A thick finger crooked and the beautiful young woman crawled toward the speaker, her hips swaying, her breasts hanging heavy as she moved on hands and knees, crimson lips parting for what she knew was to come.
“Good girl,” he praised. “Very good.”
He looked down at her and mused how she had been so proud once, so refined, so utterly royal. Now there was no discernible difference between her and any other needy maid. If anything, her regal features lent themselves to a particularly delicious submission that served to excite her owner all the more.
Stripped of all the trappings of her station, her naked body still bore all the marks of good breeding. She was delicate and yet she was also curvy, every part of her perfectly alluring to his gaze, from the soft swell of her hips leading to the ample bottom made for so many things a man might do to a woman, thick thighs and shapely calves. Her breasts were generous, her hair lustrous, her pale blue eyes holding so many conflicting emotions. He had taken her pride and he had turned it into something that made hot blushes rush over her skin, warming the cheeks of her face, her décolletage, all the way down to her more tender parts that had once hid below soft golden down and now had not a hint of a curl to keep them from his gaze.
He stood over her, the shadow of his towering form thrown over her sweet body. He was much larger than her even when he suffered her to stand, but now was not one of those times. For now, his princess would stay on her knees and look up at him with those beautiful blue eyes under golden lashes.
He was a tall man, several inches over six foot, and his shadow fell even longer and more daunting with the light from the floor-to-ceiling windows beyond which the facade of old Manhattan could be seen, what had once been tall buildings now utterly eclipsed by far greater constructions, such as the one in which he stood and she kneeled.
Where she was kept naked, he was dressed in armor that hearkened from the past, but was built of the materials of the future. His long, strong legs were clad in plates of hard yet light material, his manhood straining at the codpiece. He was as dark as she was light, as strong as she was vulnerable. Her body did not bear so much as a pockmark, but under his armor were the scars of battle that would never leave. He had fought for everything he’d ever had, including his pet, and as he looked down at her soft body, he felt a curious mixture of pride, desire, and the need to discipline her all over again. No matter how far he came with his collared princess, she always seemed to need another lesson.
The whines that had been on her lips to start with had died down now as she feasted her gaze on him, her eyes going from his face to between his thighs. She was a greedy little thing, a trained thing, a girl who finally knew her place in the world, though the place they now stood was a far cry from the palace where she had been born. What were throne rooms compared to her master’s feet? What was a crown compared to a collar?
She made a soft sound and pressed her face to his leg, rubbing against him like some small animal.
How proud she had once been, how utterly resistant to any form of obedience, let alone submission. Even now, her rear flashed red with the marks from his strap. No. Not his strap… her strap, the thick leather lash he had reserved for her bottom alone.
“Present yourself, pet.” His long finger twirled above her head, indicating the way she should turn. Clockwise. Even the small things mattered.
She twisted around too eagerly, ignoring the cue and as her bottom came into view, he laid a stern slap on her left cheek.
“Other way, pet.”
Her gasp and whimper for mercy would have held more weight with him if he had not known that she was just as calculated as he. Her every disobedience was deliberate. Even now, as he grasped her collar and guided her back to look at him, he saw the little flash of mischief in her eye and the not entirely restrained smirk on her lips. She was smart as a whip, and liable to take advantage of every little opening he gave her. He could not let the small misbehavior slide. It would disappoint her. She would start to believe that perhaps he was not truly her master. That fact that a girl in chains was even capable of thinking such a thing was a testament to how two decades of being treated as the highest in the land could leave permanent mental marks on a psyche.
Being born royal had done his pet no favors whatsoever as far as Maxim was concerned. Every little bit of obedience had to be drawn from her with stinging flesh and stern command. Nothing was given easily. Everything had to be taken. Even as he held her collar and felt her pulse dancing against the back of his fingertips, he could feel the little struggles that were taking place not so much against him, but against the warring factions in her own mind. There were always two at play. The arrogant, thoroughly spoiled runaway princess of Ere, and his pet, obedient citizen of the Centillion enclave of New New York.
One week earlier…
Sitting on her receiving throne, Princess Sabine rested her head on her hand and tried not to yawn obviously as finely dressed women paraded and orbited around her, their perfume threatening to overwhelm her with its stench, cloying sweetness as fake as the smiles on their painted faces.
She had begun to lose track of their faces and their names an hour earlier, but that had not stopped them from coming, and the royal scribe beside her was taking notes, which seemed to make the ladies believe that some good might come of their pleas even though she herself was clearly barely listening at all.
Somewhere in the shuffle of rich women beseeching her favor came a woman in relatively plain clothing, patched at the elbows. Her dress was clean, but it was not new, and it was not made of silk but of cotton. A common woman with a face lined by the sun, more than twice Sabine’s age, dipping into a curtsy that put her head somewhere near Sabine’s feet.
“Princess Sabine, would you care come to tea at two? We have the finest Oef Spring venison, so tender and so young it simply melts on your tongue. And perhaps we could discuss the matter of my father’s lands?”
“Princess Sabine is not available for engagements,” her scribe smoothly interrupted. “Her schedule is full for the next six months. If you would like to be added to it in the future, you will need to apply directly to the royal keeper of schedules and pay the necessary fees.”
“But, I cannot afford the fees for a full audience. My father’s lands have been overrun by General Isodor and…”
“Your time is over. Please step aside,” the scribe interrupted.
“Your time is over. Please step aside. We have many ladies to hear today.”
The woman’s face fell and she was more or less shifted off by the pressure of those who came behind her, four ladies struggling under the weight of a… thing.
“Princess Sabine, please, we would be ever so proud if you would wear this dress… a thousand nuns stitched ten thousand pearls to it and went blind in the process…”
The dress was the most disgusting thing Sabine had ever seen, so covered in pearls it was one great joined sheet of them and looked like a creature with a million eyes, or perhaps some kind of insect’s nest just waiting to spew forth a million little horrors. She smiled tightly and gestured to a servant to take the thing away.
Another woman approached in the wake of the dressmakers.
“Princess Sabine, will you put a word in for me with Lord Gattingly? I heard he is in want of a bride, and my daughter is almost too old to marry.”
“Lady Sattis! Your daughter is nineteen,” Sabine said, deigning to speak for the first time. “What do you mean she is too old to marry?”
There was a hushed gasp that traveled all the way down the receiving line. There were so many people that it took almost a full minute for the gasp to reach the very end. It was a scandalous moment, for Sabine herself was all of twenty years old and yet to be married, though there was no shortage of suitors. It was a thing of shame to have reached one’s eighteenth birthday without a solid offer of marriage upon the table. For much of her life, Sabine had watched every single one of her chambermaids and ladies in waiting turn that dratted number and be taken off to wed. If she saw them again at all, they were big bellied, totally transformed from the people they once were. They were no longer fit for service, and they were no longer permitted in her presence.
She had learned to hate marriage from her youth, as it claimed those who cared for her time and time again, leaving her alone with some new stranger. Marriage in Ere was exceptionally tedious and duty driven, and Sabine knew she could not escape it much longer.
Lady Sattis hurried off in shame and another woman took her place. Over and over they came with requests large and small, their voices blending into one long chorus.
Princess Sabine. Princess Sabine. Princess Sabine.
Sometimes Sabine started to hate her very name for the way it was constantly on the lips of the many supplicants who surrounded her with every step she took through the grand palace, crown jewel of the City of Vener, capital of the great kingdoms of Ere.
Princess Sabine. There was no escape from the constant onslaught of duty and favors that were asked of her. Though she was but twenty years old, she was regarded as being the most powerful lady in the land. That meant listening to the vicious gossip that made its way from the very sewers of Vener and spread across lips and tongues until it inevitably found her, whether she was interested or not. In truth, she had little power, but that did not stop the ladies who were forbidden to seek the king’s ear directly from coming to her and showering her with requests and pleas from morning up until sundown. Her father insisted that she see them, because who else would. The nobility needed a place to put their prayers, and it was at her feet.
Princess Sabine. Useless, a figurehead and nothing more. From her birth it had been known that she would never rule. A woman could not sit on the throne of Ere, and she was her father’s only child—therefore she was also the end of his line. Her birth had been as much a curse as a blessing, though her father had never said such a thing, nor allowed it to be spoken of directly in her presence. That did not stop whispers from reaching her ears.
Princess Sabine. She who would never rule, and yet who had captured the hearts and minds of all Ere. There were bards who made their living going from village to village, telling of the stories of Sabine, and upon her eighteenth birthday, the entire world celebrated and gossiped as to who might have her hand in marriage.
When no announcement was made, chaos ensued. Competitions burst out across the land, taking place so far away from the palace that the outcome could never have mattered. Duels were fought between suitors who did not have a snowflake’s chance in a fire of ever marrying her, and yet they fought and died nonetheless.
Her father was deeply protective, preventing her from leaving the royal city, and generally not allowing her out of the noble quarter that lay directly beneath the palace proper. Only a few hundred nobles had ever laid eyes on her in person, but that only seemed to make her legend grow all the more among the millions who lived beyond the borders of her little royal realm.
She was widely regarded as a great beauty, of course. Had she been utterly plain, her position alone would have made her seem stunning, but nature and her father’s lust for the pale people of the north, her mother in particular, had given her the striking coloring of ultra-blonde hair and pale blue eyes. There were portraits all over the nation of women who looked nothing like her, but that light hair and pale blue gaze, often pictured as being so close to white it was eerie, would make the image instantly recognizable.
Sabine was not truly a person, as much as she was a story. A legend to be aspired to.
It was not easy being a legend, especially one who had to live up to the tales spread in her father’s conquests. King Savik had conquered the entire kingdom in a matter of less than a decade, driving his enemies before him with what were claimed to be potent and entirely unnatural forces. It was said that he could speak to his generals at a distance of several thousand miles, and that he was capable of having an enemy killed from far across a battlefield without needing to ever come within sword range, and never having once loosed an arrow.
How he managed these feats was a closely guarded secret known only to the king and to his most closely trusted generals. Spies from other kingdoms attempted to infiltrate the king’s inner circle, but they were detected and removed without mercy.
Finally the audiences were over. The last of the supplicants trickled off into the distance, taking the sound of their incessant chatter with them and for a moment there was something like silence as Sabine stepped down from her princess throne and made her way to her private chambers with a mere half dozen people following her every step.
The one person whose voice said her name with any real affection made her turn her head. Her father was approaching, a broad smile on his face. Her little cloud of ladies in waiting disappointed like flies finding themselves in the sparrow’s path.
“Father,” she said, allowing him to draw her into his arms and embrace her warmly. Though her father ruled his kingdom with an iron fist, he handled his only daughter with kid gloves.
“My rose,” he rumbled. “I have good news for you.”
“Come with me,” he said. “I will tell you this in some measure of privacy, so you might be the first to hear it.”
A dull feeling settled in her stomach. There was only one kind of news that could be delivered in this fashion, and she was not eager to hear it. There was no choice, however; her father was already drawing her through the halls of the castle, moving toward the higher chambers at the very center. She could hear him breathing heavily as he ascended the steps and her concern for herself was supplanted by her worry for him. He was not a young man anymore. His hair was silver gray and his face was heavily wrinkled. Though he still wore the king’s armor, he was beginning to inhabit it less and less comfortably and she knew that one day it would pass from him to…
“I am going to show you something, Sabine,” he puffed, standing at the top of a landing. “Something you have never been permitted to see before, something you will likely never see again. I wish for you to know its presence and location, for you are to be queen one day soon and a queen must know her castle equally as a king.”
Her heart sank further still. This was it. The day she had been dreading for years. This was the day she would be told who she was to marry. There would be no choice in the matter. The concept of allowing a woman to choose her husband was scandalous in Ere. Some of the more remote kingdoms had the custom, but they were well known to be barbaric and backwards.
“Who is it, Father?”
“I must show you something so you will understand,” he said, taking her hand and leading her through a door that led to a small labyrinth of walls designed to hold the castle’s greatest secret. “You know, of course, that we have won a great many victories over the past years. You know that our lands reach across the world globe of Ere. You know that I am now less a king than an emperor.”
“Yes, Father,” Sabine agreed.
“I am about to show you how all these feats have been made possible,” he said, turning one final corner.
Sabine put her hands up to cover her eyes as a bright glow unexpectedly assailed them.
“Your eyes will adjust in a moment,” he said. “And then you will see the secret of our success.”
It took a little while, but soon Sabine was able to behold two tall pillars with a swirling glowing mass of bright air between them.
“What is it, Father?”
“This is the world gate,” he said with marked pride. “Only a few will ever set foot in this room. It is opened by a force known to us as electrickery—a powerful magic that the foreign magi left to us. This is the secret at the very core of our realm. This gate is the source of our power. Through this place, we can access a place known as the Other World. Whoever controls this gate controls Ere itself. It must be guarded at all costs, and it must be protected by one worthy and capable of protecting it. I grow weak, Sabine. My time is coming to a close…”
“No, Father, you are still…”
“Hush, child,” he said. “This is the way of the world. As I decline, another must take my place. He must be strong. He must be ruthless. He must understand this power and know how to wield it. There is but one man I trust with the world gate: General Isodor. When I am gone, he will become its guardian—and yours. You must marry him, Sabine.”
He spoke as if he knew she would not be pleased with the match and he was correct. At the very mention of the name, Sabine felt her blood run cold. General Isodor was a man with a reputation. A man feared by all those who were driven before him in rivers of fire and blood. He was the man who had led much of the expansion of the realm and Sabine had known somewhere in the back of her mind that he was a likely match, but she had never been able to bring herself to think it directly.
She tried not to look as horrified as she felt, and her voice became tight and quite tense as she attempted to argue her father out of his decision.
“But Father, he is cruel to the servants and there are rumors that he razes innocent villages for the simple fun of it.”
“Nonsense,” her father replied. “Isodor is the strongest and most ruthless of my generals. When I am gone, he will become king. He will be the most powerful man in Ere—and you will be at his side, reaping the rewards of his work.”
She fell silent, knowing that her father did not care to be argued with. He had already suffered more questioning than most fathers would. It was not a woman’s place to question her match, and he was the king. Who was she to question his decision to marry her off?
“I know you are not immediately pleased, Sabine,” the king said gruffly. “I am showing you this so you understand what your birthright is, and where your power heralds from. Through this gate is a world unlike any other. It is full of wonders and powers and…”
“Can we visit?”
“No! You must never cross this barrier, Sabine. It is a wonderful world, but a dangerous one. This is the border we must guard most fiercely. That is why these chambers are always ringed with soldiers. Should the castle ever fall, this room is designed to destroy itself, forever closing the gate. There is but one man who has ever passed through, one man I trust to walk among the magi’s people.”
“What do we have to fear from the people of the other world?”
“We are a wealthy land, Sabine. We have endless lands and rich soil. We have flowing rivers with sparkling clean water. We have a bounty of nature, beasts and birds, predators and prey. With the tools in their world, they could overrun ours in days, if not hours.”
“But your armies are the greatest in all the world.”
“The greatest in all this world,” he said. “But not that world. Not yet. Now go, Sabine, and remember what legacy you are marrying for. You must marry someone capable of guarding this gate. The man does not matter. The power does. Do you understand now?”
Sabine looked at the glowing sphere that stood between stone pillars, its light warm and inviting. She felt herself drawn to it. She almost reached out and touched it, but her father snatched her arm and pulled her away.
“You must not get close to it,” he said. “It will draw you in and you will be lost to me. I have tried to send many through the gate but only one seems to have the constitution to survive. Believe me when I say that it is the most dangerous thing in all Ere, and now you know what it is, you must not look upon it again.”
“Yes, Father,” Sabine agreed swiftly.
Her father escorted her out of the little labyrinth and Sabine paid close attention to each twist and turn. An idea was already forming in her mind, a possibility of new things.
As they left the outermost chamber, her father was called away to some royal matter and she was left to return to her chambers alone. It was a short walk, but not one without danger. She walked with her head down, deep in thought. There was the duty she had been born to, and now, the possibility of a world beyond it.
She wanted to pretend that she had not heard the voice behind her, but the rasping tones carried and she was too far from the nearest door to simply slip away. She turned and plastered a forced smile across her face as her husband-to-be approached from behind.
General Isodor was misshapen from an incident that he claimed happened in battle, but which rumor said occurred when he was slaying prisoners. One of them had gotten free and made a desperate bid for life, throwing molten oil upon Isodor in the process. Why there had been molten oil so close at hand was something Sabine preferred not to think about.
If the man had ever been handsome, he was not now. The hair did not grow at all in a patch above his right brow, and the flesh on that side of his face was like a melting candle. It was all Sabine could do not to physically recoil. She maintained royal decorum as he drew closer, his robes gaudy with gold chains and medallions. Isodor liked to wear his wealth and his rank. He had no sense of restraint, and she saw the sneers on the faces of those around him when he was not looking in their direction with his one good eye.
She already knew that her father was making a mistake in choosing Isodor as his successor. Her father saw nothing but strength and results. But a king could not truly rule alone. He had to have the loyalty of his generals and of the nobility beside. Isodor could not command loyalty. He could only instill fear.
“You have been informed, I take it.”
“Yes, General Isodor.” She bobbed into a curtsy.
“You will bear me many sons,” he said, putting his great hand on her belly. “I live in anticipation of our wedding night. I will hear you scream then, Princess.”
Sabine shivered in disgust. She could not imagine how it would be to be trapped beneath his evil heaving flesh, impregnated with his dark spawn.
“Look how you tremble,” he laughed. “I hope you calm your nerves before we are wed. I have little patience for weakness from anyone, including my bride.”
Sabine stammered something that was not quite a word, something somewhere between an apology and a plea for forgiveness.
He drank in her expression of pure horror then turned and walked away, chuckling to himself. He had not made any attempt at romance. There was no need, Sabine reflected. She had been promised to him by the king himself. She may as well have been a horse or a gold chain, some object for his use. She was surprised he had bothered to spare three sentences on her.
His mention of the wedding night had struck true fear into her. She had some awareness of what took place on such a night, of where a man’s member plunged inside. But Sabine had explored her body a little and still did not understand how such a thing could be possible.
She knew one thing now more certainly than she had ever known anything. She would not marry that man. Not if the entire citizenry of Ere were to command it with one voice. And as it happened, she didn’t have to. Her own father had just shown her a sure way out of the match, an escape to a world far away.
Sabine did not waste another moment in thought or consideration. There was nothing to think about. She waited until the outer guards were in between their shift change and slipped back into the chamber housing the gate. The men on duty had become complacent, largely due to the fact that they didn’t know what they were guarding. They knew there was a great treasure beyond the door, but they did not know the nature of it.
Slipping through the twists and turns memorized minutes before, Sabine approached the gate with an excited reverence. It was glowing even more brightly now, she could swear, humming and almost droning in a way that seemed to draw her in. Twenty years she had been trapped in the castle and grounds, a prisoner to her royal status. That was all about to change.
She stepped forward and into the unknown.
For a moment, she was blind. There was a heat and a light and a feeling of being terribly fuzzy all over and then her vision cleared and she found herself in a small room, facing a window. Outside that window was a world she had never seen, a world she could not wait to explore. The ill effects of the gate seemed to have been exaggerated, or perhaps her royal blood had insulated her. Whatever the reason, she felt energized and excited, and not the slightest bit ill.
She knew she couldn’t stay where she was. The gate still standing open behind her would be useful if she ever decided to go back home, but at the moment all it was good for was getting her caught. There was no doubt that someone would come looking for her. She was never going to be allowed to choose her own path. Not ever. She had to get as far away from it as fast as she could and lose herself in this new land. Without stopping to examine her surroundings even a little bit, she went through the room and into another and then into another until she emerged into a hall with a stairwell. She practically ran down the stairs, and then out through a great and grand empty space that led to the city beyond.
Her feet carried her toward the noise and excitement of the world beyond her own. As she stepped out a pair of great crystal doors, she found herself faced with more people than she had ever seen in her entire life. They were everywhere. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe. They were moving in a constant stream and she stepped into that stream, allowing it to carry her along through this new world. As they jostled and pushed and hurried her along, she felt more like a fish in a school than an individual person.
She was faintly aware in the back of her mind that she had absolutely no idea where the house she had just left was, but she didn’t care. She wanted to feel a little danger. She wanted to see where the path she had taken would lead, and so she followed the crowd between incredibly tall buildings, each of which was several times larger and more impressive than the castle she had grown up in. This was a vast world, a world where it seemed everyone lived as kings.
The crowd carried her through the walkways, all laid out with geometric precision and eventually, like a river flowing into a large lake, the rush of people let out into an open space between the mountainous buildings festooned with moving lights and images. Starting upward, she wandered in circles, just staring at everything.
The crowd started to thin a little, giving her space to breathe, which she was glad for. A little space, that was all she wanted. She saw that there was part of the area that very few people were walking in and decided to walk there instead. As she stepped into some empty ground, she heard an almighty screech and then a horn blared in her ear, heralding she knew not what. A man leaned out of the window of a metal beast and screamed at her incomprehensibly, shaking his fist. Confused, Sabine stood stock still, not knowing what the problem was. Was the large metal beast his pet? Was it hungry? Why was the man so angry?
Suddenly, Sabine felt herself pulled out of the path of the angry metal beast and its occupant.
“You trying to kill yourself?”
The person asking the question was a taller girl about Sabine’s age. She was wearing tight black leather pants and a short jacket. She had beautiful brown skin and brown eyes, with features that were so much fuller than Sabine’s. She was the most incredible thing Sabine had ever seen. For a second, all she could do was stare at her.
“You okay? You trying to off yourself?”
“No, of course not,” Sabine said. “That thing almost ran me down!”
“They’re harder to hear coming now that they’re electric,” the girl sympathized. “But still, didn’t anyone ever teach you to cross the road? Look both ways?”
“Uh, I can’t remember.”
“You can’t remember?” The girl threw her head back and laughed. “You’re crazy. What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m new in town,” Sabine explained. “I’m from… far away.”
“Real far away if they don’t have roads and cars.” The girl’s eyes ran over her. “That’s a cool dress.”
“Thanks,” Sabine smiled. “My mother made it for me.”
“Where’s your mom now?”
“Back home,” Sabine said. It was technically true. Her mother was back in Ere, resting in the royal tomb. “She didn’t come on this trip with me.”
“So you’re out here all by yourself and you don’t even know how cars work?” The girl smiled broadly and looped her arm around Sabine’s shoulders. “You need a guide, I reckon.”
Sabine couldn’t have agreed more.