The blast of gunfire pierced Aria’s eardrums and forced her to freeze. Although she wanted to flee, she couldn’t. Lying in a pool of blood, royal guards gunned down her mother. Sophia, her mother, had protected Aria, until her last dying breath, from those monsters.
At eighteen, women were required to come before the king and his four sons, to offer themselves as a courtesan. The princes took only those they found most attractive and alluring. The rest were returned to their homes with a brand on their wrist proving they had been through the process and rejected.
Sophia sheltered her daughter from the tradition, knowing that Aria would be most appealing to Prince Henry. Everyone in the kingdom knew that he searched for a virgin with green eyes, an emerald, a rarity in this part of the world, after the horrific genocide that had slaughtered millions.
Lucky Aria was born with blue eyes during the war. At age seven, the color gradually shifted from blue to green. The war may have ended, but she would never be safe. Democracy had fallen and a king had risen in its place.
The king had a desire for virgin flesh, and when his sons reached eighteen, they were given a monthly allotment of young women to choose from.
How had the palace gotten wind of Aria’s existence? Once her eyes had changed from the blue of the ocean to the green of the grass, the young girl had been kept inside the cottage, sheltered from others. Of course, she snuck out, catching a glimpse of moonlight and stars speckling the night sky, but she always stayed close to home. In her years growing up, she had befriended Ethan, her nearest neighbor, who had only a few years on her. The boys were the lucky ones, never having to come before the court and offer themselves to the throne, whether they wanted to or not.
The ceremony at eighteen was supposed to be an honor. On the fifteenth of every month, the women who had reached eighteen were brought into court and presented to the princes. Women who were accepted were supposedly lavished in luxury. No one knew what happened, because those women didn’t return home, ever. Aria didn’t buy it. Not with the way those men had stormed into her home and murdered her mother.
“You’re coming with us,” the taller of the two men said. He grabbed Aria’s waist and tossed her over his shoulder. She kicked and her arms flailed, trying to fight back. It did no good, as she was small in size and stature.
Aria should have known she couldn’t hide forever. It had been five years since her eighteenth birthday. She began to think she’d been long forgotten. At night, she prayed that luck would be on her side. Birth records were lost in the war along with most of the government’s historical records and documents. Aria had hoped hers had burned in the fires that had ravaged the city.
At twenty-three, she would be sentenced to death if a prince didn’t choose her, for disobeying the laws of the kingdom.
“Sedate her,” the man standing by the door said. He was the one who’d fired the shot that killed Aria’s mother.
Aria screamed as loud as her lungs would let her, “Help!”
No one could hear her pleas in the cottage in the middle of nowhere. Even if someone would have been nearby, no one would be stupid enough to face off with the royal guards.
The scorching sun blinded Aria as the guard carried her out into the heat. Her forehead glistened with sweat, and a needle pierced her arm. Her vision waivered, but she fought the sensation as her eyelids drooped.
“No!” she attempted to scream, but the sound came out more like a faint whisper, begging for release. “Please. Let me go.”
“Can’t do that,” the man carrying Aria said.
The second man opened the back of the van and tossed the girl inside. She worried she may never experience freedom again. Her eyes shut, and she passed out.
Aria woke to the sound of rushing water, and her eyes flashed open. Where had they taken her?
Fluffy and soft beneath her, she sunk into the mattress. Were they trying to show her the pleasure of being a slave to the prince? Aria saw nothing she wanted to be a part of. Her mother was dead. She swallowed the sadness and fear and sat up.
Dressed in a robe, she couldn’t help but wonder who had taken her clothes? She clenched the plush garment around her naked body, uncomfortable.
“Don’t be shy,” a woman said as she brought a pitcher of water and a glass beside the bed. “You should drink. The sedative can be quite dehydrating.” She poured half a glass and handed it to Aria. “I’m Clara,” she said, introducing herself.
“Aria.” She sipped the water, feeling it slide down her throat. Holding the cold glass forced a tingle through her hands and arms.
She felt the older woman’s stare. It was probably because Aria had green eyes.
Clara didn’t comment on them, but she also couldn’t tear her gaze away either. “You look a bit older than the other girls brought in,” Clara said.
Aria considered lying about her age, but what good would it do? The men had come to her home and dragged her to court. It wasn’t as though she willingly arrived here on her own when expected.
“I’m twenty-three,” Aria said and placed the empty glass on the nightstand.
Clara’s expression grew grim. “I see. There’s no time to get ready. You slept through the preparations. You are to follow me to be presented to the four princes.”
Aria planted her feet on the ground and shivered from the cold marble floor.
“Come with me, and leave your robe in here.”
Though she didn’t want to go or do as she’d been told, what choice did she have? How far could she get on foot? Besides, her house was now property of the court because her mother had hidden Aria and lied to the king. If Aria were to survive, she had only one chance.
Aria stepped out of the robe and raised her right arm to cover her breasts and her other hand to cover her most intimate parts. She didn’t like this one bit.
“Don’t be shy. Believe me, we’ve seen it all before,” Clara said and walked out of the room.
Aria hesitated but followed her out into the hallway. Forty young women stood naked in the hall.
The young emerald stalked past an array of women with their hair down in curls or wrapped in braids. Her dark locks were brushed but in no way elegant. Many of the women wore makeup, their eyelids coated in rich blues and greens. Were they trying to make their eyes more appealing for Prince Henry?
Another girl Aria passed in the hall wore cherry red lipstick. “Want a kiss, darling?” she asked and puckered her lips. Aria guessed the girl didn’t like her staring.
There were women at both sides of the hall, and Clara found an open space and positioned Aria against the cold stone material. She shivered, and her nipples hardened from the temperature.
“Hands down, ladies,” a voice echoed through the small, confined space.
Aria turned her head as King Gideon walked down the hall in their direction.
The women dropped their arms and stood up straight, proud.
Aria kept her intimate parts covered as best she could, not wanting to be there. The king strolled toward her and stopped, staring at her.
“What did I say, young lady?”
Was he going to humiliate Aria in front of everyone? “My hands are down,” Aria said. They were covering herself. He didn’t say hands up!
The king stepped forward and grabbed her wrists, pinning them above her head. His eyes raked over her body before meeting Aria’s eyes. His stare lingered, recognizing the green irises. “Henry will take a liking to you, perhaps. How old are you?” King Gideon asked.
Aria stuttered under her breath, afraid to answer.
“Speak up, girl!”
He dropped his hold and nodded, taking a step back. “You’d better hope Henry or another one of my sons wants you. Otherwise, I might have to take you as my own courtesan.”
Her stomach tensed and fear clutched at her heart, causing it to quicken. She’d heard stories of King Gideon and the women he liked to bed. Aria did not wish to be one of them. She refused to answer and exhaled a sigh of relief when he grew bored and walked past her to the next girl.
“You can take me as your courtesan.” The fiery redhead with dark crimson lipstick grinned.
The king stepped closer to her, his fingers dancing down her stomach and into her matching curls. Her eyes slammed shut, and she rocked her hips against his touch.
Just watching the two of them, Aria’s body responded in kind, flushing from warmth, and an ache built between her thighs.
“You will come for me,” he commanded, and she watched his digit slide deeper into the girl’s pussy.
The redhead moaned, letting him and all of the girls know that she’d reached the brink. His fingers slipped out, and he lapped at her juices on his digits. “Maybe I will fuck you later if my sons don’t choose you first.”
He took a good inhale of her neck, smelling her sweat and sex before examining the next girl down the row.
When the king finished his examination of the women for his sons, the double doors opened and the four princes stepped into the room.
August, Henry, James, and Aaron.
Everyone in Brayleigh knew Prince August was the most arrogant of the four brothers and the dreaded prince to whom no courtesan wished to be bound.
“I get to choose first this month,” Prince August said as he walked through the hall examining each girl.
Aria glanced away, her eyes downcast on the floor hoping not to draw unwanted attention to the color of her eyes. She hoped that if he couldn’t see her green eyes, perhaps he wouldn’t want her. Part of her feared that August would choose her just to piss off his brother, Henry.
August stopped in front of Aria. It felt as though Aria had been wearing a sign that read ‘torment me’. His hand reached out and his thumb lifted her jaw. Aria’s eyes locked onto his. “Oh look here, brother. An emerald to your liking. Maybe I should take her.”
A girl standing across from Aria interrupted August, “Why take an emerald, when you can have a diamond?” Her body glistened. She must have worn glitter, as it covered every inch of her porcelain skin.
August spun around on his feet and looked her over, seeming to approve. “What’s your name?” August asked.
“Ruby.” She laughed and leaned one hand against his chest. The smile never left her lips as her other hand tangled in her blonde hair, twirling one finger along the end of her strands. Why would she want to be with August?
“Experience?” August asked, staring at Ruby from head to toe, examining every inch and freckle of her naked torso.
“None. I’m a virgin, but I will submit to you and fulfill your every desire.” Her hand, that had been on his chest, reached for his lips. She slid one finger past his mouth. “I’m willing to do anything you command.”
“I’ll take this one!” August said, grabbing her arm and pulling her from the line.
Clara led Ruby through the double doors. She glanced back over her shoulder and winked at Aria.
Henry walked among the hall, glancing over each potential woman to take as his courtesan. He guided right past Aria. “Too old,” he muttered under his breath. He didn’t so much as slow down, and she felt both relief and disappointment. It wasn’t as though she wanted to be his, but she wished also not to die by midnight. Her options were limited. Should she try to seduce Henry or another one of his brothers, just as Ruby had done? Why had the girl beside her flirted with the king? For what purpose, could she want to be with King Gideon? Filled with questions, Aria didn’t expect a single answer.
“What’s your name?” Henry asked a blonde girl halfway down the row.
“Such a pretty name for a lovely girl.”
Sarah curtsied before the prince. “It would be an honor to be chosen by you, Prince Henry.”
“And quite the charmer,” Henry said and smiled. “You will join the ranks of my courtesans. Follow Clara down at the end of the hall. She’ll lead you to my chambers.”
“Thank you, Prince Henry.”
Prince James walked among the young women, pausing four down from Aria. “How do you feel about being here?”
The woman smiled brightly. “Pleased to be in your court, Prince James.”
“I see.” James turned around and faced the women on the opposite wall. He stopped in front of a girl two over, coming closer in Aria’s direction. “And what about you? How do you feel about being here?”
“I’ve been waiting my entire life to serve you, Prince James.”
“M’hm,” he said and spun around on his feet, coming to face Aria. Silently, she prayed for him to ignore her, same as Prince Henry had done.
“What about you, emerald eyes?”
“I’m frightened.” It was an honest answer, and whether he wanted the truth or not, she’d given it. After all, he could see her quivering legs and trembling arms.
“And you should be,” Prince James said.
Aria swallowed the lump forming in her throat. It made it near impossible to speak.
“Aria, how old are you?”
She shifted on her feet, not wanting to answer but not having a choice either. “Twenty-three.”
His jaw tightened and his brow furrowed. He reached for her arm and examined its blank slate. “Why did you not come here shortly after your eighteenth birthday?” he asked.
“I did not wish to be a courtesan.”
Prince James looked conflicted, and Aria didn’t blame him. He probably thought nothing of this life that he lived, where women line up naked and awaited their future. Who wouldn’t want to bed a prince? Aria didn’t imagine he considered any other side to the debate, and who was she to change his mind or the way the world was ruled?
“So you wish for death instead?” Prince James asked.
“Nothing of the sort. Your men murdered my mother in my home and dragged me to court to face you, naked and quivering. I wish to be branded and set free. I’m not interested in entertaining you or your brothers.”
James’ eyes narrowed. “That is not your decision to make, Aria.”
Aria despised the way he said her name, as if he had some claim over her.
He stepped closer, and she held her breath. She could feel the heat radiating off his body and onto hers. His cheeks burned red. Had she inadvertently aroused him? She may have lived a sheltered life, but she knew what a woman could do to a man and vice versa. At that moment, Aria finally understood why her mother sheltered her from the outside world. It had been for Aria’s own protection.
“Aria, welcome to my court and home. You will be a courtesan in my chambers,” Prince James said. He turned and raised a hand, snapping his fingers. “Clara, bring Aria to my chambers. Have her dressed and ready within the hour.”
“Of course, Prince James,” Clara said. She rushed toward Aria at once, pulling her from the line and down the hall for the double doors. Her smile wide, she looked quite pleased with the accomplishment. Did she not think Aria would be chosen?
Once out of the hallway, Clara lead Aria through another set of doors to an enormous waiting area outside the bathroom. A rack of gowns sat, lonely, waiting for them. “You will wear green,” Clara said. “James prefers his women wear gowns the color of their eyes.”
Aria knew she would stand out among them even more. She had hoped to blend in, avoid contact as best as possible with the prince.
Clara provided Aria with matching panties and a bra and then handed the young woman the single gown that hung from the rack.
“Get dressed. I’ll be back to check on you in five minutes.”
Aria wasn’t sure why Clara afforded her any privacy after already seeing her naked. Unless she tended to the other young women who were chosen by the princes as courtesans. Aria quickly put on the new attire and stood around waiting for Clara to return.
Clara didn’t bother knocking as she walked right in. “Good. You’re done. Come with me,” she said and led Aria through the door, down another hallway and into a large chamber. Nearly a dozen women lounged around the room. Eight of the women were in pale blue gowns. One wore an amber gown, and two others were in brown. Aria didn’t have to approach them to know the gowns were the color of their eyes.
Aria grabbed Clara’s arm, wanting to ask her a question. “Are all the princes fixated on eye color?” Did Prince James prefer exotic women, much like his brother Henry?
Clara smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry about that, Aria. You need to focus on making Prince James happy, because if you don’t, in a month’s time, you’ll be one of the first to go.”
“Go? Go where?” Aria asked.
“For heaven’s sake! What do you think happens to the girls who leave the palace? King Gideon allows his sons to keep twelve women for the twelve months of the year. They may bring in new courtesans as they see fit, but the number is always twelve. So, in order for you to join the royal harem, one must be sent away.”
Clara still hadn’t answered her question. She’d only given Aria more to ponder about the palace. “Sent away where?” she asked, trying one final time to get the answer from Clara. Unsure which of these women she could trust, Aria eyed them all suspiciously. The women in blue gowns were all significantly younger than she. They were the most replaceable to the prince and far too common.
“Women who don’t fulfill the desires of the prince or fight away his temptations will be sold into slavery. Focus on making Prince James happy, and you have nothing to worry about.”
“Great,” Aria muttered under her breath and stepped further into the room. She felt as though she’d been tossed into a room with starving wolves, ready to attack their prey. “Am I the only new girl?” Aria asked, hoping Prince James took another girl as well today.
“He only gave up one spot this morning, which leaves room for you. Don’t disappoint him for sending Mandy away; she was one of his favorites.”
Why would he send a favorite courtesan away? If he cared for the women, why send any away at all. Was King Gideon behind it?
Clara stepped out the door before Aria could ask her another question.
The oldest girl, perhaps Aria’s age, stalked up to her and looked her over. Wearing an amber gown, it matched her golden irises. Why would Prince James choose Aria when he had her, bustier, taller, with gorgeous hair and thick eyelashes?
“Adalyn,” she said and held out her hand, introducing herself.
“Aria.” She forced a smile.
“You definitely don’t look eighteen,” Adalyn said, glancing Aria up and down in the green gown.
“I’m not.” Aria shifted on her bare feet, unwilling to divulge her age. She didn’t know if she could trust Adalyn.
“I’ve seen a girl like you before, with brown eyes, and two years past her date to attend court. Prince James swept in to protect her from death, but she wasn’t cut out for it here.”
Did Adalyn lie to Aria, or had she been intending to scare her? “What happened to her?”
Aria hid the fear as it crept into the pit of her stomach.
“Poor Aurora was spared here for a month before Prince James sold her into slavery. Decided if she wouldn’t share his bed, he wouldn’t share his wealth and fortunes with her. There’s no room here for jealousy. There will always be twelve of us serving the prince.”
Aria nodded her head in understanding. “Of course. I’ve got no reason to be jealous.” She didn’t even want to be here, but Aria also didn’t like the idea of being sold into slavery. There were much worse people out there who would like to get their hands on a girl of breeding age with green eyes. Aria knew her value on the open market—another reason her mother had hidden the emerald child from the world.
A girl with strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes approached. She barely looked a day over eighteen. “I’m Lucie,” she said, introducing herself.
Aria shook her hand, trying to be polite. “Aria.”
“It’s nice to meet you. I was the new girl last month, and let me say, it takes some getting used to having so much attention bestowed upon you. If you like it, you’ll fit right in. Just whatever you do, don’t disobey Prince James.”
“Why not?” Aside from the fact he sent his courtesans into slavery, was there anything worse to worry about?
“He likes to take us over his knee and give us a good spanking until we submit.”
“Oh?” The mere thought sent a pulse like lightning down between her thighs. Aria shifted uncomfortably at the thought. The panties clung to her tightly, hugging every curve, trapping the wetness against her pussy. She knew she should hate the idea of being spanked, however, his level of authority stirred her deep to the core.
“And whatever you do, don’t disobey King Gideon.”
“Of course.” Aria hoped she didn’t have too many dealings with the king. She knew he was Prince James’ father, but he had also seen her naked and had pinned her against the wall. She would do everything in her power never to repeat that incident.
The door groaned, and Prince James walked into the room. His shoes clomped against the marble floor. “Lady Aria,” he said, taking Aria’s hand and kissing the back of it.
A faint blush crept onto her cheeks, but she couldn’t be happy to see him or elated to be here. “It is an honor to have you as one of my courtesans,” James said.
She pretended to be happy. Maybe if she forced away any doubt and suspicion, she could find a way to get out of the royal harem and run. Though she didn’t know where she’d go, anywhere else seemed safer.
“Thank you for choosing me,” Aria said.
“Of course.” James nodded and stared at her, unable to tear his gaze from her emerald eyes. “Tell me about your mother. What happened today that brought you to my court?”
It was technically his father’s court, but Aria didn’t correct him. Why did he care what happened to her mother? Did he think she’d be so forgiving if he dried her tears and rocked her to sleep? She wasn’t a baby.
“Are you sure you want to know?” Aria asked. They couldn’t go back. Once she divulged the details of the brutality, none could forget it. She’d mentioned it already, once, before he chose her to be one of his twelve courtesans. The specifics had been left out. It hadn’t been the time or place. No one else would have cared. Why did he seem to take an interest in it now?
The other women were sitting quietly, intent on listening to their conversation. They, too, were probably just as curious about what had happened as James.
His voice was even, firm. “I’ve asked; now tell me the truth.”
Aria shut her eyes, reliving the event once again.
The cool breeze tickled her skin as she sat perched on the ledge of the window, staring out at the boy across the river. Mom sat at the table, busy sewing a new dress after the last one Aria had ruined in the river.
After the war, the world started over, like a blank slate. A cease fire had been called only after the governments had fallen. It wasn’t a war between two nations. It had been a war between all the countries. Even those neutral, had found themselves on the brink of destruction, all over one single trait: eye color.
Blues were supposed to be the smartest people, most thought provoking, with a curiosity for learning. Greens were hungry for power and money. They were the first to be eliminated. Brown eyes, what was once most common, had been tied to the destruction of the planet. For those with brown eyes were inconsiderate, insensitive, and unable to accept change. Amber, a rare eye color, was just as quickly eradicated, with the basis of being impure and untrustworthy. For if someone had amber eyes, they were thought to be a constant liar. Hazel eyes were a mixture of greed and insensitivity; they, too, were destroyed. All that were to remain were blues.
It wasn’t the first genocide to sweep through the world. It had been the most prominent, murdering billions of people, known years later as the Gem Apocalypse.
Born near the end of the war, Aria grew up in the height of fear and oppression. Her family had found a small plot of land from the farthest city and settled on it, building a cottage for themselves.
In the early days, they were forced to scavenge for food. Her mother would watch over her, and Aria’s father would take to the streets, traveling for days on foot.
There were some vehicles that remained, the ones that used solar power. They were not so lucky to have access to one. Wind turbines produced electricity to the royal palace and guard towers, but where Aria lived, everything was primitive.
They gathered firewood and burned it for light in the evening. In the summer months, the fires were outside, offering a calming atmosphere before climbing into the cottage.
Living on the outskirts of town kept them out of harm’s way. The black market and trading centers were in the hub of what had once been a heavily populated city.
They had the river to provide food. They filtered the water, which made it possible for the two of them to survive. Her father had died near the war. His green eyes were what had gotten him killed.
After the war, King Gideon and his four sons pledged to protect the nation. With an army falling behind him and growing in power, The Kingdom of Brayleigh, named for ray of hope, was born. The castle, situated far north out of dangerous territory and surrounded by stone walls, towered several stories.
Aria didn’t dare venture toward Brayleigh, for fear if they discovered her truth, that she had green eyes, what it would mean. She never had to go far to ensure her survival. When things got tough, they’d venture across the river to their nearest neighbors. That’s how she’d met Ethan, plunging knee-deep in the river and sneaking across to see what all the fuss was about, with a boy just a few years older. To her surprise, he had brown eyes. They shared a secret, though boys had less to concern themselves with, now that the war ended.
Occasionally, she would see him splashing in the river to get clean. Her curiosity got the best of her and she dared venture over to tackle him in the water just a day ago.
Staring out the window at Ethan, she watched as he stayed busy in the fertile soil, planting seeds to grow for the summer crops. Lost in thought, her mother said something, but her words were drowned out.
In the distance, a van raced for the small village. Were they searching all homes or just theirs?
By the time she realized the danger, the van had approached. She slammed the window shut and raced for her bedroom.
The royal guards broke through the lock on the door. One guard kept a pistol on Sophia, the other searched the house, finding the emerald girl hidden in the closet. Dragging Aria by the arm, the guard with the gun on Sophia shot her in the head. Her body collapsed to the floor in a heap. Aria screamed in horror and tried to fight back. What little strength she had within her, echoed inside the cabin. One guard lifted her over his shoulder as she tried to fight him off, kicking and screaming. The murdering bastards took her mother just as they’d taken her father, and now they had her.
“Your guards murdered my mother, dragged and drugged me from my home. Anything else you wish to know?” Aria asked, short-tempered.
James stepped close enough to feel his breath against her cheek. “I can see your reluctance to be here, but I assure you no harm will come to you, Aria.”
It was hard to believe him, given the circumstances. Aria crossed her arms defensively. She didn’t say a word. There was nothing to say that would please him and make her happy. She wouldn’t lie or pretend to care about him when anger ebbed away at her and boiled in her blood. Not when he made Aria think of her mother and asked her about what happened, as if he pretended to care. Unlike the other women here looking for something, she just wanted her freedom returned. Pretending eluded her.
“You will join me for dessert,” he said and took her arm, leading her out of the room and away from the prying eyes of his other courtesans.
Aria walked alongside of him, but she wasn’t pleased with the situation. She tolerated it and him. He hadn’t asked her to do anything inappropriate yet and she felt capable to handle dessert. Her stomach grumbled just thinking of food, so long as that was all to be expected of their encounter.
James ignored the rumbling noises coming from her stomach. He took her arm as they walked. She didn’t pull away. What good would it do? “I do hope you will like it here in Brayleigh. I know it isn’t your home, but I do hope, one day, you might think of it like that.”
Did he quickly forget that his guards had murdered her mother? She didn’t have a choice. Aria couldn’t leave, and she desperately wanted to. She didn’t answer him. What could she say to please him and be honest?
James led Aria outside through the back doors. Quick on her feet, the pavers were warm under her bare skin. Why did they not provide them with shoes? Were they afraid they would use them and run away?
Aria stared at the ever-present wall, knowing she could never escape. Had he led her outside to toy with her or remind her that she was his prisoner? “I thought you might like some sun,” he said.
“Yes,” James said. He frowned, not quite seeing what was wrong. Could he truly be so oblivious?
The prince led Aria to a small table on the patio, made of metal, with a glass top, and seated no more than two. Why have something so mundane in a palace so grand? One might have expected a table the size of a king’s mattress or perhaps larger. Of course, it did look old and had to be a relic from an earlier era. There were very few new goods on the market.
“Have a seat,” he said and pulled out the chair for Aria to sit down.
Aria obliged; she had no other choice. As she sat, her body relaxed. At least she had her clothes on, unlike an hour ago.
“Sadie!” he said, calling to one of the servants. “Bring us some croissants and cookies. I’d like to impress my new friend.”
Sadie smiled, and Aria couldn’t tell if Sadie enjoyed serving James or felt it necessary. The smile looked real. She scurried inside, and James dragged his chair closer, intending to sit beside Aria.
He opened his mouth, but Aria spoke faster, interrupting him. “Why me?” she asked. “Of all the young women you could have chosen. Why me?” She may have been the oldest, but she doubted that had anything to do with his decision.
“You were honest with me,” James said. He leaned back in the chair, making himself comfortable. “Didn’t you hear the responses the other women gave? They were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. I like it when a woman’s honest.”
Aria wanted to believe him, but her stomach ached, telling her otherwise. “Well, you know I’m not happy to be here.” She made it no secret that she resented every bit of the crown and royal crest.
James sighed and leaned forward. He clasped his hands in his lap. “Don’t you get it? My father would have had you executed had one of my brothers not chosen you as a courtesan. Vent your frustration with me all you want, but my father, the King of Brayleigh, won’t be so lenient should he hear you speak ill of his kingdom. I’m trying to help you, Aria, but I can’t unless you watch your mouth,” he warned.
Aria nodded, knowing he spoke the truth. “My apologies,” she said, though she didn’t mean a word of it. How could he expect her to?
Sadie returned with a tray of desserts and placed it on the glass table. She retreated without a word or a glance at the prince. The tension had been undeniable. Had he slept with Sadie too?
Once out of earshot, he leaned closer. “I understand your resentment and frustration, Aria. If I had it my way, things would be different, but I’m not next in line for the throne.” James had been the third son. King Gideon had four boys of age to wed, and four more who were mere children. Aria suspected the king would conceive more children by the way he responded earlier this morning in the hall.
“You don’t have to be king to change the way things are run. How can you keep women here against their will and think it’s okay?” Aria asked. Her eyes narrowed, challenging him.
“Do you want to leave? Is that it? I’ll let you go, march you right out the front door. You can return home to your cottage and loveless life.”
He knew nothing about her life or her. “Yes, I do.” Aria stood. “Show me the door.”
James muttered under his breath. Apparently, Aria didn’t give him the reaction he’d been looking for. “Sit down.” His eyes were cast down on the ground. He looked embarrassed. Did Aria just humiliate a prince?
Aria did as he instructed, only because she knew he couldn’t let her go. Even if he did help her escape, they’d probably drag her back a day or two later if she returned to the cottage. Aria would have to slip from the castle and leave the kingdom. How far could she get before finding more trouble? What had once been the United States was now Brayleigh. To venture from this kingdom, she’d have to journey by boat across the ocean. Were there survivors among their allies and enemies? The war may have ended, but it didn’t mean she’d be safe over there. Aria couldn’t hide her emerald eyes. Not like back in the day when contacts could change the color and make you appear however you wished. That was before the attack and the first riots. She’d only heard of such things in old battered magazines lying around the cottage.
“You are a handful. I should have known that’s why Henry walked right on by without so much as a second glance. For a brother who likes gems, he must have known the trouble one would cause.”
Aria sneered at James. “Tell me you don’t believe it.” Emeralds, people with green eyes, are known to be power and money hungry. Did James think that about her? It wasn’t true. No part of the belief system created to destroy the world in genocide was true. How could James think of her like that? She may not be easy or pleasant at times, but she wasn’t what the enemy said.
James shifted in his seat. “Of course not, but you are trouble. I can see it in you, the rebellious streak. My father will beat it out of you.”
“So what? I’m supposed to pretend it doesn’t bother me that he ordered the execution of my mother and dragged me from my home, drugged me, stripped me naked, and stole my freedom? No part of what you and your father are doing is okay.”
James grimaced. “I am sorry about your mother. I can’t change our world, but I can protect you here.”
Aria stood. The longer she spent time with James, the faster he seemed to be growing on her nerves. “I don’t need your protection.” She thought August or Henry would have been a poor choice to be paired with as a courtesan, but James seemed to be the winner in pissing her off.
“Where are you going?” James asked. He stood and followed after her as she headed inside.
“Back to my room. Which is where?” Aria asked, feeling turned around. She hadn’t yet learned the halls of the palace.
James reached for her arm, and she elbowed him away, forcefully. She didn’t want him touching her, not without him asking permission.
A maid carrying a basket of laundry looked stricken. “I have no choice,” he growled at her under his breath. Grabbing the nearest seat on a bench, he grabbed her by the waist and tossed her over his knee as he sat down.
James lifted her dress over her hips, revealing the white cotton panties for the world to see. She screamed, kicking and flailing in protest.
“Quiet down, or you’ll get a bigger audience,” he said as a warning.
Prince James pulled her panties down to her knees and spanked her hard on her cheeks. She felt the initial sting and winced. Her eyes burned with tears of humiliation and pain. Why punish her? The maid stood there, watching the entire event, unable to move. Or perhaps unwilling to? Did she enjoy watching?
Aria let her eyes lock on the floor, unwilling to meet the maid’s stare. However, she could see her shoes and knew that she hadn’t budged from her position on the marble floor.
His hand came down a second time, and the pain radiated across her rear. Wetness began to seep between her folds, and she prayed he didn’t notice or see her glistening pink flesh. That would be worse than having an audience.
“You will obey me, Aria.” His voice stern, his tone unapologetic.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” Aria cried out, desperately trying to escape his fury and his hand.
“You hit a Prince of Brayleigh. You don’t raise your hand or arm at me, ever.”
Tears threatened Aria’s eyes. Is this what her life would be like from now on? Punishments for not acting ladylike and doing as told? She wasn’t used to living with a prince, obeying his rules, let alone knowing them. How was any of this fair?
“I didn’t hit you.” At least, that hadn’t been her intent in swatting him away.
His hand came down again, spanking her.
Her cheeks clenched together, growing uncomfortable as the ache began to build in her pussy. What had he done to awaken such desires? Had his dominance been what turned her on?
“You will obey me. Say it.” Another swat to her bare bottom.
Aria slammed her eyes shut. It wasn’t the spanking that hurt terribly. No, her heart ached. Trapped here with the other women James enjoyed felt unbearable. The mere thought of sharing him, knowing he did this to the other women in the royal harem was devastating.
She knew her pussy dripped with wetness. Could he see the arousal and swollen folds begging to be touched? A faint moan slipped past her lips. She never meant to tell him of her arousal at all, let alone hint at it. Why give him the satisfaction?
“Say it.” James grew impatient waiting for Aria’s subordination. His hand came down again. Her bottom grew raw, the pain much fiercer as he tried to get his point across.
Aria blinked through her misty vision as tears threatened her eyes. Why had he turned her on? That was worse than the spanking itself, knowing he’d aroused her. The maid walked away, retreating down the hall, no longer interested. Had she seen this display of punishment before?
“No,” Aria refused to do as he ordered.
Another blow to her rear, and she squealed with a mix of delight and pain. Her bottom had grown raw, and his lashes weren’t easing up anytime soon.
“I can go all day,” James said in warning. “Do you want another spanking? Or perhaps I should get the belt?”
“No!” Aria shrieked. “I’ll do whatever you say. I won’t hit you.” Somehow it seemed ironic what was happening, considering she’d barely touched him and he had lashed out on her body.
“Get up,” he commanded.
Aria climbed off his lap, and he lifted her panties back around her waist. His fingers lingered over her hips. Aria swallowed and took a tentative step back as she smoothed down her dress and wiped the tears away. Is this what her life would be like in Brayleigh? How long would she survive here?
The prince escorted Aria to her bedroom. Grateful she didn’t have to share it with eleven other young women as she didn’t want them to know of her punishment. Aria doubted she’d be able to sit again tonight.
“You’ll be able to mingle with the girls, and I’ll come find you and the others around dinner,” he said.
Aria had barely eaten anything all day. She didn’t want to wait until tonight, but it seemed there was little choice in the matter. Would she have to dine with him and his other mistresses?
She climbed beneath the covers, lying on her stomach, and shut her eyes to take a nap.
The door between her room and the royal harem squeaked open, and she heard her name. “Aria,” a young girl said.
“I’m trying to sleep,” Aria’s voice answered into the pillow with a groan. She turned her head and noticed the girl wasn’t more than ten or twelve, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She poked her head into the room, staring wide-eyed at Aria. “What do you need?”
“Is it true you’re twenty-three?”
Aria rolled onto her back and grimaced, coming to lie on her side. It looked like she wouldn’t be sleeping after all. “Yes. Come on in.” Unlike the eleven women of the royal harem, Aria felt no ill will from this young girl.
Light on her feet, the child slipped into the room quietly and closed the door behind her. “I’m not supposed to be in here.”
Aria didn’t wish to get the child into trouble but didn’t know why she’d come to visit her. Surely, she wasn’t a courtesan for any of King Gideon’s sons. “What’s your name?”
“Jasmyn,” she said. “My mother named me after a flower that became extinct in the last war.”
“It’s a beautiful name,” Aria said, gesturing for her to sit at the edge of the bed. “How did you come to live at the palace?”
Jasmyn frowned. “I’ve always lived here. Since the day I was born.”
“What do you mean?” Aria didn’t understand. Could Jasmyn be a daughter to one of the princes? She seemed too old for it, but August was quite a few years older than Aria. Or perhaps she was King Gideon’s daughter, a princess of Brayleigh.
A sigh slipped past Jasmyn’s lips. “My mother owed a great debt to King Gideon. In order to absolve her of the debt, she was forced to become a slave. Since he owns my mother, he also owns me. That’s how slave debt works. I don’t mind it; King Gideon is nice enough, allowing me to roam the palace without question.”
“Roam the palace. Do you mean you’ve never gone beyond the gate?” Aria asked.
Jasmyn shook her head. “I can see as far as the highest tower will reach. It looks like a lot of grass out there, but in the distance, there appears to be something else. What is it?”
Aria had lived most of her life in her home, near the river and away from the public eye. She’d never traveled farther than across the river to Ethan’s cottage. “I have no idea. One day, I shall take you there with me.”
The young girl’s eyes lit up, and a smile grazed her face. “I’d like that very much. Do you think King Gideon would agree to it?”
Aria knew he wouldn’t, but she didn’t know how to tell this child the news without disappointing her. “I think it has to be our little secret.” Aria reached for her arm, glancing at her hands. There were scars, old, thick white marks etched to her skin. “What are these from?”
She pulled her arm back and stood up, her eyes downcast on the floor. “I should go. You wanted rest, and I’ve bothered you enough already.”
Before Aria had time to stop her, Jasmyn retreated from the room and slipped out the same door she had come in.
Aria stared up at the stucco ceiling. It matched her mood, rough and filled with turmoil. Desperately, she wanted to go home, but she didn’t know how to get out.