Spark Into Flame
Sky lay on the bed, shivering. Scared to death, knowing how much it would hurt.
The door opened. The prince, Ember, walked in. Resplendent in the royal wedding cloak, purple, crimson, glinting gold, jewels spilled across his broad chest.
He stopped. His black hair softly brushed his shoulders, his beard carefully trimmed, complementing his golden brown skin. He was stunning.
A thrill rushed through her despite herself as she remembered how he’d looked during the ceremony. So beautiful, earnest, royal, even gentle as he took her hand, kissed it. Kissed her softly on the mouth. But she knew men--they were not gentle when it came down to it. She was bound to this man now and she’d have to make the best of it.
She tried to do like her father had taught her years ago. She arranged her arm above her head seductively, the other on her stomach, inviting.
She had to please him; that was her duty as the new wife of the Third Heir. If she didn’t please him, he could annul the marriage, but it would bring everlasting shame on her and her family. The DNA match had said they were compatible; the rest was up to her. If she failed, it would be her fault.
He took another step into the soft light falling from above the bed. His mouth dropped open, his eyes wide.
“So beautiful,” he said.
It took her a moment to realize he was talking about her. Many had called her beautiful, but she’d suspected them of pandering to her father. He had always called her plain, weak, frail. She was never good enough for him. But here--they were alone and there was truth in his eyes.
He sat down beside her. His eyes caught hers, and traveled over her body.
Here it comes, she thought. He’ll rip into me--
His eyes devoured her, licking down her body, back to her face. His golden eyes, fire burning deep in them like coals. She dropped her eyes with respect--he was the Heir. She had to respect him--please him somehow--
He slipped back off the bed and stood. Her heart skipped, hardened like a stone. Had she displeased him?
His fingers leaped to the clasp at his throat, fumbling with it.
The jeweled cloak fell to the floor in elegant furls, billowing down to a bubble of glittering stars. He shrugged off his jewel-encrusted shirt, leaving just his white undershirt, contrasting with the bronze-brown of his skin, sheened with powdered gold.
She drew in a breath. She could see the outlines of his body beneath--so strong, sculpted--would he totally undress? Her father had never--had only done what was necessary to teach her--
He looked at her and in his eyes was a note of apology. He actually seemed nervous for some reason.
He slipped the white undershirt over his head, its delicate fabric fluttering in the slight breeze from the window. It floated to the lush purple carpet.
She drew her eyes upward. And gasped. A stunning beauty stood before her, a god chiseled out of gold, flawless. She felt the desire to bow to him. How could she possibly give him all he deserved? How could she--in her inadequacy--ever hope to give him what he wanted?
Sweat sheened his skin, enhancing the glitter of the gold dust. A glistening god. A delicate dance of faint blue lightning laced down his form, and fear rippled through her. That was what hurt the most. It would give him pleasure but would tear through her--
She closed her eyes in dread.
“I am sorry,” he said in his strong, deep voice. “Perhaps this is not what you want.”
She opened her eyes. “It does not matter what I want. Only what you want, Your Majesty.”
“This is your wedding night. I want to please you.” Please her? What did that have to do with this?
“I want to please you,” she managed, her voice husky.
He swept forward then and sat on the bed, his magnificent muscles rippling. Lean, toned, with biceps to die for and sculpted pectorals and abs--gold dust glistened over his body and she longed to touch it. But she dared not take the initiative.
He reached forward and ran his hand down her arm--a feather touch. Delicately sliding to her wrist--he flipped her hand over, traced its veins--
He brought his hand to her face, cupped her chin. His thumb traced her lower lip.
He leaned forward. “May I?”
She nodded, not knowing what he was asking. He leaned forward, pressed his mouth to hers. His lips were soft like petals, not rough, tearing, like--
Something hot clutched her heart, wrenching it. Grabbing her chest with its claws, suffocating her. The past welling up in her throat--she fought it--not now--not the feeling versus what she knew in her mind, detached from what her father had done to her—
He pulled back. “Have I done something wrong?”
Shame shot through her. “Of--of course not, Your Majesty.”
“It’s just that--you did not kiss me back. Have I displeased you?”
She almost laughed. He displease her? How could he? Even if that mattered. “No, Your Majesty. You are--perfect. Beautiful. The heir to the gods.”
He nodded, the hint of a wry smile on his lips. “You don’t have to call me Your Majesty, you know. There’s no one else here.”
“But--you are my lord in all things.”
He shook his head, his black hair swaying gently against his shoulders. “No. I’m sorry if that’s the impression you’ve gotten. I may be the Heir, but I’m not the king yet. Besides, when I’m king--if I’m king--I want us to be partners. Equals.”
“Th-that is unheard of, for a consort.”
“My father wants to change things. It’s not how my grandfather is ruling, but when my father rules, he wants my mother at his side. He trusts her. Loves her. I want the same relationship for us. Not the thousands of concubines that my grandfather would want for me. I want you.”
“I will try to please you like a thousand concubines.”
“That’s--not really the point. I mean--we hardly know each other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t grow to love each other. I already love what I know--I want to know more about you, and love that too.”
“I am not perfect.”
“Neither am I. I want to love those imperfections--every part of you.” He reached for her, tucked a swirl of hair behind her ear. “Not that I see many of them.” His eyes flitted over her body, and then caught her eyes again. Those eyes, so earnest, honest, innocent even--their golden fire--Ember suited him. If she dared let that burning word touch her lips. The word that meant his name and all that he signified--
He ran his hand down her neck and leaned forward. Pressed his lips to hers. This time she forced herself to respond. Her father had rarely kissed her, but he had sometimes taught her some of the technical aspects. She let her mouth move with his, a stately dance.
He pulled back again, a seed of shadow in his eyes. “We could take it slow, if you want,” he said. “We wouldn’t have to go further than this tonight.”
“It is expected.”
“We are all that matters. Not anyone outside this chamber.”
“To not consummate our wedding--it would be--unheard of.” Did he not want her after all?
“Who would know? Our tradition also respects the wedding bed. No one is watching. We can be ourselves with each other here. Our true selves, which we can’t be in public.” He pulled the silk sheet up, swept it over her body, and it settled over her, as soft as a cloud. Then he pulled himself up beside her, tucking the other end of the sheet over himself. He lay down beside her.
Warmth radiated from him, and longing stirred inside her--longing that she could not feel when he was touching her--oh, what had happened? Could it be possible that she could not feel--her father had taken it away--branded her, cauterized her with fear-- she could feel from a distance, but never let a man touch her for he would tear her, shatter her like he had done--
Admire this beautiful god but not enjoy him--but if she could only do these paltry mechanical movements--devoid of the passion she longed to feel--perhaps she could not please him--somehow he seemed to know what she did not feel--
The horrible feeling built inside again--she battled it--it threatened to overwhelm her--the feeling that she’d lost something-- her father had rationalized what he’d done as “teaching” but really it was his own perverse lust for a child who just wanted to do what her father said--
But now she’d had enough hints that it was not supposed to be like this. At least, she’d encountered some women who seemed to not have to pretend to like sex--to love their husbands--and that a man grooming his daughter for maximizing pleasure was not common practice ....
It did not take away the fact that this was her duty. She had to please him somehow. But perhaps he just wanted to talk for now. Perhaps she could still prove herself later....
She flipped onto her side to face him. “What would you like to talk about?”
“How about your family? It’s supposed to be a good one. But what was it like living with them?”
He’d unknowingly struck the wound. She fought back the burgeoning dark horizon of pain in her chest. “Like any other Nobility family, I suppose. My mom is so gentle--perhaps too much so--and my father--” It hit her like a wave, and she didn’t want to talk about it for fear of flooding the dam. He could not know her shame--the horror she felt--the horror that would break through and invade any touch he gave her--not feeling was better than feeling the shuddering pain and terror--the fear she’d felt now would be nothing compared to what she felt like as a child each time he--
She’d have to be able to mention her father some time, but not now, not with these feelings crashing against her chest. “My younger brother is very smart, strong, full of life--everything a Vale should be. And we always had the gardens. I loved to walk in them....” Escape to them every time it happened....
“You like flowers?”
“Would you like some brought in?”
“You shall have them, my love.” He tapped the com interface behind his ear. “Could you have some flowers sent in please? The more the better.”
He sat up, the sheet falling around his waist. His face shone with excitement. She marveled at this man. This beautiful young man who was already surprising her in so many ways--
Monitor guards in black and red brought in bundles of flowers, overflowing their baskets. All shapes, sizes, colors. They suffused the room with fragrance. She drank it in, closed her eyes, falling back on the pillows into the dream of the garden. The only place she could be herself....
The Monitors set the flowers on the floor, and dumped more onto the bed according to Ember’s instructions. Flowers spilled over her and a laugh bubbled out of her mouth. He laughed beside her, deep, hearty, a little surprised.
A flower tickled her cheek. Stamens dusted her nose. She huddled down into them like a refuge--flowers spilled over her, hiding her in a safe cavern all her own--
His face slid into the pile of flowers beside hers. “Is this what you wanted?”
She studied him for a moment, trying to tone down her disappointment at his intrusion. “Yes. Thank you.” A pink petal brushed her lips. She picked it up, inhaled its scent. It transported her on clouds of oblivion....He slid in beside her and she hardly noticed; she was in paradise....
They lay like this for a while, drenched in scent and glory. Warmth pressed down on her arm--his arm on hers. She fought the urge to toss it off. It wasn’t doing any harm.
Then, his hand stroked her skin, sending tingles racing down it. A delicate snap. Lightning.
She gasped, shot up out of the sea of flowers and they cascaded over her face and chest.
He sat up too, flowers around his waist. “Sorry. I just thought--”
“Thank you for this,” she said. She meant it, despite her fear at his lightning.
“Anything for my bride.” He picked up a flower and handed it to her, bowing over it without a hint of mockery.
She took its tiny stem, lifted it. Starbursts--brilliant red--she’d hidden with them for hours at a time--
The smell overwhelmed her, taking her to the past--she shook her head, trying to rid herself of the feelings--if she let out one tear, it would all be over.
“What is it?” he said, alarm in his voice.
She shook her head. Fighting it off. She wanted to bury herself back in the flowers--but he was there, needing her--and perhaps, afterwards--there were so many, she could bury herself in them and never come out....
She reached toward his face. Pushing back the fear. Pushing back the horrible feeling. Trying to feel, to see him as he was, as she wanted to see him. Her husband. The Heir. A man worthy of her affection and love.
She touched his cheek. He closed his eyes. Surprisingly long lashes shadowing his cheek. Infinitely black.
His hair enticed her, and she buried her hand in it.
He ran his hand along her cheek. Electric current snapped softly from his fingertips. So gentle--she’d never experienced a man’s lightning without pain. It almost felt--good....
She let the scent of the flowers wash over her, relax her. She was safe here, in the garden. This man was not her father. He was--different.
She leaned back and let him slide his hand down over her jaw, down her throat, over her neck. Trusting him--letting go--
Perhaps he wanted her to use her own lightning. She was out of practice--and hers could not compare to the prodigious birthright of the Heir. But she reached up, letting current flow across her skin.
He closed his eyes. She leaned forward, kissing him, letting the current flow across her like water--letting it mingle with his--
His mouth, soft as flowers--his lips, gentle, pressing into hers--
Something stirred inside her that was not fear. Touching him did not mean pain--lightning did not mean agony--it could mean a dance of equals--
The kiss built and she lost herself in it. The delicate spark of his touch, his soft black hair, his smooth golden-brown skin--Some great longing was trying to burst free inside her, so great it could never be satiated except by him and all that he was--
Crack! Cold fire seized her body, and she fell back onto the sheets, terror blazing through her.
He reached for her, lightning gone, but she writhed away from him, electric current still dancing across her limbs.
Of course, she had expected too much; it was not her duty to receive, anyway, only to give, but still she couldn’t shake the fear, the betrayal.
“I’m sorry! Sky—I—” Sorrow shredded his voice.
He reached for her again, but she dove beneath the flowers. Their scent enveloped her. Her heart pounded, fearing he’d invade her space, but he didn’t. She lay there, trembling, till the flowers carried her away on a sea of oblivion….
For a long time, silence. Blessed numbness.
Then, his voice. “I’m sorry. It’s just that this is new to me and I was getting carried away, not controlling my lightning. You were so wonderful and I thought you were...starting to want me. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t control it. I don’t want to hurt you.” It wasn’t just his words; she’d heard plenty of apologies before. It was his tone of voice. How broken he was that he’d hurt her. How much he cared about what she felt.
Reluctantly, she poked her head out of the flowers. He was sitting, his back to her, his head in his hand, his flawless skin taut over well-defined muscles.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “It was mine. It didn’t really hurt that much, it just—startled me. As Royalty, you’re supposed to have as much lightning as possible.”
“I’m supposed to be able to control it.”
“It has to be hard to control so much.”
“I’ve never lost control—at least, not since I was little. I had no idea what would happen if I was with a woman—perhaps I should have practiced more….”
“You didn’t lose control when you were with the trainer?”
He shook his head. “She was attractive, but she wasn’t you. You and I are supposed to be compatible, after all—chosen for each other. As soon as I saw you, I knew you were what I wanted—the image of perfection. I maybe should’ve let the pro teach me how to control my lightning, but I didn’t want to betray you. If it means hurting you, though, maybe I should have gone all the way.”
“You mean you didn’t—” Shock traveled through her. Almost everyone practiced before they were married. Especially the Royalty. But Ember and his father had strange ideas.
He shook his head. “I wanted you to be my first. A little naïve, maybe, but now we have to make the best of it. Now that we’re married, I’m not about to bring in anyone else.”
It meant that he was less experienced than her. Despite his beauty, he’d never been with a woman. That explained some of his embarrassment. It was endearing—and it took some of the pressure off of her. She didn’t have to wonder if her long-ago training from her father was adequate. She’d been a young girl then and had hardly known what she was doing. Now, maybe, she could start anew. Start fresh with him. Pretend it had never happened— rip that piece of past out of her heart.
He deserved that. To not have that shadow hanging over his first time.
Somehow, she had to get past her fear. It was true, the lightning had mostly just startled her; she could push through the pain and pretend it didn’t hurt, for him.
She crept toward him on her knees, plowing flowers in front of her. Rested a hand on his shoulder. “I’m willing to try again.”
He lifted his hand, tentatively touching her cheek. “I’ll try to hold back my lightning,” he said.
She pressed her lips to his. They responded, moving in time with hers.
Pleasure this time—softly creeping up through her—elation at being able to feel—maybe being able to erase the past—if not erase it, then shut it off into the furthest corner of her mind….
She slid back, wanting to give him the best experience possible but at a loss of how to do it—she had to erase the past, but that was the only experience she had. Somehow she had to please him with a blank slate, to be just as inexperienced as he was—how could she please him this way?
At least he didn’t have anything to compare it to. Or did he?
“How far did you go with the trainer?” she asked.
“It’s that obvious?”
She shook her head. “Just wondering what she showed you. If I can do what she did.”
“I like what you’re doing now.” He kissed her cheek, down the side of her neck. She gasped, leaned back. Maybe they didn’t need a trainer to teach them how to do this—they were compatible, after all. She couldn’t let her fear be a barrier to their happiness. She could push through the pain. It might be worth it. Excitement gripped her. Perhaps marriage to the Heir would be more than a privilege; perhaps she’d enjoy it. He seemed different. Someone she could trust. Maybe even love….
He kissed her shoulder. “For example—” he said—“She showed me this.” He kissed her in a way that her father had. She forced herself to stay numb, frozen like a statue of ice
He sat back. “Sorry. She said that was something you would like.”
“I like it—keep going.”
“No, you don’t. Sky—I want to give you what you want. You can tell me if it’s not working.”
“You’re amazing—the prince, the Heir—”
He touched her gently on the cheek. “No. Here, I’m none of those things. Here, I’m Ember.”
“Ember,” she said, the word heavy on her tongue like a coal.
“Why don’t you show me what you want? Take the lead—I’ll just lie back—” He lay back in the flowers, almost submerged in them. She leaned over him, kissed him on the mouth. Kissed down the center of his chest.
It did feel good to take the initiative—to decide what she’d do with her own body. Not let it be a tool to be used, a toy to be broken.
He’d let her have this freedom. Gratitude swelled inside her. He’d shown remorse for the lightning, something another Royal would have disregarded completely. She wanted to discover him and to reward him, not because it was her duty but because she wanted to.
Here, she was freer than she had ever been.
She used her freedom to kiss him, pressing her lips to his firm, warm skin. She did it with reckless abandon, and then let him respond with kisses of his own. She’d always come back to his mouth—his devastating, wonderful mouth.
She kissed him in a building frenzy, heat burning inside her. Merging with his. She hardly realized it before she was crushed up against him, dancing together—and electric current blurred between them, blue static biting into her with small snaps—he was controlling it, and she was liking this—cold fear clutched her at the thought of what she’d have to do soon but even with her fear she didn’t want to stop. He was fire—his skin a delicious, forbidden fruit—his eyes twin coals that blazed into hers—
She fought the dread. The pain would be her gift to him.
The blue lightning enveloped them but its soft tingles barely hurt—
She braced herself for the pain
Pleasure ripped her open—a molten burning—lightning snapped into her, rippling across her arms but part of it was hers traveling into him and it hurt but not like it used to—and then lightning surged down his arm and she realized he’d channeled some of it there—with a slash he lashed it away from her—
Joy flooded her. It had been more wonderful than she could have ever dreamed—and it had hurt, but hadn’t torn her—it had shocked her, but hadn’t burned her—
She turned to him, laying her hand on his chest. Lightning snapped from her fingers to his skin. His golden eyes caught hers. She kissed him.
“That was—amazing,” she said.
“So were you,” he gasped. “I knew there was pleasure to it but I never thought—I couldn’t imagine more pleasure than you just gave me.” He kissed her, tucked his hand behind her ear. “I can’t believe you’re mine. All mine—” He smothered her in kisses. She laughed. Amazed at what he’d given her, beyond what she’d expected—her fears unfounded.
“My Ember,” she said, savoring the taste of his name.
“My Sky.” He drew his hand down over her cheek. Traced her lips.
She pressed against him, his warm body still trembling.
On the other side of the bed a charcoal scar marred the golden wall, still smoking.
“You did that?” she said, incredulous.
“I had to channel my extra power—I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Thank you,” she said, marveling at the strength he’d had to control his own power even while in the throes of passion—and to care enough for her to keep her from too much pain.
She pressed her cheek to his and tucked her fingers into his luxuriant black hair, her blonde hair spilling across his chest.
In a few moments, she fell asleep, wrapped in his arms, half-buried in the flowers.
Sky stirred, silken sheets rustling against her skin. She felt heavy, yet light at the same time.
When she turned over, she saw a man beside her. It startled her—but then she relaxed. It was Ember, his chest rising and falling steadily. His eyes closed. His hair an unruly mess.
She didn’t want to wake him; he was so beautiful this way. But something stirred inside her—longing for him—such a strange feeling, to long for a man, to want him, to—love him.
Did she love him? She wasn’t entirely certain what love was, or if she knew how to love, but if anyone deserved her love, he did. She wanted to get to know him, to give him everything he wanted, to love everything that he was.
She traced the contours of his chest, making a path through the gold dust and stray petals on his skin.
It still amazed her to be here, with him; to not be afraid. He’d dissolved her fear in one night. She didn’t have anything to be afraid of; he’d shown she could trust him by his consideration, by channeling the excess lightning away from her.
He’d also shown that he could give her everything she wanted. The pleasure that he’d given her—beyond description. Longing burned inside her again—
How had she gotten a man like this? After the long years at her father’s side, pretending to be the dutiful daughter, when all the time she was trembling in fear, she’d been given in marriage to the prince, and he turned out to be good, decent. He didn’t have the sense of entitlement that most Royalty had, that her father had. As former Royalty, his family deposed when he was younger, her father was bitter about the subordinate place he had now.
But no, she didn’t want to think about him. She was free from him. She didn’t have to see her father at all if she didn’t want to—he lived in the Nobility complex, outside of the Spire. She never had to be by her father’s side again. He had no hold over her anymore.
She belonged to another.
She ran her hand down Ember’s arm. He stirred, groaning in his sleep. She pulled back and he moaned and flipped over toward her, flinging his arm across the curve of her waist.
She gasped at his touch. Slid her hand beneath his arm, cuddling up to him.
Her hand met something along his ribs. A seam-like ridge—delicate, veined—at first she thought it was a birthmark, but as her fingers traveled along it she realized it was a lightning-scar. She’d had many of those--they happened when someone of superior power slashed lightning into an unprepared victim--but she’d had all of them removed. If there had been a vestige of one, her father had made sure they were gone for her wedding night. Why would Ember have one? Why would he have a scar in the first place—and why would he have kept it?
She’d always thought of Royalty as impervious, immune from pain. They were the ones who could inflict it on others with impunity. And yet, at some point, someone had hurt him. She wished she could erase his scars….erase whatever memory had given them to him.
She pressed closer to him and kissed the bridge of his nose.
His eyelids fluttered open. Myriad facets glinted in his eyes, different shades of gold. “Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning, my prince. I mean, Ember,” she said, letting a teasing smile play on her lips. He kissed her cheek, just at the edge of her mouth.
“I’ve never woken up to something so beautiful,” he said.
“Me either,” she said, marveling at the fact that she was actually happy to wake up to a man beside her. It hadn’t been sex she’d been afraid of—it had been her father. He had abused her, taken what she hadn’t wanted to give—
But no. She didn’t have to think about that anymore. Didn’t want to mar her time with Ember. This was so far removed from that it could hardly be called the same experience. It could have almost been her first time; she wished she could go back and erase it completely. Pretend she had only known one man—and not the one who made her feel dirty, ashamed.
She felt renewed, almost clean of it. She couldn’t let the past intrude on what she had now. But would Ember still want to be with her if he knew what she’d been forced to do? Would he be disgusted by her? After all, most consorts received practice from a professional, not from their father in sordid, forced liaisons as children….
In any case, he’d probably think of her differently. She couldn’t tell him—and probably couldn’t bring herself to tell him.
She was with him now. Just—burn the past away—
He kissed her neck, painting delightful little circles with his tongue. She returned the favor, kissing along the side of his neck—he gasped, trembling beside her, and it made her want him all the more—
But still, despite his insistence they were equals, despite how he’d let her take the lead last night, she still had to let him take the initiative; he was still her superior and she owed him deference.
He kissed down the center of her chest—his kisses burned—she wanted him—she’d waited so long, without knowing it, for an experience like this and now she couldn’t get enough of him.
He slid his hand down her back, lightning crackling against her skin, its cool tingles enhancing her pleasure, then he brought her gently to him, her own lightning spreading spontaneously from her fingers—she didn’t even have to summon it—it unleashed, unsuppressed—he’d broken into her and brought out the best of her.
She nodded against his cheek, giving him the permission that he seemed to be asking, and they kissed, entwined, current flowing between them, merging, until she collapsed against his chest, shaking, in complete and utter ecstasy.
She flung her arm across his side, just wanting to be near him. She could barely manage to move, her body wrung out completely.
For a long time, she just lay against him, immersing in his presence. He stroked her back gently. Soft tingles up and down. She wanted to return the favor, and so she took her hand, trembling, and ran it up and down his arm. A slow “Mmmmm” thrummed in his chest, and she was gratified that she’d given him pleasure too….though she didn’t know how she could possibly improve on what he had done.
He stroked her hair, tangling his fingers in it. Pressed his hand against her cheek. He gave her a slow, lingering kiss on the mouth, and with some of the energy she had left, she responded. She immersed in the kiss for a long time, then pressed up against him, delighting in his warmth. She drifted in bliss among the shredded, scattered flowers, while he stroked her back comfortingly.
Hints of dreams fluttered at the edge of her mind. Dreams of beautiful gardens, their fragrance dominating the air….walking with him…being with him always….
She dragged her fingers down his side, catching the scars again. Infinite sorrow clutched her. That this astonishingly wonderful man had ever had to experience any kind of pain.
He flinched a little, and she withdrew her fingers.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“No, that’s okay. I told you I had flaws. While I’ve yet to see one on you.”
“I have them,” she said, swallowing, afraid he’d know even by her tone of voice that she had the internal kind.
“They must be microscopic.”
“I’ve got this,” she said, touching the birthmark at the dip in her shoulder.
“I can hardly see it. Besides, it’s not a flaw—it’s just another part of you to admire.”
“So’s this,” she said, her hand hovering near his scar, careful not to touch it.
“I don’t know why I didn’t have it removed, only—it’s hard to go against him, when he orders something.”
“Against who?” she couldn’t help but ask, hoping it wasn’t too painful for him to discuss.
“My great-uncle. Shadowblade.”
A shiver ran through her at the name. Even her father feared the great Enforcer, the Intelligence Chief, head of the secret police. He was tough, inexorable, and it was said he enjoyed torturing prisoners himself. Not from any perverse pleasure, but because he enjoyed enforcing Order for its own sake, and impressing his will, the outward expression of the rule of law, into the flesh of his victims.
Her mother had said her father had been in his clutches once, but her father had never spoken of it.
“He did this to you?”
Ember nodded. “He wants me to become more like my grandfather, not my father, who he sees as soft. They allowed Dad and Mom to be in charge of my upbringing, but now Shade wants to remedy that.”
He took a breath. “A few months ago, Shade summoned me into the interrogation chamber. He wanted me to—torture a prisoner, one that supposedly conspired against us. I refused. And so he punished me with lightning. I fought back, but that made it all the worse, for he strapped me down with metal so I couldn’t use lightning and—”
He shook his head, pain deep in his eyes. “It seemed like hours—all I could feel was pain. Burning, a sort of hot-cold—you’d know if you’d ever experienced a lightning attack. And he was careful not to go too deep—if it would’ve gotten numb, there would’ve been nerve damage.
“Several days later I woke up in the infirmary, and my skin was new, smooth—I felt no pain. But Shade was there. He showed me this scar, and told me to leave it there as a reminder of what I’d done. How enemies of the state cannot be tolerated. And a ruler should never be soft when there is justice to be done.”
He looked away, as if it were a memory too painful to share. She drew her hand along his cheek, aching to help him, not knowing how.
“I’m sorry,” she said, the paltry words falling from her lips. “I had…no idea.”
“That we princes have to go through such things? Normally, we don’t—and growing up, my father was extra lenient with me. That was the first time I’d ever been punished like that. When the king learned of it, he disapproved of the method, but agreed that I’d grown up to be too easy on our subjects, and that something had to be done about it before it was too late for me to unlearn my bad habits.”
She frowned, a bit of fear trembling inside her. She didn’t want him to lose what made him him, his gentleness, strength of character… “I don’t want them to change you,” she said. “I like you the way you are.”
“I don’t want to either. I mean, I get that we need to show strength, but like my father, I see that we need to change a lot of the way we do things. Holding back power can be just as much strength as releasing it. The king can be merciful—but my great-uncle is of the old school, and he wants it to go back to the way it was, even before Unity. He thinks that we’re going to collapse because we’re too complacent. I guess I’ve been a little insulated from day-to-day rule, talking theory with Dad but removed from the rest of it. Now I’ll have to get more involved. I just hope I won’t run afoul of Shade again.”
“I wish he hadn’t hurt you like that. I know—”
She stopped. She didn’t want to go too far.
“I just—I’ve felt a lightning attack before. I can’t imagine how so much of it must’ve felt….”
“I wish I could’ve fought back more. As the firstborn, I have more lightning than he does. But he’s the intel chief, he’s trained for hundreds of years—I can’t compare with that.”
“Thank you for holding back,” she said, again filled with gratitude.
“I couldn’t stand the thought of hurting you.”
“It didn’t hurt at all this time. You channeled the lightning away, and—that thing you did—”
“You liked that?”
A smile pulled at her lips. “Very much. I’m still recovering.” Her limbs felt shaky—in a good way.
“I thought now that I had some practice keeping the lightning away, I’d try to give you the most pleasure possible while not hurting you.”
“Well, it worked. I thought the first time was amazing. This—blew me into the next dimension.”
He smiled, looking pleased. She planted a kiss in the center of his chest. He kissed her forehead. Wrapped his arms around her, a slow fire smoldering between them, until they fell asleep in each other’s arms.
Dreams entangled her. Distant thunder rending them….darkness slashing through the light….
She thrashed awake with a gasp. He grasped her hand, folding it in his strong one. "Are you okay?"
"Not really. I just…don't want anything to intrude on what we have."
He settled in beside her on the bed, his arm around her shoulders, looking in her eyes. "Well, we're supposed to have a fortnight of honeymoon before we get into the duties of our position. So no one should bother us for a while."
"I don't think I ever want to go out of here again…." It was true; she didn't really want to face the real world. Living in the Spire with the Royalty would be wonderful, but not without its problems, the pressures of ruling…the inevitable complications….nothing like lying here with Ember.
Despite what they'd shared, she barely knew him. Everything was simple here. She could trust him. But out there, she hoped nothing would come between them. That they had forged a strong enough bond that it would not break, that she would never lose this…
She would do her part to make sure that never happened. As long as she was with him, everything would be all right….
"I could stay here forever," he said. "But we're not just our private selves—though I wish we could be. We're our public selves, too."
"I'm going to have to learn my duties as consort."
His lower lip pouted. Such firm, sensuous lips… "Maybe you shouldn't call yourself that. It's so commonplace-sounding…almost demeaning. I want you to be my partner, my equal. Grandfather may disapprove, but I'm going to do as much as possible to let you rule at my side." His eyes flickered, as if with a sudden thought. "If that's what you want. Maybe you'd rather be free, run around the gardens…."
"I want to do what you want."
He shook his head a little. "That's kind of missing the point. Do you really want to share my responsibilities?"
"I've looked at your profile. You have the qualities to be a ruler."
"Really?" She'd never thought of herself as capable of it—too weak, like her mother. Her father always told her she was worthless, only useful as a consort, a mindless piece of flesh…
"Yes. Smart, strong, compassionate—that's the kind of ruler we need for the future."
She'd barely thought of future duties, so immersed she'd been in shedding her fear, in discovering his incomparability. And did he really see deeper than her supposed outer beauty? Did she have more to offer than even she realized?
They shared a light breakfast that a Monitor brought in. Then Ember suggested that he show her the rest of the suite that was all their own, about fifty rooms spread across three of the highest floors of the Spire.
She slipped off the bed, a little wobbly from not standing up for so long. He grasped her arm, and she stood, sunlight pouring in from the window, blanketing her with a soft sheet of warmth.
She closed her eyes, soaking it in, giving it free rein to play across her body. Completely at ease in her own skin for one of the first times in her life.
A touch at her shoulder. He slid his arm around her and they stood there, drenched in sunlight.
He stepped back. His eyes traveled up and down her body, alight with admiration. "So beautiful," he said. Heat rose to her cheeks. She dropped her eyes.
"I'll never compare to you." She let herself appraise him, his strong form, every part complementing the other. "I still can't believe I'm this close to you—I should be bowing before you. You are everything a god should be."
He shook his head. "I've never been comfortable with being worshipped by the people. We may have superior blood, but we're not gods. I don't want another worshipper; I want someone I can share my life with. Be an equal with me in every way. I…can't deny what genetics has given me, but a lot of people—my brother for example—are better-looking than I am."
She conjured up an image of his younger brother Pyre—a golden being with hair just a shade darker than the color of his skin. He was indeed handsome—and some women thought he was the better-looking of the brothers. She couldn't see it—but of course, she was biased. "I've never seen a man more beautiful than you."
"I am an earthly being compared to you." He slid his hand into her hair. "Gold—our sacred color." He slid his hand down over her neck. "And your body—divine. I hardly dare touch such beauty. And your face—" he kissed her lips— "as stunningly perfect as a goddess." He stepped back. In one swift motion, fluid with royal grace, he knelt before her.
She stepped over to him, knowing she didn't deserve this, that if it were anyone else, she would have suspected him of mockery. She dared to touch his chin, lift it—
His eyes caught hers, so full of admiration she could never suspect him of disingenuousness.
He took her hand, and kissed it with all the reverence of a subject to his queen.
She froze at this unexpected gesture. A tear stung her eye, slipped down her cheek.
He stood, drawing her to him. Wiped the tear away from her face. "What's wrong?"
An ache built in her chest. She fought to suppress it. Couldn't break down in front of him. "It's just that I—have never felt so special before. Like someone actually thought I was beautiful."
He looked startled. "The people, the Nobility, have always called you beautiful."
"I never trusted them. I always thought… I was plain…"
"Who told you that?"
"No one who saw you could ever think you were anything but beautiful. You are the very image of a goddess, if anyone is. Don't ever let anyone tell you different." He swept back a strand of hair from her face, tucked it behind her ear.
She smiled, the sun drying the remnant of the tear from her face. She still didn't know how he saw all that, but it felt good to be called beautiful, even if she didn't feel worthy of it.
"What would you like to see first?" he asked. "The fountain room would be fun."
She followed him to the closet interface beside the door. He tapped the control pad, and a tiny hologram of a red silk robe appeared. "Nothing too ornate, I'm thinking," he said. "We don't need to show off for anyone."
She flipped through the holograms, the robes getting more elaborate as she kept going. She flipped back and selected a simple purple robe. The closet popped open, and the robe slid out on a hanger. Ember swept it off, and draped it over her shoulders. Then he wrapped the sash around her waist, tying it with slow, deliberate motions. Her stomach flipped over at his elegant movements.
Then, he selected a golden robe for himself. As he drew it out of the closet, she knew it would look perfect on him, complementing the tones in his skin, contrasting with his charcoal-black hair, enhancing the facets in his eyes. She took it from him—the silk almost as light as air. She draped it around his shoulders, and he slid his arms into the sleeves. She brought its edges together, sad to see his magnificent chest disappear beneath the fabric.
He followed her out of the room.
The hallway gleamed, the wall a pure gold polished to a high sheen. An ornate door stood before her. "Is this the fountain room?" she said.
"No, it's down this way." He stopped at a door further down the hallway. She followed him inside.
The air filled with the constant roar of rushing water. Plants of all kinds abounded between pools. Fountains spouted between the plants, many different sculptures made of stone and marble and gold. It smelled of fresh water on stones, mingling with the sweet scent of flowers….
He led her down the stone pathway, past a fountain with a sculpture of one of their ancestors, a Winged, its wings swept up to a delicate point. She leaned down over some pink flowers to drink in their scent. As they walked further down the path, tall bell-like flowers towered over them, dispensing fragments from their cavernous hollows. A line of fountains spurted beside the flagstones, lit by many different colors, misting her face and neck.
At the end of the path, Ember stopped. Rainbows hung in the air, over a waterfall cascading down the mossy wall, gold glinting in the rocks. The water poured into a large, shallow pool, its golden bottom shimmering in the iridescent light.
He took her hand and led her down to the very edge of it, her bare feet meeting the wet stones.
"This is all ours," he said.
Even the Nobility complex didn’t have a room like this. "The king doesn't come here?"
"The king's fountain room is even bigger. This way, we can keep it all to ourselves. Anything we do here is completely private."
A water lily floated past, its purple and orange petals enticing her. She leaned down to pick it—her feet slipped—
Ember grabbed her arm, not before she stepped ankle-deep in water, soaking the hem of her robe.
He took her hand, and they stepped knee-deep into the water. Then he led her over to the waterfall. It cascaded down over him, drenching him. She joined him beneath it—the cool water splashed down onto her head, shoulders and arms. She met him in a kiss, knowing she couldn't use lightning here….in a moment, she wouldn't be able to help it—
Lightning snapped from his fingertips where he grasped the small of her back. It spread across her skin, enhanced by the water, sparking up into her eyes and mouth. She bit back a cry.
He drew back. "We can't do this," he said. "I can't hurt you."
She nodded, reluctant, aching for him. In the water, it would be too dangerous to release lightning, and it would be impossible to hold it in completely if they went any further.
He picked her up in his strong arms, taking her out of the waterfall, his biceps pressing against her upper back. He lowered his mouth over hers, and gave her a long, luscious kiss….she slid her hands into his damp hair, savoring every nuance of taste and touch.
Lightning snapped from her fingertips, and she pulled away from him. "Sorry! Maybe this room wasn't such a good idea after all."
"It would work if we could control ourselves. It's impossible not to let out some lightning—it's the expression of my love. But because I love you, I don't want to hurt you. It's a paradox."
"Maybe someday we can learn enough control," she said, exhilaration spreading through her at the prospect. Now that she had someone like him—beyond all her expectations—she wanted to take advantage of it. Use the freedom he'd given her from fear to its maximum; only with him, she knew, could she be herself with abandon.
"Anyway," she said, "I love how the lightning's a measure of our passion for each other. I had no idea that love could be expressed like this."
"You mean you've never—"
"Not before you," she lied, though her heart thudded against her chest, ashamed to be lying to him. It's my first time with a man I want to be with, she thought. That's all that matters. All that has to matter.
"Here I was so nervous that it was my first time," he said. "I'd just assumed—well, none of that matters now."
She pressed her cheek to his. He kissed her neck—she closed her eyes.
Opened them—knowing they couldn't keep doing this—not in the water, anyway—
And caught a shadow out of the corner of her eye.
Something moving among the bushes—
She grasped the back of Ember's neck and pulled away. "Ember, please—"
"Sorry, I just can't get enough—"
He pulled away. "What is it?"
She forced herself to whisper the words, her heart pounding with fear. "There's someone in here."
Ember whirled around, his muscles rippling against her skin, taut for action.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” came a deep, resonant voice.
A figure emerged from the shadows of some tall flowering bushes. A tall man, clothed in black. Black hair, a touch of silver brushing his temples. He looked rather like Ember, as if a mirror had twisted him, lengthened him, distorting him into something still beautiful, but dark, and not quite sane….
He glided forward, his black robe sweeping along the ground. A gold insignia was etched on his shoulder.
The golden eye of the secret police.
It could only be one person. The Enforcer, Shadowblade.
Her heart flipped in fear. She grasped Ember’s shoulder, seeking refuge in his strong arms. He wrapped his arms around her, pressing her to his chest, shielding her from the man’s view. Gratefulness poured through her at this protective gesture.
“You should not be in here,” said Ember, menace lacing his voice. “This is the morning after my wedding. You would dare to intrude on our privacy.”
Shade waved a hand dismissively. “I’ve seen the King himself in a lot more compromising positions than this. As the intel chief, I must be allowed access where others cannot go. Nothing is sacred."
“There is such a thing as protocol and common decency.”
“Of course. But I will be the judge of what overrides such considerations.”
Ember set her gently down, keeping himself between her and his great-uncle. Fear trembled through her, but she also felt indignant that this man, no matter who he was, dared intrude on their private chambers, violating what should be theirs alone to share. She emerged and stood beside Ember.
Could he be so fearless in front of the man who had tortured him? Ember towered over Shade, making the other look small, unimpressive.
But still, a dark power emanated from the Enforcer. Outwardly, he exuded calm elegance, but potential danger seemed to thrum through the air near him.
“What could be so important that could possibly bring you to our private chambers?” said Ember.
“You know that complacency is no virtue in a king,” replied Shade. “Even you are not immune to it. It’s high time you started to learn what is expected of you. We have been too lenient, and perhaps it is too late to unlearn some things. From time to time, it is desirable to jar you out of your complacency, your regrettable laxity. This—” he swept his arm around the room—“is a luxury. So is she. A prince has to be prepared to sacrifice such pleasures for his duty. Privacy is a privilege, not a right.”
“My grandfather would beg to differ.”
“We differ on many things. But we agree that we have let you have free rein of your life for too long. Letting your father take charge of your upbringing, letting his unorthodox ideas influence you, was a mistake. It may be too late for him, but hopefully not for you.”
Without warning, his hand darted forward and grabbed Sky’s chin.
She froze at this sudden assault. His fingers dug into her chin, rough, calloused.
“I can see why you’d want to stay with her, though. She is a pretty little thing.”
Ember grabbed Shade’s arm. “You will take your hands off of her.”
Electric current laced across Shade’s skin, prickling into her face. Lightning crackled down Ember’s arm, meeting Shade’s.
“You know what I could do to her,” said Shade.
“Let her go.”
Shade released her. Her face felt bruised. Her limbs trembled, but she forced herself to show at least some of the bravery that Ember did. To be worthy of him.
“You will never lay your hands on her again,” said Ember.
“If you insist. But such things have little import either way. What matters now is internal security. We have reason to believe that spies have infiltrated the Spire. We are not sure from which faction.”
“There are always spies,” said Ember, a note of disgust in his voice. “You see spies everywhere, even when there aren’t any. You deal in shadows. It has nothing to do with me.”
“As king, you will have to know about intelligence. You will start your training by searching for the spies that have infiltrated the Spire.”
“I am sure you have more experienced spies in your employ.”
“You miss the point, my dear prince. You must sacrifice pleasure to avoid complacency. You must learn espionage to become a king. And you must slough off this softness and develop hard steel beneath. Or will you allow this girl to be your weakness?”
“If that’s what you call it.” Ember caressed her cheek, touching softly the place where Shade had bruised it. It felt better, as if he’d already healed it. Her heart swelled at how he defended her in front of this man. “I am not going anywhere.”
“Not that I need it, but your grandfather has authorized this.”
Ember drew her close to him, his arm around her shoulder. “I will speak to him.”
“Interrupt him if you must, but he will be most displeased that you disregard his decrees.”
“This is unjust.”
Shade’s lip twitched. “Such a good example you are showing to your wife. I hope she will not follow suit and disobey me; such things could have deeper consequences than the recalcitrance of a spoiled prince.”
“What do you mean?” said Ember.
“If she is loyal, then she will obey. If she does not, her loyalty will be called into question.”
“She is and will always be loyal to our family.”
“She is a Vale. The Vales are docile now, but they are our former rivals, and we have at times glimpsed simmering resentment still nurtured by their clan.”
He turned to Sky. “This is unofficial, of course, but whenever you are in contact with them, I want you to….keep an eye on them.”
“I…doubt I will see them much, now that I live here,” she said.
“On the contrary, they are entwined with our family now. They have pretext for visiting the Spire. In fact, we have invited them over for a reception tomorrow. On this occasion, you will sit with them as guests of honor, and afterwards you will visit the house of your father—”
Her head spun—she barely heard what he said next—something about binding our two families together—keeping potential enemies close—
Her knees almost gave way—and would have, if she hadn’t had Ember to lean on.
“I—can’t go back,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Of course you can. And if you do not—”
“You can’t ask her to spy on her own family,” said Ember.
To go back there—even for a little while—to that atmosphere of death—to return to the prison where she’d lived for 25 years….
But to refuse would mean suspicion. Perhaps treason…which would mean the annulment of the marriage, and death…
“You don’t have to do it,” said Ember.
“I think I do,” she said, feeling like her heart was being squeezed, twisted—
“Good girl,” said Shade. “I will be seeing you both soon. In the meantime, enjoy yourselves.” He turned and glided away, blending with the shadows among the bushes.
Ember grasped her shoulders, turning her to him, his golden eyes full of concern. “Are you okay?”
She nodded, unable to catch her breath.
“You’re not okay.” He gathered her to him. She leaned her head on his chest, feeling his heartbeat—trying to forget it had happened and return to the time when it was just her and him.
He helped her over to a marble bench and sat down beside her. Took her hand in his.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I told you we were safe here, but not much is safe from him. He thinks he’s entitled to everything just because he’s in charge of security. Only the king can override his authority, but in theory, Dad and I should be able to order him. He has too much power. That’s another thing we need to reform—but he’s not likely to give up his power…” He touched her cheek gently. “There are marks there. Does it hurt?”
“Not really. I’ve—” She was about to say she’d had a lot worse. What was she thinking? Her guard had been shattered even further after what had just happened. “Your touch makes it better.”
She laid her hand over his. He clasped her hand in his and lowered it, then kissed her on the cheek. Kissed her chin. The pain faded completely.
He pulled back. “I’m sorry to bring you into all this. Royal society isn’t always as pleasant as it might seem from a distance. We rival the Nobility for intrigue—and it’s worse, with the Enforcer behind every shadow. I should be able to stand up to him. It’s just that he’s powerful in his own right. I…haven’t really recovered from what he did to me.”
“You are still afraid of him?”
Ember nodded. “As he was speaking, I could feel the fire licking across my skin—his eyes burning into me—merciless—but I couldn’t let him know he affected me. And I couldn’t let him hurt you. I’d face him a thousand times if it meant keeping you from any semblance of the pain I felt.”
She flinched, recalling the fire he described, ripping through her, her father enjoying her pain—
“Thank you,” she said. “For shielding me from him.”
“If he touches you again—” A thrill ran through her that he would stand up for her even in the face of his own pain. At the same time, she never wanted him to get hurt because of her. “I’m going to talk to the king. See if he can’t get us out of this. You shouldn’t have to spy on your family. And it’s time something was done about Shade.”
“Will the king listen to you?”
“I hope so. You never know with Infinity March.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“Perhaps I will talk to my father… but if he can’t do anything, then I will have to obey. I hate the thought of leaving you, even for one minute.”
“I could come with you.”
“No—you should have to deal with Shade as little as possible. I will come with you to your family’s, though. I’ll give you all the support you need.”
“Thank you,” she said and leaned her head on his chest, comforted by the fact that he’d be with her.
But still, she couldn’t shake the feeling of terror at the very prospect of seeing her father…. of being hit by the memories she longed to forget…. Just when she thought she was free of them, they returned—a dark shard in her heart that could not dissolve….a part of her that her father owned. No matter what she did, she’d never be able to get it back—a part of her would always be his, and not Ember’s.
Pain twisted through her heart at this realization. She thought she was free…but she would never be completely free…. The very fact that she’d lied to him attested to it. She couldn’t just erase it, no matter how much she wanted to. Even Ember, as wonderful as he was, could never totally free her of it….
She just hoped she could shake the shame she felt and pretend to go back to the way it was, at least for a little while. To not let her past intrude, as long as she could help it.
Sky turned to him, and he swept her into a kiss. She immersed in his golden magnificent beauty.
But somewhere beneath it all, a shadow had settled over her heart.
Sky lay beneath a tree, a mat of moss soft beneath her arms. Pink petals fluttered down from the flower-laden branches. Tall blue flowers surrounded her, hiding her. No one knew she was here in the garden room except Ember. And he’d posted guards at the door to make sure no one intruded while he brought his request to the king.
Despite the fact that she was safe here, she couldn’t shake the terror trembling through her whenever she thought about tomorrow, when she'd see her father again. Darkness had descended over her, casting a shadow over the beauty of the garden.
She tried to shed all thought from her mind, just feel, as she often did in her garden at home. But unwanted images kept appearing. Her father, smiling, holding out his hands in false welcome…. His face, pleasant, but a savagery lurking behind those copper-brown eyes—the hunger for the flesh of a young girl….
She cut off those images before they could go further—to their inevitable end. She laid her head on the moss, and brought up an image of Ember. So beautiful….
She examined the image of him from every angle. Relived her night and morning of ecstasy. Longing poured through her.
But even as she thought of him, darkness carved through her heart.
She stood and walked among the flowers, caressing their petals, recalling the name of each one. Some she did not even know—rare blooms from other worlds. She wound among the blooming trees and the dancing little stream along the side of the path.
Ember will be with me tomorrow, she thought. I don’t have to be afraid.
Besides, my father never hurt me after I was fourteen. He’s mostly ignored me except for shooting insults at me…. He’s not even interested in me that way anymore. Why should it matter what he did so long ago? I should push it to the back of my mind—cut it out—not let it invade my life. I have a new life now…the past is nothing more than a nightmare….
Come in here, my little ambrosia. I have something for you…..
She tore away from the voice, the image beginning to materialize with it—fled down the path—
I won’t let you take me. I won’t let you take me—
Blindly running, she almost crashed straight into Ember.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, grasping her arms, smoothing back wild locks of hair from her face.
He searched her eyes, looking a little doubtful.
How long can I keep up this pretense, she thought….how long can I pretend I’m not damaged beyond repair…
He kissed the tip of her nose.
“I talked to my grandfather. He thinks he’s going to live forever—so he won’t have to worry about me becoming king anytime soon—but he doesn’t want my behavior to reflect badly on our family. To him, my father’s a lost cause, but maybe I can be fixed. Anyway, he told me to do what his brother says. I persisted, but he had other things on his mind. I went to my father, but there was nothing he could do—he’s out of the king’s good graces at the moment.
“I hate the thought of having to leave you for something that’s just contrived by Shade to manipulate me. Maybe we don’t need the king’s authorization to maneuver out of Shade’s demands. We could go to another world. That’s what we were going to do for our honeymoon anyway. But on the less developed worlds, Shade doesn’t have such an extensive network. We could disappear for a while….”
“Oh—could we?” Hope sprang up in her heart.
“He’d be furious, but I’d deal with that. After the banquet tomorrow we’ll leave to any world you desire.”
“Why can’t we go before the banquet?”
“Don’t you want to see your family?”
“Besides, it’ll lull him into a false sense of security.” His face was alight with excitement. She was excited with him—but at the same time, she felt like she was sinking through the floor….
I’ll just see my father for a little while, then we’ll leave. But still, she felt that if she saw him, he’d lock her in chains again, and nothing would help her recover…she’d lapse into the nonperson she’d been for so long, hollow, half-alive….
She couldn’t tell this to Ember, though. She didn’t want to raise his suspicions. And so he let her take her to the dining room, and they ate supper together.
It was a good supper—huge, food spreading out over the long, ornate table. She lost herself in the sensation of tastes and textures.
Laughing, she followed him back to their bedroom, her hand in his. He lifted her up, twirled her around. “It’s been too long,” he said, voice close to her ear. “Too long to be away from your touch. You are everything—” He kissed her on the mouth. She kissed him back, a fever rising in her as she realized there was nothing between them. They were together, alone—she needed to feel his skin on hers. Shed these encumbering clothes.
She fumbled with his ornate official jacket. He helped her unbutton it, and shrugged it off his shoulders. Then she lifted the embroidered shirt beneath it off over his head—her hands tangled in his soft hair—then flung it onto the floor. There—the astonishing being beneath. She stepped back, struck by how perfect he was compared to her unworthiness—and a sting of shame, of the uncleanness she felt—how dare she touch him with her contaminated fingers?
He took her inaction as cue to start on her, tenderly touching the robe at her throat. He slowly peeled it off, flipping it down over one shoulder, then the other.
The robe shimmered to the floor. She stood there, not willing to make the next move.
He stepped over to her. “Is everything all right?” he said. “We don’t have to do this now.”
“No—I want you. Please,” she said, not wanting to deny him but not wanting to feel the pleasure she did not deserve—not from someone like him—when she had such a disgusting secret hidden deep inside her.
He kissed her, his caresses so gentle—a shiver ran over her skin. Her father had done this….pretended to be gentle. Touched her like this—
He was not here but she could see him all the same and didn’t want it intrude on her image of Ember—how could that man corrupt any part of who Ember was—
That other man—if he could be called a man—could not be here—she fought the image, even as Ember kissed down her neck.
It would always be like this, the darkness layered over the light, unless something else could superimpose on it—she needed to forget, to wash the feeling of her father’s touch from her—cleanse it completely and maybe then she could shed this shame.
She could never be worthy of Ember, but maybe the only way to erase the past would be to let him tear it away so she could give him everything that she was—let him burn it away with his touch—
“Kiss me harder,” she said.
He withdrew. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Maybe you will like it.”
“Hurting someone is not my idea of pleasure.”
“Maybe I will like it.”
His eyebrows shot upwards. “Oh. I’ve heard that some like it rough—I just thought—well, you didn’t seem to want it.”
“Maybe I’ve changed my mind. I want to try something new.”
“Well, I suppose—I’m not experienced in any of it, not even from the trainer, but I will try. As long as—well, I don’t really want to hurt you, so you can tell me if it’s too much.”
She nodded, though fear tingled through her. She’d always been sensitive, always hated pain—
But this is for him. So he can have all of me. Burn the past out of my mind—rip it from my skin—
She’d thought it had been erased, until she’d learned she’d have to see her father again, visit his house. But maybe by tomorrow he would be nothing to her, once and for all—she could see him, but disdain him completely because another could give her everything that he could not—pleasure and pain were Ember’s while he was nothing more than a fading shadow—
She lay down on the bed, displaying all of herself for him.
He climbed up beside her. Lay on his side, tenderly brushed her cheek with his fingers. “This is kind of foreign to me. I—don’t really get this, but I want to please you. Is there anything that you have learned from the trainer that you’d like to try? If you had a trainer, that is. I know you didn’t go all the way.”
Her father lashing lightning across her—beating her—tying her—cutting her until she cried—no, she doubted that any kind of trainer would have used those methods….but it was all she knew.
She doubted Ember would go that far, and she didn’t want him to—but it needed to be enough—more pain than she could bear—
“Kiss me. Hard.”
He leaned over her, hesitancy in his eyes. He lowered his mouth to hers, kissing her softly as if to reassure her who he was. Then he kissed harder, hungrily attacking her lips.
She trembled with his touch—his savagery felt amazing—she felt how much he wanted her through his touch. She kissed him back, allowing her own hunger to override the plan—who cared about that when she felt like this?
But no, she had to keep it up. She pulled back a little and whispered, “Harder. I want to taste blood.”
Shock flitted across his eyes, as if he’d never considered she’d go that far, but he complied. Kissed her, hard, then bit down on her lip, just a tiny tear, but she tasted the salty tang of blood.
Her father had done this—
No—don’t let him in—maybe this isn’t working—but if the pleasure couldn’t erase it, the pain had to, or nothing would. She had to forge forward, even though she hated pain.
“Keep going,” she said.
“I don’t know if I can bring myself to hurt you—to mar your beautiful lips—”
She didn’t want to make him do something he didn’t like—the only way to keep going was to show him how much she liked this. But something in her was gratified to know that the only way he would hurt her would be against his will.
“Maybe we could try something else. Could you tie me to the bed?”
“Oh. I suppose.” He climbed off the bed and brought back the sash from her robe. Tied it gently around her wrists.
“Harder,” she said. Not meeting her eyes, he yanked the sash tight around her wrists. She bit back a cry, trying not to show him how much it hurt. Maybe if she showed that it didn’t bother her, it wouldn’t bother him as much.
He tied the other end to the golden rung on the back of the bed. Pleasure trickled through her—now he could do to her what he wanted. But then, an image—
Her father, tying her down, twisting her wrists together—
She needed another image to replace it.
“Lightning,” she said. “Please—hurt me—”
Still looking hesitant, he touched her stomach, sending lightning snapping into her—he lifted his hand, little sparks licking down between his skin and hers—delicious tingles, snapping harder than before, yet without any real pain—gasping, she marveled again at his control, at his ability to know just what she liked—pain shot through her wrists but that didn’t matter—nothing else mattered while he was doing this—maybe this would be enough—
Lightning tingled like static at her throat, then he roved down over her stomach to her legs, her feet—no pain at all now—just little sparks, unbearably sweet—she laughed, trying not to writhe away from the tickling feeling—
He withdrew, kissed her on the mouth. “You like that?” he said.
She could hardly force the words from her throat. “Very much,” she managed. The past had all but disappeared—perhaps this was enough—she needed it to be enough.
He kissed her again, then followed the path of the lightning down her neck-- he nipped her skin lightly—
Her father looked down at her. “You like this, don’t you.”
“Harder,” she said, and he complied—the images stayed, sticking in her mind—
“Harder!” she screamed, needing Ember to erase it, erase it all with his burning touch—
Pain cut through her—she needed this—“More!” she said, and he kissed her lips, drawing blood, but he didn’t seem to notice this time—he kissed her in a frenzy, his body, packed with muscle, nearly smothering her—she wanted to cry out but couldn’t and he was pressing down on her and she couldn’t get out—her father—Ember—pain sliced through her wrists but he didn’t seem to care—perhaps all men were alike when it came down to it—
Lightning raked across her, striking outward from where he held her waist, shocking her—he let out lightning without reserve this time and it burned into her, cracking against her skin, lashing into her most tender parts—
A cry escaped her lips, rending her throat. He drew back, as if shocked himself.
She trembled, hanging from her wrists, blood trickling down her chin. She felt weak, and fear rippled through her—he had done this—like her father—
But tears trembled in his eyes. “I’m—so sorry—oh, Sky. I thought you wanted this but it was too much and—” He hung his head. “I shouldn’t have waited for a word from you—I should have known it was too far—I have too much lightning for my own good. I—” He reached for her but she flinched away—Hurt flashed through his eyes and it tore her.
“No—I’m sorry,” she managed, the words rasping through her throat. “I should have told you how far I wanted to go.”
She looked at him but fear trembled through her at the thought of his touch—just like with her father—
What have I done? she thought.
How could she remedy this? Let him know it wasn’t that big of a deal—let him keep going—perhaps it hadn’t gone far enough. Vestiges of the past lingered—perhaps they would disappear if he continued.
“It’s okay,” she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “Even if I cry out, it doesn’t mean I want you to stop. I like the pain.”
“You—can’t really like this.”
“I do. I want you to—take me. Don’t hold back your lightning—”
“No. I’m sorry if that’s what you want—I just—can’t. I can’t stand hurting you anymore. If I used lightning without holding back—there’s no telling what it would do to you. It might damage you permanently. That I could never live with.”
“I’ve—” She almost said, I’ve experienced it before—and I’m not damaged—I can always be repaired—
“I want you to keep going.”
“Please.” A tear slipped from her eye—a horrible pain crushing her chest—“Please. It’s what I want. It’s what I—” what I deserve, what I expect, all that I know—
A sob shook her, pain like a lightning strike ripping through her chest—she couldn’t get a breath, trapped sobs burned her throat.
He untied her wrists and she stifled a cry at the pain but his hands were gentle and he wrapped her in his arms.
The breath in her chest finally escaped, and with it, a cry tore from her. She curled up against his chest, hot tears pouring down her cheeks and he held her, stroking her hair until the tears dried and she lay there, hollow inside except for pain and guilt, the only comfort his strong arms around her, his touch the only thing keeping her alive.
Sleep shoved her beneath the surface of consciousness. Its dark water closed over her.
Sky lay on her bed in her nightgown, reading a book after her cousin’s wedding. She hoped that her father wouldn’t come in….it had been almost a month—maybe he’d forgotten about her….
The door opened. The tall dark outline of her father appeared.
Fear churned through her chest. She scrambled up onto the bed but he leaped over and grabbed her.
She struggled, but he pressed her down into the mattress—
She lay there, his sparks lacing across her skin.
“You looked so beautiful in that dress this evening, just like a little doll,” he said. “A little piece of cake I had to taste.”
He leaned over her, pressing her wrists down onto the bed, a slightly insane light in his eyes, his hunger enhanced by the wine and nectar he’d fed on at the reception….
Weakly, she tried to get up but he snapped lightning into her and she cried out.
“Sh, little girl. This won’t hurt if you don’t resist,” he said, his words slurred. But she knew it was a lie. It would hurt, no matter what she did.
In a few swift motions, he tore her nightgown over her head.
She writhed, trying to get away but he hit her across the jaw. Sparks danced across her vision. “You will treat your father with respect. I am doing this for you. I know you like it.”
Unbearable pain slashed through her—
Tears flooded her eyes.
Ember shot up beside her in the dark. “Sky—what is it?”
The dam burst and she sobbed against his chest—he stroked her hair but all she could think was how little she deserved him.
Guilt ripped through her when she thought of what she’d done. To deceive him—to ask him to do things he didn’t want to do—was unforgivable.
She dared not look him in the eye. She didn’t deserve his touch….Perhaps he would see what she really was and cast her out, find someone undamaged, much more beautiful than she, inside and out….
Anyway, she didn’t know how they could get back what they had after what happened last night. He had to see her differently now, see the damaged being beneath the surface. She’d let her father come between her and Ember and she hated herself for it.
But she let Ember stroke her hair, till the tears stopped and she lay back on the pillows.
“Did you have a nightmare?” he asked.
She nodded, not wanting to lie to him anymore.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
She shook her head.
“It might help.” His words, his manner, were very careful. Not cold, but as if he wasn’t quite sure how to act around her.
Sorrow shadowed his golden eyes. He ran his fingers down her arm, grasped her hand, brought it up between them on the tangled sheets. “I’m sorry about last night.” He touched her wrist. “You’re injured. I had no idea—”
Come to think of it, her wrists burned, but it was insignificant compared to the pain in her heart.
His eyes traveled over her in the dimness, pupils dilating, shining a little, so he could see in the dark.
He gasped. Ran his hand above her waist—not touching her at all—
“I burned you. I can’t believe I actually—” His voice choked with pain, he jumped off of the bed, dashed over to the interface by the door and touched its panel, making it glow. “Healing salve, please,” he said, and in a moment a little door opened in the wall, revealing a small white jar. He raced back over to her with it. Took her arm, and carefully rubbed ice-cold salve around her wrist. Then he spread it along her waist, the jagged scars of lightning cooling with the soothing touch of the cream.
He inspected her for more injuries, and found more scars on her back. He spread the salve over it, then sat back, chest heaving. A tear glistened in his eye, and dropped to the bedsheets.
He turned to her. “I shouldn’t have done that, even if you asked me to. I lost control and I never, ever wanted to do that. I should have seen earlier how you didn’t really like it. Why would you want me to hurt you if you didn’t like it?”
She shook her head, unable to speak.
“Is it what you thought I wanted? Maybe you’ve heard about what others like and you thought I would like it too—” He shook his head. “Would you like to go to the infirmary?”
“No,” she said. “The cream is good enough. I don’t want to move.”
He nodded, looked away. She hated this tension between them…. perhaps he wouldn’t want her anymore and it would serve her right but it hurt to even consider tearing herself away from him….
He looked back at her. “Was the nightmare…about me? About what I did to you?”
She shook her head.
“Did someone else—hurt you?”
She nodded, unable to lie to him anymore.
“My—” She hesitated. How could she possibly tell him this? A secret she’d kept for years, ever since she was five and her father started…visiting her….
But if she could trust anyone, she could trust Ember. Perhaps telling him the secret would help.
She opened her mouth again, not sure if the word would be trapped inside her throat after all these years.
“My f-father,” she whispered, her lips trembling, consumed with fear of what he’d think of her now that he knew.
“Your father?” Horror dawned on his face.
She nodded. A tear slipped down her cheek.
“He didn’t—dare touch you—in that way?”
“Oh, Sky—I’m so sorry!” He wrapped his arms around her. In a moment she felt him shaking beside her and she realized he was crying—his hot tears dripped onto her cheek. Trembling, he slid his fingers into her hair. She pressed her cheek against his chest and they cried together, she holding him, comforting him almost as much as he did her….stroking his back, gently, up and down, loving how close she was to him, that she mattered so much to him, that he felt this much sorrow for her pain….
She leaned back, buried her hand in his soft, beautiful hair. Still wondering how he could not be disgusted by her touch. She withdrew but he kept one arm around her, the other caressing her face.
“You don’t mind—” she said— “about what I told you? You still want to be with me?”
“It wasn’t your fault. Nothing—he did makes you any less of who you are. You are beautiful, perfect, amazing, my Sky.” He kissed her forehead.
“It’s—a horrible secret. I feel so—dirty. Unworthy.”
“He’s a disgusting thing that no one should call a man. To endure such a thing—it makes you even more amazing—to be everything you are and still bear this secret. How long did he….” He looked hesitant, as if not wanting to cause her more pain.
“Since I was five. Till I was fourteen.”
His eyes widened. He looked away. Then he looked at her again, his eyes flashing with dangerous anger. For a moment, she thought it was directed at her, and she cringed. But of course he would not hurt her. His body was tense, shaking. “I am going to kill him. He hurt you in a way no man should touch his child. He deserves death. His crime should be plastered over the city.”
He slipped off of the bed and stood, dim light from the window splashed across his flawless form. He swept over to the closet, and touched the interface panel. Its light sprang on. He punched a few buttons, and in a moment some clothes popped out of the closet. He pulled a dark sleek shirt over his head.
She froze for a moment, then slid off the bed, still numb, floating forward as if she were a disembodied spirit. She laid her hand on his arm. “Please—don’t.”
“You defend him?” He looked incredulous.
“I–don’t want anyone to know.”
“Oh. Then I will say nothing, and just kill him.” He pulled on matching dark pants.
She touched his shoulder weakly. “No—please. You can’t—even a prince can’t just kill a Noble. He’ll hurt you—”
"I’ll hurt him.” He lifted his hand, lightning crackling across it, a maze of blue sparks.
“I’m not worth it.”
He swept her to him, kissed her on the mouth. “You are worth everything.”
She was stunned by the sincerity in his eyes, his love, his bloodlust. Then she managed, “It’s not worth you getting hurt. Not to me.”
His lip curled with a look of pride. “I am a prince, the Heir. I am trained for such things. That man is worth nothing. His blood must be spilt. The one who hurt and degraded my wife—my beautiful one, who has risen from the ashes with such grace.” He kissed her forehead. “I’ll be back,” he said, and, already blending with the charcoal of the shadows, he slipped out the door.
Sky stood there, unable to move. He will be okay, she told herself. And her father would be dead. Perhaps then she would be at peace.
She meandered back to the bed and sat down to wait for Ember to return, her mind in a haze.
But then, a thought intruded, along with a stab of panic. What if Ember didn’t succeed? What if she never saw him again?
Without Ember, her life would be desolate. She didn’t want to live in a world where Ember was gone, but her father still lived, triumphant—
She sprang off the bed, the carpet soft on the soles of her feet.
She had to do something.
But what can I do? Me, against my father?
I have to do something. I have to be with him. If there’s any way I can help him, I have to try. He’s doing this for me, after all.
My place is at his side.
She touched some numbers on the closet panel and pulled out a serviceable loose blue outfit. Tugged it on, fumbling with it in her haste.
Then, she dashed out the door, down dark hallways, until she found the hangar bay, shuttlecars sleeping in the silence like sleek dark beetles. She commandeered one and flew off into the night.
Toward her father’s house. The place she had never wanted to see again.
Her heart thumped hard against her chest as she flew over the vast grounds of the Spire, City Magnificent glittering in the distance.
She had to face her father beside the man who had given her everything. Hope, love, freedom, acceptance….the promise of the end of pain.
She guided the shuttlecar down to the gleaming minarets of the immense palace complex of the lesser Nobility. The higher Nobility lived with the Royalty in the Spire, which pierced the dark sky with its twisting tower of pearlescent white.
The shuttlecar landed. She shook, barely able to climb out of the car.
I’ll never be of use to Ember this way, she told herself, forcing herself to move forward. Think of Ember. He’s all that matters.
She crept out onto the platform. A few shuttlecars lay there in the dark.
One was still humming, soft yellow light emanating from it. Could it be Ember’s? She dashed over to it. Ember stepped out. A dagger glinted in his hand. He shoved it into his belt.
“Ember—” she said.
He whirled around, reaching for the gun at his hip. His eyes widened. “Sky? What in the abyss are you doing here?”
“I had to be with you.”
He grasped her hands. “You have to go back. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“My place is at your side. You’re doing this for me and—”
“Exactly. That’s why you should go back. It’s not worth anything if you get caught in the crossfire.”
“The least I can do is help you.”
He sighed. “I can’t make you go back. Just—stay behind me.” He took out a tiny device from his pocket, and handed it to her. It tumbled into her palm. “Press the side and it’ll activate. Keep it with you—it’ll keep the security system from being triggered.”
She nodded, and pressed it. Then she followed him, not to the huge, ornate front door, but to one of the windows along the edge of the platform. He drew a device from his pocket and sliced a circle in the window with its invisible laser. The large pane of steelglass fell through with a ‘clunk’. He climbed through and helped her inside.
The hallways were dark, empty, lit only by a thin strip of dim lights on the ceiling.
“Do you know where his room is?” he asked.
“Do you have any weapons?”
She shook her head. He unsheathed his dagger and handed to her. She grasped its heavy, jeweled handle, its edge sharpened to a fine point. Maybe she could use it to defend Ember. She kept it in her hand as they crept forward through the dark.
They climbed into the elevator and rose from the two hundredth floor to the three hundredth. He stood beside her, a look of fierce determination on his face, poised for action. His eyes darted over to her and they softened, though the fire still burned deep in them. Neither of them spoke. She knew he loved her through the look he gave her, and she tried to communicate her feelings in return. She couldn’t say all of what was in her heart—what burned through her was too deep for mere words.
The closest words were, I love you.
The words hovered on the tip of her tongue, but for some reason, she couldn’t say them.
All the love she could give him would fall short of what he deserved. What he was doing for her—she could never have imagined someone would risk his life for her a few days ago. But Ember—this incredible man who’d burst into her life, rearranging it completely—considered her worth the risk.
He loved her, beyond her comprehension.
She opened her mouth to tell him she loved him in return—
The elevator doors slid open.
A man stood in front of them. She froze. Ember reached for his gun—then stopped. “It’s just a Monitor,” he whispered. “Maybe I can reason with it.”
The Monitor (or M) looked at them quizzically as they stepped out of the elevator. The artificial guard had black hair and dull reddish-brown eyes in a nondescript face.
“Can I help you?” said the M, not under alert because of their anti-detection devices.
“Yes, thank you,” said Ember. “I am the Heir, the grandson of the King. I am here to visit my father-in-law.”
It frowned a little stiffly, only showing a vague imitation of emotion. “It is past midnight. I am sorry, but the Master has gone to bed, and I am under orders not to disturb him. May I take a message?”
“I have an urgent message meant only for him.”
“It is not authorized. May I suggest a comfortable waiting room where you may relax with your—” it squinted at Sky—“wife?”
“I am the prince. I override your authorization. Here is the Royal code: two-one-five-three-eight gold.”
An exaggerated expression of horror distorted the M’s face. “This is the Master’s house and even Royals may not intrude on it! You have violated my internal directives and I must report this breach of protocol!” With a little screech, it tilted its head, eyes growing blank.
Ember grasped Sky’s arm. “He must’ve set a trigger if anyone tried to override its security.”
Ember turned toward the elevator, pressed the button on its side. But the doors wouldn’t open.
Doors slid open along the hallway. Figures filed out—M’s in their black and red uniforms. Lurching steadily forward, their passionless faces intent on Sky and Ember.
“Get behind me,” said Ember, grabbing his pistol. “When I tell you, run.”
He raised his gun and a white beam of energy lashed into the M’s. Two of them staggered, reeling to the floor. The other five kept coming. Ember shot again—two more fell.
“Run!” Ember grasped her hand and they tore past the M’s, who converged on them, shifting into a run, the others rising jerkily from the floor—their arms morphing into guns—
Just as they reached the bend in the hallway, the M’s shot at them in a concentrated barrage. They ducked behind the wall, and a burst of white light slammed into the wall behind them.
Ember took out his window-cutting device. “I’ve got to get you out of here.”
He cut a circle in the window. The steelglass fell through, and cool wind blasted inside.
“We’ll have to climb out on the ledge and summon our shuttlecar. I’ll try to hold them off while we wait. I should’ve planned this better—I just couldn’t think straight after what you told me he did to you.” He grasped Sky’s hand, helping her up onto the window ledge.
She looked down, her vision swimming with the height. A small ledge was on the other side. She didn’t know if she could step out onto it—but she didn’t want to face the alternative.
She looked back at Ember—
A shadowy figure stood in the doorway opposite her, a gun aimed at them.
“Going somewhere?” he said, in a genial voice with an undercurrent of menace.
Strike Vale. Her father.
For a moment, she forgot everything but her father, standing there in his red silk nightclothes, as he’d stood over her so many times, freezing her into a mass of inert flesh—
“As a matter of fact, we are leaving,” said Ember beside her, his voice an anchor to reality. “If you don’t mind.”
“I do mind. I would like you to explain what exactly you are doing here in the middle of the night.”
“We came for a visit, but you are obviously not in a position to receive visitors. There will be a reception later today; we will see each other then.”
“I know; I received the invitation.” He waved the gun. “Get her down.”
“We’re leaving.” Ember made a move toward the window.
A beam of energy from her father’s gun stabbed the floor near Ember’s feet. He didn’t flinch. “Now if you value relations between our two families, you will come in and tell me what this is all about. Otherwise—” He aimed the gun at Sky.
Ember grasped her hand, giving it a little reassuring squeeze. He helped her down, and she stood there, a weak, shivering, insignificant thing.
The M’s appeared and they herded Sky and Ember to a room down the hall. Besides the golden molding along the walls, the room was blank, spare. Just a loveseat along the single window, and a plain, unadorned copper-colored table with a matching chair. Her father sat in the loveseat, leaning back on its floral cushions as if this was routine. She’d never seen this room before; it looked like an interview room of some sort. The M’s arranged themselves in a tight wedge behind them, and a gun poked Sky’s back.
“I don’t care who you are,” said her father, “you do not have the right to intrude like this. There is protocol we all must follow. Even a prince.” All the while, he looked at Ember, as if Sky didn’t even exist. “Apparently you used anti-detection devices, for the alarm didn’t go off.” He rubbed his chin, covered with stubble. His bronze-gold hair was shaggy, disheveled. “And you come armed.” His eyes narrowed at Ember. “What would be the reason for this, I wonder?”
“It was simply a precaution.”
“For what? Our families are no longer enemies. You have taken my own daughter as a consort. Why would you come here armed, in the middle of the night?” He stood. Strode over to Ember, the table between them. A look of perplexity crossed his face. “What could you possibly have to gain from killing me two days after your wedding? Unless she was so unsatisfactory you wanted to bring her back.” A smile tipped the edge of his mouth. “For that, I could forgive you.”
Ember’s hands clenched at his sides.
Her father turned to her, and his gaze made her shrink inside. She wished she could turn invisible.
“Why have you come back, my little ambrosia? Tell me the truth.”
She didn’t answer. Couldn’t move with the terror seizing her.
“Answer me!” he thundered and she shuddered at his anger, threw herself against Ember, his strong chest beneath her, a refuge.
A low growl thrummed through his chest. “You dare speak to her like that!”
Her father raised an eyebrow. “She may be your consort, but I may speak to her any way I please. She will always be my daughter.”
“You don’t own her. You do not deserve any connection with her at all.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Ember didn’t answer, his eyes burning with hate.
“This is a matter for the security service, I think. No doubt Shade will want to deal with such a high-profile violator personally.”
He pressed the pebble-sized com device beneath his ear. “This is Thunderstrike Vale. I have been attacked in my home by Ember March….I mean, His Highness Ember March, sorry. Yes, of course, I’m just a bit out of sorts. Thank you.” He turned back to look at them. “It’s clearly evident who’s in the wrong here. If you cannot give me a satisfactory answer, Shade will find one. I heard what he did to you once when you disobeyed him. Perhaps he will choose that option again.” A cruel smile crossed his face. “In the meantime, would you like to sit down? It could be some time before he gets here.”
“So you are not really his priority, then?” said Ember, mockery in his voice.
Her father’s eyes flashed, but he didn’t reply. Instead he said, “We have some time to kill. I can’t let you go anywhere until Shade gets here, but little Sky obviously isn’t going to harm anyone. Maybe she would like to come with me, and we could have a little talk.” He strode over to her. Grasped her arm. He gave her a smile that made her feel like ice had been poured through her veins.
“You will take your hands off her,” said Ember.
“And what are you going to do about it?” He pulled her arm. She obeyed, letting her father tear her away from Ember. Walked like a mechanical thing, unfeeling, unthinking—
A flash of light behind her, blasting in quick succession. Swift movements, almost too fast to see. The M’s collapsed to the floor. Ember shot them, burning them, melting their faces, melding their metal into a twisted, weakly writhing wreck.
He swung the gun at her father. “Let her go. Now.”
Her father reached for the gun at his hip.
But with a shot from Ember, her father staggered backwards, letting her go. Ember dashed over to her, keeping his gun aimed at her father. He was kneeling on the floor, clutching his shoulder. Pain and hatred burned in his eyes.
“Don’t move,” said Ember. “You are going to pay for your crimes.”
“What—crimes?” he said, looking perplexed, no hint of guilt.
“You will admit to what you did. And then I will kill you.”
“I have done nothing wrong. Is it because I’m a Vale? You can’t let go of old animosity—you who were not even born when our families made peace?”
Ember trembled beside her. “It is because of what you did to my wife.”
“You should be grateful to me for giving you such a docile, obedient little thing.”
“She is her own person. She deserves respect. You—you contemptible thing—you deserve nothing more than to be killed a hundred times over for hurting her. For touching her. You tried to break her, but you did not succeed. She is mine now, and I am hers.” He moved the gun closer to her father’s forehead. “You will admit your crimes.”
He smiled nervously. “A girl will say anything, you know that. She’s only a consort, fit for breeding, if that—”
Ember slammed the pistol into her father’s face. He fell to the floor.
“So low you cannot even realize what you’ve done is wrong. Such a thing does not deserve to breathe. It is enough that I know, and that Sky knows. She will finally be free of you.”
He inched the gun forward. His finger crept toward the trigger. His hand trembled—then he twirled the gun back to its holster.
“I'm sorry, Sky. I can’t kill in cold blood. He’s not human, but I still can’t bring myself to do it. It’s something he might do—I just can’t.”
She heaved a deep breath. “That’s okay,” she said, a little relieved. She wanted her father gone, but she didn’t want Ember to kill him. To have blood on his hands.
“We need to tell someone. People need to know what kind of person he is.”
“I—don’t want them to know what he did to me. People will—think things—”
“We can keep it to a close circle of people, the ones who deal justice. Shade will be here in a moment. Perhaps we can tell him.”
“I won’t if you ask me not to. But perhaps he will hurt others if we don’t tell.”
She nodded, still not happy with the idea, but not wanting others to get hurt. It hadn’t even crossed her mind that he might target someone besides her.
Ember grabbed her father’s gun, then slammed a kick into his stomach. He gasped, doubled up, coughing.
Then, they turned to leave. Turning her back on all that her father was, stepping into her future with Ember. She still felt numb and hoped the feeling would dissipate—soon she’d feel all the joy she expected to feel at the closure—
A flash behind her.
She screamed, but it was too late.
Ember staggered to his knees, lightning ripping through him.
Ember convulsed on the floor. Lightning writhed across his body. Fear and pain showed in his eyes, but also determination as his lightning crackled against her father’s, gaining force.
He climbed to his knees and with a cry he lashed an arc of lightning into her father. It was a weak attack but it caught her father in the knees, enough to interrupt his barrage. Ember leaped to his feet.
He stabbed a bright flash of electric current toward her father, and he staggered backward. But he recovered, and whipped lightning across Ember’s chest. Ember cried out.
Sky wanted to help him, but didn’t know how. She’d never been able to defend herself against her father—it only ended in unbearable pain.
Ember leaped backwards, whirling into a defensive move, gaining his stride after the surprise attack. He moved with grace, and she marveled how he performed stormdance, the ancient martial art of Royalty. Lightning swirled up from both of his hands at once and he tossed one bright orb, then another, at her father. One hit his chest, the other hit his legs. Her father wavered, but didn’t fall. Anger and hatred in his eyes, he glowed with sheer power and attacked.
They fought around the room in a blur of light. Ember was so beautiful, so effortless, he had to prevail. Her father’s moves were swift and sure but lacked any panache—they seemed to emerge from his very hate, the twistedness deep inside him. He was incapable of beauty, while Ember could look like a god even while in the midst of a fight.
They seemed oblivious to her, as she watched from the corner, but soon they surged closer.
A flare of lightning struck out from her father’s hand and hit her in the chest. Pain ripped through her. She slammed against the wall.
Ember’s eyes caught hers—he stepped toward her—
Her father punched Ember hard in the face. Knocking him to the ground. Hurled lightning at his prone form. Sweat glistened across Ember’s skin, his lip split, blood spilling from it.
She wanted to go to him, save him, but what could she do?
A smile curved her father’s lips. “Your power is no match for my stamina, my skill, my willpower. I will always relish the time I spent with little Sky. Such pleasure she could give! I knew she would please you. Of course, my tastes are a little young compared to yours….so I was happy to hand her over as an alliance-maker. You, though—you spoiled little prince—you are nothing. I can’t kill you, but I can make you suffer. This may not be self-defense, but I get a little leeway, I think, considering how you attacked me.” He formed a whip of lightning and lashed it into Ember’s chest. Sky wanted to go to him but she knew she’d only get hurt and it’d do him no good.
His jaw trembled, as if he was struggling to keep from screaming.
Even in his pain, he looked at her and the limitless love in them shot through to her heart, bringing tears to her eyes.
I have to do something. That’s why I came here. Even if I die with him.
He’s worth the pain.
She stepped forward, her father oblivious. Then she remembered the dagger in her pocket. She lifted it, took another step.
In one swift motion, she shoved the blade into her father’s back. He let out a cry and fell sideways, his lightning withdrawing from Ember but writhing over his own body to snap back to where the dagger was buried.
She ran to Ember. Knelt beside him. He was still shaking, little sparks racing over his skin. She smoothed back his hair, damp with sweat. His golden eyes were glazed with pain. “Thank you,” he said, gasping a little. Lightning scars laced his skin, little vein-like marks traveling up over his neck and jaw. Steam rose from his clothes, and she suspected more scars beneath them. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“That I couldn’t—protect you….”
“I had to do it,” she said.
“He could have hurt you.”
“You are worth it.”
Her father stirred behind her. She leaped to her feet and helped Ember up. He lifted his gun a little shakily, aiming it at her father, a crumpled wreck of a man, bleeding out on the floor.
“You—disgusting little whore! How dare you stab your own father….”
“You are not my father anymore,” she said. “I belong to another.”
“You will—always be mine.”
She grasped Ember’s hand. “Ember has shown me what it is like to be free. From now on, I will be free of you.”
It felt like a weight had lifted from her shoulders. A shadow had been cast off of her heart. The light of hope flooded it—of a future with Ember—unencumbered by the past, by what this man, this pathetic thing, had done to her.
She turned her back on him. Ember’s hand in hers, she walked out the door.
On the way out, she called a servant to help her father. She wasn’t going to leave a man bleeding on the floor, no matter who he was. But she would never see him again. Or if she did, she would not give him a second glance, as if he were a stranger.
On the platform, Shade met them with his entourage of black-clad secret police and a cadre of security Monitors.
They surrounded Sky and Ember. Shade stood in front of them. “What have you done? You invaded the Vales’ house, armed with weapons? You know there is such a thing as protocol.”
"You don’t follow it,” said Ember.
“That’s different. The Royalty collectively agreed to respect the Nobility on their own terrain and limit their intrusion on internal matters. The Vales may not be the most deserving, but we’re in a period of reconciliation with them, as evident by your own union.” He looked at Sky, his eyebrow raised. “And you even brought your wife along. I think you owe me an explanation.”
“I—” Ember began. “I can’t.”
“You can’t. Well, next I will go inside to ascertain the situation from your victim. Meanwhile, you will stay here and wait with my agents.”
Shade strode inside, his black cloak flowing behind him. Several agents followed him, while the rest remained, the M’s and human agents barely distinguishable from each other. They kept their eyes trained on Ember and Sky, their hands near the guns at their hips.
The cold wind blew through the thin fabric of Sky’s clothes. She shivered. Ember drew her to him, and his warmth comforted her.
She feared what Shade would find. Feared how badly it would look for Ember. She would take the fall for him, she determined.
She leaned her head on Ember’s chest. Clung to him. I’m not going to lose him.
It seemed like ages before Shade emerged again, minus several of his agents. He looked at Ember, a dark light in his eyes. “We took Strike to the infirmary. He’s still alive, but unconscious from blood loss. His wife is awake, and his whole household will be soon. He’s not had a chance to explain, of course; the security system will do that for him. What it won’t explain is your motive. I give you that chance now. We could keep this quiet if you have a good reason—otherwise, I will have no choice but to take this to official channels. Even a prince is not immune from justice, and it may be harsh in this case.” He looked at Ember expectantly. “Well? Do you have an explanation?”
“I—I can’t say.”
“Why? Is it an oath you’ve sworn?”
“You could say that.”
Ember stayed silent.
“An oath could be a slightly mitigating factor, but without a precise reason, we’ll have to be almost as hard on you as any other attempted murderer to retain equilibrium between our families. No execution of course, but you could be banished. And then there are more…creative punishments. As the victim, Strike will have a say in deciding your fate.”
The prospect chilled Sky. No, she couldn’t let Ember get punished for what he’d done for her.
“I did it,” she said. “It was my fault.”
A look of surprise crossed Shade’s face. “You stabbed him?”
“So this whole thing was your idea?”
“It was all because of me.”
Shade’s brow furrowed, his eyes shining like a cat’s in the dark. “Did your father treat you so badly?”
A jolt passed through her at how he’d hit at part of the truth. She swallowed. Bit back the torrent of emotion flooding her heart. “Yes. I mean, he’s ignored me for years but when I was young—till I was fourteen he—would come into my room and—”
Shade nodded, a spark of shock even in his blasé face. “I see. He raped you as a child.”
“Yes,” she said, her throat burning, shocked at his blunt words. She felt like a dam about to burst again but she had to hold it together—
Shade looked away, his lips pursed pensively. Then he looked at Ember. “You came here to kill him, didn’t you. For what he did to your wife.”
Shade reached forward, touched Ember’s chin near the newly burnt scars. “I see he fought back. With some creative manipulation, your attack could be construed as self-defense.” He withdrew his hand. “I don’t believe in all of this romantic nonsense, but I know of the passionate strain in the Marches’ blood. I’m no stranger to your idealism, either.” At his signal, the other agents fell back, into the shadows near the large black security shuttlecar.
“I’m thinking we should keep this whole incident to ourselves. We don’t need upheaval, not while we’re mending relations between families. We’ve just had a Royal wedding, after all, joining the Marches and Vales for the first time in history. We don’t need something like this to tear us apart. I can clean this up easily enough. However, I will tell Strike that I know what kind of man he is. If this got out, it would ruin him. Nice to have some leverage for a rainy day.” He smiled wickedly. “In the meantime, it might be best for you to go offworld. Just for a little while.”
“That’s what we were going to do anyway,” said Ember. “On our honeymoon.”
“Of course. I will allow you to forego your espionage training while I sort this out, and of course we’re not going to have a banquet while the head of the Vale family is injured from an…accident.
“Such things don’t concern me, but still, I hope you have a good time.” He patted Ember on the shoulder. Then he turned back toward the palace complex, his agents following in his wake. Then he stopped. Turned, his robe swirling. “But don’t forget, prince, I’ll be keeping an eye on you. The both of you.” He gave an irreverent salute, and walked toward the door, and disappeared inside.
Ember and Sky stood there for a moment, holding each other. Her chest felt tight, she felt like crying—and laughing. She was free.
Ember was free.
Ember took her hand and led her toward his shuttlecar, moving as if in a daze. They climbed inside, and she sat beside him in the copilot’s seat. The car lifted off of the platform, zipping up into the night, leaving the Vale palace forever.
He steered it up toward the stars, and their pinpoints of pure light kissed her soul, burning with bright hope.
She looked at him, the dim light glowing on the delicious panes of his face, highlighting the slightly upraised skin of the lightning scars.
“Do you want some salve?” she asked. “I could…return the favor that you gave me earlier.”
He nodded, looking exhausted. He put the shuttlecar on autopilot, sending it toward the pale orange light on the horizon, over the distant ocean.
While she dug some healing salve out of the first aid compartment, he shed his clothes and lay down in the back. She knelt beside him and gently spread the salve over his body, taking great care not to hurt him, lingering over his beauty. Tears filled her eyes when she thought of what he’d done, how much he’d risked for her sake.
Her heart almost felt like bursting. But still, the words couldn’t escape her throat. So she leaned over him, and gave him a deep, luscious kiss on the mouth, telling him everything she could not with words.
She pulled back, looking down at him.
“We should get out of here,” he said.
“As far away as possible.”
“I think I may have just the place. A new world no one but Royalty has ever been to, and we’ve hardly even explored yet. It’s basically one big garden.”
Longing for him burned through her. And yet she felt a sting of fear—last time with him, he’d hurt her because she’d asked him to. Could they go back to the way it was before? Would he be hesitant to touch her for fear he’d hurt her again? Worse, would she automatically fear his touch, even though she trusted him with her life?
She wanted, needed things to go back to normal. Now that she’d defended Ember against her father, she felt finally free of him. Her father was dead to her. But still, she’d always bear the scars…
Ember had given her so much. He had shown her that love could overcome pain and fear. And she’d learned she had the power to forget her own fear to save him. They had a future together, and she was looking forward to learning more about him each day, and loving this marvelous man, so perfect she couldn’t believe he existed, much less that he wanted her.
She would try to give him all of herself again, trust him completely. The past had been reduced to a mere shadow that could never invade their sunlight. She caressed his face softly. He buried his hand in her hair, and they merged into a kiss, feverish with the promise of things to come.