As the shimmering armada crested over the mountains bordering the Shumkarja Outlands, its passengers found the Shumi people gathered in the valley below waiting for them, and when the fleet landed they broke out into song. Isabel didn’t understand the words, despite having picked up some of their language during the flight, but the melody was beautiful. Nadhir said they were paying homage to the Silver Fleet and their new queen. He escorted her off the ship and upon sight a cheer went up from the crowd. As they left the ship, the crowd parted to let through an entourage of men and women in red robes, led by a dark elderly man clad in red with golden bracelets at his wrists and ankles. A large headdress sat on his head, lined with feathers that ran all the way down his back. As the man spoke, Nadhir translated.
“We welcome you, O Queen of Prophecy, we are joyful you have come at last! We will show you to your chambers and make you comfortable while we prepare for tonight’s ceremony.”
Isabel was taken aback.
“Tonight?” she chuckled. “Well, you don’t waste time, do you?”
Laughter rippled through the crowd as Nadhir translated.
A commotion caught Isabel’s attention and she frowned when she saw the Lothiarian guards pushing past the Shumi warriors, cursing and spitting at them and regarding the men as if they were something that had just been scraped from their shoes. Nadhir had shot off and was already breaking up a fight between a Shumi warrior and a palace guard. When Isabel glared at Alaric he turned away while Lennox merely laughed.
The Shumi dwelled within the rock of the mountains, a precaution against the harsh winds and intense heat of the Shumkarja Outlands. Isabel, Alaric, and Lennox settled into their quarters; clean, cool rooms laden with curtains and pillows and a large metal basin for bathing. A young female, one of the procession in the red robes, entered the chamber and presented Isabel with a goblet resting on a pillow. No sooner had Isabel drunk the sweet liquid did she find herself suddenly very sleepy. She had been drugged.
Upon awakening, she found herself surrounded by Shumi priestesses. One stood over her gently waving a large fan made of soft feathers. The others were rubbing oils into her hair and massaging them into her skin. It was then she realized she had been stripped of her garments. She tried to sit up but the women sitting near her head pushed her back down by her shoulders.
“Fear not,” one of the women said, “we are only preparing you for the ritual.”
“You can speak English?”
She smiled. “No, the elixir given to you allows you to better understand our language. It also provided you with the rest and energy you will need tonight.”
The priestess was beautiful, they all were. Long bone straight hair cascaded down their backs with small amber gems running along the top of their thin eyebrows and their lips painted a deep ruby. Their cocoa skin had been rubbed with orange oil and their limbs adorned with thick gold bands. The women had bathed Isabel as she slept and after applying the oils, they helped her to her feet and placed golden bells around her ankles. She stepped into a golden leather sling bikini that left her belly exposed and clung to her nipples, pushing her breasts together as the material was fastened behind her neck. She was then helped into a long red skirt that left her hips exposed but covered her both front and back all the way to the floor. Her usually frizzy mane had been oiled and arranged into a wave of lose curls before a golden circlet, with nose guard, was placed upon her brow. Her eyes were painted with shimmering gold shadow and her lips the color of wine. She also had thick golden bands clapped to her arms, a thin golden dagger fastened to her thigh, and golden sandals placed on her feet.
After the final touch, a red cape, had been secured to her shoulders with golden clamps and her amulet found its home against her ample cleavage, the women lead Isabel to a large piece of reflective glass. Isabel was amazed. She would be presented in front of thousands of people, showing more skin than she ever would have dared in her entire life, and yet, she looked so proud and magnificent she wasn’t the least bit anxious about being seen in public. She looked like a queen.
“You ladies did a wonderful job!” She murmured, gazing at the royal figure standing before her.
“Thank you, my queen,” the priestesses replied, bowing and moving back towards the bed.
Another woman entered the chamber and dropped to the ground, bowing deeply as she said, “Your highness, we are ready to begin the ceremony.”
Isabel sighed and straightened, head held high despite the butterflies that suddenly appeared in her belly. “Well, if you’re ready then so am I.”
Alaric had slept deep and awoke to find himself bathed and refreshed in his chambers. His clothes had been cleaned and mended, and now he stood by the dais where Yin, the High Priest sat, beautiful women in red robes at his feet, while the rest of the warrior clan encircled them, waiting for their queen to arrive. Centuries of indoctrinated tradition told the prince not to trust these barbarians and he hoped Isabel was all right. The idea of her being harmed in any way lit a flame of rage inside of such intensity that it startled him. He knew instinctively that he would die for this woman if he had to, though he did not understand why.
He thought of all the different types of women he had romped with during his travels over time. Dainty porcelain skinned beauties that graced the societal functions of his station, lush and lusty tavern wenches and sensuous native princesses. While not every encounter was memorable, most of them had been quite pleasant and satisfying. Yet at the end of the day they were merely conquests, a privilege of an affluent and virile man. No woman had caused him to lie awake nights thinking about the curves of her body. No woman had disturbed his dreams when he did sleep, so that he woke drenched in sweat and had to sate himself in desperation if he ever hoped to sleep again. None of them had ever made his heart beat faster when they entered the room, and he certainly wouldn’t think to put his life on the line for them any more than was his duty as a prince and sovereign.
The Shumi clasped hands and began to sing, stepping forward and back in a counterclockwise direction. The sounds of the song began to mimic, in Alaric’s mind, the sound of rushing water, which he found strange for the Shumkarja were a desert people. When the singing had risen to a thunderous crescendo it ceased abruptly. The curtains to Isabel’s chambers opened as did the circle and out stepped such a vision of strength and beauty that Alaric’s heart caught in his throat.
Staring ahead, Isabel walked slowly into the circle towards the dais in time to the beat of a drum. The women and children dropped to the floor in a deep bow, while the men clapped their fists to their chests as she passed. When she reached the dais Yin rose from his seat and descended two steps so that he stood a full head and a half above her. He held out his hands, palms up, and waited while she drew her dagger and placed her own hands over his in the same fashion. He took the dagger and when a Priestess appeared beside him with a golden bowl, he took Isabel’s hand and sliced her palm with the blade. Then he spit on the wound and rubbed it with his thumb. Alaric lunged forward, but Nadhir caught him and held him back, shaking his head disapprovingly. Lennox had reached for his sword but paused upon watching the exchange.
Throughout the ritual Isabel maintained eye contact with the Priest and did not utter a sound despite the pain. Once her blood oozed into the bowl, the Priest took a piece of white cloth from another Priestess and bound the wound, placing a kiss on her bandaged palm. She then turned to face the crowd as Yin and the Priestesses stepped down off the dais and led the warriors in an oath.
“We, Shumi, swear on our life’s blood,
on the blood of our children and our children’s children
to live and die by Queen’s command
as she lives to protect the people of Shumkarja
Until Eqandisiwe takes her back into her cool embrace.”
They each drew their daggers and, mimicking Yin’s earlier movements, slashed their palms, spit on their wounds and squeezed the blend into the bowl as it passed them before wrapping their hands in black cloth. When the holy procession reached the dais again, more Priestesses came forward with wine, water, and herbs. These were mixed in the bowl as Yin chanted and waved his hands over it. Finally, with a flick of his wrist, a blue flame burst forth from the bowl and extinguished itself. The Priest took the bowl and presented it to Isabel with a bow. She returned the bow, taking the bowl from him and swallowed some of the bitter, spicy aniseed scented liquid. The crowd tittered when she coughed, reeling from the strength of the concoction. Yin then proceeded around the circle again so that every warrior could take a sip from the bowl.
When he reached the dais again the Priest took Isabel’s hand and escorted her to the throne at the top. She noticed the large chair was constructed entirely from bones and skulls, and she hoped she wouldn’t have to sit on the uncomfortable looking thing for too long. She turned and sat as a Priestess came forth carrying a large headdress made from the top half of a golden antelope skull that had been adorned with feathers and fur. The Priest took the headdress and declared Isabel the Queen of Prophecy, ruler of the Shumkarja Outlands, and placed the heavy headgear upon her head. A roar went up from the crowd and the Priestesses performed a graceful and elaborate dance. As the crowd clapped and sang along to the music, Yin quietly explained that they were thanking the gods for bringing the queen to their midst and asking for prosperity under her reign. Isabel looked over at Alaric who remained at the foot of the dais and she realized he was the only one not watching the dance. Instead he focused his gaze on her. She couldn’t read his expression in the torchlight, but she was glad she was sitting down as her knees suddenly went to jelly.
Once the dance concluded Yin made another announcement.
“The Exalted One ordains we honor her when paired with another for we serve her best when we serve each other. And so, the Queen of Prophecy must choose a mate and blend her energy with theirs. In giving themselves to one another, our queen and her consort reveres blessed Eqandisiwe.”
Isabel went cold as the warriors, men and women alike, lined up before the dais, waiting for her to choose one of them. Que mierda, no one told me I had to sleep with anyone! Not that she had a bad selection to choose from, mind you. The women were sleek with bodies Isabel would kill to have and the men who stood before her were strapping specimens of masculinity. Judging by the size of some of them, Isabel predicted she would have trouble walking and sitting down for days. However, these people were complete strangers and a bit too primal for her tastes. The man she chose would be her mate, meaning she would be stuck with him, at least until she returned home. An idea struck her then. The crowd grew silent as she rose and stepped forward to address them.
“Good people of Shumkarja, we are about to embark on an epic journey and do battle in the greatest war this world has seen in recent memory. To signify our solidarity with the Crystal Palace Alliance, I choose as my mate, Prince Alaric from the Kingdom of Lothiari!”
Gasps and murmurs rippled through the crowd and the warriors looked visibly disappointed. Some even muttered and shouted in anger, while the prince looked like he was just doused with a bucket of ice water. Isabel knew she risked breaching some sort of protocol and braced herself when the Priest raised his hands to quiet the crowd.
“Her majesty has made a wise choice. The prince is a powerful warrior and a supreme ally. This union will bless our people for years to come!”
Another cheer rose from the crowd and Isabel knew all was well again. Yin stepped before her and reached a hand out to Alaric who glanced at Isabel before climbing up the dais to stand beside her. The Priest mumbled some more words, gesturing and making signs in the air with his hands and fingers. He again took Isabel’s hand, turned it palm up and unraveled the cloth. Her wound was still fresh and open but no longer bleeding. He took the prince’s hand and turned it palm up. Taking Isabel’s dagger from the Priestess, he slashed Alaric’s palm with it and, to his credit, the man remained silent as his blood bubbled forth. The Priest clasped their hands together so that their wounds touched and wrapped the white cloth around them with a healthy squeeze.
“Bound by blood, this union shall remain ever unbroken.”
The crowd cheered again and danced as music started to play. The Priestesses bowed before the couple and led them, hands still clasped, into a large chamber that had been decorated with many candles and was scented with a sweet and spicy aroma. To the left was a large wooden table holding plates of fruit, bread, cheese, and meats beside a pitcher of wine and two goblets. A large metal basin sat to one side, in front of a roaring fire in a crudely carved fireplace. In the center of the room were several large pillows covered by elegant furs. It was the bridal suite.