Whore…gift…and unexpected ally.
Eden Series, Book 1
In Dagran society, Alex is the lowest of the low—a “mare”, an object to be used by the nobility. When her owner, Stephen Garnath, gifts her to his greatest rival, she begins plotting her path to freedom. Nothing and no one will ever control her again. Not her degrading past, and certainly not her growing attraction to a man reputed to be an even crueler master than Garnath.
Robert Demeresna is instantly suspicious of such a generous gift. Yet she comes to him armed with only her sharp mind—a potent weapon he can use to defend his people from the enemy. And underneath, an unbreakable spirit that besieges the walls of his heart.
Slowly, Robert chips away at Alex’s defenses, striking sparks that make her begin to believe even a lowly whore like her could be worthy of him. Until Garnath springs a trap so cleverly hidden, war is unleashed before either of them sees it coming. A new kind of war fought with steam engines, explosives—and magic with a killing edge…
Product Warnings Contains violence, steam engines, steamier sex and multiple explosions of the unstable chemical variety.
Copyright © 2010 Marian Perera
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Chapter One: The Mare
Only one man ever entered her room without knocking.
Alexis Khayne slipped a black ribbon into her book to mark her place, then looked at the man who stood in her doorway. She felt her blood cool as it slid into the muscles of her face, keeping her features expressionless.
“Stephen.” She did not stand up; the master of the castle had told her that such bowing and scraping was unnecessary between them. She hated him all the more for that.
“You’re called for,” Stephen Garnath said.
It was always the same words. Alex rose at once and went to her dressing table. She had already bathed but her face was unpainted, so she opened a pot of eye enhancer. Stephen pulled her wardrobe open and hooked the black sheer with a finger.
“Wear this.” He tossed it to her, and Alex caught it. The full-length gown was fragile black abstract over translucent sheer. Wearing either of the fabrics was tantamount to being naked, and together they were not much better. She laid it aside and slipped out of her dress.
“Take everything off.” Stephen watched her obey, but she was long since used to that, and she removed her underclothes with as little reaction as if he had commented on the weather. Naked, she stepped into the sheer.
It was difficult to fasten and lace tightly about the bodice. Years ago, Alex had asked if she could have a lady’s maid. Stephen had pointed out that she wasn’t a lady, which was true, but she also knew he didn’t want her making friends. She pinned up her hair and painted her face, outlining her eyes in black. When she was done, she looked like a portrait in earth tones, and only her eyes were out of place. The enhancer made their green paler, like ice.
She wondered why he had chosen the black sheer. It was a beautiful gown, but it didn’t make her seem beautiful. It sharpened her so she appeared intense and dark, with a cold feral look in her eyes. Instead of looking like the kind of woman a man wanted to ride, she looked like a panther hauled snarling out of the woods, then drugged and caged.
This will be an unusual night, she thought. I wonder who it is. Sir Thomas Vallew? No, he’s gone north on business. The Duke of Goldwood? Surely even Stephen wouldn’t offer me to a man married barely a week. Oliver Lant? I wish it was Oliver. And I wish he hadn’t said he liked me—didn’t he realize Stephen would never let me near him after that?
Of course he didn’t. There was nothing wrong with Oliver’s heart, but his mind didn’t work in three directions at once. She studied her face for one last time, noting that it was still as expressionless as when Stephen had first entered, and rose.
“Very nice,” Stephen cupped her breast and rolled his thumb over the nipple. Alex looked at him, waiting for an order. “Very nice. Let’s go, the baron’s ready.”
Alex didn’t think that any of the barons of Dagre were close to the coronet city, Radiath, much less to Stephen Garnath, who dominated it. And what had this particular baron done to deserve the services of the most highly prized mare in the city? She pulled on a black cloak and followed Stephen out. When they stopped at the guest rooms, she risked a look at the man-at-arms who stood outside, but she didn’t recognize the lightning-bolt sigil on his leather armor. Bowing, he let them into a public room where apple boughs burned in a fireplace. When he knocked at a door, the baron emerged, another man following him.
Alex barely took in the baron’s nondescript face. The man behind him was far more unusual. She kept her features still with the ease of long practice, but she was startled at his appearance: a line of raised flesh ran along each side of his face, beginning just below the inner corner of the eye, dipping down in a curve and rising again to touch the top of each ear.
So he was from Iternum. No wonder Stephen wanted to please the baron. Even locked away, she had heard Stephen employed an Iternan sorcerer, so the baron had to be nearly as powerful. She fixed the beginning of a smile on her face as Stephen began the introductions, waiting to expand the smile.
“Robert,” he said, “may I press upon you a small gift that I hope you’ll enjoy? No doubt you recognize the Black Mare that Sir James Taeros praised at Goldwood’s wedding feast.”
“The description could fit none other,” the baron said. Alex met his stare and kept her expression seductive, even as she thought how ridiculous he looked with two lines of red dyed into his beard. That might be the latest fashion, but it called attention to the plainness of his appearance; it was like attaching a peacock’s feather to a hen’s behind.
Stephen turned to her, smiling. “My dear, may I present Lord Robert Demeresna, baron of Dawnever?”
The blood fell from Alex’s face and her features went slack; she pulled them back into order in the next moment, but she couldn’t stop the sudden thudding of her heart. Talk, damn it, talk, she thought.
“It is my pleasure, Lord Robert.” They call him the Bloody Baron. They say his fields are filled with scarecrows made from crucified men. Curtsey. She did so, her body following a practiced motion. They say he once impaled an opponent, driving an iron spike through the man’s pelvis. That had earned him his name, and he had lived up to it.
She wondered if the streaks of red in his beard were blood. No, certainly not; blood would have dried to a rusty brown shade difficult to distinguish from his hair. Get a grip on yourself. It will only be for a night, and then I can go back to my room and bathe. I can finish my book and try to forget.
She smiled, which felt like stretching a clay mask placed over her face. The baron did not. He looked from her to Stephen, and the suspicious gleam in his eyes never altered.
Stephen grinned, curling a lock of her hair around his finger. “I must admit, Robert, I’m going to miss her. She is very skillful, you know. But you deserve her, since loyalty such as yours is always rewarded. Perhaps she’s a poor gift, but I can’t promise gold or land until my accession. When that happens, my supporters will be richly rewarded, but until then, I can only give you what hospitality and service I possess.”
The smile didn’t fall off her face that time, it drained away. I can’t be hearing right. He can’t have just given me to the Bloody Baron.
The baron didn’t seem to believe it either. “Lord Garnath, are you giving me this woman?”
“Why, yes. I beg your pardon for not making myself clearer. Take her, Robert, as a token of my gratitude!” Stephen frowned, and concern crept into his voice. “I hope I haven’t offended you by such an offer? Your unmarried state and your…detachment, shall we say, from the Quorum Mandates led me to believe that you would not find her unpalatable.”
Please find me unpalatable. Alex had wanted to escape, but not like that, not to be taken like a parcel to the far edge of the land, not to be a bed-slave to the Bloody Baron. Stephen wouldn’t have killed me, I’m too valuable. But this is a man who orders adulterous wives to be whipped naked in the streets—what is he going to do to a whore?
Stephen continued smoothly. “Do tell me if I’m mistaken, Robert. Are you considering a formal union? Or have you embraced the Quorum’s ideals to the point where my standards are not yours, so to speak?”
“No, Lord Garnath,” Robert Demeresna said. “Of course you’re not mistaken. I was taken aback and my manners deserted me. If you were offered the east of Eden as a gift, I dare say even you might be somewhat tongue-tied.”
“Only for a moment,” Stephen said, which made the baron laugh. The Iternan wore a bored look, and Alex thought he might have seen such a scene played out many times before. Let me survive until we set out for his province. I’ll be outside the city then, and I’ll find a way to escape. Just let me live through this night.
“Well, I’m glad my gift is suitable.” Stephen released her hair. “You may keep her, and another filly will take her place in the stable.”
“Lord Garnath,” Alex began, struggling to keep her voice level and courteous, “may I return to my room to collect a few possessions that I would—”
“No.” Both Stephen and the baron spoke at once. Stephen, the first to recover, stared at the baron, who said, “Forgive me if I presumed too much, but I would like to furnish the woman with whatever she might need, to suit my own tastes.”
There was a pause, long enough for Alex to see that Stephen didn’t believe that answer either. “Of course,” he said. “And certainly, my sweet, Lord Robert is more than capable of providing you with anything you need. Don’t insult him by implying otherwise.”
Alex knew what the Bloody Baron did to people who insulted him. “My apologies, my lord.” She tried not to think of her few books, or the silver locket that had been her mother’s.
“No need for that.” Robert Demeresna inclined his head to Stephen, and his mouth stretched into a grin. “I thank you for such a valuable gift, Lord Garnath. Rest assured I’ll put it to good use.”
Alex’s stomach turned to a chunk of ice. She welcomed the feeling, knowing the coldness would spread over her body so that she wouldn’t feel anything he did to her.
Stephen chuckled. “Once you see that all your visits to Radiath are likely to yield fruit, Robert, perhaps you will do us the honor of a journey more often. This is the first time you’ve visited the city, isn’t it?”
The baron raised his brows. “There are many miles between Dawnever and the rest of Dagre. But you may always expect my support, Lord Garnath, even if I prefer country life to the coronet city.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” There was a slight undercurrent in Stephen’s tone, so subtle that if she had not known him intimately, Alex would have missed it. “And now I’ll leave you to be acquainted.”
The man-at-arms opened the door for Stephen, and Alex did not turn to watch him leave, despite wanting to run out after him. Take the first step, she thought. She was sweating under her cloak, and she hoped there would be no obvious stains as she began to slip it off.
Both the baron and his sorcerer tensed, staring at her; she froze in return, her hand on the clasp that held her cloak together at the throat. “My lord?” She kept her voice low so that it did not shake. “Is something wrong?”
“No, no.” The baron gestured at the man-at-arms. “Gavin, stand guard outside.”
Did he simply want privacy? No, the Iternan still remained, and Alex wondered if he was doing magic. She supposed bleakly that she would feel it soon enough if he was.
“Take your cloak off,” Robert Demeresna said. “Mayerd…help her with it.”
Alex unfastened the cloak and let it drop, wondering if the sorcerer would flip it through the air with magic. Instead, he was at her side as the velvet slipped off her shoulders, and he caught it before it hit the floor.
He moves too fast and too silently for a man of learning, was her last thought before the air struck her skin, chilling it. She let her mind go blank and her body doll-like, waiting for further instructions. The baron seemed to prefer it that way.
He cleared his throat. “Take it off.”
“Of course, my lord,” Alex said. The Iternan backed away, running his hands over her cloak, patting the velvet in a caressing way that would have disgusted her if she had been able to feel anything at that point. She unfastened the black sheer and let it puddle at her feet.
“Step out of it,” the baron said. “And your shoes.”
There was something strange about his terse orders, and the unfamiliarity penetrated even her gelid calm. She obeyed, watching as the Iternan dropped the cloak on the hearth and picked up her shoes. He examined them before he set them beside the cloak and gave his attention to the black sheer, shaking it out, turning it this way and that. He looks like he’s going to try it on for size, she thought and killed a spurt of half-hysterical laughter. She didn’t know which man would be worse when angered.
“It’s very skimpy,” Mayerd said finally.
“I beg my lord’s pardon.” What in the world did he expect the Black Mare to wear—armor? She looked at her bare feet, noticed the sheen of sweat that gleamed on her breasts, and wished she wasn’t standing so close to the fire.
The baron took a step closer and Alex glanced up, startled at his nearness. He was not very tall, but he was large, and her skin crawled as she noticed the width of his shoulders. This was a man strong enough to hurt her with his bare hands, and she supposed he would start soon. She concentrated on floating, allowing years of training to take over while her mind drifted.
“I see you wear no jewels.”
“No, my lord.” Valuables or money of her own would have been far too liberating.
“You don’t need them.” The baron’s tone was quieter. “Take your hair down.”
She raised her arms slowly, letting her breasts move with them, and kept her gaze fixed on the baron’s face as she did so. His body was tense, as if waiting to pounce, but his expression was not so much lustful as wary. She didn’t understand that, but what did it matter at this point? The pins fell and her hair cascaded down.
“Stand still,” the Iternan said from behind her. Alex braced herself for pain. Instead, she felt his hands in her hair, running through its length, moving upwards to rub lightly against her scalp and behind her ears. She wondered whether to purr with feigned desire or pretend she didn’t notice. Was this a trick, to see if she would respond to a servant’s touch or if she would keep herself for the baron? But the man touching her hair was no servant. Despite her familiarity with men, she had never submitted to an Iternan sorcerer, and the first threads of terror began to penetrate her shell.
After what seemed like an hour, Mayerd stopped and moved away. Alex focused on keeping her breathing steady, the slight inviting smile still nailed to her face. She was mildly surprised to see that neither of the men was aroused. Perhaps I should try to do something, take control of this—
“All right.” The baron jerked his chin at the fire. Before Alex could say or do anything, Mayerd bundled her clothes up in his arms and tossed them into the fireplace.
“What are you doing?” The words burst from her before she could stop herself, and she dropped to her knees beside the fireplace just as reflexively. It was already too late. Red spots appeared on the velvet, glowing like baleful eyes, growing larger as the cloth burned. The black abstract crisped and disappeared in smoke. Alex stared into the flames, realizing dimly that her body shook.
Maybe he burned them because I won’t need clothes any more. Maybe I’ll never leave this room either.
She clenched her teeth on a cry and drew in a long breath. When she rose, she felt the coolness seep back into her face, stilling her features, and she knew that now she looked merely amused at this new clothes-burning game. “I see you meant it, my lord, when you spoke of clothing me in your own tastes.”
Robert Demeresna looked at the fire and then at Mayerd before turning away. “Get her a drink of dragora.”
What was dragora? Alex wanted to reach for the wall to steady herself, but she locked her legs and watched as Mayerd filled a cup with a foaming green liquid that smelled of mulberries. He handed it to her, and when she forced her fingers to close around the cup, she felt a film of moisture on its earthenware surface.
“What is it?” she said.
“Something to make you sleep.” The baron did not meet her eyes.
To sleep forever, Alex thought. Her arm stayed frozen, the drink halfway to her mouth. Death would not be so bad, but this might not kill fast. It could be a poison that left her writhing in agony on the floor.
But would he murder Stephen’s gift to him, bare minutes after receiving it? Stephen might feel slighted at that. She looked down at the opaque surface of the liquid. Could it be an aphrodisiac? She was used to those, even with the internal damage they did, but if so, why had he said she would sleep? Were his tastes so perverted that the mares had to be drugged before he used them? She saw the minute shivers of the liquid and knew that her hand was trembling.
“Please drink it.” The baron still wouldn’t look at her.
I could refuse. And he could force it down my throat, or make his sorcerer do it.
She brought the cup to her mouth and took her first swallow; liquid ice penetrated her body and prickled her skin. If the drink had a taste, she never noticed. She drank again and again, careless of the hurt in her teeth or the tightness behind her temples. When she was done, Mayerd reached for the cup and she tossed it into the fireplace.
The flames leaped up, not green, but brilliantly white. Then they subsided, but in the moment of pure light, she saw the baron’s startled gaze fixed on her, and he looked as though he was seeing her for the first time.
Or maybe I’m just drunk. Or dying. I won’t cry. The thought startled her, because it was the first time in years that she had come close to tears. No, not before this man who wanted me afraid as well as naked and humiliated. Not at all.
The room began to rock slowly around her, and the lines of walls and floor lost definition. Alex closed her eyes, putting her feet apart to keep her balance.
“Come.” The baron’s voice was deep below the earth, muted and echoing. She felt his hand on her arm but she didn’t have the strength to do more than lean on him as he led her the few paces to a couch. Her body folded like a ribbon as she fell to the silk cushions, and the baron lifted her legs to the couch. A coffin, lined with silk. Then the world grew dark as if Robert Demeresna had closed the lid over her face.
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