I watch the violet fingers of the sun tinge the horizon as I crouch, hidden behind the large, flat green leaves of the bush in front of me. My breath comes in gasps, having just hastened from the portal to where I now stand. The entrance to the portal—one of the few connections I have to my home planet—is now shut fast, and I am left alone on a foreign planet, the tiny communication device tucked into my bag the only connection to my home and my people. When the last streaks of light have diminished, it will be time to make my move. My heart thunders in my chest but I ignore the unease. If I must succeed in my mission, then I must not succumb to fear. I must assimilate into the throngs of people, the savages who line the streets of Avalere like wild beasts.
If I am to save my people, I must pretend to be an Avalerian. My hand goes to my side, checking once again for the slim silver weapon I’ve tucked into the band at my waist. I wish I had more time to study the people to whom I now go, to truly immerse myself in their culture, but time has been pressing. I am left with little more than threads of rumors I heard as a child. I am unsure what is fact or fiction.
The Avalerians are unlike the civilized, progressive planet of Freanoss, to whom I belong. I am told the Avalerians are barbaric. During the day, it’s warm here, and even now they’re dressed in simple, scant clothing. This piques my curiosity, as I’ve never seen a human dressed in anything but regulation white, the uniforms given to us in our youth. The barbarians still eat food cooked with heat, from animals they breed and slaughter. I cringe as I envision what it must be like to partake in meals with them. I will long for the cleaner, sterilized methods I am used to. I lift my chin and inhale deeply. If I do not pretend to be one of them, I cannot save my people.
But there are baser traditions that I truly fear. The mere thought of being forced to engage in their uncultured ways makes my stomach twist in knots, the palms of my hands unnaturally damp. They believe some of their people contain a greater life force than others, and thus they have an imbalance of power. There are no equals. And I am told—though again, I have no verification of such rumors—that the savages of Avalere believe in coupling. I shudder, and under my breath mutter the words that I’ve grown with, while the comforting repetition of our mantra stills the shaking of my limbs.
We are one body. We are one people. Together, we will conquer darkness and rise as one.
The glowing rays of the sun now gone, the black of night surrounds me. I move slowly, careful to make my way toward the throng without arousing much suspicion. It is time for me to dress in the clothing of the savages. I have a small bag with the clothing I will need. The regulation white I still wear has protected me from the elements while I traveled to the foreign planet. I have never felt real cold or heat, but only the controlled climate of Freanoss. It’s cooler here now that the sun has set. Little bumps on my arms raise, and I shiver.
In front of me now, I see them, moving to the music, drums being beaten with what looks like sticks. I shudder. Barbaric. Part of me finds the music appealing, the rhythmic thump, thump, thump primal and loud. But I quickly denounce such thoughts, eager to rid myself of any sympathy toward the barbarians. My breathing accelerates as I advance, watching now from my hidden position. The women are dancing, swaying their hips and moving their hands in time to the deep, thunderous beat of drums. Small children squeal as they chase one another, but as I watch, my attention is drawn elsewhere.
In front of the crowd are what look like ancient thrones, gilded and carved, and upon the thrones are a dozen fierce men—warriors, I surmise. They look vastly different to the men of Freanoss. These men bulge with muscle, bare from the waist up, black slashes of tribal markings along their arms and their large, muscular necks. Their hair is not shaven short in familiar regulation length but rather longer, thicker, framing their faces. Some have it tied back at the nape. The man I am most riveted to—the largest, fiercest looking one of them all—has long black hair. His eyes gleam like obsidian. His strong jaw is heavily bearded, his arms folded across his muscled chest. He is watching the dancing in front of him with a trained eye, his head slightly nodding as his gaze travels over the crowd.
I pull my eyes away. I must hasten to change my clothes if I am to assimilate. My safest chance of avoiding notice is to look like one of them.
As I remove my uniform, I will myself to ignore the discomfort of the cool night air. I remove the small tunic in my bag with trembling hands, and pull it over my head. I blink in surprise at myself, my own bare arms looking oddly out of place in the dark of the forest, my legs bare but for the hem of the tunic that hits just above my knees. Even if I look the part, how will they ever believe I am one of them? I shove my uniform to the bottom of my bag, placing it next to the tiny communication device I’ve removed while changing, but I tuck my weapon in the waist of the tunic. I have no idea what will transpire in the next few hours. Once I’ve gleaned the information I need, I will be able to return to my people and leave the savages for good.
With a deep sigh, I tuck my bag beneath the shade of the largest bush I can find. Removing my weapon, I hit the button on the side, and at once a silver blade emerges. I mark an X on the side of the branch. Once I hit the button on the side of my bag, it will vanish from sight. I must remember where I have put it. Without it, I will not be able to return easily to Freanoss.
It is a breach of our founding fathers’ pact for me to be here now. I am not troubled by my choice to break the law. I have justified my choices, because the Avalerians were the ones who instigated our dispute. I glance at my weapon. Is it wise to enter the crowd armed? Leaving my weapon behind would be like severing a limb, so though my bag will remain invisible, the weapon comes with me. I draw closer to the crowd.
Ahead of me now, there are dozens of women together, huddled, laughing and swaying their hips in time to the music. I direct my steps toward them, recognizing that I will most safely be hidden among them. My hair is dark like theirs, and though my skin is soft and pale, unlike their golden-toned skin, it is my hope that I can hide among them as I get my bearings.
I feel utterly naked, but walk with purpose past a couple in front of me with a few small children, beyond the vendors selling something that is fragrant but turns my stomach. I tuck my head and pretend to sway my hips with them, though I cannot pretend to laugh with them. I remind myself all that is needed is one night to pretend to be one of them, and I will glean the information necessary for my mission. Avalere has been stealing from Freanoss. Though we are a small nation, we are a thriving one, due to the abundance of natural resources the Avalerians have taken at will. It is my job to infiltrate them and report back to my people what I find.
The music is reaching a crescendo now, the drums booming, the sound near frantic to my ears. Excitement seems to grow as the laughter of the women increases in volume. I begin to wonder if I’ve made a mistake. Why is this throng so raucous?
The large man sitting in the center of the circle now rises, and to my horror, he begins to advance toward our group. I am transfixed, looking at him up close. His hair is black as night, hitting the sharp angle of his bearded jaw. He is so unlike any man I have ever seen, I stare. On Freanoss, women grow their hair slightly longer than men, and the length is a matter of personal taste. However, bodily hair on both men and women is clinically removed once one reaches puberty, and the men from Freanoss are always clean-shaven. I cannot avert my eyes from the man in front of me now, his form towering over the crowd, his muscles rippling beneath the flickering light of torches. When he moves, his strength is magnificent to behold. I half expect him to speak in growls, rather than the commanding voice that now rings clearly, so deep it reverberates through my being like the drums.
“Come to me,” he says, curling a finger toward the group. “It is time.”
Time for what? My stomach twists in fear. I have made a terrible mistake. This is not an anonymous group of women, but rather a group being taken to the circle of men. I turn, stepping away from the crowd with my head down, hoping that if I avoid eye contact, I can escape my plight, and move back toward the people to my right. I need to get away from this group, as the women are now moving to the center of the circle of men. If I duck quickly between the women to my left, the man herding the women up front will perhaps not see me. I must not get too close to him. But as I skirt to the left, he advances. I increase my pace, but now I fear my swift movements will alert him to my plan to escape. Does he know now I am not one of them?
As I step left, two women block my way, seemingly unaware of me standing in front of them as they advance forward. I am shoved to the right, closer to the man who beckons. I must move. I duck between two women, but he sidesteps, and I find myself planted right in front of the man. He looks at me curiously, before placing both hands on my shoulders. His voice is firm but gentle when he speaks to me. “Now, now, little one,” he says in a low growl, and though he’s smiling, his eyes are fixed sternly on me. “You know what we expect. Go, now.” He turns me around and gives me a little shove back toward the mob of women. I begin to panic. I do not want to be on display like this. Will they find me out? What is this ring of men going to do? No, I will not go willingly.
I move to escape, but he grabs me, his large hand spanning my waist. He spins me around, and to my utter shock, he delivers a hard slap to my scantily clad bottom. My reaction is instinctive. I move swiftly, my elbow connecting with his hardened stomach. His head snaps back in shock and he utters a sharp gasp before he reaches for me. I could kick myself. Damn my trained instincts. I have now done exactly what I am not supposed to—drawn attention to myself. I look quickly to see what he will do in response. His eyes narrow, his lips thin, and I’m aware that a hush has come over the crowd.
“Be still, woman.” His voice rings out, and I look to see that all men are now on their feet, weapons drawn. Why are their weapons drawn? Yes, I’ve drawn attention to myself, but their reaction confuses me. It is then that I see the gleaming silver a few feet in front of me. My knife has fallen from my waist in the skirmish, and shines in the center of the ring.
The man releases one arm from me just long enough so that he can reach for my weapon. His left arm tight around me, I am helpless to move. Curse me and my carelessness. He turns to me, his voice a low growl. “She brought a weapon in our presence,” he says. I glance to the side and see he is now tucking the weapon into his own waist.
“Woman, are you aware of the law of our nation, that bringing such weapons in the midst of a village celebration is a punishable crime?”
I blink. I wonder if I have heard him correctly. Numbly, I shake my head. How could this have gone so wrong so quickly?
The warrior’s grip returns to my shoulders. “I am within my rights to punish the woman for her offense against me, before she’s brought to justice.” My heartbeat quickens as he continues, addressing the crowd. “Though she’s earned a stern chastisement for striking me, perhaps given the festival of the half moon, we should consider her second transgression mercifully.” He pauses. “We’ve not had a foreigner defile our presence with barbaric weapons since the New Dawn. Perhaps mercy is in order.”
I cannot breathe.
His voice lowers so that only I can hear him speak. “Though it will be my duty to bring you to justice, it will be my pleasure. It seems a gift from the gods has graced our presence.”
Gift? I must escape. I must go home.
He steps back and raises his voice, addressing the crowd again. “The festival of the half moon brings with it a cry for mercy. Tonight, I shall serve a dual purpose, and execute both mercy and duty. Though I accept my duty to chastise the woman for her transgression, I accept her as my chosen mate from the circle.” He bows to the women still in his presence in the circle, who return his bow. Some look disappointed, while some have trained their eyes on the other warriors. My head spins.
The crowd cheers. I struggle, writhing against the man’s grip, but I cannot escape.
The man holding me pulls me closer to him. His chin lifts and his eyes focus on the crowd. “You have my word,” he says. “I will see to her properly.”
And with those final chilling, parting words, he pulls me away.
I will not go quietly. I will not. They can call this man king or whatever it is they like, but I am no servant of his. He does not own me, and now that my identity is revealed, I will fight with every ounce of strength I have. I pull, push, and writhe in his grip. Though I am no weakling, I am unable to break free. I am small, but I am strong, and I will fight. I lift my foot and stomp as hard as I can on his. The breath hisses out of him and his grip slackens, but he does not release me. It is all I need, though. With a swift move, I once again elbow him as hard as I can, and the distraction gives me room to wriggle out of his grip, one arm free. I must hide. It is imperative I get away from him. I will not be captive to this savage. With one final yank, I pull my second arm away from him.
But the moment I turn to run, a piercing pain radiates down my scalp. I howl. The brute has me by the hair.
“That is enough, woman!” he bellows. My head is yanked back, and his eyes are no longer amused or kind, but furious slits as I’m once again pinned in his iron-like grip. “You will be thoroughly chastised for your display of temper,” he hisses in my ear. “Do you wish to be disciplined in public as well? I will save you the mortification even now, if you but apologize and beg my forgiveness. Then you will face your punishment in my chambers, rather than here.”
“You savage,” I hiss. “How dare you!”
He arches a brow. “You will not apologize, I surmise?”
I narrow my eyes at him and glare. His lips part into a wicked smile and he tilts his mouth to my ear. “This is your last chance, little one,” he says. “I am stronger than you, and you shall not win. But you will leave with a scrap of pride if you but do as I say. Do you wish to be punished in front of my people?”
I frown. Will he truly chastise me in such a mortifying manner? One look at his stern countenance, and I know he speaks the truth.
“I…” I begin, stuttering and faltering. I do not know what to say. He gestures for someone to bring him something. I watch, mortified, as the eyes of the crowd focus on me. A man approaches, holding a length of rope. My captor twists the rope about my wrists and pulls the length taut, frowning at me. “The proper response is, ‘I’m sorry, Master.’”
I grit my teeth and defy him with my silence. Master!
I cannot. I will not! No man is master of me.
His jaw clenches. “Very well, then, little one,” he says, and to my surprise, I hear a pang of regret in his voice.
He drags me to what looks like a marketplace, where there are tables and chairs, barely visible in the darkness. A crowd has gathered around us, and some follow us now, as he pulls me to an area that looks like a temple of sorts. It is simple but magnificent, golden-domed and flanked with panels of ivory. But now I see where I am being brought. It is a wide-open area that looks almost like an arena of sorts. There is a large, flat platform and several wooden posts… whipping posts. This entire area is designed for public punishment, where those who misbehave are publicly flogged. My stomach drops. I have heard such places once existed, but whips, chains, and jails no longer exist on Freanoss. Criminal behavior has been carefully bred out of my people as we progress toward sameness. We’ve eradicated deviant behavior, and have no need for cruel punishment.
He barks out a few orders. Torches flame to life, quickly placed along the edges of a platform.
I begin to fear the chastisement I’ve brought upon myself.
When we reach the platform, he drags me to the furthest corner of the arena, for I do not walk willingly. He takes my bound wrists, and ushers me up against what looks like a table. It is narrow, like a small desk, and when he pushes me over it, my belly is flat against the surface. With one swift move, he yanks my wrists, and he deftly lifts the length of rope, securing it on a peg at the opposite end of the table. I am now effectively stretched out, my arms flat in front of me, my torso flush with the surface of the table. The position I hold makes the small tunic I wear rise, and I am no longer covered. To my shame, I feel the cool night air across my backside and lower back. I am mortified, tears threatening to fall. As he adjusts my restraints, I cannot help but whisper, “Please. Don’t.”
He stands at the table in front of me, bending down so that his eyes meet mine. He is deadly serious as he leans in close to me.
“Please don’t?” he says. “I gave you a chance to repent, and yet you chose defiance.” He reaches one large hand out and brushes back a strand of hair that has fallen across my face. Though his tenderness takes me by surprise, I cringe as his finger grazes my head. Physical human contact is unfamiliar to me, as we on Freanoss recognized long ago how such animalistic tendencies spread disease and illness. We do not touch one another.
His eyes roam from mine, down the length of my body stretched across the table before he speaks again. When he does, his voice has deepened. Though not harsh, it is corrective and unrelenting. “You disobeyed me. You have broken the laws of Avalere.” As he speaks, his eyes darken, and it’s almost as if he has convinced himself of his purpose. “Need I remind you that according to our laws, you ought to be executed? I feel compelled to protect you from our harshest penalty.” He stands, his lips a thin line, his eyes narrowed and fixed on mine. His voice lowers, and now only I hear it. “The stripes I will lay across you are given in my mercy.” I close my eyes. I have no choice but to accept my fate.
He is speaking to the crowd but I do not hear what he says, as the blood rushing in my ears is near deafening. My cheeks are aflame, my eyes shut tight, as I am mortified by my predicament. I jump as a warm hand presses against the bare skin on my lower back. I brace myself for the first searing zing of the whip, or whatever he’ll use to punish me, and jump in surprise when it is his hand that connects sharply with my bare skin. I gasp, the blow searing my flesh. Again, he strikes, the ringing sound of his hand connecting like a gunshot.
“You will obey me, little one,” he says sternly. “You must obey me.” He pulls back and I brace myself for another blow. “You ought to be whipped,” he says, as another strike of his palm hits my flesh. “And if you raise your hand to me again, you shall be.” Another stinging swat. I can hardly breathe for the pain, his large hand like a thousand bee stings, falling hard and fast. It hurts far more than I anticipate. He now spanks me in earnest, one blow falling after another. I feel his foot push against mine, spreading my legs, before another harsh blow lands on my inner thighs. My skin is on fire, every strike seemingly harder than the one before. He pauses. For a moment, I wonder if he is done. His voice raises as he addresses the crowd.
“The woman is small, and she is unfamiliar with our traditions. She is now mine to correct. She will learn obedience and subordination. Tonight, as I punish her, I mark her as my own.”
Fear spikes in my chest, as I wonder what he means by marking. Is he referring to the marks of his hand upon my skin, or something else? I am terrified, gripped with fear at the coupling the barbarians partake in. Is there ‘marking’ involved in coupling?
He turns back to me, his voice dropping as his hand rests on my neck briefly. “Disobedience will not be tolerated.” He pulls back and resumes spanking me, one hard swat after another. My backside burns from the blows, and each punishing swat atop my flaming skin makes me cry out. As my feet barely grace the floor, I writhe in pain.
“Now, now,” he chides. “A girl who is brave enough to strike the Warrior King ought to be brave enough to take her chastisement.”
Another searing swat lands. Is he mocking me?
His voice lowers again. “Six more blows,” he says. “And with each strike of my palm, you will count out loud.” There is a brief pause. “And if you do not, then I shall resume your punishment with my sword belt until you do.”
I close my eyes and brace myself. His palm lands firmly.
“One,” I hiss.
“Very good,” he says, before delivering the second searing swat.
Another hard smack falls, harder than the last, and I go up on my toes. “Three,” I whisper, trying to maintain my dignity. Thoroughly punished in front of a crowed that is cheering, shouting, and whistling has stripped me of my pride. I want them to go away. I want to run.
The fourth swat lands on my thighs again, and I cry out from the pain. “Four,” I choke, tears burning my eyes, my throat strangely clogged. I cannot begin to sort through the emotions I am feeling right now. I just need this to be done.
I am ready for the fifth swat, and take it bravely. “Five,” I say, mustering up all my courage.
The last swat is the hardest of all. The crack echoes around us. “Six,” I whisper, slumping against the table.
My punishment is over. But my imprisonment has only just begun.
The rough, firm feel of his palm massages my stinging skin. My eyes are shut tight, but I feel him lift my bound wrists from the peg.
“Come here, little one,” he says. I am lifted in his arms. My eyes fly open in surprise. I am not used to being touched by a man, and certainly have never been carried by one, since physical touch like this is forbidden on Freanoss. The pairing of mates has been outlawed for decades, ever since the New Dawn. I have also been trained to believe I am resistant to the desire for human contact, capable of rational thought not colored by archaic notions. I have been bred to be stronger than my ancestors and not susceptible to the weakness they succumbed to. And yet… something within me yearns for his touch. My body likes the feeling of helplessness I get when in his arms. I tell myself it is merely exhaustion coloring my feelings. When I am rested, I will think rationally again.
I shiver from cold. I am not used to feeling such things. I lift my head and turn from him, arching my body to keep myself distanced.
“The little one defies me even now,” he murmurs to himself, still holding me firmly while marching with purposeful strides. Oddly, I notice people are quieted, bowing to him as we pass. All around us I see brightly lit torches held high. Servants, perhaps? He speaks to me again. “It will be my duty and pleasure to teach you obedience. You will see.”
I will see what? The man is mad. I am not staying here to be taught anything. I will escape from him, after I find what my people need. But I shall not make the mistake of defying him so brashly, not again. For now, I will submit to him as he is stronger than I.
And I will escape.