The road was rough, rougher than the short boat ride Nakia had been forced to endure as she made her way into the Roshan Empire. Or maybe she was there already. She wasn't sure when the barbarian country began. It was hard to tell what they were grunting about outside, but she was certain she heard the word "home" a few times. They might have been speaking some different, primitive language, but she wasn't sure. Maybe it's just because I'm in the palanquin and their voices are muffled, but that doesn't sound like Kairon.
They speak Kairon, her father told her in a long speech he gave her as he dared to hand her over to these savages. She was expected to believe him as he told her it would be all right, they wouldn't harm her, and she was helping keep the city alive. It wasn't like she had a choice in the matter. He gave an order. She obeyed it, like all of his subjects.
You're a princess. You have a responsibility to help your people and this a great help. They won't hurt you.
He told her over and over again how they wouldn't hurt her, but these were the same people who made Bloody Orchards and scared townspeople so bad they didn't even fight, just gave the barbarians everything they asked for. These were demons with strange magic and supposedly breathed fire and devoured people. They won't hurt you. They wouldn't dare. Her father had the gall to look fierce as he spoke those words.
Why wouldn't they dare? She had to be far from home. They had put her on a ship. Even before the ship, they had walked for days, taking her further and further from Phyllida with each step. Who was there to stop them from hurting her? Certainly not her father.
"The bastard sold me to them for time," she said under her breath. Her face had been tense ever since she walked out of the palace, escorted by strange looking men with wild hair, feathers tied in the locks and around their necks, and grunting as they took her to a palanquin for transport.
She saw the countryside for the first time with these savages. Her land was alive and green with forests, meadows, and streams. There were farms, livestock, and movement. People going to and fro, living their lives. From what she had heard of the Roshan, she had expected it to all be gone.
She thought her homeland would be torn apart, the land ripped open and on fire. It was amazing there were no rivers of blood or piles of bodies or forests of bones. The most destruction she witnessed was the broken walls of a few cities. This small comfort, however, didn't make her trust these barbarians any more than she had before leaving her home.
Now, she was so far from home, it might as well be another world. The air was dry and she wasn't even sure the road was a road. The small, two-wheeled carriage they placed her in wasn't something she was used to. It rocked and jostled as it moved, not a smooth ride at all. For a moment, she wondered how chariot racers stayed on their stands to race if it felt anything like her ride.
She leaned forward to the window on the door and opened the curtain slightly, just to see her new surroundings. Far from green, like her home and like the land where they got off the ship, it was almost the exact opposite. This place was the color of dust and clay. The rocks were almost red. The plant life wasn't naked, but it wasn't lush. The grass stood tall, like spiked hair, and seemed more orange than grass ever should be. The trees were bent and crooked, growing at all angles, with leaves like thorns. She had never seen anything like that.
"Hey!" One of the soldiers banged against the door, causing her to jump back.
Nakia's heart raced and a bead of sweat slid down her cheek as she sat back in the seat. It was a strange seat with a cushioned back and the seat itself was a pillow on a low platform. It felt like she was on the floor rather than in a chair. Were all of the barbarians' chairs like this?
"Hey, what have I told you about scaring her?" She heard a familiar voice call from outside. She couldn't remember who it was, but it spoke Kairon and sounded female. There had been many females among the ranks of the barbarians. She didn't know what to make of that.
She also didn't know what to make of the reprimand being said in Kairon. Was it for her benefit? Did one of the barbarians want her to think they were on her side? Well, she wasn't so gullible.
Settling in the seat, Nakia took a deep breath and put her hand over her mouth. Her jaw trembled. They won't hurt you. He promised, but he promised a lot of things. They had conquered her homeland. How could he say they wouldn't hurt her? The memory made her growl. Of course they would hurt her. It was clear that hurting people was what the barbarians did.
"No, they need you," she reminded herself in a whisper. They needed her if they wanted the gold her father promised them. They couldn't hurt her if they wanted the tribute. "They need you."
Still, her stomach flipped each time the carriage rocked. She felt like she might vomit, but she didn't dare. She refused to allow them to open those doors and discover her covered in her own sick. She'd never give them the satisfaction.
She jumped when the carriage came to a stop. She heard a din of voices outside along with animal noises. The door was yanked open. She moved to the far end of the carriage.
"We're about to enter the capital. The General wants to know if you need anything?" a soldier, a female soldier, asked.
Nakia shook her head. "Nothing you can provide."
The woman sniffed and slammed the door. Frowning, Nakia settled back on her seat and put her hand to the curtain on the window once more as carriage moved again. She wished to see what a barbarian city looked like.
There was a steady flow of people moving about, but she could just see the city gates beyond them. She had never seen gates like them, but she only had Phyllida's gates to judge them by. The road led into a canyon with high red cliff walls to the either side, but in front of them were magnificent bright blue gates. As they came closer she could make out eagles and lions carved in gold with precious gems all about them covered the walls. She was more impressed as they moved closer. The art was so detailed, Nakia wouldn't have been surprised if the images came to life, roaring, screeching, and clawing at the people as they were allowed passage into the city.
"How is this real?" she murmured, eyes wide as she tried to take in the whole scene. There were men posted on high towers, as expected, but the towers seemed to touch the sky.
The sight caused her stomach to quiver again. How could barbarians build such a thing? Surely they had stolen someone's wonderful city, as they would've done to Phyllida if she had refused her father's orders. There was no way people who thought a "Bloody Orchard" was something worthwhile could create anything to leave her in awe.
Passing through the gates, there was an ocean of people inside and they blocked most of the inner gate. She could make out some more lions and eagles. These animals are obviously important to them. Are they gods? She wouldn't be surprised if they were. Of course, beasts would worship beasts.
A braying donkey pressed against the window, sticking its snout in. Nakia jumped away as the creature pulled back. There was shouting outside, but she decided not to see what it was all about. If there was a scuffle of some kind, she didn't want to be in the barbarians way when they dismembered each other.
Eventually, the clamoring died down and all she heard were the usual noises of a city. She peeked out again and saw people and tall, tan buildings, so different from home. There were no columns, no white marble, no orange-tiled roofs.
The people were even more different than the buildings. They were dressed in plain clothing, no designs or mixed colors. Everyone seemed to wear pants, not just the soldiers as she had first assumed. Their hair was just as wild as the soldiers, some with braids, some with shaved heads, and there were feathers all over the place. She couldn't figure out who were the men and who were the women.
"What is wrong with these people? Are they people?" She had no answers and sat back again, clutching the long sleeves of her tunic. The familiar texture helped settle her—her little piece of home in this storm of savagery.
Eventually, the carriage came to a stop again and Nakia steeled herself. She did her best not to flinch as the door opened again, a burst of odd heat coming into the carriage. The heat was dry against her face, crawling up the wide, short sleeves of her tunic. Why is it so hot here? It's about to be winter.
"Still alive, little princess?" a voice called as the door swung open.
The sun blinded Nakia for a moment, but she focused on the woman standing before her. She remembered her. This woman made sure she got safely into the palanquin back in Phyllida and also made sure no one touched her on the ship.
She heard people call this woman "general," which didn't make any sense to Nakia. Women couldn't be generals, but until meeting these people she didn't think women could be soldiers. There were many female warriors in the Roshan ranks. The general was rough-looking and was missing an eye. Nakia wouldn't have known she was a woman except for her voice.
"You look all right. It's good the journey wasn't a problem for you," the general said with a nod.
The journey was tough, but Nakia pressed through. It wasn't like she could do anything else. She got sick on the ship, but hid it as best she could. She also got sick in the carriage thanks to some unbearable heat, but she hid it as well. She wasn't checked on very often, only when she was brought meals, and it was easy to feign being fine for those brief moments.
"We're about to go into the palace, so I have a little gift for you," the general said.
Before Nakia could say anything, the general yanked her by the wrists and attached golden shackles to her arms. Nakia couldn't believe her eyes. The general snickered and walked away.
"Hey!" Nakia barked, leaning further into the scorching sun. The general didn't turn around as other soldiers came to Nakia and helped her out of the carriage. The soldiers stood at her side and led her into the palace.
The palace distracted Nakia for a moment. It was on a hill, bigger than her own home. As she walked, she saw parts of it was the same sandy color of all the buildings, but there were paintings and scenes on the high walls that gleamed with precious metals, coated in gold and silver. Blues and purples also adorned the palace, both clothes and images. There were people moving about, just like at home, undoubtedly trying to seem more important than they were.
"Come on. Can't keep the Queen waiting," a soldier said, motioning for her to walk faster. She gave him a look, but the sword on his hip made her do as he said.
Being back in Khenshu did not feel as good as Ashni assumed it would. The dry air stung ever so slightly. The heat of the day should have been a comfort after the biting cold of the West, which reminded her much too much of Helli, the capital of the Empire, in the winter. Usually, anything that made her think of the capital bothered her, but the desire for the West gnawed at Ashni. She would have to wait for the warring season to return, though.
She had her hands full until then. The tapestries, depicting scenes of her victories, seemed to mock her as she handled the tedious part of ruling—paperwork. Sometimes, I think Dad had the right idea about getting out of this. Stretching out on her throne, several fluffy pillows on a golden platform, sitting high on her three-tiered dais, she read through yet another report about how business wasn't properly handled while she was off conquering the West. She groaned.
"Why is it never good news?" she muttered. Ever since she returned, officials trickled into the Grand Hall with bad news. In between visitors, servants came in with tablets and scrolls of more bad news.
Layla slid down from the high ceiling, dangling from a thin line. "Talking to me or yourself?" she had the nerve to ask. She was upside down with her head right next to Ashni's.
Ashni looked at her from the corner of her eye. "Why talk to myself if I know you're hanging around?"
Layla flipped over and fell with a dull thud onto the main pillow of the throne. Ashni grunted as Layla hit her as she righted herself. There was more than enough space for the two of them, so Ashni assumed Layla hit her on purpose. As pay back, she pushed Layla, knocking Layla over. Layla whined and flailed a little. As soon as Layla was upright, Ashni gathered a bunch of scrolls from the table in front of her and pressed them into Layla's arms. Layla grunted and almost fell back over.
"Wow. This is a lot," Layla said.
Ashni rolled her eyes. "Thanks for pointing that out. I hadn't noticed."
"Who the hell did you leave in charge, a chicken?" Layla dared to toss the papers in the air.
"Hey! Were you raised in a barn?" Ashni shoved Layla with enough force to knock her over again.
Grunting, Layla caught herself and sneered at Ashni. "Were you? Stop pushing me. I don't need to be here, after all. And, why is there so much damn paperwork? Didn't you appoint Nasih again? He never leaves a mess like this."
Ashni sighed, shaking her head a little. "He got sick and appointed Foma. Apparently, Foma's an idiot. This is why your mother kept writing me, demanding I come back. Foma dared to try to take your parents manor from them."
Layla frowned. "They didn't tell me."
"Why should they? They know as soon as they do, you'll go have Foma piss himself at the sight of your sword."
Layla's face scrunched up. "So, you didn't tell me because you wanted to beat him to death yourself?"
Ashni chuckled. "I fed him to our brothers as soon as the courts allowed it. To try to steal from me means dealing with me. But, to try to steal from the kingdom, from the Empire, from our glory, then you meet the lions and entertain the masses."
Layla didn't argue with that. Ashni knew she wouldn't, even though she undoubtedly wanted a piece of the bastard for trying to take anything from her parents. There was more to Foma's incompetence than trying to rip off beloved nobles, though.
They could have stayed in the West if Ashni was able to leave Nasih in charge. He was a trusted advisor and always kept things together when she was off on campaign. He had done so as a governor of this very province back when her father was Emperor. But, it seemed age caught up to him. She'd have to think of someone to replace him for the next campaign season because there would be no coming back until the world was hers.
"Where's Adira? She does this better than we do," Layla said.
"No, she does it with less complaints than we do," Ashni replied. Adira was due any day now. She could handle the bulk of the administrative work and fix the mess Foma left. "Princess, shouldn't you be training?" The all-black uniform certainly suggested that.
With a smile, Layla put her chin in the air. "I sneaked away. You're rewarded when you can get away."
Ashni shrugged. She got back to work, ignoring the fact that Layla was making faces at her. After a minute, it was too much.
"First, stick your tongue out at me again and I'm going to tear it out. Second, either read those documents and make an account of what the problem is and how to solve it or I send word to your father that you're here and not training."
Layla's face fell and she glared at Ashni. "You're an ass."
"I know. Work." Ashni pointed to one of the scrolls.
They worked quietly. After a time, a raven flew in the window and landed on Ashni's shoulder. She gently untied a note from its foot. The raven cawed and flew off.
"Adira's returned," Ashni said.
"Sound the horn," Layla called to a servant.
The servant ran off to do her bidding. Other servants appeared to clear the clutter from the table, to prop Ashni and Layla up with more pillows, and the extra fussy servants straightened Ashni's and Layla's robes. Layla batted them away while Ashni ignored them.
"Sometimes, you just have to let people do their jobs," Ashni told Layla.
"I don't need people to dress me and I don't need them to fix my clothes," Layla replied.
Soon, the throne room was filled to the brim with nobles, top military officials, priests and priestesses, and other people. Excited energy buzzed through the hall. Perhaps even more so than when Ashni herself returned because Adira was coming in with their final cache of treasure. In the past, there would have been a parade from the city gates to the throne, but Adira had grown tired of such pomp years ago.
A carpet was rolled out for Adira and she marched in as if she had conquered the world on her own. The cerulean of her cape swished behind her like a blowing banner and children reached out to touch it. Adira ignored the giggling children. She was treated to this behavior whenever she had entered the city in full uniform. She had taken this long walk many times before.
"Adira, so good of you to join us. Amuse us with tales of how you left the city of Phyllida." Ashni crowed as Adira stood before her.
Adira gave her a bland look. "Your official in the city will be sending messages roughly every two weeks to keep us abreast of any information regarding the city. Roughly a thousand troops opted to stay behind in the city and they're in contact with the other soldiers who remained in the West. I've arrived with our tribute. If you'd like…" She pulled a scroll from her side satchel.
"Please." Ashni motioned forward with her hand.
Adira read the list of gifts and tribute from King Dorian. It was a long and boring list, full of things Ashni couldn't use. The treasure would mostly go to reward the army and families who lost people in the conquest. The recitation was meant to perk up some ears, so that they would leave with more troops in the spring.
"Why did he send me a bear? Doesn't he know we have bears?" Ashni massaged her temples. Some of these gifts made no sense. If Dorian was trying to get on her good side, he needed to just give her gold, silver, and jewels.
"Our bears don't look like that." Layla motioned to the animal. It was completely black, which wasn't normal for bears in their area. Their bears were larger as well. It made for an interesting battle when a child decided to join a warrior guild and opted for the Bear Clan.
Ashni waved it off. "Send it off to my baby brothers. They might enjoy it. If not, Chandra will figure out what to do with it."
Adira nodded and waved the beast away. "Last and possibly least, the insurance that we will get the rest of our gold and can actually pay people to campaign with us this spring."
Ashni rolled her eyes at Adira's verbal melodrama. But, she should let the good general have her fun where she could get it. How often do we get to see Adira actually has a sense of humor buried underneath her rigid exterior?
A soldier tugged their prisoner into view, holding the struggling princess by her golden bonds. Ashni laughed. Okay, maybe Adira's having more fun than I ever give her credit for. Adira shot her a small smile, which let Ashni know this whole little show of dressing the princess in fancy shackles and dragging her in like a prisoner of war was for Ashni's amusement. Adira gift-wrapped the little princess for me.
"Let me go!" The prisoner—Princess Nakia Lysand of Phyllida—yanked at her chains. The soldier—a stout lad—didn't move.
Nakia was dressed in her native garb. It looked heavy. Nakia had to be hot. That probably added to her irritability. Of course, there was always the chance she was always like this, which would be interesting. Ashni couldn't wait to see which it was.
"Well, a spirited filly, isn't she?" Ashni cackled, Furious green eyes locked onto her. The green seemed to go on forever, like the grasses of the West.
Nakia dared to spit in her direction. The audience gasped. Ashni couldn't help grinning. Oh, she's got fire! Fire like the belly of Hell and the Great Eagle combined! Before Ashni could say anything, Layla snarled leaped into the fray.
"Hey, you can't talk to her that way," Layla said.
Nakia looked Layla directly in the eye and dismissed her. "I don't take orders from filthy wretches." Nakia sucked her teeth.
The room grew so quiet Ashni thought she could hear the carpet fibers shift as Layla launched herself from the throne, jumping several feet from the dais, to stand in front of their hostage. Layla stared Nakia down and Nakia, to her credit, stood toe-to-toe with Layla.
Layla and Nakia were the same height. Ashni had seen Layla cow men twice her size with nothing more than a look. Nakia didn't flinch. Maybe her attitude was more than the heat and the fact that she was a prisoner. There might be a lion lurking in the petite foreigner.
"Why don't you say it to my face?" Layla demanded.
"I especially don't take orders from filthy wretches," Nakia said.
Ashni could see where this was headed and had little desire for Layla to stain her good rug with fresh blood. Layla's hand twitched in the direction of her sword. Nakia wouldn't know what hit her and then there would be a different sort of mess.
"Princess," Ashni called out, causing them both to look at her. Oh, right. Can two princesses exist in the same space at the same time? It didn't seem possible, but she needed to make it work. "Layla, back away."
Layla growled and eyed Nakia a moment longer before turning around. She returned to her seat by Ashni, wiggling on the throne enough to hit Ashni with her knee. Ashni stayed focused on Nakia. A ghost of a smile floated across Ashni's face.
"You are a little hellcat, aren't you? There's lava in your blood. You're lucky, you know? The only person to get a rise out of Layla like that and live is…well, me." Ashni puffed out her chest. And Adira.
"Barbarians afflicting barbarians," Nakia snapped.
Ashni made a fluttering motion with her fingers. "You certainly think highly of yourself for someone whose own father felt she was expendable."
Nakia winced and frowned, eyes on the floor on for a moment. Her weakness wasn't hard to find, but she turned back to Ashni with as much defiance in her eyes as before. There was so much fire there, and it burned so bright it felt like it could shine with the sun itself and even dance with Ashni's lightning. Despite it all, Nakia seemed sure of herself.
"What am I going to do with you, Nakia?" Ashni tapped her chin, as if she needed to consider it.
"Princess Nakia," Nakia hissed like a viper.
Ashni tapped her chin again. "Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I already have a princess and she's typically more trouble than she's worth." She glanced to her right.
Layla's nostrils flared. "You dare put me in the same sentence as this wench?" The two princesses glared at each other.
"Who do you think you're calling a wench?" Nakia demanded.
"The wench in the room, of course. Who do you think you are, commanding the Queen, as if you matter?" Layla said.
Nakia shot right back. "I matter enough to be worth my weight in gold. What could be gotten for you beyond stale bread and manure?"
"If I were you, I'd watch my tongue lest someone cut it out." Layla flipped a dagger in the air.
It was time to step in once more. Ashni snatched the dagger and gave Layla a hard look. No one wanted to deal with Layla saying, "Oops, my hand slipped" and it costing them tons of gold.
Ashni turned her attention back to their guest. "Princess Nakia, what should I do with you?"
Nakia mustered a sneer, as if she was in control of the whole situation. "You should make me Queen since I'm the only one around here with any semblance of civility and a measure of wit."
For a moment, the court was silent, everyone watching Ashni. They were all too aware that if her sense of humor failed her, King Dorian would never see his daughter again, except in the form of ashes Ashni would certainly send to him.
Ashni let out a howling laugh. The crowd laughed, too. Nakia turned around, glaring at everyone.
"You, my little hellcat, are something else. And you obviously like my attention, so to be close to me and gain whatever of it you can, you shall bear cups for me for your stay," Ashni said.
Rather than sighs of relief, Ashni's words caused some murmuring among the hundreds of people there. She couldn't care less about that, though. She was in charge and what she said went. She had made her decision.
"Now, let us celebrate the return of our Great General." She beamed at Adira.
Adira shook her head with a sigh before a smile worked its way onto her face. "We all know this is an excuse to open the dozen casks of foreign wine."
Ashni smiled back. "We all know you won't object."
Well, people, that's the preview. If you want to see the rest of Warrior Class: Sky Cutter, you can find a link my profile or on my Facebook page.
Thank you all for the love and support, especially through this series. I hope you enjoy the book and I hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into the lives of Nicole and Dane. Remember to check out my books on Amazon under the name S. L. Kassidy.