heather lin book

Lady of Mars: Chapter 4

Capri had been given a private room in the palace infirmary. The smell was vaguely antiseptic, but the staff had tried to mask it with the scent of lavender. Everything about the room, from the pale blue walls to the babbling tabletop fountain, was designed to relax a patient.

But the girl on the bed felt nothing at all—as long as she didn’t move. If she moved, she felt the ache, the reminder of what had taken place just two hours before.

From the moment she’d been brought to the palace and was accepted into Ekon’s fold, she’d been protected. There had been guards. There had been rules. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d been cut or bruised.

One area in which Ekon was lax was knowledge. Barring anything with graphic sex or violence, the girls could learn whatever they wanted, through whatever channel they liked: music, movies, news articles, theatre, books.

One of Capri’s favorite reads was a collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. She knew that rape existed. That anthology was an introduction to all of the horrible things that could befall a person during their lifetime—and many fantastical things that couldn’t. All of it had seemed so far away, so very separate from her clean, comfortable, sheltered life.

But not now. The stories were true. There were monsters everywhere, waiting to prey on pretty girls. If Sullivan had set out to ruin her, she supposed he’d succeeded.

Lady Agatha slept in a comfortable chair beside the bed. Another lady had been called to stay in the Maiden dorm with the other girls and guards. They’d been examined in the room, given tea or warm milk, and told to rest. Agatha believed Capri needed her more. She’d stayed by her side during the physical examination and the guards’ questions. Then she’d read aloud to her, in an unspoken effort to distract Capri from her pain, until her exquisite chin touched her chest, and she dozed.

If Capri could bring herself to feel, she imagined she’d be touched.

Sleep wouldn’t come. She’d refused a sedative. The last time she’d taken one, she’d fallen asleep on New Earth and woken up on Mars. Her life had been changed forever. The memory made her feel ill, and she was glad when a knock sounded on her door, pulling her out of dark thoughts.

The man on the other side cleared his throat, but Capri couldn’t find her voice. Lady Agatha started awake and straightened her hair and posture before calling for the person to enter. Even wrenched from sleep, in her robe, Lady Agatha was lovely and elegant. A work of art. Hers was a natural beauty, the kind Ekon coveted the most. It was what he’d found in Capri. How must she look now?

Her cheeks flamed as she realized the person on the other side wasn’t a medic but a king’s guard—and the king himself. Then came his advisor, Alexander, and a woman in her mid-twenties, who Capri recognized as Lady Briony, the king’s favorite prior to Marianne’s predecessor. A second guard followed. Capri tried to straighten her curls, to look presentable, but it was no use. She was sure she looked as awful as she felt.

Lady Agatha stood and curtsied, but Ekon shook his head and stepped around the bed to take her hand in his. “No, Lady. You sit. You’ve had a trying night.”

“Thank you, King,” Agatha said and sank gratefully back into the chair.

Then Ekon turned to Capri. She looked down, but she felt it when he sat on the edge of the bed, and she could see the blue fabric of his shirt, the khaki color of his slacks. He reached out to brush a limp curl out of her face, and she raised her head obediently, so that he could tuck it behind her small, perfectly-formed ear. He watched her intently, compassion in his gaze, and her heart filled. She tried to sit up straighter, and Ekon fluffed a pillow behind her.

Heat rose in her face again, but not from embarrassment this time. He wouldn’t look at her that way if he didn’t still care for her.

“Thank you, King,” she murmured.

He took her hand between his warm, smooth palms, and her breath caught at the intimate gesture.

“Capri, my darling, how are you feeling?”

“Better, King.”

He smiled, but then his eyes turned sad. His expression was tinged with regret. She’d been wrong. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she fought back tears. Dread seeped into her veins, poisoning her hope as quickly as it had risen.

“You will be…my most missed opportunity.”

“King?” she whispered.

He seemed lost in thought, just watching her hand, trailing a fingertip around her knuckles. She wanted to pull it away. She felt sick with grief, even before he said the words. But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t disobey him.

“You know that, through no fault of your own, you and I can never be.”

She squeezed her eyes shut against the fresh rush of agony. She’d been stupid to let herself feel any hope at all. The rules were clear. Ekon would not accept a girl if she was not intact. Capri, now, was undeniably broken.

“However,” Ekon continued gently, and she opened her eyes. Hope rose again, almost of its own accord. “There is another way you may please your king.”

He raised his eyes to hers.

“Anything,” she whispered, perhaps too eagerly.

“You are still a rare jewel, Capri, and a valuable part of my collection. Nothing could ever change that. There are others, throughout the System, who come to this place, who tour the lower levels of the palace, just in the hopes of glimpsing one of you. Did you know that?

Capri blushed and shook her head. She’d begun to relax. She was still beautiful. She was still wanted.

“Imagine what one of them would pay to bed you.”

Icy terror rippled through her, freezing her body and constricting her throat. She couldn’t be sure of what he’d say next, but she knew instinctively it would be something she didn’t want to hear. It would be something she didn’t want to do.

Capri swallowed hard and looked at Agatha. The other woman kept her eyes firmly on her hands, clasped so tightly in her lap her knuckles paled. Otherwise, she betrayed no opinion on the matter.

“Once you turn seventeen, you’ll be offered up to auction every two weeks. A man—or woman—may have you for one night.”

He squeezed her hand, drawing her gaze back to his. She felt dizzy. She knew she must look as scared as she felt.

“Lady Briony, your new attending lady, will walk you through what’s expected. From here, you’ll go straight to your own apartment. You know of the apartments?”

She nodded.

“They’re private, luxurious spaces, and they’re reserved only for ladies.”

Capri swallowed again and managed to speak, though her voice was squeaky. “But I won’t be a lady.”

Ekon reached out and lifted her chin so she had to keep looking into his soft, brown eyes. “You will still be a lady, Capri. You’ll still have the title. You just won’t be my lady.”

Capri dropped her chin again as soon as he released her. He released her hand, too, and she felt the loss keenly. The moment she’d been waiting for since she was brought to Mars ten years before would never come. She and the king would never consummate their love—because he would never love her. Not in that way. She was too broken.

She would have to endure the attentions of strangers instead. And what choice did she have? If she wanted to keep her warm bed and keep hold of some of the king’s respect and affection, she would do this. Like so many years before, the decision had been made for her. Like so many years before, she would take the path of least resistance and comply.

Tears burned in her eyes.

“Yes, King,” she muttered.

He gave her one last, sad smile, kissed her chastely on the forehead, and stood to leave. “We will see each other again, Capri. Just never again at the high table and never as we had hoped.”

He sounded so sad, as if he’d lost something in that closet, too, and she hurt for him as well as herself. She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the first stab of guilt, that maybe she could have done something to prevent this. If she hadn’t talked to Sullivan in the stairwell. If she’d only followed the rules.

She heard Ekon address Lady Agatha. “You’ll be needed in the dormitory. Briony will take good care of Capri.”

Capri looked up. She didn’t want her to go, but the lady bowed to her king, gave her a sorrowful look, and obediently took Briony’s place in the procession.

They were left alone. Briony hesitated for a moment before sitting in the bedside chair. She tried to sound bright and cheery, as if Capri’s broken heart could be fooled so easily.

“Let’s focus on your rest and recovery, shall we? Then we’ll worry about all the rest. Shall we play a game? Chess, perhaps?”

Capri looked at her briefly. She had a kind face. Under different circumstances, they might have gotten along beautifully. But right now all she could do was roll rudely away from the blond and let the emotions she’d been holding back crash into her.

She cried for a long time. Briony didn’t touch her or speak to her. Mercifully, she let Capri pretend she was alone.

As far as the teenager was concerned, she was.

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