A moan of pleasure escaped the lips of the woman named Ashiera. As Sieper found his release, his arms tightened around her. He rolled to his side and held her against his chest. His lips brushed her honey-colored hair. He inhaled the fragrance of the herbs she used as a rinse. As always, her amber eyes were devoid of expression.
Sunshine streamed through the windows of the sleeping chamber, clothing them in colored light. Chips of multi-hued crystals embedded in the headboard of the massive bed splashed bright tints on the sheets.
He stroked her smooth skin. “The Cabal and his mind mages named you as an undead. Thus I claimed you as my reward for their use of my ship for their cargoes.” His jaw clenched for the service hadn’t been a willing gift but one demanded. No man of Keltoi dared to refuse the orders of the priests of the Lord of Shadows.
She pressed her lips against his chest. For years, he’d carried her image in his heart, but he’d never believed she would be his for more than the single night they’d once shared. Since then, his life had changed again and again. From deck hand to officer and then to ship owner.
He thought of the day he and the Wind Skimmer had sailed into Zandara. The holds had been filled with exotic goods from the other nomes and, he’d had hopes of enough profit to outfit a second ship. Alas, those dreams had come to naught. The priests had seized control of Keltoi. Since the defeat of the Mistress, the gray robes and their minions had ruled the nome. Their taxes had eaten most of his profits and for nearly thirteen years he’d sailed at their bidding.
His hands curled into fists. “I’ve worked hard and dreamed of a fleet of ships, but these hopes slip further from my grasp.” He stared into Ashiera’s empty amber eyes. “Why do I tell you these things? Do you even hear me?”
For an instant, he thought he saw a flicker of awareness in her eyes. A foolish thought. Under the Cabal’s torture, her mind had fled.
Gently he stroked her face and traced her lips. Nineteen years ago she’d been his for a night. He’d been the one she’d chosen for her passage from maiden to woman. Their joining, hot and urgent, had created a dream of forever with her.
He caressed her breasts. Her nipples tightened and she moved against him. Though her mind had fled, her body remembered the ways of passion. He wanted to hear his name on her lips, but since the day he’d claimed her from the pens, she hadn’t spoken.
He kissed her. Regret that he’d begun what there wasn’t time to finish filled his voice. “My love, we must leave soon. The Wind Skimmer sails on the evening tide. Until I return you will bide with Maran’s wife.” He pulled her to her feet. “Remember, you are mine.”
Was that a flash of denial he saw in her eyes? Her forehead wrinkled and she opened her mouth. A croaking sound emerged. He waited. Would she speak?
After long moments of silence, he walked with her to the bathing room where a glass dome filled the room with light and heated the pool. Like a child, she played in the water, but she uttered no happy sounds, not did the placid expression on her beautiful face change.
He dressed her in a shimmering spidersilk gown. The iridescent fabric reminded him of the gown she’d worn the night she’d walked in the garden of the Mistress and had taken his hand. He pulled on trousers and a shirt that laced at the sides.
“Come, we must eat.” With his hand at her waist, he steered her to the garden room.
A wall of glass bricks let in light and distorted the lush growth outside. The table, set for two, stood near the wide door leading into the yard. A maid checked the clothes hanging on the line. Her spouse leaned against the wall and watched her work. In these days, no woman walked through town unguarded lest she be taken by the priests. Even in their homes, there was little safety if a priest wanted new women for the pens.
“Ashiera,” Sieper whispered.
She stared. “Who is Ashiera?”
“You are and you are mine.”
As though a black curtain had been torn, her expression changed. “No.” She backed away.
He went to her. “What do you remember?”
Her eyes reflected myriad emotions. “Dying, yet I live. Heated winds searing my head. Falling into darkness. I am Ashiera, but I don’t remember taking vows with you.”
“Much has changed in Keltoi. The Lord of Shadows has placed his shroud over the people. The Mistress and her servants are gone.”
“Gone! Who protects the land and makes sure the seasons follow their proper courses?” She bowed her head. “Once I sat on the seat of judgment. Once I knew the lore and the legends. I solved disputes and made prophecies for those who asked for sight.”
He caressed her shoulders in an attempt to leach the tension from her taut muscles. “Those days are no more.”
She looked up. “All is gone.”
His thumbs brushed her cheeks. “Alas, ‘tis the truth. Since you are now aware, I can’t leave you in Zandara. You must come with me, for you are mine.”
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