Copyright © Belle Scarlett, 2017
Somehow Anya heard the distant thunder of equine hooves over the shrill chatter of the excited maidens who lined both sides of the Promised One’s Road. It would not be long before Shade made his entrance at the top of the hill opposite the palace’s grand steps in the distance and began his solo procession down the center of it, walking his mount slowly to look over each of the hopeful maidens before making the choice for his queen.
The Barbarian guard standing at attention next to Anya looked as ridiculously out of place amidst the giggling female throng as he clearly felt. Anya could commiserate.
The over-eager Matron of the Harem was a plump, middle-aged giantess of a woman with a girlish air and an unfortunate propensity to giggle. She had been ecstatic when tasked with the responsibility of turning Anya from a drowned rat into a sultry beauty in record time.
She’d stuffed Anya into a hastily re-sized gossamer lavender gown left over from when the harem had been active. Anya tugged self-consciously at the snug bodice with the shockingly low neckline. Only two thin shoulder straps stood between the skimpy, flimsy bodice and gravity. Surely, if Anya moved the wrong way her breasts would spill out at any microt, and there was no back to the thing at all. Apparently, the Matron didn’t believe in undergarments, and so Anya was wearing nothing beneath the nearly see-through dress. Whatever the Matron of the Harem might exclaim otherwise, Shade would not be pleased.
In spite of repeated attempts at diplomacy and thoughtful debate to change the older woman’s mind about applying lip rouge and kohl eyeliner to Anya’s face, Matron excitedly threw open an ornate cabinet bursting with hundreds of little pots, sticks, ointments, perfumes, and tubes of cosmetics. She used them all on Anya’s face. The rotund woman gleefully painted Anya with a sure hand, nodding attentively all the while at Anya’s logical arguments why such efforts really weren’t necessary.
When Matron was finished, Anya looked into the reflection glass and almost didn’t recognize herself. A rich plummy color enhanced Anya’s lips and nails, and pearl gray shimmered on her lids. The kohl liner around her eyes made their violet color pop. The lotions Matron rubbed literally all over Anya gave her skin a satiny luminance. And she smelled like an entire jasmenia bush.
Matron slapped Anya’s hand away with an appalled look when Anya had tried to braid her wet hair into its customary coronet. Instead, Matron deftly dried Anya’s tresses and used a heated set of tongs to curl the strands into long, loose waves that hung dramatically over one shoulder below her waist. All the while, Matron cooed over Anya’s “exotic” foreign beauty. Even if she was, as Matron sighed sadly, “On the short side.”
If that wasn’t enough to make Anya grit her teeth, she also had to bite her tongue when Matron went on to relate all the royal harem gossip pertaining to Shade’s many “sexploits” and virtues as an inexhaustible lover, etcetera, etcetera, dating from his seventeenth summer when he came to manhood until he inexplicably dissolved the harem a yearon ago. That had certainly caused quite an uproar in the palace, Matron lamented. Clearly the woman had not had enough to occupy herself in an empty harem over the past yearon.
Now on the road, Anya heard a sudden cry of excitement go up in unison from the hundreds of eligible females of all castes that lined both sides of the avenue. The noise jerked Anya’s focus to the present. Shade appeared at the top of the hill astride his black steed precisely at golden hour, when the light of the dying day was at its most ethereal.
A hush fell over the crowd at the dynamic picture he made, bareheaded and dressed in a black riding tunic. The silver threading used to embroider his family crest on the dark material glinted in the sun’s rays. Fastened around the muscled column of his neck, a crimson half-cloak flapped behind him in the breeze. His mount snorted and pawed the ground impatiently with one front hoof.
From his vantage point on the hill he appeared to scan the crowd for a microt or two until he spotted her. Anya’s heart leapt in her chest, and she knew his had, too. Their eyes locked. Then Shade crouched over the beast’s neck and kicked his equine to a full gallop, charging full-tilt down the hill. Never once did he take his gaze from Anya’s.
The thudding of the hooves on the road matched the pounding of her blood. As the steed bearing Shade grew nearer, the crush of women surged forward against Anya’s back and pushed her part way into the road.
For a timeless moment it looked to her like the equine was almost on top her. She held her breath and closed her eyes. Then she stuck her hand up in the air, trusting Shade to pluck her safely from the struggling sea of females.
Shade snagged her wrist as he sped by and whisked her up to lay sideways in front of him on his saddle. He cradled her between his biceps, smelling of leather and soap and his own spicy scent.
“We’ll discuss what you’re almost wearing later, senator,” he growled in her ear.
She finally dared to open her eyes wide and clung to him, thrilling at their speed as scenery flashed by.
Mighty cheers rang out all over the packed grounds as Shade and Anya galloped to the palace steps. Shade reined the equine to a halt and dismounted. He swung her down from the saddle and carried her in his arms to the top step without breaking a sweat. He set her down on trembling legs and raised her hand to his lips before turning to quiet the crowd with look.
“By the decree of the first castes after The Disaster, I proclaim to all here present that I, a Barbarian Alpha Prime, choose this woman, Anya Fortune of Nisca, to be mine. I will vow to set her above all others as my match-mate. My Promised One. My queen. And, with her consent, I shall bind her life to mine and mine to hers on the morrow. We shall never be parted from that time unto death.”
In the hush that ensued, he turned to her with a smile so tender she blinked back the prick of tears. All eyes in the crowd followed his to her face and awaited her words of acceptance.
In the fading light of the day, Anya looked out at the horizon to where Mount Olympias was nothing more than a shadowy shape in the far distance and hesitated. Now came the most dangerous part of her plan. Barbarians were unpredictable when crossed. She could only hope Shade would keep his wits about him in the emotional maelstrom that was about to hit and do what she hoped he would do next.
She took a deep breath and tried to stop herself from shaking, but to no avail.
“No,” her voice rang out so all could her, but she didn’t take her eyes from Shade’s face. “I decline.”