Sadie rolled over on the unfamiliar mattress and grabbed for the blanket to cover herself more fully. A few more moments, she thought sleepily, and then she’d start her day and open the store.
She woke with a start when she realized the blanket she was clutching didn’t feel like her own. For a moment, she stared at the ceiling, utterly confused. She didn’t recognize that ceiling. It was far too grand for her own small house at the edge of town. Where was she?
Then the previous week’s events crashed in on her. The would-be rapist; the angry mob; the prison; the executioner’s axe.
Jalen ‘Anaq Al-Jameyri.
Prince Jalen, heir to the kingdom of Zammar, acclaimed general and war hero. Disfigured and mostly reclusive for the past six months. He had stopped the executioner in mid-swing, saving her life, and bought her total obedience for the next year. In exchange, Prince Jalen had promised her total freedom once the year was out. He had then brought her to the royal palace, bathed and dined her, then…
He had managed to thoroughly seduce her. She’d lost her mind in pleasure. Her body still sang just remembering it. He had been demanding, yet gentle, but he had scared her when he abruptly told her to leave. No, not told. Growled. The action didn’t match what she’d seen of the man throughout the day.
She wondered why he had suddenly turned on her and thrown her out of his room. Would their time together always end this way?
But even as she’d given him her word of honor, she didn’t think she would accept being treated that way long. She sniffed, trying to stifle the tears that now threatened to overflow. She wasn’t going to cry now. She had cried enough for a lifetime already.
A knock at the door snapped her from her musings. She sniffed and quickly brushed her eyes, looking around for Jalen’s robe—her only article of clothing. She had thrown it down before collapsing, exhausted, in bed the night before. Finally, she found it crumpled on the floor and slipped it on. Only then did she bid whomever had knocked to enter.
Nadia, the young servant girl from the day before, pushed open the door and entered, a tray ladened with food in her hands. Without a word, she made her way towards the room’s low dining table and, upon reaching it, set the tray down. She turned and curtseyed to Sadie, before silently leaving the room.
Sadie opened and closed her mouth, and made a face. When Nadia first came in, she’d been about to greet her politely, but the girl hadn’t even looked her way. She hoped this wasn’t an sample of the way she would be treated for the next year. She didn’t think she would react well to being ignored by everyone in the palace.
Everyone but Prince Jalen.
And that guard, Marek—who leered at her whenever he had the chance—he had a way of looking at her that made her blood run cold. He might become a problem at some point. She would need to be wary of him.
Finally, curious and hungry, Sadie approached the table. The tray Nadia had left her held a full plate of fruits, a bowl of hot cooked grain, and what looked to be some leftover lamb from the night before. Next to the plate sat a steaming cup of liquid. It didn’t look like coffee, so she picked it up and sniffed the concoction, closing her eyes to better take in the aroma.
She detected several herbs, raspberry leaf, and a tangy odor indicative of a contraceptive herb readily available to the populace. She was relieved to know that the palace staff were providing the beverage for her, but she knew of a more effective method to prevent pregnancy. As it became clear that the prince would bed her, she’d turned her healing magic inward and had closed off her womb. Her mother had taught her that trick before she’d died, but Sadie never expected to one day use it.
Only now, everything was uncertain. Not having to worry about a babe seemed like a good reason to practice what her mother had taught her. She smiled, and took a sip of the tangy tea. It never hurt to take extra precautions.
Jalen’s eyes slowly focused on the room and the scene around him. Yusuf was standing in front of him with sweat rolling down his face, arms, and chest, and a scimitar pointed at Jalen—his own scimitar, he saw from the gold-encrusted hilt. A red and puffy bruise closed Yusuf’s left eye, and his lip was split. The other guards were in better shape, but only barely, and everyone was breathing hard.
Must have been a rough night, he thought, not liking what he saw. He had yet to hurt any of them permanently, but he feared the time when even all of them—in an effort to keep the beast subdued—wouldn’t be able to stave off the madness anymore. If they ever lost their hold over him… It was worrisome.
He looked to his left. Abbas had Jalen’s arm secured in both of his hands. To Jalen’s right, Siddig was doing likewise. His balance was forward on the balls of his feet, as if he’d been straining against their hold. He rocked back on his heels, and their hold loosened. Yusuf twitched his eyebrow in question, and Jalen nodded in silent answer.
He was fully cognisant and their prince once more.
There was an audible sigh of relief as Siddig and Abbas let him go, and Yusuf handed him back his scimitar.
Yes, it had been a bad night, he thought. Too much power and residual anger had helped fuel the episode. He rubbed his eyes. Had he been fighting all night? If so, that would be a first.
Jalen groaned, and his shoulders and arms shook with fatigue. Yes, he was sure he had raged the whole time.
He shrugged his shoulders, loosening the tension in his muscles. “I take it I was particularly taxing last night.”
Yusuf just tilted his head and quirked his eyebrow higher.
Jalen rubbed a hand across his face. His arms protested the movement as he wiped sweat from his eyes and off his forehead. He stank worse than Sadie did after a week in the kingdom’s gaol. A bath and a soak in the heated tubs were in order.
His mind drifted back to Sadie—his little redheaded firebrand with the expressive eyes the color of molten amber. She had proven to be quite the diversion last night. He had not intended to push her quite that far, but her mild resistance had spurred him on. And once she tried to wrest control from him, he’d not been able to restrain himself any longer.
Jalen felt the first stirrings of desire at the memory of her panting, moaning, and bucking against his hand until she spent herself wantonly against him. He’d enjoy a physical diversion after his bath.
But first, he needed to take care of his men. They needed rest, and recuperation. “Has Captain ‘Ibn Al-Amar rested?”
“Yes, your highness,” Yusuf replied.
“Good,” he paused. “Send for him. Have him meet me at the royal baths.”
Yusuf said, “It will be done.” He saluted and left the room to retrieve Kadar.
He felt weary, but there was no time to rest. He needed to preside over the royal courts in the afternoon, and had to meet with his war officials after breaking his fast.
Taking in his guards’ disheveled appearance and clear fatigue, he ordered, “You are all dismissed. I can find my own way to the royal baths.”
Abbas and Siddig saluted, turned on their heels, and left the training room.
Standing alone in the middle of the room, Jalen sighed and hung his head. He would take a moment to collect his thoughts, and carefully reconstruct the wall that held the madness at bay. How much worse would these episodes become before it all ended? How much longer would he be able to hide the madness from the rest of the palace?
Jalen stood straighter and squared his shoulders. He would continue for as long as he had to. That was the main reason he’d dismissed all but his most trusted twelve guards over the past year. The men who served him now were good with secrets. And Jalen had too many.
He shook his head clear of the negative thoughts and marched towards his private bathing room. He had only taken a few steps down the hall when his personal attendant hustled after him, trying to catch up. Jalen tried remember the man’s name. He kept changing his attendants so none would learn the truth, but that made remembering their names all the harder.
Ah, yes. Serafah was hailing him. Jalen wished to ignore the self-righteous man, but instead turned to him and issued an order. “Send for Sadie. Have her meet me in the royal baths.”
And with that, Jalen continued on his way, leaving the flustered Serafah behind.