The guards followed in my wake, heels clipping angrily against the marble. The audacity he must possess to believe he had any right to touch me. My face burned with the indignation and anger that roared through me. I reached and threw open my bedroom doors before the guards could reach them to open the way for me. The suddenness startled a yelp out of Elia and Laura as they were going about tidying the room after having helped me get ready for this disaster.
Pacing around the room, I struggled to regain my breath and composure. My hands shook uncontrollably, I didn’t know what to do with them. Going back and forth between covering my face and placing them on my hips, or crossing them across my chest. Elia stood out of the way with her hands clasped before her, watching with her heavy gaze, quiet and reserved. Laura fidgeted with the tea service that had been brought up earlier. She rushed towards me, her ashy braid swishing frantically behind her.
“Mistress, please drink this and take a breath.” She had stepped directly into my path, shoving a tea cup towards me.
“I don’t want tea, Laura! I” I slapped the cup from her hands. It shattered on the floor with a satisfying crash, tea and shards of china splattering in every direction. Shock replaced the concern in her face.
“I’m so sorry, mistress! I’ll clean it straight away!” she pulled a rag that had been in the pocket of her apron and dropped to her knees, scooping up shards of glass.
“Laura,” I sighed, crossing my arms as I pinched the bridge between my eyes. “Just leave.”
“Yes, mistress.” She swiped at the mess one last time, scooping up the majority of the broken glass into the rag.
A heavy silence fell over the room as the door snicked shut behind her. I still had my eyes shut, trying to reign in my heart and breathing. The swish of a dress, the soft footsteps preceded the gentle touch of her hands on mine, pulling them into her own. I leaned down, my forehead resting against hers. Being so close to her, her warmth and scent enveloped me. These moments were so rare and precious. I breathed the scent of her deep into my lungs; warm vanilla and cinnamon. Elia’s warmth and calm seeped into me, I could feel the tension ease from my muscles like ice melting.
Her hands ran up my arms; one bare, one sleeved. Gooseflesh followed where her touch lead. Ever so gently, she cupped my face, drawing my lips to hers. Such a simple thing, a kiss. The press of lips together. But from her, it was like life being breathed back into me. A whimper escaped me at the touch. She pulled me into a closer embrace, deepening our kiss. Our lips parted in tune, our tongues sliding against each other. Shivers danced down my spine at the taste of her. Abruptly, she pulled away, dropping to the mess on the floor with her rag in hand. It wasn’t a moment too soon before the door to my room slammed open and in stormed my mother.
“Astra!” she blew in like a hurricane. Her slate gray, silk dress swishing angrily around her. Sparks flew from her steely gaze. Once, she could have been a beautiful woman. But now, the constant disproving grimace that had permanent residence on her face distracted from any beauty that could still be there. Her silver streaked black hair pulled tightly up into a chignon made the sharp planes of her face stand out even more, intensifying her harshness.
“Mother.” I stated simply, turning towards her. I stood with my feet apart, arms crossed, bracing for whatever onslaught she had brought to hail down on me. It didn’t help that I knew she hated the pose. A woman is to be feminine and soft, which my stance was anything but.
“You spoiled, ungrateful child! Will no match be good enough for you? We are running out of prospects!” Her voice rose with each word until she was shouting at me.
I met her gray eyes, the only thing about her that I had inherited. I still felt warm from the touch of Elia’s lips, and I knew my cheeks were flushed from it as well. I watched her eyes dart across my face, perhaps mistaking the flush for being angry still. I had no answer for her though. I wanted nothing to do with being matched. I wanted my freedom. Something I knew I could never have.
“Explain. Yourself.” Each word clipped. A vein pulsed in her temple, as she struggled to hold back her temper.
“What’s to say?” I sighed heavily. “He’s abusive to those beneath him. He was cruel when we were in school, he’s cruel now. That’s not what I want for my life.”
“Your life is nothing if you do not breed! It is expected of you and you will do so. You don’t have to see him on any occasion other than that. Just accept him, and let’s be done with this!”
“It touches me beyond measure, mother, that you hold me in such high esteem that you’d offer me to a sadist just to be done with me.” She took my words like a blow, her eyes narrowing at me.
I didn’t see the strike coming. But the crack of her palm against my cheek shot through the room, echoing off the walls. Elia yelped in surprise as my head snapped to the side, my cheek on fire. I gritted my teeth, squeezing my eyes shut to keep them from watering. The slap wasn’t surprising. My mother had a temper that perpetually burned inside her. It didn’t help that since my father had died, I pushed her buttons more and more. Pushing her limits with me. I wonder how much longer until she disowned me. I’d thought she would have by now. But Marianne Vaylen could not be described as anything but stubborn.
“You have no idea what I’ve done to bring you into this world. And you spit on everything I have done for you!” She pulled back, smoothing her dress, as if she hadn’t just slapped me.
“You say that, but never say what that was. Couldn’t have been that hard since you can’t bring yourself to explain. And Matron knows you love to brag about your hardships.” This was it; I could feel it. She was close to the edge. If I pushed just a little harder, I could be free. “Poor widowed Mother Marianne, with her headstrong, ungrateful, disgraced daughter that no one wants. Poor Mother Marianne having to stoop to the lowest dregs of society to beg someone to take her wretched child off her hands!”
My hands fisted at my sides, my body shaking, my voice raising until I had matched her earlier outburst. My heart hammered in my ears. I was prepared to meet her anger, kicking and screaming. Just a little further. So close. But she didn’t rise to the occasion. She drew herself up straight, pulling her composure back around her like a cape concealing her identity. She smoothed her hands over her perfect hair, as if her hair would even dare to slip out of place. Smoothing her dress, then clasping her hands in front of her as she watched Elia trying to inconspicuously clean the spilled tea from earlier before finally meeting my gaze again.
“I am accepting the match on your behalf. Darian is well matched. And you will breed as set forth in our tenants.” She turned on her heel and stormed to the door.
“You can’t force me, mother! In this, you have no say. Our laws demand that I am willing. And I assure you that I am not.” I shouted at the back of her head.
She paused briefly at the door, hand on the handle.
“Watch me.” With that she breezed through the door, it slamming shut behind her.
I grabbed the closest thing to me and threw it at the closed door. It was a gold-plated bowl full of apples. The crash of it against the door, and the following clatter of it on the floor was satisfying. I felt detached from myself as I watched the apples roll in every direction in near slow motion. As they come to a stop, and the silence roared in my head, I stomped towards the door, throwing the bolt. Bracing my palms on the wood, I leaned my forehead against the door. It was cool to the heat coming from the anger burning inside me. I dug my nails into the wood. This was going to be my life forever.
“Mistress,” Elia slid a hand up my back, the other gently tugging on my elbow. “Come, let’s get you into night clothes.”
Numbness sank into me as I let her lead me to the vanity, where she had me sit down in front of the mirror. I couldn’t bring myself to look up at my reflection, or her. My mother brought out the worst in me, and I hated her for it. But I hated myself for allowing myself to sink to her level. Her fingers were swift, yet gentle as she fished all the pins from my hair, delicately removed the ridiculous jewelry from my body, wiping the makeup from my face. I grasped her hand just as she finished wiping my face, and kissed her palm. A sob escaped me.
“I don’t want this,” I finally met her honey eyes as she knelt in front of me. There was sadness there staring back at me.
“I know,” she said simply. “But what else is there for a patrician female?”
“I’d give anything to be anything but what I am.” I slipped from the bench, kneeling before her, our knees touching.
“Everything that you are has made who you are. And I love who you are.” It was her turn to pull my hand to her lips, where she placed a kiss on the inside of my wrist.
“Imagine if I could leave here, and we could live together?”
“You know as well as I do that it is forbidden, no matter where we are in the Pure States. The only place where we could be together is in Sullied Country. And neither of us want to go live in filth with diseased savages.”
“I’d gladly live among them if it meant I got to be with you.” I pulled her up to meet me, our bodies pressed together, kissing her deeply. Her hangs plunged into my curls, grasping handfuls, pulling me closer. I ran my hands up her back to her braided hair. I pulled the tie out, undoing the plaits, running my fingers through the silken strands. I’d never felt anything so soft as her hair.
Elia broke away from the kiss, pulling me standing with her. I was slightly taller than her, so I had to lean down to kiss her. Her lips were full and sweet, parting to let me taste her tongue. She nipped at my bottom lip as I brought my hand around her front, undoing the buttons on her dress. She pulled back, and spun me from her. Small bites followed her fingers as she undid the clasps on the back of my dress. Gooseflesh broke out across my body, as heat blossomed inside me. I heard her clothes slither to the floor a moment before mine followed suit. Turning back to her, I took all of her in. No matter how many times we’re together, I’m always struck by how beautiful she is. Where I’m tall and lean with modest breasts, she’s all soft curves and heavy, full breasts.
I dip my head and draw her nipple into my mouth, biting softly. A moan escapes her as she directs me to my bed. I fall backwards as she crawls up after me, dragging her mahogany waves over my body, eliciting shivers from me. I can never get enough of this, enough of her. Her smooth skin sliding against my own. Her dark, silky hair curtaining our faces as she leans over and kisses me deeply. Our breath coming faster now, mingling as our legs tangle together. She presses her leg firmly against my core, my hips lifting to meet the pressure, my gasping breath hitching at the pleasure that ripples through me. Her lips start inching down my body, I know what she’s intending, always the giver. I sit abruptly, startling her back. I kneel, wrapping my arms around her waist, pulling her to me before laying her back against the bed. I’m on her before she can protest, taking her into my mouth, licking deeply. Her hands plunge into my hair, a gasping moan escapes her before she can reel it in. Despite the locked door, there are gossiping guards on the other side, so being as quiet as possible was necessary when one broke the law as often as we did.
Her taste struck me, all the way through me. She was sweet, and musky. There was nothing else like her. Her hips rose to match the movement of my tongue on her. I slipped two fingers inside her, drawing a whimper from her. I knew her so profoundly. It didn’t take long before she was writhing against me, flooding me with her moisture as I pushed her over the edge. At some point, she’d put a pillow over her face to muffle her sounds of pleasure. Easing myself from between her legs, that fell to the side languidly, I laid out next to her. A grin tugged at my lips as she pulled the pillow away from her face. Her hair was mussed about her face. She reached for me, kneeling to move down me. I grabbed her hand and pulled her back up, tucking her close to me.
“No, love. I just want to lay here with you.” I kissed her temple.
“Well that’s not very fair.” She rolled in my arms to look at me.
“I don’t need fair. I just need you.” I kissed her full lips again.
“Today was too much for you. Darian and then your mother.” She pulled the duvet that was folded up at the foot of the bed over us, settling back in to face me.
“It was her threat that has me worried more than anything. Legally, she has no recourse. But when has my mother ever made idle threats?”
“Never in the two years that I’ve been here.” Worry creased her brow.
“That’s my point. My mother is many things. Careless with her promises is not one of them.” I brushed hair behind her ear.
“There’s a first time for everything.” She scooted closer, her warmth seeping into me.
“That’s wishful thinking. Tomorrow, I need to visit the Magistrate and see if I can be emancipated from my obligation.” Despite my worry, I could feel myself drifting. The day had been long, and emotionally taxing. “I’m sorry I lost my temper today. Everything about this ordeal brings out the worst in me.”
“You don’t need to apologize. I know it’s all overwhelming.” I could hear her chewing on her lip. It was something she did when struggling to find the words to express herself. “But Astra, do you not want children?”
I peeled my eyes back open, her honey ones wide. “Honestly, I don’t know. All I know is that I want to be free to make my own choices.” I paused, searching her wide, curious eyes. “I’d love to have children with you.”
“I will never have children, Astra.” A sob choked out of her. “I’ve been ablated.”
Her confession rocked me. “When? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“When I came of age. I didn’t tell you because I am ashamed. I am no better than the Sullied. I am impure.” Tears welled up in her eyes, threatening to spill over.
“Don’t say such things. There is nothing impure about you.” I pulled her closer.
“I know you don’t want a mating. But the fact that you’re pure enough to breed, you are blessed.” A tear broke free, sliding down the side of her face, dripping onto the pillow. “Even being a pleb with little to offer, I’ve always wanted children. And now it will never happen.”
“If I can get emancipated from my obligation, I can use a donor.” I grabbed her hand, holding it to my heart.
“Who is thinking wishfully now?” A wry smile tugged at her lips. “Emancipation has only ever been given to Patricians who are sterile, or impure. And donors are for females whose mates have died before a successful breeding and they choose not to find a new one.”
“A problem for another day, my love.” I kissed the back of her hand. “For now, let’s sleep. With you here in my arms, the whole world melts away.”
“I’m expected home tonight. I’ll have to leave soon.” Her eyes fluttered closed.
“Shush, let us take advantage of what time we do have.”
It wasn’t long before her breathing was long and even, showing that she had drifted to sleep. In her sleep, she rolled facing away from me. I scooted closer, burying my face in her hair. My own slumber wasn’t far behind her. Once she was out, my own sleep rose up to envelope me in swift wings. I wasn’t lying to her when I’d said everything fades away when we are together. The smell of her enveloped me. Her warmth seeped into me. In this moment of peace with her, I couldn’t fathom being happier.