly. It would be all too easy to give in to the invitation he saw there.

Clearing his throat, he said, “We should start moving again. We need to find horses and supplies for making camp. We won’t have any real rest until nightfall.”

Syndra-Kai restrained the groan that came to her lips as she got to her feet. She was close to exhaustion, but if Malik could keep going, then so would she. She trudged along in silence, but thankfully, Malik had slowed his pace, and she did not have to half-run in order to keep up.

An hour later, the trees abruptly ended, and a split-rail fence appeared, bordering a large field, obviously part of a large farmstead. In the distance, they could see smoke rising. Malik-Tor climbed over the fence first, and turned to help Syndra-Kai.

When she had reached the top rail, she held out her hand to Malik. The gesture was elegant, but to Malik, it seemed an imperious one. He was reminded again that she was a woman of privilege, and it seemed she expected his assistance rather than actually needing or wanting it.

He crossed his arms, and she continued to hold out her hand. “You are going to assist me, are you not?” She asked.

“Is that an order?” He lifted one brow.

Putting down her arm, she swung a leg over the fence rail. “Of course not, you looked like you were about to help me, is all. I can do it myself.”

Malik felt a tinge of chagrin, as he certainly had intended to help her. It was apparent that she did not intend to appear as she had; it was just second nature. He stepped forward, placing his hands around her waist and lifting her down the rest of the way. She accepted his help, and turned in his arms when her feet hit the ground.
He was assaulted again by those violet eyes; her mouth was slightly parted as if expecting his kiss. He frowned and stepped away.

Syndra-Kai was confused. His touch at her waist had roused all of the feelings from the night before, and her body cried out for his touch again. She knew he was angry, but the look in his eyes just now had mirrored the hunger in hers. He still wanted her, but he was resisting. She had never had to restrain her desires in that way. If she wanted something, she asked and it was given. If she had been denied anything, it was because it was in violation of some silly law. She did not understand why he would not give in to his desire for her. It was not as if there were anyone around to see them.

She decided not ask as she followed him through the field in the direction of the smoke they had seen. Malik was hoping the inhabitants of the farm might be willing to part with a few horses, in exchange for a few silver coins and no questions. As they approached, they saw a quaint farmhouse and a cluster of buildings. A man appeared at the doorway of what appeared to be a stables and watched them come. As they climbed the fence that marked the boundary of the field, the man strode to meet them.

“Can I ask why you have been striding through my new hay?” he asked.

Syndra-Kai opened her mouth to speak, but Malik-Tor silenced her with a sharp gesture and a dark look. He bowed formally to the man, as elegant as any courtier she had ever seen, and said, “I do beg your pardon, kind sir. My name is Asim, and this is my sister, Inaya. We got lost traveling near Lunatium, and when we came to your field and saw the smoke from your home, we thought to ask for directions, and perhaps purchase some supplies.”

Looking them over doubtfully, the man pondered this for a moment. Malik looked intimidating, but the girl appeared innocent enough. “You look to be traveling pretty light, have you come a long way?”

“We were waylaid on the road outside the city by brigands. They stole our horses and our large packs, but luckily they refrained from searching our persons. We can pay for your assistance,” Malik said.

The prospect of money greatly cheered the farmer, and he nodded. “Aye, I think we might be able to help you. If your sister would care to rest, my wife is inside making breakfast.”

Malik-Tor nodded to Syndra-Kai, leaning close enough to whisper, “Remember the story I have given, and if anyone asks, we are traveling north to Cathannum.” He grazed her cheek with a sisterly peck, which still managed to raise the hairs on Syndra’s arms in excitement, and turned to walk with the farmer towards the stables.

Left to her own devices, Syndra-Kai nervously knocked on the farmhouse door, and a ruddy-cheeked woman with bouncing blue eyes opened the door. “Well, hello there, dear heart, I saw you speaking with the husband. Seeing as he sent you up here to me, that likely means you’re in need of a sit-down and some food. Come right in, then.” The farmer’s wife showed none of the reserve her husband had, and Syndra-Kai sank gratefully into a wooden chair as the woman bustled about the kitchen, humming merrily to herself.

“It’s not often we get visitors, though every now and again, someone passing through from Lunatium finds their way here. We have children who have moved away on their own, but they don’t have time to travel this way often. Have you been to the city?” The woman set a plate of eggs, sliced meat and some sort of simple porridge in front of Syndra.

Murmuring thanks, Syndra ate as the woman continued to putter about. She gave her name as Inaya, and repeated the same story Malik had recounted to her husband. The woman did not press further, and after a few moments, Malik-Tor and her husband joined them. Motioning for the men to take a seat, they were fed in due order as well.

“This kind gentleman has agreed to sell us a few horses and some supplies, enough to tide us over until we reach the next village and can purchase more,” Malik said.
Syndra nodded, but continued to watch the farmer’s wife as she moved about her kitchen. The woman obviously doted on her husband, and she saw a few lingering touches between the two, as well as shared smiles.

“It is such a shame that a pair of travelers cannot go about their business without being set upon by brigands, but it seems to be all too common these days. As many Imperial Guards that Lunatium keeps watching that Princess, you would think they could spare a few to watch out for us lowly citizens,” the farmer said.

Syndra’s brows met in a frown, but Malik kept her from speaking in rebuttal by laying a hand on her thigh under the table. She smoothed her brow, but listened intently.

“But I guess that’s what the Empire is all about, keeping to themselves while the rest of us want for simple services like safe roads to travel on. Even the Guard themselves have gotten greedy. Did you know that only a month ago, I was stopped from leaving the city after bringing a few cows to market, and told I needed to pay a “gate” tax?” The farmer slammed his fist on the table. “They forbid trade outside the city, take a piece in the market itself, and then demand a tax just to use the gate, when it’s not like there’s any other way to get to the market! It is preposterous, but I had to pay, or they would have confiscated my cart. I never heard tell of a “gate” tax before that day, and I have been trading in Lunatium all my life. I think those guards are just telling us all that and taking that money for themselves, wouldn’t doubt it a bit!”

Malik-Tor nodded in sympathy, and the farmer’s wife laid her hand on her husband’s shoulder to calm him. “I know dear, but perhaps young Syndra-Kai might change all that, she is of age now, you know.”

The farmer harrumphed as he took another big bite of his eggs. “What is that girl going to do? She doesn’t even know what the outside of her palace looks like. My money is that she won’t change a thing, and never even notice. But one day, someone will, and who knows, maybe there won’t even be an Empire anymore. You can’t keep people down forever. They’ve done it in other countries, it can happen here.”

“Dear, you shouldn’t say such things! You know what happened to that farmer in Enganna, I don’t want that to happen to us,” his wife said.

“What happened in Enganna?” Syndra-Kai asked.

“See, there was this farmer, who thought he had not gotten a fair trade from the market manager in Engannum City Market, and protested, right up to Du-Karel, the Regent’s Chief Advisor. Du-Karel had the farmer’s property confiscated in the name of the Empire, and the man was thrown in prison. No one’s heard from him since, and his family’s out on the street.”

“That’s outrageous!” Syndra-Kai said. “Du-Karel doesn’t have the right to do that!”

“Whether he has the right or not, that’s what happened. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of such a thing either. Things are not well in Lunatia,” the woman said.
Malik-Tor stopped Syndra-Kai’s further arguments by rising to his feet, drawing her with him, and saying, “Well, I think it is about time my sister and I were on our way. Our family will be expecting us, and we have already been set back a day in our travels.”

Syndra-Kai was led outside, doing her best to keep her angry thoughts from escaping until they could get away from the couple.

“Thank you again for the horses and supplies. Go with joy,” Malik said.

“Go with joy, and be safe in your travels,” the farmer said. He watched Malik help Syndra-Kai mount her horse. She held on to the pommel of the saddle for dear life, and waved bravely as Malik led her away. It was obvious to any observer she had never ridden a horse before.

“They were a lovely pair,” the farmer’s wife commented. “But I would bet you a pair of silver coins they aren’t brother and sister, though,” she said.

“I’ll do you one better than that,” the farmer said, holding out the coins Malik-Tor had given him in exchange for the horses and his silence. “I’ll bet you that girl is from a fine family, and that boy has taken her away to be his bride, against her family’s wishes. Probably made it out of the city just before the gates closed, so he wouldn’t have to become an Eligible.”

The farmer’s wife gazed at the silver coins in astonishment. “I wonder who she is, then. That’s more money than I’ve seen in my whole life!” she exclaimed.

“Well, whoever they are, they don’t want people following them,” he said. “Not that I could blame him, though. The girl was right pretty.”

His wife smacked him on the arm.

“Not as fair as you, my love, even after all this time,” he said, bending to kiss her.

“Well, the boy wasn’t so hard on the eyes, either,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to see a fine man like that come to injury at the hands of the Princess.”

“Neither would I, my star, neither would I,” her husband agreed.