The Warrior’s Treasure

Cornelia doesn’t want a man. Blythe wants her for his own. Will the warrior win?

From brothel courtesan to trusted advisor, Cornelia has advanced farther than she ever imagined possible. Discovered as a maid who was willing to risk her life to help others, her status was changed to Lady when Marilla reclaimed the castle. She now serves the empress as her loyal medic and advisor.

When Empress Marilla receives word of a possible epidemic killing citizens in the farthest reaches of the empire, she decides to send Cornelia out to investigate, but not without Blythe to guard her. Fascinated by Cornelia’s selflessness and compassion for those who think so little of her due to her background, he has been drawn to the advisor since she first treated his wounds long ago.

His attraction to the mahogany skinned beauty goes deeper than the surface, though Cornelia is wary of his affections and intentions. Many men have wanted her, used her, and she expects Blythe to be no different. The longer they travel together, the more they realize that everything is not how it always appears.

This is book two in the Claiming Her Empire series and can be enjoyed independently.

Publisher’s Note: This adult romance contains elements of fantasy, danger, action, adventure, mystery, suspense, sensual scenes, power exchange and possible triggers for some readers. If any of these offend you, please do not purchase.

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Sample Chapter

Be still. Be silent. Be brave.

She must have chanted those words a hundred times her first time. Surprisingly, holding still and being silent were the easy parts. It was when they wanted her to get involved when she didn’t feel up to it, pretend she liked it as much as they did. Now that was hard. Being still and silent was a choice, the bravery? Now that was a necessity.

No person selling their most personal, private possession was without bravery and courage. Those two traits worked hand-in-hand. Otherwise every brothel whore would have a breakdown every time a gentleman came calling.

She remembered her first sight of the naked male form. Be brave. The way she had lain out before him, an offering he had laid down coin to claim. Be still.

Her mind’s eye recalled every touch in grueling detail. She remembered him being proud to expose himself to her, and though her first sight of the naked male form had been terrifying, that pride was something she grew accustomed to using. The pride they felt for their own equipment could be a powerful tool to be wielded against them like a weapon, but it took her a while to learn that.

She recalled his breath wafting over her cheeks, but it was the last thing she would think of when that thing worked its way inside her.

She’d done as she’d been instructed and remained docile when the man had yanked her legs apart. She’d ignored the thick thatch of coarse hair on his abdomen which scraped her as he hoisted her up and tore through her barrier with one impatient yank of her hips.

Cornelia had managed to bite back her scream by thrusting her head back and biting her tongue hard enough to taste blood. Be silent. Either oblivious or uncaring of her first penetration’s discomfort, he grasped her hips and pounded into her with fervor. With each rude shunt he’d claw at her softer places, his hips smacking against her. He ballooned inside her until her mangled nerves cried for relief. Then it was over, or so she had thought.

Cruel fingers reached for her stretched labia, unsatisfied and hungry for more. They paid for the hour, not just the act.

***

She woke with a start, groaning as the memory faded to a pulsing in the back of her skull. She’d been having a lot of dreams like that. Dreams about the past. She wasn’t sure why, it wasn’t her life anymore. She was an advisor now, to an empress no less.

If she had been told ten years ago that she was going to be the empress’ trusted advisor, well she’d have laughed them out of the brothel where she was turning tricks. Selling herself for a fist full of silver. She’d had to work her way up back then. She learned quickly and advanced, but she’d never imagined she would wind up living in a castle.

Who says dreams don’t come true?

She was just about to doze off again when a timid knock on her door pulled her fully into consciousness. “Cornelia?” That was Avaya, one of the many servants under Edna’s jurisdiction who tended the empress. Clearly she was given the unruly task of waking Cornelia today.

There was no need for her to be up at dawn, but Edna insisted all who worked at the castle be up and about before the empress. That old-fashioned bag-of-bones took pleasure in robbing sleep from those still capable of it, especially from Cornelia. Since she had set foot on the castle grounds, Edna had found her a disgraceful excuse for an advisor. Her previous lifestyle disgusted the old woman, not that Cornelia wasn’t used to that. Edna felt her superior age made her wise, but Cornelia did not agree. Experience was wisdom, and Edna had known nothing but the castle walls her whole life. The ignorance of others was something Cornelia was well acquainted with, but it didn’t make Edna’s judgement any less annoying.

“Ma’am?” Avaya squeaked. She was probably shaking on the other side of that door. Avaya was a petite thing, coy and shy and quiet. Good thing she worked in the castle, Cornelia doubted she would have survived long in another less favorable profession. Too skittish, she reminded Cornelia of a field mouse. “The medics are w-waiting for you,” she went on to stutter. Cornelia wanted to tell her to spit it out, though that was probably the crankiness at her sleep being filled with flashes of the past. A past she would prefer to forget.

She sighed against her pillow, so cool and comfortable against her cheek. Why did everything have to be done before noon? In that way she missed her old life, it didn’t start until noon, and the only life jeopardized by her failure was her own. Now she was responsible for a whole empire. Life had been so much simpler when Cornelia was just a brothel girl, she had to admit.

“I’m coming,” she snapped finally, forcing herself out of bed. The covers fell around her cocoa colored breasts to pool at her naked waist when she sat upright. “Run on down there and tell them to start pulling the skins from the fish.”

Cornelia had always been a bit of a healer, or at least took interest in medicines and healing. She learned all she could from Geneva, the herbalist from Gyles who brewed concoctions to keep the brothel girls from bearing children. Now Cornelia had the funding to use what she had learned and do her own research. She had a whole medic team now, mostly young sprouts as interested in the healing arts as she was. They used crystals, herbs, and the use of certain animals for healing purposes.

There had been some recent burn victims as the remaining Oakmire Bandits struck in their last pathetic attempt to cause fear and hysteria. Their little group was near extinct under Empress Marilla’s leadership, so they had taken to burning homes, crops, anything they could to spike the fear they had once used to bully money from the farmers.

Marilla blamed herself in her typical masochistic fashion, but Cornelia had advised her not to. She may feel responsible, but the wicked deeds of every one of her subjects was not her responsibility. Cornelia had been sure to tell her that a few burnt houses because the bandits were starving and desperate, was vastly superior to whole towns being raided and raped and pillaged.

Empress Marilla sent caravans to escort the victims back to the castle for Cornelia and her medics to treat. There were only five burn victims for now, holding burns mostly on appendages, but one girl had been trapped under a burning beam so most of her torso was disfigured. Cornelia had come up with the idea of layering their burned flesh with tilapia skins as a possible treatment method.

Fish skins were used medically for many skin ailments. The oil from the fish seeped into the skin and helped many rashes and other irritants including aging, and all the liver spots that entailed. Why not help with burned flesh? The skins were naturally cool and wet, so Cornelia thought they could be very soothing as well as medically helpful in keeping the skin from scarring too deeply.

For now it was just an idea, but Cornelia was hopeful in its promise.

Cornelia secured herself into a binding dress, her full bosoms pulled tight to her chest. When she had worked the brothel she had let her full curves be in obvious view. They were assets then, attracting more clients than those without her womanly figure, but since leaving the profession she wanted nothing more than to hide those curves which had given her success, or be rid of them all together.

It disgusted her now how her body affected men. Part of her wanted to be unattractive so she wasn’t leered at anymore. Wasn’t desired anymore. It was her body, and she wasn’t sharing it with anyone.

The maid uniform she had worn once she’d quit the brothel had been conservative, as was the plain ashen blue dress she wore now as the empress’ advisor.

Another knock on the door echoed through her room as she was binding her coarse black curls into a tight bun. “I’m coming, Avaya,” Cornelia grumbled loudly, irritated. “I told you that, stop rushing me.”

Avaya went to tell your medic team to skin some fish,” said a voice through the door. It wasn’t Avaya’s.

“And shouldn’t you be playing with your birds?” she asked Blythe as she slipped her boots on and started lacing them.

Blythe was a high-ranking warrior, one within the inner circle. Second in line for general behind General Kayda. He was from the training temple not far from Gyles, the town Cornelia had come from. He had taken to training messenger hawks since moving to the castle. He chuckled at her comment, “The birds will survive long enough for me to escort you to your awaiting fish.”

She snickered at that, then touched her face, surprised by the smile there. Not many could make her sincerely smile, but Blythe seemed to easily. She was always surprised by the pull against her cheeks, the upturn of her lips. It was always unexpected.

She remembered meeting him as a maid when his temple was destroyed, an attempt of the previous emperor to eliminate and isolate Marilla, his wife at the time. Not the first time Cornelia had found herself in the middle of a petty squabble between spouses, but the first time it was the whole empire at risk.

Blythe had instantly treated her with gracious respect, though men often did until they received what they actually wanted. She hadn’t quite decided what it was Blythe actually wanted.

She opened her door and there he was in all his muscular glory.

He trained with the rest of the warriors every morning, running laps around the castle. She was never up early enough to see them exercise, but the perspiration along Blythe’s ivory skin hinted at its intensity. He had on a loose tunic, hazel eyes gleaming against his skin moist with sweat.

“The dead fish are waiting for no one,” she corrected him flatly upon seeing him, keeping her voice steady and even and her expression passive so as not to betray the heat that tingled through her skin when he was near.

She hated that sexual heat. That burning in her gut, and her desire to be touched by him. She wanted her body to be hers alone now, yet sometimes it wanted that outside physical contact. It wanted the touch of callused fingers, the rough squeeze to her sensitive curves, and hot breath against her ear. Goosebumps erected hairs along her flesh just thinking about herself and Blythe passionately entangled together, but in response to her body’s treachery, she slipped passed him and shut her bedroom door. “What are you doing here? Won’t your birds miss you?”

“I play with birds, you play with fish, what a pair we are,” he teased as she power-walked down the hall, leaving him to jog to catch up. “The hawks won’t miss me, Corn.”

Corn, that was his nickname for her since she had helped solve the food epidemic the Farquam Empire had suffered from for years due to an especially long drought. She had heard of a hardier breed of corn, one which grew in the sandy regions of Lazarith, sprouting crimson red stalks. Under Cornelia’s advisement, Marilla had sent notice out to several merchants for them to retrieve the seeds to the red sweetcorn.

They started planting in one field, and the sweetcorn grew quickly, yielding great amounts of crop even with limited amounts of water. They broke the first crop down into seeds and sold them at the markets in each town. The hunger was over, the starvation of even the poorest of the citizens improving, and Blythe accredited that victory to Cornelia.

She heard the pride and admiration in his voice every time he called her Corn, which anyone else would guess was just him shortening her name. It felt like an inside joke, a secret only the two of them shared, which strengthened the tingling heat in her belly she was working hard to stifle.

“I just wanted to catch you before you got tied up with other patients.”

Other patients?”

“I have an injury from this morning and am very worried about infection.”

The way he said ‘very’ made Cornelia guess he wasn’t in fact worried at all, but even still she stopped walking and turned to him, signaling for him to show her. He obliged, pulling up his shirt to reveal fully formed abs racked perfectly proportioned on either side of the defined line down his center. It also revealed a small scratch which, though fresh, had already scabbed over.

She scoffed at him. “That’s just a scratch.”

“Scratches can get infected. I heard of a massive army general who died from a little nick from a sword right here,” he pointed to his forearm as wide as a tree-branch, and twice as strong. “His arm rotted, then he died, from just a little cut no more than a splinter.”

She shoved his hand away, shaking her head at his foolishness. Did he not realize the evil he brought down on himself by giving the universe such ideas?

Her hand instinctively migrated to her chest where an obsidian protection crystal no bigger than a pebble hung between her breasts attached to a strong leather cord. She rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger to send good vibes into the universe and counteract the bad he had brought down on himself.

“I’ll give you licorice chamomile tea for muscle fatigue and quick healing,” she grumbled, dropping her crystal back into place and continuing her brisk walk towards the section of the castle Marilla had allowed to be turned into the medical ward.

“I know you don’t like the warrior’s method,” he observed as he kept stride beside her.

He was referring to the ‘first blood’ training exercises Kayda had her warriors perform. Basically the warriors sparred until first blood was drawn, which could be anything from a bloody nose to a lethal slice to the throat. It wasn’t common for those exercises to turn lethal, but accidents still happened. “No, I don’t. What’s your point, Blythe?”

“My point is you don’t have to worry about me.”

“Did I say I was worried?”

“I could tell.”

“An expert on how I’m feeling now, are you?”

“You are a bit transparent,” he teased. Cornelia only snorted at that, knowing he was teasing because she was far from transparent. Sure she saw little point in lying or pretending anymore given she didn’t need to to survive now, but she had grown skilled in the art of deception a long time ago.

Maybe she should keep her skills up to date.

She stopped dead beside him as her medical section of the castle came into view, turning to face Blythe with her dark brown eyes searching his. She kept her expression in a controlled concern, not too obvious with only a slight crinkling of the brows and pursing of the lips.

“Hey,” he said gently, taking a step towards her with his hands raised as if to embrace her. Comfort her. “I was just joking around, it is just a scratch, nothing to be concerned with.”

She searched his eyes for another moment before averting them coyly to her boots, her chest rising and falling stronger as if she were holding back tears. “So, you exaggerated about the man who died?”

“Yes,” he offered, “I don’t actually know anyone who died of a scratch.” His hands moved to her shoulders almost making contact before her eyes snapped back up to his, her expression shifting from coy concern to irritation with a touch of triumph.

“Then stop wasting my time,” she snapped, brushing his hands away as she spun on her heels back down the path.

“Manipulative,” he accused, calling after her though there was amusement in his tone.

She turned to him, walking backwards as she shrugged. “What happened to me being transparent?” she asked before turning her back to him again, her smirk evolving into a full smile as he chuckled behind her.

***

Blythe had lied about his hawks not missing him. When he showed up to feed them they gave their usual chirps of recognition and excitement. It warmed his heart whenever he heard the sound of their wings flapping, expressing their glee the only way they knew how.

He had always enjoyed the messenger hawks in the temple, he’d been their caregiver and learned how to care for them under Liath’s grumpy instruction.

“Hawks aren’t pigeons,” Liath had said one day long ago in a bout of wisdom. Blythe was only a boy when the temple took him in. An orphan of the war, one of many.

“Could have fooled me,” Blythe had commented sarcastically, earning him a whack from Liath’s blade-concealing cane.

“Don’t be a smartass,” the old man had grumbled. “Hawks don’t need a cage once they’re fully trained to deliver messages, they just need to know they are safe and cared for. That’s what keeps them coming back.”

Then he had thrown a rabbit into the air and a hawk as big as Blythe at the time, swooped down from the trees. Its talons caught the dead rabbit midair and flapped its massive wings, lifting itself into the trees again where some of its companions were waiting.

Blythe looked after it in awe as Liath chuckled. “Hawks are not pigeons,” he repeated. “They’re loyal beasts, they recognize the care you put into them.” He held out his wrinkled arm then and within moments the hawk came back to him, abandoning the rabbit to the other hawks and landing on Liath’s forearm with a strip of gore clamped in its beak. Liath reached up and with more gentleness than Blythe had ever seen from him, he stroked the hawk’s neck feathers with the back of his first two fingers. “And they recognize when you need them.”

Liath’s hawk had been named Titus, and though he had five messenger hawks for the temple, Titus was his most trusted. Blythe had four for the castle, all too young currently and still being trained to deliver messages. He had to first assign them corners of the kingdom, then teach them how to get there and back. Each would be taught to fly to a different town and deliver messages to a specific general in each. Which meant, to train them, he had to pack them up and travel with them, introduce them to the generals they needed to deliver messages to and let them build a relationship with his hawks.

For now they were each kept in an individual pen large enough for them to fly, flapping their wings twice to get from one corner to the other. They were close enough to get acquainted with each other, but not yet living in the same open environment. They needed to develop a pecking order separately which would make their transition to being kept together easier.

So not to keep them waiting any longer, he tossed their meals into each of their pens and watched them eat. He liked watching them devour their prey, but liked it best when he got to come into the pens with them. He held out his arm for them, then his hand for them to rub against if they chose to. They would fluff their feathers as they rubbed against his palm to show their affection.

He spent time with each, but he always visited his favorite hawk last so he could spend the most time with her without feeling guilty.

Firebird was his girl. She wasn’t the fastest or the largest, but to him she seemed to be the smartest. In her amber eyes he registered the most intelligence. She had been the easiest to train, picking up all his cues with a superior intelligence, and she was closer to Blythe too. She registered him as a caregiver, fluttered her feathers the most and squawking with delight when she saw him. She waited patiently, then as soon as he entered her pen she was on him in a flutter of feathers.

“Hello, Little Sparrow,” he greeted her as she cooed, rubbing against his palm. He didn’t pet her, he just held up his hand to offer her the chance of affection, and she always took it. “Hello my Firebird.”

“Talking to your birds again?”

Blythe looked up as Vince approached the hawk pens, watching him with a tilted head. Though Blythe and Vince were not related, the two were mistaken for brothers often. They looked eerily similar, Blythe had to admit. The same height and build, same hair color and facial features, just different eyes. Blythe’s chestnut hazel, and Vince’s a deep brown as dark as Cornelia’s.

“You know better than to bother me during my time with Firebird,” Blythe said, stroking Firebird’s neck as Liath had stroked Titus’ all those years ago. Petting his girl made him still feel connected to the old man.

“You’ve always been so sensitive about your hawks,” Vince said, sitting down on one of the stumps outside the pens. “Don’t know why, they’re just birds. I’m not going to hurt their feelings.”

“And you like the stables,” Blythe pointed out. “Don’t know why, they’re just horses.”

“Hawks don’t carry you on their backs for miles,” Vince said quickly, continuing their lifelong debate of which animal was more spectacular: hawks or horses.

“Horses don’t fly miles.” Blythe grumbled.

“Agree to disagree.”

“So you disagree that horses don’t fly?”

Vince glared at him.

“What? Just seeing exactly how delusional you are when it comes to your precious ponies.”

He snorted at that. “I hear Cornelia is a fish girl, maybe she’ll want to join the debate.”

“Cornelia is using fish skin to give new skin to burn victims, I think she’ll win,” Blythe admitted.

“Only because you have no case,” Vince said. “And because you could never disagree with Cornelia.”

“That’s preposterous,” Blythe denied.

“You like her enough to maybe admit that fish are better than hawks.”

Blythe glowered at him, petting Firebird gently as she fluffed her sunset orange feathers. “I would never admit that. Plus you’re being a hypocrite, you would prefer whatever animal Kayda did if she were a part of this.”

“That’s different,” Vince insisted. “She’s the general, our commander. We have to agree with her.”

“That’s not why,” Blythe murmured, but Vince didn’t comment.

“She likes horses too so…” he broke off with a shrug.

“Kayda likes war horses, its different.”

“Still horses.”

“Horses who kill.”

“Do you two ever stop bickering?” Vince and Blythe looked over at Hayden as he approached them, his boots crunching over the grass.

“Look who came from the empress’ bedchamber long enough to visit his old friends,” Blythe said to Firebird.

“I resent that statement,” Hayden grumbled, standing beside Vince’s stump. “I figured you two would be here when I stopped by the stables and Vince wasn’t there.”

“But you checked the stables first?”

“Give it a rest, Vince,” Blythe sighed, setting Firebird back onto her branch.

“I just want to know what his opinion is on the matter,” Vince said. “Which animal do you prefer, horses or hawks?”

“He’s answered that question before,” Blythe complained. “He’s too indecisive, always bouncing back and forth. He’s just like Kayda, not an animal lover.”

“I find horses to be more useful,” Hayden admitted.

“Ha!” Vince cheered.

“And Marilla?” Blythe asked.

“She seems to favor koi.”

“Point to Cornelia,” Vince said.

“Cornelia is in on this?” Hayden asked.

“She doesn’t know it,” Blythe answered as he shut Firebird’s pen.

“I’m going to have to find her after talking to you two. Marilla wants to see everyone in the inner circle,” Hayden said.

“Why didn’t you say so?” Vince asked, standing.

“Well, I wanted to give her some time to breathe,” he explained, sitting down on the stump in his stead and shaking his head. “Before, when people only saw her for her status, I’d hear them talking about her around the castle. About how foolish and selfish she was. I wanted to punch them right in the face, because she was never that foolish girl they assumed her to be.”

“We know that,” Blythe said hesitantly, exchanging a confused glance with Vince.

“She has been reading all these reports from the warriors we sent to different towns to oversee their rebuild and to oversee the soldiers. She feels responsible for every scuffle, every conflict, every illness,” he shook his head again. “She’s driving herself crazy, especially now.”

“What’s happening now?” Vince asked.

“I’ll let her brief you,” Hayden sighed, and Vince and Blythe exchanged another unsure glance.

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