Series: Keeper of Xereill #1
on March 26, 2018
Genres: Sci Fi Romance
Buy on Amazon
Also by this author: The Traitor's Bride
About The Traitor’s Bride:
On her untamed gift hinges the future of a planet—and her lover’s life…
A month ago, ex-army Major Areg Sebi was thrown into prison.
Now he’s on the scaffold, laying his head on the block.
No public trial for the disgraced war hero. No cyborgs from the League of Realms to whisk him away.
No help. No escape.
A priestess chants a prayer for the major’s soul, even as a judge cries out, “Death to the traitor!”
In the crowd below, laundry maid Etana Tidryn stares into Areg’s eyes.
His lips were hot against hers last night. His hands roamed her body, worshipped her, pleasured her.
She’s falling for him, hard and fast.
She’s still hoping, even if he’s given up…
Can Etana transcend everything she knows—transcend life itself—to save him?
Can she rise to meet her destiny?
Today we have a release blitz for THE TRAITOR’S BRIDE by Alix Nichols! Check it out and grab your copy today!
The massive lash hit Areg Sebi’s bared back anew.
A gasp rippled through the crowd.
Etana Tidryn had never seen a whip like that before. It had multiple tails with knots at each end.
She looked closer, and gulped. The knots had claws. Every single knot was woven with small shards of glass and metal barbs to make it even nastier than it already was.
Raising his arm high above his head, the flogger struck again, hard.
The man on Etana’s left cheered.
The two women on her right unwrapped their bread rolls, bit into them, and began to chew with a single-minded keenness. Their faces reflected a mixture of horror and fascination.
“Still regret skipping breakfast?” the older of the two asked the younger one.
“You joking?” The younger woman smiled. “This show is absolutely worth it!”
Their gazes never left the scaffold while they talked.
Etana turned away from them.
To her relief, few people in the crowd seemed to share her neighbors’ enthusiasm. Many averted their heads, cringing with pity for Lord Sebi. A few brave souls even dared to hum and drone in defiance, risking jail time if the cops found them out. Clearly, they didn’t believe the charges leveled against their hero.
Everything had happened so fast!
Lord Sebi’s reputation had always been unmarred, as clean as the springs on Mount Crog. An heir to a long line of noble-bloods famous for their integrity, he was destined for a great future in Eia.
Then Teteum invaded the realm.
Lord Sebi joined the army and rose to major. His bravery on the battlefield earned him several decorations, including a Golden Double Serpent Wand—Eia’s highest honor. When his parents and younger sister died in a tragic accident, there was no end to letters of sympathy people sent him from all four corners of the realm. Everyone in Eia looked up to him, hung on his every word, admired, and even worshipped him.
And then, a month ago, Police Chief Zorom Ultek arrested him.
The Orogate Daily revealed “the truth” about Areg Sebi, which Etana didn’t believe for a second. Neither did her parents, or her brother and sister. Nor, apparently, many others here in Iltaqa.
The flogger brandished his freak whip again. It laid a long, ragged line of red into Lord Sebi’s broad back. Etana’s cheeks flamed the instant she realized she was ogling the distinctly masculine shape of his back, despite the grim reason it had been exposed.
Divine Aheya, the shame!
But what with Pa being so straitlaced, and her brother Rhori so hopelessly shy, she’d never seen a grown man’s bare upper body before. And Areg Sebi’s was something to behold.
Once more, the whip cracked against Lord Sebi’s back. The knots bit into his flayed skin, peeling strips of it off.
Etana shuddered and gripped Rhori’s arm.
But she didn’t avert her eyes.
The town of Iltaqa hadn’t seen a public punishment in over a year, ever since the “space conmen” floggings.
In the early months of the Teteum invasion, when things looked bad for Eia, four enterprising individuals set up a daring scam. Over several weeks, they sold hundreds of tickets to a bogus rescue transport. The transport was supposed to arrive from Norbal in the neighboring solar system and take the ticket-holding refugees off Hente. Norbal’s booming economy needed the extra workforce and talent, the conmen had explained.
When no transport materialized, the swindled ticket holders—most of them proficients and noble-bloods—reported the scammers to the police. The authorities caught them, confiscated their booty for the war effort, and had them flogged in Town Hall Square.
In retrospect, that punishment looked like a mother’s spanking next to Lord Sebi’s treatment. The whip came down again on the bloody ruin of his back, making him arch and grunt in pain.
Letting go of Rhori’s arm, Etana scrabbled at her chest through the layers of her work apron, dress and underwear until her fingers found her Serpent Coil pendant. She began to stroke the ouroboros, her lips moving in a silent prayer.
Suddenly, a buzz-like sound invaded her ears.
She scanned her surroundings for its source before realizing it was coming from inside her. There were other sounds, too—sounds she hadn’t noticed until that moment. Sparrows chirped in the distance, squirrels scampered up and down the old oak trees across the square, bugs hummed in the lush flowerbeds, and a dog growled in a yard.
Etana felt dizzy.
The air around her, the very air she breathed, acquired a strangely sticky quality. Something invisible wheeled and eddied in the sky over her head.
Divine Aheya only knew why, a childhood memory flashed in Etana’s mind. She saw herself, her parents and Rhori standing around Mayka’s high chair, watching stern-looking vestals examine her baby sister. But the memory was blurry and, for the life of her, Etana couldn’t recall what had gone down that day or why she was recollecting it now.
Could it have something to do with the sultry, fog-like substance condensing above her?
Whatever it was, it spun faster and faster, the whirlpool descending toward her, inexorable.
Suddenly, she was trembling in its eye.
When it burst into her chest like a gale-force wind, she gasped and fought for breath. Except, there was no room in her lungs for air. They were filled to the brim with the mysterious fog.
Etana coughed, desperately trying to rid herself of it. No luck. Her knees wobbled, and just as she was about to faint, the substance left her body, and dissipated without a trace.
A flurry of lash strokes descended on Lord Sebi’s back in quick succession, the whip leaving deep welts rimmed with blood.
Etana swayed and leaned against Rhori, who wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“Only a couple dozen more,” he whispered in her ear. “It’ll be over soon.”
A couple dozen more.
Etana dug her nails into her palms when the next stroke landed, adding another crimson groove to Lord Sebi’s back.
A man in gold-rimmed black robes stepped forward from the box on the side of the scaffold where notables sat during major events. He raised his hand, commanding everyone’s attention.
Etana had never seen him before. She gave her brother a quizzical look.
“It’s Lord Mahabmet, the high judge,” Rhori said, surveying the man. “I’ve seen his picture in the Gazette. He almost never leaves the capital.”
Etana knitted her brows. “Haven’t you wondered why Lord Sebi is being flogged here and not in Orogate?”
Rhori nodded. “I have, as have all my friends.”
“Orogate is only an hour’s ride from Iltaqa,” Etana went on. “No more than twenty minutes in a motorized vehicle. Why didn’t they transfer Lord Sebi to Old Kingdom Prison? Why isn’t he being flogged in Republic Square?”
On the scaffold, the high judge cleared his throat. “Silence!”
“It simply doesn’t follow,” Etana said, looking up at Rhori.
He pressed his index finger to his mouth. “Shush. Lord Mahabmet is about to say something.”
Etana dutifully shut her mouth. She was a Tidryn, after all. A menial. Shutting up was what menials did every time a noble-born, a priestess, or a proficient opened their mouth.
Etana never understood why the likes of her were considered so vastly inferior to everyone else. It was said that menials had no Ra spark left in them. Not a drop of the ancient Original Race of Xereill. Their blood was thin, all imported, all human.
Except, where was the proof of that?
Not a single book in the Temple Library supported that belief. Menials, just like everyone else on Hente, were cut from the same Ra-human cloth. True, they had no Ra abilities, or “gifts.” Then again, no one on the entire planet did. But it was menials who’d been pushed to the bottom and told they belonged there.
It bothered her.
What bothered her even more was how pliantly other menials—including her family—accepted their fate. Mother and Father believed that the rigid makeup of Hente’s society was what kept things together, what had saved their civilization from falling apart in the wake of the Cataclysm. Rhori believed that, too. Everyone she knew did…
Except for Lord Sebi.
“Townsfolk of Iltaqa!” the high judge bellowed. “I’ve interrupted Areg Sebi’s punishment because I’ve just received a transmission from Governor Boggond!”
He held up a small device in his hand that Etana had never seen before.
Her breath hitched.
Could it be…?
Could it be that the governor’s transmission exonerated Lord Sebi of the terrible accusations that sleazy Chief Ultek had mounted against him?
She tightened her grip on her ouroboros pendant, her body tensing as if her own fate hung in the balance.
“Governor Boggond, who couldn’t be present due to matters of state,” Judge Mahabmet said, “is asking me to recap Areg Sebi’s charges so that all of you present understand their gravity.”
Etana’s heart sank.
The high judge pointed at Lord Sebi. “The man in front of you is not who you thought he was. He is no hero. He’s a traitor. He had colluded with Teteum at the end of the war in a conspiracy to discredit Eia’s legitimate government and Lord Boggond himself.”
“Prove it!” someone shouted from the middle of the crowd.
“Did he confess?” a second voice joined in.
Chief Ultek jumped up from his seat in the box and shouted to his men, “Find those whoresons! Bring them to me!”
“There’s no need, Chief Ultek,” Judge Mahabmet said, gesturing to the cops to stay put. “Those are legitimate questions.”
The crowd grew quiet.
The high judge forced a smile. “I don’t blame those young men. They only voiced what many in Eia are thinking.”
The silence grew laden.
Judge Mahabmet firmed his jaw. “I am not going to lie to you. We don’t have a confession.”
An “ah” tore through the crowd.
“But we don’t need one.” Judge Mahabmet pointed to Ultek. “Chief Ultek’s investigation has uncovered evidence which proves Areg Sebi’s guilt beyond doubt. We will present it to the citizens of Eia shortly, as soon as it is properly cataloged and recorded.”
Rhori gave Etana a disconcerted look as if he didn’t know what to think after that revelation.
She crossed her arms. No, honestly.
Her deferential brother was prepared to believe empty words just because a high-ranking lord had uttered them. Um… all right, a lord who happened to be a respected judge. And not just any judge, but the high judge of the Realm himself, a paragon of fairness and wisdom.
But then why did she, a laundry maid, doubt his words?
Oh, she knew why. Because of the other words spoken by Lord Sebi a few weeks ago in her employer’s house.
Those words had given her wings.
“Remember Lord Sebi’s talk at the Gokk House?” she whispered to Rhori.
“The wonders he described, the possibilities…”
“The amazing level-two tech,” Rhori said, his expression dreamy.
“Remember how harshly he spoke of the caretaker governor?”
Rhori knitted his brows. “What are you saying? You can’t possibly—”
“Resume the flogging!” Judge Mahabmet cried without taking his eyes off the crowd.
The flogger struck with renewed ferocity. Once, twice, three times… Red stripes erupted on either side of Areg Sebi’s spine, blood oozing down their length. His face became a grimace of pain as he groaned, but kept his jaws pressed together.
On the next stroke, his body surged and then fell limp, his head lolling.
Etana turned to her brother. “This is so wrong! I can’t just stand here and watch.”
“What can we do, Etti?” Rhori whispered softly. “What can anyone do to help the poor soul?”
She surveyed the scaffold. Dozens of heavily armed cops stood all around it. Rhori was right. There was nothing anyone—even the strongest and most agile of men—could do to help Areg Sebi.
Nothing at all.
Then why that feeling that she should do something? That she must do something? Because she could.
She screwed up her eyes. It was ridiculous.
Fancying herself a rich-blood endowed with a gift she could harness to rescue Lord Sebi was a folly. For starters, no gift she could conceive of would overpower the town’s entire police force. Besides, she had no gift. No one on Hente had them anymore.
After the Cataclysm, the air of the planet changed, and the radiation emanating from it suppressed all the existing gifts in the survivors. No rich-bloods were ever recorded since then, not even among noble-borns, with ostensibly more Ra blood than the others.
The loss of gifts was how Divine Aheya had punished Hente for its arrogance.
Everyone knew that.
As did Etana.
And that whirlwind she’d felt earlier? It had been just a panic attack. Or, worse—a figment of her imagination, a childish fantasy that she was special. Like the Gokks’ youngest, Benty, who would cover his eyes with his plump little hands and declare he was invisible.
The grown-ups and his older siblings would humor him. “Where is Benty?” they’d ask. “He’s gone. I can’t see him. Where did he disappear to?” The boy would squeal and clap his hands in delight before opening his eyes. “Bam! I’m back!”
That kind of delusion of power could be forgiven in a young child, even encouraged to an extent. But it was unpardonable in someone like her.
The flogger’s final blow shook Lord Sebi’s dangling body without drawing so much as a twitch from it.
He was unconscious.
The high judge stepped forward once again. “We are done for today. Areg Sebi will receive fifty more lashes here in Town Hall Square in exactly one week, next Firstday, the twenty-sixth of Mid-Summer, Xer-year 701 of the New Ra-human Era.”
The crowd rumbled, appalled.
“The man needs to recover!” someone shouted.
“You can’t do that!” Etana heard herself yell.
Several heads turned toward her, and Rhori gave her a round-eyed look.
“Oh, but we can and, given the gravity of his crime, we certainly will,” Judge Mahabmet said. “Unless he confesses between now and next Firstday.”
He wouldn’t. Etana was sure of it.
“But, confession or no,” the judge added, raising his voice, “my colleagues and I will return with a verdict on Areg Sebi by then. It will be announced here, next Firstday.”
“What do you think it would be?” Etana whispered to Rhori.
“For high treason?” He gave her an apologetic look as if to say, you know what.
“Death,” she said on an exhale.
“They never move this fast.” Rhori knitted his brows. “Even court-martials during the war didn’t move this fast.”
Etana hardly heard him.
Her mind was on fire, scrambling for options, for something, for anything she could do for Areg Sebi.
She clenched her jaws, determined.
Tonight, as soon as she finished work at the Gokk House, she’d go to the temple. She’d beg the vestals to let her spend the night, and every night between now and the twenty-sixth, in their library. She’d read every code and custom book, every law, every compilation of decrees and edicts they had in there.
Since rescuing Lord Sebi through an imaginary gift was a nonstarter, perhaps there was a doable way to ease his suffering.
Maybe she’d find a law which forbade convicting a citizen of Eia, no matter his crime, without a proper trial and without a chance to defend himself. Failing that, she might uncover a ruling which prohibited giving anyone—even a convicted traitor—more lashes than the Ra-human body could endure.
Or maybe something else, completely unexpected.
If there was anything at all that could help Lord Areg Sebi, even in a tiny way, she’d find it.
She had to.