Beauty's Curse - Chapter Two
You were supposed to die for me, Sadira.
Fitful dreams troubled her. In them, Set came, a naked body draped with serpents, and the largest of them was the sacred serpent Akolet. The apparition drove her to her knees, and the rattling of snake tails filled her ears.
You were meant to die, slave. Your life belonged to me.
The priests of Akolet, Set's high arcanists, surrounded her. Each of them grasped for her, seizing her limbs while she thrashed. Men complicit in the rituals of slavery and sacrifice that built Set's nation, cultists who'd humiliated Sadira and subjugated her, crafted her, body and spirit, to his specifications. They lifted her from her feet and carried her through the capital streets, and the people jeered and cursed at her.
"Coward! Adulteress! Witch! Queen!"
Native and slave alike condemned her, and she belonged to none of them. No clan would claim the god-king's personal pet. All despised her.
"Stop!" She cried out. The slaves threw garbage at her as she struggled to raise her arms in defense. "Please, can't you understand I hated him as much as you do? I never chose the claim he put on me! I hated him! Please don't call me his queen!"
So they called her slut and serpent-witch instead. They ridiculed her for her desperation. Her skin bore his marks, and in the dream they became a list of sins: foul hungers for the god-king's punishment, intoxicated lusts for his pain, the clinging desire for him which so often silenced her loathing. All the slaves and prisoners read the words on her and saw the heart of poison within.
The cultists of Akolet carried her to a stone cairn in the desert, and before it yawned a great pit. The grave of Set. The rattle of the snakes rose above the shouts of the crowd, then drowned them out, as the priests brought her to the edge.
It was your duty to die for me, Sadira. Come to me now. Your life is still mine.
She screamed. The cultists cast her down into the grave, though she fought their hands like a fish swimming against the current. She could do nothing as the blackness of the sacred serpent's maw broke open to swallow her.
Then, among the mob, a figure appeared. Amid the chaos she beheld him, barbarian captain, like a king among the slaves. Their liberator. Their champion.
And he reached out for her. Offered her his hand.
Come on up, girl.
Come on up.
The War of the Sands—the battle between the god-king and the highlander whose people he enslaved—stretched more than a year by Akolet's solar cycle. When the enemy armies came for the capital city of Rahan, though, it fell in only three days. The worshippers of the serpent god, magician and warlord alike, crumbled under the boots of their foe. Akolet hadn't saved them.
Neither had Set. Set marched to his death laughing, cackling, and wild-eyed. He'd walked across the bodies of his own men, and Sadira—already the enemy's captive by the time the god-king appeared—grew sick at the sight. He emerged from his temple a gaunt skeleton, almost lost in the knot of snakes he'd wrapped around himself, a senseless tangle of reptiles dripping off his limbs. These hissing, rattling creatures provided his only cover as he strode into battle with the enemy captain. A testament to the god-king's decaying mind.
The whole war slowed down to a single, silent, bated breath. Later, Sadira would decide it was exactly that moment when the people of Rahan and the Ruined Sands understood they had lost. They whispered it over the battlefield, ally and invader alike. He is mad. Bloody stinking mad. All their hope in the god-king, in the power of the sacred serpent, come down to this: a naked, screeching lunatic draped in a cloak of writhing asps.
And when the Red Bear struck him down, the snakes scattered, fleeing his corpse. Set had been abandoned, even by the reptiles.
So much for the chosen son.
Sadira had no remorse. Fear, perhaps. Dread and futility. But no remorse.
Three armies had rallied against Set. Two of them had once been the allies of the Cult of Akolet, in the time of Set's father Kha'set, and his father Kha'sun, first of the great god-kings. Mercenary warlords prospered when they worked alongside the arcanists of the Ruined Sands. Their cultures were the same: brutal and hard, merciless and greedy. All the clans of the desert lived their lives bent on feeding an endless hunger for cruelty. In his arrogance, though, Set foreswore the treaties his predecessors forged. The mercenaries he double-crossed went on to seek their vengeance with his enemies.
The third army—the one led by the Red Bear—swelled with soldiers in holy crusade from countries long-abused by the dynasty of god-kings.
Who could be surprised? Sadira wondered. With this land built on the backs of their children?
The people of the Ruined Sands reaped what they and their fathers had sown. Set, the god-kings before him, the cult's arcane magicians...all of them. No true grave existed for the fallen madman; his body had been consigned to the desert, sundered and scattered for the scavengers to find.
Even as a prisoner, though, captive and disgraced, Sadira didn't suffer from the defeat. She'd been no native of the Sands, after all. Merely another of its prisoners, stolen from an unknown tribe in an unknown land. One more slave of Akolet.
The only slave who could not be freed.
When Sadira woke, she lay alone in Set's opulent bed, wrapped in the thick animal skins. This, more than anything, confirmed she hadn't imagined the events of the day before... or the night. Set never allowed her to sleep in the bed. Her place was on a cushion at the foot of it, like a dog. This was one of his rules.
Except now, Set was dead.
No. I did not dream it. She pulled the blanket close around her, brandishing it like a shield. The invasion. The battles. The...
"Barbarian," she breathed.
Her fingers brushed her lips. The memories of his hard grip, rough hands...they echoed through her everywhere. If she lifted the blankets, she'd find bruises, maybe even scars, on her skin.
Oh. Sadira shut her eyes and gave a silent sigh. He made it so... good.
The smells of bergamot and cinnamon were not so thick this morning. The chamber's windows, shuttered and barred the night before, stood open, letting clean, hot sunlight stream in. Perhaps no one cared anymore if she threw herself from the casement—she'd served her purpose, after all. The Red Bear proved his right to rule by claiming her; what happened to her now mattered not.
Sadira relaxed, sinking back into the rich pillows, and took stock of her pains. Welts on arms, legs, and ass; nipples smarting from his tweaking and hard sucking. Thighs, deliciously sore. Between them...
She uttered a soft groan and writhed under the blankets. Her fingers slipped down to her aching pussy. Aching because of the wild barbarian...and aching for him, to her surprise.
"Bannon?" she asked the empty room, eyes fluttering open again. When had he left?
She climbed from the bed, wrapping herself in one of the furs. The doors to the chambers stood closed, but when she opened them two of the highland soldiers met her.
"Where is the captain?" she asked. They scrutinized her, taking in the sight of the blanket, and their expressions grew venomously cold. She didn't understand at first, until she remembered: she remained their captain's prisoner, and she supposed a prisoner and an enemy should not look so obviously well-ravished on the morning after her master's defeat.
Should she feign guilt? Chagrin? All at once, her doubt became fury and she sneered.
"I will speak with him," she demanded. "Go and get him."
"And just who do you think you are?" asked the younger man. He had dark black hair in a shaggy mane and the sour smell of beer lingered on his breath. "You're not queen of this castle anymore, and the Red Bear isn't keeping you here as a guest." His cold hazel eyes crept over her in disgust. "Get back into your pretty rooms before we find you a more fitting place in the prisons below. Witch."
Sadira gave a start. She might have expected they wouldn't be friendly, but queen? Witch? Did Bannon's men honestly believe she'd been either of those things?
She bit her tongue and tried again in a softer tone. "I... would like to speak to my captor."
"Back in your rooms," the guard repeated. "He'll see you when it suits him."
Sadira ground her teeth. "Will you at least tell him I have asked for him?"
"Sure, sure, whatever you like, highness." He moved toward her, brandishing his sword like a shepherd's crook to scoot her along.
"Don't call me that!" she snapped.
"Fine," the man replied. "Let it be whore, then."
He pushed her the last few feet and she stumbled, tripping over the fur to land hard on her ass. The soldier snorted in amusement when she cried out, but by the time she looked up he'd disappeared into the hall again, door scraping shut behind him.
Stunned, all she could do was stare. After several moments, a cold trembling seized her limbs, and she hugged her knees to her chest, groaning softly. The first rough, buzzing tension of an oncoming migraine spread up the back of her neck and behind her ears.
Bannon did not come. She waited for him for hours, pacing from bed, to window casement, to the dog pillow where she'd been accustomed to sleeping. The headache struck, as she expected—she suffered them regularly in times of agitation—and she broke off her nervous pattern to close the shutters once more and curl up on the bed, hiding her face from the light. All the time she fretted and wondered.
These sheets still reek of Set. That awful reek of ritual oil on his skin. Did they smell like this when I woke? Or is it this godawful pain? Eyes of Akolet, I can't stand it!
She rose again midafternoon, weak and drained. The headache had dulled but the sick feeling remained, and ravening hunger nagged at her belly. She wouldn't open the doors to argue with the guards again, though, so she went instead to Set's personal altar and the tabernacle he kept with ritual fruit and wine. Even with him dead, though, she found it nearly impossible to commit such blasphemy: after stealing two pomegranates and several bunches of grapes, she grew nauseous and found herself kneeling over the chamber pot to be sick. She settled for a stale hunk of bread instead, and drops of cannabis tincture to soothe her ragged senses.
As the afternoon wore on, she glanced toward Set's inner bathing chambers. These were divided into two rooms, the smaller of which contained a narrow stone bathtub for her to wash. The god-king kept great steam baths and heated pools further in, in the larger section, but Sadira never set foot in that opulent grotto unless Set himself ordered it. He'd ruled over every miniscule aspect of her life, from the times she would be given her meals to the times she could relieve herself. Bathing had been no different, and for her regular washings, she used the tub.
She could bathe now. No one would stop her. The water would probably be ice cold, and afterward she'd have to light a fire in in the hearth to dry herself by. She found no matches among Set's old possessions—of course not, because when a sorcerer needed fire, he conjured it.
By this time, the chill winds of the desert night groaned. She'd waited all day, and the barbarian had not come.
She caught sight of herself in a polished glass, and for the first time considered what Bannon must see. Set had made her resemble his own people. He colored her hair black and commanded her to keep it combed to nigh-geometric straightness. She had to darken her eyes with kohl and powder her skin to an ivory glimmer. It once puzzled her how the denizens of the Ruined Sands remained so fair in their sunbaked climate. Eventually she'd decided they were not so much fair as bleached, like the bones of long-dead animals on the dunes, like the sands themselves. Even Set, white as a fish's belly.
This made her think of Bannon again, and his hot, tawny skin on hers: ruddy, dusky, lined with marks of battle, pressed to her curves of honey and gold. Warm, searching, wild, and flush with ardor.
Sadira touched her face. The woman in the mirror did the same. Her gaze roamed over her own body, really scrutinizing the work of the Cult for the first time. Her tattoos—like dark blood—wound in changing patterns, intertwining with scars and brands. Tight knots of thick designs in some places, light, flowing calligraphy in others. Over left eye, ringing hips and limbs in patterns and whorls dictated by madmen. A flaming sun-spiral circled one studded nipple.
Each mark, by its very existence, proclaimed her the property of the god-king and his cult. The piercings advertised her various initiations: his taking of her virgin blood; punishments she'd endured to demonstrate her training; tokens of the rites and rituals performed over her.
A map of her sexual identity, written on her skin. What would a northern barbarian make of it?
She cared little for the greasy dye in her hair and the arching kohl, but the rest did not bother her so much. She'd learned the futility of shame or embarrassment for the sake of modesty. Whatever else Set did to her, he'd taught her primal pleasure, surrender to corporeal desire. The monster she'd promised Bannon. These things spoke to her, sang to her down to her blood and bones, to a part of her Set maybe didn't create at all, but merely unleashed.
She hated the sorcerer, yes. She didn't hate the passions he'd cultivated in her.
"Still..." she murmured to her reflection. "I am not the person he's painted. It is time to wash her away."
The dark ink Set used to hide her natural hair held stubborn against washing out. Repeated rough scrubbings with soaps and oils, even the application of lemon juices, wouldn't rinse away the dark grease. When her scalp began to sting she started alternating her attempts between working out the dye and smoothing back her lank tresses with creams to soothe any damage. In between rinses, she scrubbed the powders and kohl from her body and face, leaving the water of her tub like a pool of swirling oil, dark and shimmering, bouncing reedy coruscations of color. She emptied the bath twice and refilled it from one of the lesser aqueduct pipes, and as she expected, only cold water flowed. The boilers—kept off the kitchen, heated by the work of the ovens—must have gone all day unattended.
Finally her persistence paid off: blackened strands came gold again, and the last of the makeup washed away.
Shivering, naked, and pinkened from the excessive washing, she checked herself in the mirror again, and for the first time met the woman Set kept hidden.
I look like a wonderful stranger.
She'd never had the right proportions for a desert girl, but now she wore the look of another people. She couldn't say which people, or of what lands, but she finally appeared to fit her own frame. Of course, she would always bear the marks of Set's mastery, but she could tolerate those. He'd long ago rendered her hairless too, over every part of her besides her head. Rituals and unguents were common in the Sands for such beautification. She imagined, though, from the sight of the foreigners in Bannon's army, the fashion might not translate in other nations.
All in all, though, she approved of the change. She might not have a people of her own, but at least she no longer resembled Set's.
Her earlier pain must have tricked her senses after all, because no hint of Set still lingered amid the sheets. Instead, the warm, clean scent of the furs welcomed her as she sat on the edge of the bed, brushing out her hair, working free the tangles to render it smooth and soft again. Warm, clean fur, and sweet soaps and lemon in her damp blonde locks.
She'd just teased out the last of the knots when Bannon finally returned.
He startled her with his entrance and Sadira blinked at him. She'd almost forgotten she'd been waiting at all. She'd given up expecting him hours ago, and the moon hung well past midnight.
Bannon cocked his head at her. "My soldiers tell me you've been suspiciously quiet. They thought you might have taken your own life, but were afraid to check on you."
His gaze roamed over her, and again she wondered what he must think of what he saw. She hadn't dressed after her bath, enjoying the way the hot desert night turned cool against wet, naked skin.
"Afraid?" she asked. "Of me?"
"This place is full of old, ugly, evil magic. Who can guess what manner of spell Set's witch may cast to ensnare an enemy soldier?"
Sadira snorted. "Oh, yes. Witch. Your men are suspicious fools."
"Are you saying you wouldn't wield your dark arts against your enemies?"
"I couldn't if I wanted to." She set aside her hairbrush and spread her hands before her. "I have no magic."
She expected some sign of spite or disdain. A bitter bark of a laugh. Instead he peered at her, as if trying to make up his mind about something. Her nakedness seemed to leave him absurdly confused.
When he spoke again, his voice had dropped an octave. "You... are not one of his people."
Running one hand through her clean tresses, Sadira cocked an eyebrow. "Didn't you know?"
She nodded. "Ah. Well then, yes, barbarian, it's true. Even Set's witch is one of the slaves you journeyed over continents to free."
His eyes narrowed and he took a step toward her, then hesitated. One hand came up to his brow and he kneaded his temple.
"You... a slave? But then why fight me, when you know I came to break your chains? Why demand... why partake in his twisted rituals? Why ask me to... claim you?"
"Because I am of his world, even as I am not," she replied. "Because of all slaves, I am the one most deeply possessed. I do not remember the land I came from. Nobody does. Set is all I have ever known, from my earliest recollection. Whatever nation bore me, I am part of this hard, wild desert now."
"All you have known?" He grimaced. "You mean he took you as a child?"
"Not as you are thinking. Whatever else Set was, he was not that."
"A small comfort." Bannon turned away from her and began to pace.
Sadira watched him for several moments, curious. How amusing that she herself had done the same only hours before, stalking back and forth in restless unease.
"It changes nothing, you know," she offered.
"But it does," he snapped, coming to a stop. "I should have refused. I should have tried harder to talk you out of their savage ritual."
"If I'd wanted to surrender, I would have."
He turned to the window casement. After her bath, Sadira had opened the shutters again to let in fresh air, and now Bannon planted his hand on either side of the aperture, staring out over the blue shadows of the dunes.
"Perhaps you believe you are like him," he said, "and deserve pain. But I do not. Last night, I didn't... I took no pleasure in—"
"Didn't you?" she asked.
He spun toward her. "Of course not!"
Sadira shifted position, tucking her legs underneath her and leaning on one hand. "I think there is too much fighter inside you, too much of the bear, to not have felt some satisfaction in dominating."
"I can see the marks—the bruises—I left on your skin!"
She lifted one shoulder in a casual shrug. "What are a few marks, when primal creatures indulge their desires?"
When he didn't answer, she rose from the bed and crossed the floor to him.
"You never answered me last night," she reminded him in a gentler tone. "What will you do with me, now you have claimed me as your own?"
Bannon frowned and glanced away, running a hand over his mouth. "I haven't decided. If you're really one of the slaves, and not his follower, it... changes things."
"What I was to him was a plaything," she explained. "A pet. He had my loyalty, but only because he held my leash."
"A... pet," Bannon repeated.
"It's the more official term for a slave in my particular position," she replied. "Not only a servant in the temple, but the personal consorts and... submissives... to him and his cult."
He made a gruff, disapproving sound. Sadira sighed inwardly. Hadn't she already known he would disdain her?
"Will you make me a prisoner?" she asked.
"I don't know."
Her voice dropped to barely a whisper. "Will you execute me?"
Bannon glanced askance, searching the room as though the answer might be hidden among Set's old possessions. "I don't intend to. But there are some who believe you'll curse me and my people, if I don't."
"I've told you I have no magic."
"Which is exactly what I'd expect you to say even if you did," he pointed out.
Sadira reached a hand out to him. "Do you think me so insincere? Don't you remember what I told you last night? How I hated him? And when you proved your strength over me, didn't I yield? Didn't I give you what you needed, for your victory?"
He glowered. The mention of it obviously flustered him.
"What we shared last night was a battle for power," he told her. "Yes, you yielded...and, yes. I... I thought I saw... something. By the light of day, though, it's nothing more than I would have expected from the god-king's whore."
Sadira flinched. She'd been called a whore thousands of times in her life, in the throes of sex and in bitter disdain. Even Bannon had used it as he took her, and it had triggered lust, then, excitement. Need. When he said it now, however, with such a tone in his voice... for the first time ever, it stung.
From the way his expression changed, perhaps he realized it too. Instantly he turned sheepish.
In the awkward silence, Sadira fingered the leather collar around her neck. She tried to understand. To him, she wore the mantle of the enemy, and of refugee. Both, and neither. He'd vanquished her as her conqueror, but by his own nature he didn't seem to want to hurt her. They had lain together, but merely by matter of necessity. A necessity he might forever resent.
Now, deed done, he must have no idea what to do with the creature he'd inherited.
Sadira could have balked at the prospect of sharing a bed with him, but she didn't. His presence brought her an odd measure of comfort. All her life she'd served a violent, lunatic sorcerer, and she'd realized early on no one would protect her from his madness. Bannon, her wild enemy, put an end to it finally when he took the bastard's head. He'd taken the sword from her throat.
As in her dream... he'd been the hand to help her up.
"Will you sleep in here tonight?" she asked. "It is your right, as victor. Or will you simply use it as my prison until you decide my fate?"
"Sleep here? With you?" He sounded as though she'd proposed the unthinkable.
"When Set ruled this chamber, I slept on the floor." She nodded at the dog pillow. "I can do so again. Now that I am yours, you may do what you like with me. If you want nothing more to do with me... you could easily just throw me in the dungeon downstairs."
The corners of his mouth twitched. Maybe he regretted what he'd said. "No, no. That's not necessary. You'll remain here until I decide if you're prisoner or..."
"Or prize?" she offered.
Bannon made an ugly sound.
Sadira straightened, crossing her arms over her chest. "Would it ease your mind to know I enjoyed being the prize? The twisted ritual we played out last night began in war, but ended in bliss. I didn't expect it, but then, I didn't know what sort of man you'd be. You wouldn't understand what it means for a woman chained to a man she hates, to finally delight in the man she beds."
When he turned back to the window, saying nothing, she dared to move a little closer. She lifted hesitant fingers towards him, and when he didn't back off, she touched his rough forearm.
"I don't believe it was the act of claiming me that bothers you," she whispered, "but that I myself demanded it."
He remained still, so she slid her hand up to his bicep and gently pressed herself against his back.
"You have a soft heart," she continued, "which tells you to be meek, and merciful, and tame. But you have a hard cock, oh great Red Bear, and it is telling you this female is in heat. Now you have done what the lords of the desert required, she—like the rest of Set's treasures—is yours to take."
Pressing closer, she gave a quiet, lustful sound. Beneath her touch he grew tense, but she pressed her lips to his shoulder blade and exhaled deeply against him.
"I," she said in a breathless, husky tone, "am an avid worshipper of carnal nature. Pain, and passion. You can't imagine how deeply I want them. How deeply I could want you, great beast. You can send me away, if you want. Imprison me, if you think it necessary. Leave me forgotten here, in the luxurious quarters along with all the other treasures you have won. Though I hope you won't do that. I think we can find a mutual arrangement, though, and I think—if you wish it—it can be quite pleasurable for us both."
He shook her off. "Is your loyalty so easy to claim? You serve the man with the biggest cock?"
Sadira tossed her head, haughty. "There have been plenty of well-endowed men in this temple and even in this room who would never have the strength to overpower me."
"So you serve only those who will abuse you?"
"Master me," she corrected. "There is a difference."
Silence settled between them and stretched out for long, heavy moments. She didn't like how he avoided looking at her, how he refused to meet her eyes. Unruly petulance kindled in her chest and, finally losing her patience, Sadira scoffed.
"You are better when you are a beast." She spat on the floor at his feet. "Not this shrinking boy. You were better when you took me, forced me to yield to you. When you made me suck your cock. When you made me beg."
Bannon whirled on her. "Would you not talk like that?"
"Do barbarian women never talk like this?" she taunted.
"No. They do not."
Before he could stop her, she pressed herself to him. One quick hand slipped up behind his neck while the other ran down the front of his trousers, seeking and finding the ready, stiff shape of his cock beneath the leather.
"But you wish they would, don't you?" she whispered in his ear.
With a rough snarl, Bannon thrust her away. Sadira cackled, cackled like the witch he took her for, as he stormed out the doors and slammed them shut behind him. Her laughter continued, manic and unpleasant, even to her, until she wanted to cry.