Ariella, a noble warrior maiden is given a slave for her pleasure. She wonders whether she has any need for a slave… until she is betrayed and surrounded by foes in a strange land. She can escape the royal palace, but she can’t run away from her feelings for her mysterious companion.
An excerpt from Chapter 1
Ariella had to admit, being an ambassador had its benefits. When she was shown into the chamber where she would be staying for the next three days, she had expected nothing but a restless night of practicing her arguments, only to find a gorgeous man lounging in her bed. She had heard rumours that the Chaldeans extended this sort of hospitality to their guests, and now here was definite proof of it, exemplified in the handsomest face she had ever seen – the body was draped with a light silken bedspreads so not much of it was visible, but she could make out a broad set of shoulders. Blue eyes set beneath exquisite black brows examined her with curiosity. But then, evidently remembering his duty, the slave lowered his eyes in a gesture of humility.
“Greetings, Baroness of Leduryon” he pronounced, “I am here to entertain you this evening.”
He spoke softly, and it was obvious he was someone who knew how to use his voice to persuade or seduce.
Ariella stood warily not far from the door while he reclined very much at ease in this chamber, surrounded by silken coverlets and pillows, on a bed raised on a platform and framed by two white marble columns. The slave threw the covers off, revealing a beautiful muscular body clothed only in something that looked like a silver loincloth. Ariella tried not to laugh at this attire but still a smile twitched at the corners of her lips.
She came forward, past the two columns and closer to the bed.
“Entertain me in what way?” she asked.
The man laughed, a remarkably free and unbridled sound that seemed surprising from a slave, if he was one.
“I’m sure being an ambassador is not easy,” he said by way of an answer. “I would like to help you relax and feel at home.”
“If there were handsome lads like you at home, I would have never left,” she blurted out. This provoked another burst of his charming laugh.
She had to be careful, but something about him made her flirtatious.
“I can see why they made you a diplomat,” he remarked.
Ariella sighed. She had never thought of herself as a diplomat, but Queen Esclairmonde was not to be refused, at least not if one didn’t wish to see one’s head on a pike. And the queen had decided that this mission required both subtlety and patience, combined with the visual display of a big sword.
At least when it came to the sword, Ariella knew she was perfect for the job.
Earlier that day, she had walked into the palace with her two-handed sword hung crosswise on her back and ten male guards walking in two perfect columns behind her. The courtiers seated on the marble steps all around the hall gaped, probably at her lack of grace. She knew she could compete with any rider and look the most poised on horseback, but walking, she felt too rough and ungainly for this sophisticated court.
The kingdom of Dezearre had long since kept the barbarians from overrunning the Northern Coast, and Ariella herself had taken part in a few skirmishes to repel them. However, to the Chaldeans, she may as well have been a barbarian herself.
The nobles strove to outshine each other with shimmering silks. Even the slaves who waited to attend upon their needs wore shiny garments in shades of gold and silver while Ariella sported a simple forest green tunic made of grey-eared rabbit wool, a light and comfortable fabric, cinched with a leather belt over brown hose. Although the tunic was not nearly as low-cut as the Chaldean ladies’ dresses, she felt she could not be accused of appearing prudish because it was quite tight-fitting.
She noted the looks of many curious courtiers upon her, some examining her furtively from head to toe, but the only gaze that truly disturbed her was that of a young man who stepped forward to greet her in the throne room when she first arrived.
“Greetings, envoy of Queen Esclaimonde,” he said aloud. “I am Prince Theodos, and it is my pleasure to welcome you.”
When he approached even closer, so close that his honey-scented breath wafted in her face, he said softly, so only she could hear, “You come here armed for warfare, trying to show Dezearre’s strength. The ambitious young mountain wolf tests the leader’s mettle by nipping at him. Well, you shall soon see, this old wolf is far from weak… Our empire was great once, and it shall be once again.”
For a brief moment, she was lost for words. The prince, perhaps about the same age as her if she judged correctly, older than twenty but not yet thirty, with his beautiful ringlets of blonde hair had looked so sweet and innocent that this jab left her stunned.
“It is an honor to meet you, Your Highness,” Ariella replied out loud, speaking to everyone assembled. “In Dezearre, every man, woman, and child knows how to use at least one weapon should the Koroi threaten our lands again. My sword is with me everywhere I go, and it is not meant to show enmity.”
That should teach him, and also remind everyone here that Dezearre had held its ground for many years without the empire’s help. Not the most fortuitous beginning, but this was just the prince, she reminded herself. She would only have dealings with King Acheron.
The negotiations had not yet begun, would not until the next day, but Ariella was ready to assess her adversary. The king himself had no threatening words for her, thank the gods, and he smiled warmly when she approached and waved for her to stand when she touched down on one knee before the throne.
“Please forgive the ladies for staring,” he said “Due to the nature of women’s power here, which is concentrated on owning land rather than performing feats of arms, you appear exotic to them.”
“I have heard women’s power here is more subtle, but no less influential for it,” Ariella replied.
“I’m afraid you’re right,” the king said, “for I do not recall one instance of making a decision on my own when my late wife was alive.”
Ariella couldn’t help but smile at his easy humour. King Acheron displayed none of the enmity that his son had shown. He spoke to her with the deepest respect, asked about her family and her estate, and according to the age-old custom, did not even remotely approach the subject of the coming negotiations. Maybe it was all an act, designed to lower her guard. The royal dinner that followed certainly did as much. The food was splendid, and Ariella barely restrained herself from gorging on the delicious pickor meat and quaffing the wines and cordials, knowing full well that tomorrow she would need all her mental faculties intact.
Wine was her weakness, and though she managed to control herself, even the one large goblet she drank was such heady stuff that its warmth snaked swiftly through her limbs, dangerous and sweet.
Now, seeing this handsome slave in her chamber she could not help but be wary. Was he sent here to learn her secretes, perhaps even to harm her? Poison had been used before as the means to eliminate several members of the royal family in Chaldea.
The young man seemed to have read her expression correctly. He sprung from the bed and made a deep and reverent bow.
“Fear not,” he declared, “For you are safe with me. My name is Demetrius, and I would never harm a lady I take to bed.”
Now it was her turn to laugh. The combination of that loincloth with his lofty declaration was too much.
“You assume that is what will happen,” she said coyly.
“If my lady wishes.”
“And what do you wish?” she asked.
“I wish to please you,” he replied, and his suggestive gaze seemed to confirm this desire.
Ariella walked past him and sat down on the bed, more out of weariness than anything else. The remarkably soft mattress invited her to sink into its embrace, but she was still somewhat guarded.
The slave Demetrius turned to her, a crooked smile on his lips. He was still studying her, probably trying to discern her mood.
“Do my looks not please you?” he asked, approaching the bed.
“On the contrary,” Ariella admitted.
She wondered who had the honour of selecting the slave and how in the world beneath Epheor they had known he was just her type. He was a head taller than her, strongly built but not brutish looking. There was elegance in his muscular torso and his powerful arms. His face too had just enough masculine ruggedness balanced with a subtle refinement of features that made it heart-stoppingly beautiful.
It was strangely reassuring to know that he was not Chaldean, judging from his sun-bronzed skin, fine eyebrows and long brown hair, a shade so dark it was nearly black. And his eyes… like two pieces of a summer sky. She had always been a fool for a blue-eyed man. Judging by his elegant speech, very likely, he came from a noble lineage but was held here as a hostage to ensure peace with another kingdom.
“Then what is it, my lady?”
He sat down beside her on the bed, the scent of some innocent field flower with something more heady and musk-like tempting her to get closer to his bronzed body. She tried to discern his age… late twenties perhaps. His forehead was unlined, but there was something about him that made him appear older, a world-weariness perhaps behind his charming and carefree disposition.
There had been one or two times when she had bedded a man after less conversation than this, but this was strange territory with too many possible complications, and she could not afford to indulge herself on a whim. There was also his status to consider. As a slave, he was obviously not free in his choices, and she could sympathise with that. Ariella knew she would loathe being ordered to “entertain” guests in this manner were she in his place.
“Do my looks please you?” she asked tentatively.
“Yes,” he replied, a slight hoarseness in his voice.
His eyes scorched her, and she had to look away.
“It’s just that… I do not wish you to do this merely out of a sense of duty…” she said softly, “that is… if you did not want to…”
“My lady, I want to,” he said. The certainty of his voice set a sudden flurry of fairy wings deep in her belly.
“I am flattered,” she murmured. “But tell me, where are you from?”
He made himself more comfortable, half-facing her as they sat side by side on the bed.
“I’m the son of a poor baron of Sylcadia,” he said with a careless shrug.
“How did you come to be here?”
“I was captured in battle… I was but fifteen at the time. An enemy lance unhorsed me, and by the time I managed to stand up in my considerable armor, I was surrounded on all sides by Chaldean blades placed at every single vital part of me. And I truly mean every single part. I thought it wise to surrender.”
He smiled, and Ariella found herself smiling back. She could not help but like a man who viewed his own misfortunes with humor.
“And you have been here all this time, serving in the palace?” she inquired.
“Yes. Now, don’t move.”
He kneeled on the bed behind her. His hand reached for her shoulder, and she did not move away.
Why was she obeying him? She was a baroness of her own estate and obeyed no one. But his touch was so beguiling in its warmth, and she didn’t want to move away from it, and now both his hands began to gently massage her upper back, her shoulders and neck. It felt divine. Taut and tangled muscles were quickly unwound and relaxed. She breathed deeper.
“Yes, thirteen years,” the slave said, “But as you can see, I live in luxury. None of my duties are much more strenuous than this,” he continued, caressing her arms with long strokes that revived her tired muscles. “And besides, being a stranger here, I am free of any truly demanding obligations such as those of kin and country.”
That is very strange indeed, she thought, sooner to serve in a strange land than in your own… But she did not comment, for another thought suddenly struck her, that this was his way of coping with his enslavement, imagining that an even worse fate awaited him in his homeland. Perhaps, in a way he was right, for the duties of family were sometimes more binding than slavery.
Without another word, he reached underneath her knees and slid her fully onto the bed, lounging easily beside her. Again, she didn’t object, didn’t really have time to object, and his touch was so magnetic, this was even harder than denying herself the free-flowing royal wines. The pile of pillows at the head of the bed was so high that Ariella and her companion half-sat, reclining on the soft mound of silk.
“You must miss your home, I imagine,” Demetrius said.
“Not at this exact moment,” she admitted, darting a quick look at him. There was still so much fire in his expression, so she turned her gaze the shiny swirling pattern of the bedcover. “But you know, I’ve been missing Jaquelle, my nursemaid. She’s like a mother to me. And my hounds… they are such funny creatures.”
“Funny? Not ferocious?” he queried.
“I rarely take them hunting,” she admitted, adjusting her position among the pillows, “My late mother and father did, may the stars light them to their rest. The dogs are like companions and friends… especially Ric, the swifthound. He will steal food right off the table when he thinks I’m not paying attention and then looks very pleased with himself, his snout splattered with springberry sauce. Jaquelle thinks I spoil the dogs.”
But Ariella had needed the laughter, the companionship of the dogs after the deaths of her parents. People talked too much and gave little comfort, while animals seemed to be able to bring comfort without saying anything.
“I am sorry to hear about your parents,” he said softly.
“It was hard at first, but I am used to it,” she smiled, reliving an old memory of when her parents were still alive, “My parents had tried to take me hunting, but my heart was never in it. It just doesn’t seem sporting.”
“I’ve always thought so too,” he said, looking at her now with something more than just lustful interest, “I used to like simply riding through the forest in silence. My family thought I was mad…”
Ariella chuckled. She could not believe she was talking to him so easily, and yet she felt he was worth confiding in, that he was truly listening.
“Now tell me the truth, Demetrius,” she asked, a smile playing at the edges of her lips, “Did the king send you here to find out my secrets?”
“The truth…” he lay back, cradling his head in his hands, a pose that the huge muscles of his chest stand out even more. “The truth is, this is a gesture of hospitality. But yes, he did want me to report anything you might say in regards to the negotiations. However, I don’t believe that he was interested in any information regarding your swifthounds, so that secret is safe with me.”
Ariella burst out laughing. She wanted to playfully slap his shoulder, but she was afraid of where it may lead.
“I knew it!” she exclaimed, “But does he really expect me to spill the muckpitts to you, especially when you’ve just told me of his plan?”
“I admit, I find it rather far-fetched myself,” he replied, “but then again, when I’m embracing you in the heat of passion…” he scooped an arm under her and rolled her over to face him, “who knows what political secrets you might reveal.”
When he had first seized her in mock abandon, she laughed, but then feeling the embrace of his strong arms around her, seeing his face just inches from her own, she suddenly froze, not wanting him to let go.
“It’s doubtful I will reveal anything,” she said slowly, “but we won’t know until we try, will we?”
They lay there facing each other, and he still did not let go. This seemed so wrong, Ariella thought. She knew she was in danger here, and that this man could very well be posing as a friend to gain her trust, though she knew not for what purpose. The ease with which he confessed to being sent to her bedchamber as a spy was suspicious, or on the other hand it could mean that he was no spy at all, that he was only teasing her.
She couldn’t read much in the clear blue fount of his eyes, more liquid than fire now, except a strong yearning for closeness.
His lips were slightly open, just inches away from hers. She realized she was now beyond any reasoning. She leaned into him, inhaling that ravishingly innocent smell, and her lips just lightly touched his.
Ariella suddenly wondered if she had had too much to drink after all, for in that moment when their lips had barely touched, she felt as if his lips were the most sensuous, delicious lips she had ever kissed.
As if disbelieving her own senses, she pulled back for a moment – though a moment long enough to see he looked as overwhelmed as she was – and then her lips encountered his once more, with a more determined pressure… Ariella was completely lost in the kiss, which sent the whole room spinning and the blood rushing through her body in a furious tempest.
His hands, which had been so calming just moments before, now aroused her as they roved over her back, her buttocks, her thighs. Those hands made her feel beautiful, flowing over all her curves and hollows, setting aflame everything they touched.