Capri was invited to dine with the King every Thursday for the next year and a half, an unprecedented routine for any lady who was not a favorite. It was clear that the allure Ekon had seen in her wasn’t completely lost.
She looked forward to dining beneath the King’s dais—not because she longed for his touch, his approval, or his love—but because she knew that seeing her and being unable to have her was torture for him. Each night, his hungry eyes found her. His pain and anguish were nearly tangible. He regretted the chains with which he’d bound himself, and it brought Capri a certain amount of satisfaction.
Briony, who had particular insight to his likes and dislikes, organized new, daring outfits for Capri to wear in his presence. She’d been chosen to be Capri’s lady because she was unassuming, but she had a certain sensuality and brazenness about her that had captivated Ekon.
She’d confided that during her time as the favorite they had pushed even Ekon’s sexual boundaries.
The King believed Briony could teach Capri to do the same, only for others. He wanted to be sure that she would be worth what the bidders paid, not only in beauty and bragging rights, but also in knowledge. She had to be whatever appealed most to a Victor, whether that was an innocent virgin or an experienced seductress. Ekon’s plan was working; she was coming into her own, only he was being seduced, as well.
It was a small revenge, but it was enough, and she was careful not to take it too far. It wouldn’t do to anger the King or Marianne by making it obvious that she was aware of his reaction to her.
An air of innocence and sadness that she did not need to fabricate clung to her like a low fog, breaking the King’s heart even more. It was an asset, Briony told her. At some point, the blond’s allegiance had changed. Capri did call her a friend. And now that she had a friend and a focus, she could sometimes go an entire day without thinking of Sullivan. A week without dreaming of that night.
She lay in her robe the night before her seventeenth birthday, reading a book of her own choosing for once. It was the biography of a soldier-turned-artist who had been there, at the start of the Migration from Old Earth to New Earth five hundred years before. Capri had always been interested in art and history. It was the magic of the unknown, an escape into the forests, animals and oceans that had always been there and would always be there—if man got it right this time. She got lost in the idea of streets that weren’t always safe, where cars zipped by and the sky was blue. Where the sun could burn and a person could travel for days and never reach the edge of anything—just end up back where they started and then do it all over again if they wanted.
This woman had been inspired to paint scenes from New Earth, before it was inhabited, as it was being built up for use by those lucky enough to gain passage. Capri had only vague memories of New Earth. What had once been her home was a strange place now, and she had a good life on Mars.
She would never leave unless it was through a book, in the comfort and safety of her room.
But, sometimes, her mind wandered, and she wondered what it might have been like if she hadn’t been taken. After being raised in such luxurious slavery, she didn’t know what normal was. But she was still fascinated by the idea of freedom, of having control over her own destiny.
A knock sounded, and Briony let herself in through the adjoining door. She was also in her robe, having just finished a bath, and she joined Capri on the bed. Capri didn’t look up. She’d been avoiding this conversation all day, and now the day was done. She could avoid it no longer.
“Did you get a chance to look at the files I sent you?” Briony asked gently.
Her time of unhurried opulence was at an end. In just three nights’ time she would meet her first Victor—the man or woman who had won her for the night. She didn’t want to think about it.
“Capri,” Briony said. “You knew this day would come.”
She pretended to be absorbed in her reading.
“Well,” the blond continued in her usual, unruffled way, “lucky for you I brought my own reader. And a note from the King.”
That caught Capri’s attention. It wasn’t Thursday. This wasn’t a request that she come to dinner. It was something else, and she wanted to know what.
Briony held up the paper but kept it out of Capri’s reach. “First, the contracts. You must know what to expect.”
Capri sighed and sat up, putting her reader away to give Briony her full attention.
“Thank you. Why don’t we move to the alcove? I ordered tea.”
Capri chose the chair to the left and waited for her mentor to set the tray on the table between them. She hugged her knees to her chest, keeping her body covered by the robe simply because it was one of the last times she’d have a say in the matter.
Briony joined her a few moments later, and she accepted the warm china cup. It smelled of chai—her favorite—and despite her dark mood she began to relax.
Briony was understanding and kind and everything she’d seemed in the beginning. And meanness without reason wasn’t in Capri’s nature, either. Her fire fizzled out, and she was left feeling tired, detached, and anxious to get that note—even if it meant facing the reality of her fate.
“There are things we need to discuss before next week,” Briony said, pulling up a written document on the screen of her reader. “We’ve talked about them before, but the day of their relevance is coming up. We should go over the document again.”
Capri nodded obediently.
“One night with a Lady of Mars will be auctioned off on a semimonthly basis. The auction winner, man or woman, will be known as ‘Victor’. They may state in the initial form if they prefer to be called by a different name.”
Briony raised her eyes to be sure Capri was paying attention. “If they do give a different name, it’s because they’d like you to use it. Make sure to say it. Especially during the act.”
Capri nodded again, and Briony looked back to the document.
“You will maintain some autonomy over your wardrobe, but the Victor will express his or her preferences. These may include style, color, etc.” Briony looked up again. “Take this into consideration. Remember that if you give a little in the beginning, you may be able to avoid further demands. Let the Victor feel that they are being heard, and they may not ask you for more. Some, of course, simply like to be in control. There isn’t much you can do then.”
Her eyes returned to the reader, but she paused. Capri glanced up, her interest piqued. Briony’s perfect composure was slipping. She didn’t want to be having this conversation any more than she did, despite the fact she’d never seemed to have an issue with any of it—or her role in it—before.
“Victors are not permitted to leave a mark,” she said in a steady voice. Then her eyes met Capri’s, and they looked pained. “This does not mean that they can’t hurt you.”
Capri looked away. She knew that. But the thought of exactly what that could entail sent a shiver down her spine. It was something she’d avoided thinking of until now; now, when she could no longer avoid it. All she knew firsthand of sex was Sullivan. All she knew was pain. The thought of it happening again made her want to vomit.
“If you feel someone is breaking a rule, press one of the five panic buttons in your room, or, of course, scream. There will be guards stationed just outside.”
Capri nodded. Briony grasped her hand, urging Capri to look at her. She did so reluctantly. She didn’t want to be here, discussing this. She’d rather be walking through the gardens or library. Dining, dancing, bathing, studying, singing—anything else. Briony, her constant companion, who had helped her pick up the pieces after the rape, knew exactly where her mind was.
“You are never powerless, Capri,” she said. “You have to remember that. Use your knowledge, your beauty, and your body to your advantage. Oftentimes, you can control the situation without your partner ever knowing.”
Capri looked away again. It was easy for her to say. She, like most of the women in the palace, had only ever been with Ekon. Capri would never know what it was like to be with someone she wanted. Any romance with Ekon was only an imitation of the real thing—even she knew that by now—but she had wanted him once, and if her circumstances were different, she would want him blindly still.
Now, she was broken, bitter, and expected to please a new lover every two weeks, never knowing who or what to expect. Briony could offer advice, but for Capri it would be different. She would always be different.
Briony squeezed her hand so hard it hurt, forcing Capri’s eyes to meet hers again.
“You are never powerless,” she said again.
Capri nodded, just so she’d let go. The blond cleared her throat and resumed the review with her usual composure.
“Just as the winning bidder will be called the Victor, you will be called ‘Prize’. However, your given name is not to be used under any circumstances.”
Briony put the reader down. “I’ll be here to help you prepare. If you look at the last document, you’ll see Ekon is requiring that your first Victor be ‘a gentle lover suited to taking a virgin’. Although your virginity is not technically intact, the Victor is aware you’ve never had a man reach completion inside of you, and you’ve never reached completion with a man yourself.”
“How generous,” Capri quipped. “Can I see the note now?”
Briony handed the note to her. The seal was already broken.
“It was addressed to me,” Briony explained. There was a playful smile on her lips. “But it concerns you.”
Capri looked over the contents, and her heart beat faster with every word. A party. She would have a birthday party. She hadn’t thought she would be afforded the privilege. Ekon had even requested the first dance.
“This is for tomorrow?” Capri asked, rereading the words.
“Yes.” Briony smiled. “And he’s had a dress made as a present for you.”
Capri smiled back. She could tell the other woman had been counting on this to brighten her spirits—and it had.
But she would never be fully free from the dread. Even if the evening was magical, it was still the only evening standing between her and the night she’d meet her first Victor.