Start at the Beginning
Bannon left soon afterward in an awkward, wordless retreat. He wore the hang-dog look of a man creeping from the bed of a prostitute, full of reflexive shame. She tried not to be too miserable.
As he exited, though, he gave the men new orders as promised, instructing them to allow her freedom to move about the temple. She must be escorted, but it lifted her spirits. She could leave these chambers, finally, and escape the looming sense of their former lord.
She dressed the moment Bannon's voice faded, while her guards still muttered audibly between themselves. Choosing a sunset-red sarong and gold breastplate, bothering only long enough to twist her hair into a braid, she rushed to be set free.
The men stared, shocked, when she threw open the doors. Maybe they hadn't expected her to be ready so quickly. Maybe the sight of her desert attire scandalized them: the breastplate, a purely ornamental piece and not one fit for battle, lifted her breasts but left them bare. The way they searched her with obvious disapproval irked Sadira. Iron in her spine, she planted hands on her hips and regarded them with equal disdain before demanding, "I wish to go to the courtyard."
"You sure?" one of them—the one at whom she'd thrown the tray—sneered. Without bothering to hide it, he eyed her breasts, at the spoked tattoo circling her left nipple and the gold rings piercing each pert tip. She'd linked a delicate set of fine gold chains between them, and the jewelry sparkled in the torchlight.
"Bannon ordered you to allow me out," she snapped. "I heard him tell you."
"Aye, he did." The man's eyes gleamed with hard malice. "But I wouldn't advise it. Many of the people in this temple harbor bad feelings toward witchery, you understand. Not all of them are foreigners."
"The men we took prisoner are calling you a cutthroat whore," his partner said. "While the freed slaves say you betrayed them from the start. Nobody wants you out and about."
Sadira glowered. Their gossip stung, and she didn't doubt the truth of it. Choking back the hurt, she lifted her chin. "I don't give a damn. I am going to the courtyard and if you don't wish to escort me you can stay here. It doesn't matter to me if you disobey the Red Bear."
Without waiting for their replies, she strode out into the hall, smooth and lithe as a desert lioness. The men did follow—she'd never doubted they would, of course—but she gave no indication she noticed.
None but the most elite cultists of Akolet's order had resided within the temple, and under their rule, darkness always dominated the halls and arches. Low-burning torches crackled with sparks of a hundred otherworldly hues, and gave off sickly, cold light. Servants, regardless of their rank or role, did not speak unless given direct permission. They lived as mice in a nest of fat snakes, and any of them might be devoured.
The invaders had no need to keep the place like a dank reptile's lair. The rich, warm color of mahogany stone caught Sadira by surprise. She'd never seen the temple so full of light, and never even realized there existed such a lovely, gleaming hue within these walls. More people moved about now, busier and with a sense of purpose. No longer did the common inhabitants cringe and struggle for perfect silence in their work, or cast their eyes down when another approached. A weight had been lifted from them all. None of the former slaves and servants need hide any longer.
Bannon's people worked among the others, with no great pomp or urgency. Sadira watched one as he accompanied a kitchen girl, holding a basket of breads while she handed them out to others.
The barbarians are their rescuers. The last of their captors are in the prisons below. I am the last unknown. I am the one for whom these men cannot find a place.
As she strode down familiar corridors, studying people she'd seen every day for most of her life, the sense of their scrutiny weighed her down. Slaves she'd once served with openly studied her, pausing in their business to fix on her with wary, curious stares. She understood. Even to her own kind, she'd always been separate. His pet. Impossible to trust.
Lifting her head, Sadira put back her shoulders, focused intently on her destination, and refused to meet their eyes.
The order intruded on her thoughts so abruptly, she obeyed without thinking. The habit of servitude took over. The command came from a stranger, though, and as she whipped to attention and registered his hard, unfamiliar scowl, fury—mixed with shame—flared to life in her gut.
"What?" she snapped. This man held no right to her, no authority. She silently cursed herself for following the command at all. Her cheeks burned.
The man held himself with the air of a leader. He must be one of Bannon's lieutenants. As he came toward Sadira and her escort, his eyes glinted with the same disdain as the others. He carried a set of shackles in one hand.
"The sorcerer's witch," he declared, "doesn't strut about the place unchained."
"Your captain permitted me to leave my rooms," she replied. She struggled to keep her voice level and cool, as tension wound in her jaw.
"Sure, you can leave them," he replied. "But you'll be wearing these when you do."
He lunged to slap the shackles on her wrist. In a swift panic, Sadira jerked away, clutching her wrists to her chest.
No, not this man. Let it be Bannon if it must be but not this man, this...stranger!
He snatched her wrists away. She moved to weave into the attack, the natural inclination for a chorremacchi fighter—sweep into his balance, then swing away–but her guards seized her shoulders and held her in place. The manacles closed on her and bright red anger, fueled by anxious fear, exploded in her chest.
It all happened too quickly. The crawling sense of curious eyes surrounded her. Everyone, servant and soldier alike, had witnessed it. Their staring upset her, made her chest tight. Short, harsh breaths fought to overtake her.
"Fine," she choked. She glowered at the lieutenant and hoped her eyes burned him. Her cheeks and breasts blazed with a furious heat, and she wanted out into the courtyard at once. She spun away from him, and from all the staring onlookers, striding away toward freedom.
It's not as if you haven't been publicly bound before.
Tears stung her eyes as she recognized Set's voice—Set's snaky, slithering, hateful voice, as clearly as if he stood right beside her, taunting her. Making her small.
It's not the same! she cried out in her head. It's not. No one gave him permission to touch me. I did not give him permission!
You're a prisoner, you idiot, Set's voice sneered. You were their enemy's whore. Now they surely think you the captain's whore. No one needs permission to humiliate a whore.
Bright sunlight stopped her, startling her. She'd come to the archway opening to the courtyard, and the lazy warm scent of the desert autumn afternoon found her. Sadira swallowed back the tight, pinched feeling in her throat, and inhaled the fresh, sweet air instead.
The knot in her chest loosened a little; her thoughts began to calm. The jangle of soldier's gear told her the guards had caught up to her, but she no longer cared. The sunlight chased Set's memory away. His voice, the smell of his breath. She'd almost felt his dry words on the back of her neck.
Pulling herself together, she stepped out into the courtyard and turned her face up to the sun.
A cluster of Bannon's men and the temple's former slaves gathered nearby. Piles of debris from the battle lay in stacks with the organized look of construction, while workers discussed their plans for rebuilding the outer walls. The southern side of the courtyard showed no signs of this heavy labor, and only a few of the temple denizens sat in the shade of low, wide palm fronds, enjoying a rest. A central fountain bubbled clear, cold water into the air, but, shining in the bright, full light of the mid-morning sun, it stood lonely, abandoned for the cool respite of the shadowy trees.
Sadira didn't mind the sun, even though it burned her skin so much easier than it did the people of the desert. She took a seat on the hot stone rim and closed her eyes, basking in the light. It's golden-white radiance held all the promise of real freedom in it. She wanted to drink it up, all of it, and feel it glowing inside of her.
She hadn't realized how exhausted she was. How scared. For the first time, she wanted nothing more than to run from this place. From Bannon, who couldn't decide what to do with her. From these foreigners, convinced she would continue the legacy of dark arts despite Set's death. From her own people, the servants, slaves, and pets. Her guards were right. None here believed her, or trusted her.
Even if she ran, she would never escape. She'd always harbor her strange hungers, the alarming needs that, thanks to her Master, she couldn't even hope to hide. The god-king's practices were infamous, and her role in them well-known. But Set hadn't put those things in her. She'd always secretly love pain in passion, loved pain as passion. Where would a woman with such dark desires find welcome, if not the Ruined Sands? Whom could she turn to, and where could she go, where she—and all the ways she'd learned to love, despite the sting and horror—would not be a freak?
He's made you a deviant.
Whom could she ever trust with what she truly was?
With her guards still standing nearby, Sadira sat and sunned herself, working to forget all the rest of the temple, the people around her...everything but the warm sensation of the sun. It would burn before long, but for now, she basked in its blessed, unblemished serenity. In time, she even dozed.
After some time, she woke to the sound of her name. She blinked, brushing away the sweet drowsiness, and searched for the voice.
A slight figure with a short sheet of black hair approached her from the construction side of the courtyard. At first, she couldn't tell if it were man or woman, or perhaps a tall adolescent. The figure carried a load of short clay bricks, but clearly diverted from the work to come see her at the fountain.
"Is it really you, Sadira? Are you all right?"
As the figure neared, Sadira finally recognized her. In bright surprise she stood, covering a gasp with one hand.
"By the eyes of Akolet...Tara?"
The sweet girl smiled when Sadira said her name. She hardly resembled the slave Sadira remembered. Once a slim wisp of a pet for one of Set's warlords, Tara used to be pale as buttery cream, and her luxurious dark hair fell to her waist. Her master had forbidden her ever to cut it, and spent painstaking hours watching her brush it until it lay perfectly smooth. He demanded her painted as well, with dark, shadowy rings of kohl around her eyes and lush, severe lips like carmine. Like Sadira, Tara lived on her knees in this temple, and served most of her time as naked entertainment. Her breasts were hardly there at all, tiny and impishly pert, capped with little pink nipples; her long legs and slim hips made her far more athletic than voluptuous, and she'd always worn an expression of miserable self-consciousness, as if her skin crawled simply to be seen. Sadira understood the feeling, though she'd grown used to it early in her servitude. Tara faced different challenges. Easily the smallest, most boyish, and least intrepid of the order's sexual slaves, her master's insistence on managing an awkward feminine mien made her a more a caricature than anything else.
Today, the one-time slave wore clothing she'd certainly borrowed from one of the barbarian boys, leather leggings and a sleeveless jerkin, and she'd shorn her hair all the way to her nape. She must have spent hours working out here in the sun over the past few days, because she'd taken on a warm, lovely tan. For once, her face was free of any paint, and it made Sadira smile to see Tara finally looked at home with herself. She glowed with her newfound freedom.
Should I do the same? Sadira wondered. Change everything about myself? Am I myself? Or am I still Set's, with his marks and design governing me?
"It is you!" Tara said as they came face to face. "We didn't know...we weren't sure if the Red Bear imprisoned you with the cultists."
Her eyes fell to the shackles around Sadira's wrists. "He hasn't been cruel to you, has he?"
"Not cruel, no." Sadira took her seat on the fountain rim again. "He is a conquering leader, Tara. He cannot be too soft."
"But you aren't one of them," Tara retorted. Sadira blinked, surprised to hear someone else say it out loud. Even if she'd shared their fate, she'd never expected the other slaves to take her side when the god-king fell. Tara, though...she'd always had a soft spot for Tara. She tried not to notice the stinging in her eyes, and glanced down at the water before Tara took notice.
"I'm not anyone," she said. She smiled as she said it. "Have they treated you well enough, though? You and the others?"
"Like kin," Tara replied. "From the very start. There's hardly more to say. We don't want coddling, not most of us, and Bannon's people are happy to have us work beside them. There's a supply caravan coming with new building materials, and they're sending a younger brother of their king to take regency here. The Red Bear's own daughter is escorting the man."
"And what will you do, when a barbarian sits on the throne of the Ruined Sands?"
Tara lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "It can't be any worse than the Black Magician's rule."
"True enough," Sadira agreed.
"The Red Bear, was he...hard with you?"
This time, Sadira knew, Tara meant the claiming. Bannon's single concession to the ways of the desert, and the ways of their former masters. Everyone knew what the barbarian had to do to force her surrender.
"He asked me to concede defeat peacefully," she replied. She sat back, tilting her head towards the sky again to relish the afternoon heat. A chuckle escaped her. "He said he would make love to me, or even forgo the ritual altogether." Shaking her head, she added, "I wanted no such mercy. It isn't my nature, and I know these lands and these people well enough. He showed me violence because I demanded it. I suppose it's better to say I was hard with him."
Tara pursed her lips. No, she didn't understand it. Sadira hadn't expected her to.
"He's been a kind captor," she added, perhaps as some sort of concession. "I rather like him. He's strong, and I admire strong men."
And he is kind. At his very heart, I know he is kind.
"Why has he shackled you?"
"His men shackled me," Sadira corrected her. "They don't trust me. And I'm told the temple population doesn't, either."
Tara made a face, eyes darting away. All the answer Sadira needed.
"You look good," she offered. "You look...right."
"I feel right," Tara said. Her hand went to her short, straight hair, running fingers through it in a gesture Sadira imagined to be mostly unconscious.
"Your master never appreciated your real beauty," she said, reaching out to stroke the short, straight locks herself. Tara made the face again, and Sadira read in it all the lingering doubt and strange fears of the recently delivered. Even with the cult broken, their leader dead, and their lair claimed by newcomers bent on changing everything the slaves had ever known, the dogma and training of years—decades—would keep the pets looking over their shoulders, perhaps the rest of their lives. Tara may feel at home in her skin at last, but it echoed with the strains of blasphemy, all the same.
She would thrive with it soon enough, Sadira believed.
"I better return to work," Tara said. Sadira dipped her head in a nod.
"Thank you," she murmured. "For coming to check on me."
"It doesn't matter what others say," Tara replied. "You suffered, as much as any of us." Her eyes roamed over the tattoos and brands winding over Sadira's skin. "Maybe even more."
"I'm alive, though." She tried to sound cheerful, and offered Tara a smile. Tara jerked her head in a quick nod, then hesitated a moment before hurrying back toward the construction.
Well. At least I am not a pariah to everyone.
A shout rose up from the far side of the courtyard, jarring her out of her thoughts. She glanced up in time to see a young man lunge from his work in the rubble and throw aside one of the women standing nearby. The woman—one of Bannon's people, younger and certainly much smaller than her attacker—dropped to the ground under his shove. Then he leapt on her, raising fists to strike her over and over.
"Stop it!" Sadira screamed, jumping to her feet and sprinting for the fray. Others near the altercation stood stunned, maybe too stunned to realize exactly what the man did. A few of the others seized the attacker by the arms, while another few reached for the girl, trying to help her to her feet. The young man fought, even bit at the hands clamped on him, and in one swift move he broke away to continue his assault.
Bannon appeared. Sadira hadn't seen him among the workers, but he stepped between the man and his target. Sadira was once more reminded why he'd been named the Red Bear. Before him, the attacker appeared willowy and fragile. It didn't serve to stop him, however. He attacked Bannon with equal fury, throwing heavy, frantic punches at the barbarian captain.
Planting her shackled hands together, Sadira vaulted a pile of crumbled stone and darted into the fray. As Bannon reached for the young man's fists, she slid to the ground in a wide sweep, and knocked the assailant's legs out from under him. As she swung her own legs around beneath her she pulled into a crouch and then rolled into a somersault, spinning and landing astride the young man's chest. She pinned his elbows with her knees and clasped her bound hands down on his collarbone.
She moved so quickly, everyone around her bubbled into a confusion. She hardly noticed it. Staring down into the face of the boy who started it all—and indeed, he did look very much a boy, gaping up at her in wild-eyed confusion, lip trembling—she recognized him right away. The young son of a temple shaman. One of natives of the Sands.
His eyes, rimmed with red as bold and bright as blood, filled her with crawling unease. Eyes full of fear as he thrashed from side to side beneath her. He shouted for help, stared up and around at the spectators, and Sadira realized the poor thing had no idea what he'd done.
"Get her off of me! What is she doing?"
"She's defending an innocent woman, you little rat," growled Bannon behind her. He put a hand on her shoulder to tug her aside, and when she moved he leaned down to seize the boy by the collar and jerk him up off of the ground.
"Just what in the name of the Goddess do you mean by attacking one of my people?" he demanded in a loud bark. "And then attacking me, to boot?"
The young man stammered. "I, I don't know, I don't know what happened."
Sadira, still crouched on the stones and coiled for another altercation, took a moment to glance over at the woman he'd thrown down. Another of the barbarians helped her up, and she trembled, her face a mask of fury. Her nose and mouth were bloodied, and she'd have a black eye almost instantly, from the looks of it. She held one arm at a sharp, stiff angle.
"She is very hurt, barbarian," she said to Bannon, without taking her eyes from the victim. The lady looked fierce, at least. Sooner to retaliate against the young man with a punch, than to show him any fear. "She'll need to be seen immediately."
"You there," Bannon said, throwing a glance at the man holding the woman up. "Take her inside and see her patched up. I'll be dealing with this one."
"I am sorry!" the boy begged. "I don't understand...I don't know what I did, I simply...I...I..."
Sadira climbed to her feet and stepped closer to Bannon.
"I believe him," she murmured, soft so none of the others would hear. "See his eyes...something's wrong with him."
Bannon glowered. He still held the boy, and the poor thing wriggled and struggled in his grasp.
"You'll have him tied up and kept in the barracks with the guards, for the night," Bannon ordered of a man standing nearby.
"Aye, Red Bear," said the smith. "And what will be done with him?"
"Have the men keep a watch on him," Bannon instructed. "I'm willing to give him the benefit of a doubt and believe he didn't realize what he was doing. It's hot out here...the sun may have robbed him of his senses. But I can't ignore an attack on one of my soldiers, so I'll see to his discipline once we've given him the chance to regain himself."
"Aye, captain," the man repeated. Bannon set the boy on his feet again and two of the others stepped in to tie him fast with ropes.
"You're all right, Sadira?" Bannon asked.
"Absolutely fine," she said with a nod. "He never got a hit in on me."
"What did you do, there? I...can't say I'm familiar with such a style of combat."
"Choremacchi," she replied. "Hand-to-hand martial art. I learned, when Set put me to training as a soldier."
"You're very fast." He eyed the shackles on her wrists with some suspicion. "And agile, to have managed such gymnastics with hands bound."
"I learned one must be," she said. She kept her eyes on the crazed lad as she added, "When things like this happen."
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