HIS SECRET PRIZE
Exclusive prequel novella to His Secret Heir, the story of how Khulril and Chanda met.
Coming this week! Still waiting on the cover, then an email will go out to readers on the newsletter list with the link to download. In the meantime, enjoy Chapter One.
I slipped through the outdoor crowd, shock honing my senses, the searing pain in my side increasing with each step.
Now I knew; my father’s orders were to kill me if I could not be captured.
I, Lady Chandiria Joshi, First Herzade of my House, must pay for the ultimate crime of abandoning my Gen’Lord to public humiliation. But living in that gilded cage was only another kind of death. I’d rather live a short free life, and die with my blood on my hands, then waste away slowly in the political intrigue of a High caste court. A court that had killed my mother, imprisoned my sisters, and made me its heir against my will because my father said he sensed I was the most vicious of us all.
But I wasn’t ready to give in to death yet, or to become the evil thing he sought to bring to the surface.
There were at least three hunters on my heels, and for once the fates were somewhat kind to me. I pulled my enveloping black hood lower over my face. The festival clogged the streets with people and vendors making it all the more difficult to track me. The scent of food from two dozen different cultures filled my nostrils but my stomach remained silent. It had been so long since I’d eaten that my appetite was gone. Fasting a month would not kill me, but it aided in the depletion of my nanos.
This escape had not quite gone as I had planned.
I scanned the crowd, looking for any advantage, any tendril of hope. I had no plan. Even the credit accounts I’d buried under layers of fictitious identities had been ferreted out and frozen. My supplies were gone, I had nothing but the last of the jewelry I wore on my person. But. . .I had my person, not an insignificant asset.
My lips curled upwards in a humorless smile. A High caste daughter of a prominent ruling Gen’Lord on planet Jakkath, my person was worth a considerable sum. The problem was finding the right buyer, one who could afford me but wouldn’t sell me out to a higher bidder. Namely, the father I’d fled.
My heart sped up as urgency dodged my heels, my hand clasped to the wound on my side. I’d burned my nanos out a week ago and they had yet to recharge, so the wound was healing Earthen slow, almost as if I were a base human.
Someone bumped into me, knocking against my wound, and I let out a short cry before cutting it off. I stumbled to the closest building, slapping my hand against the wall for support as pain washed over me. Breathe, in and out. I could not afford to find a medic and take the time to heal the wound, the hunters would find me as soon as I stopped moving. Even if I had anything to pay a medic. I could probably steal the supplies I needed, but again that would mean taking time I did not have.
As I pushed off the building and stumbled forward, a burst of deep masculine laughter drew my attention.
Squinting, I stared at a nearby beer tent, a flimsy thing erected purely to swindle the festival goers out of as many credits as possible. A troop of massive warriors sat around a long rectangular table, speaking loudly in their guttural language and downing giant metal tankards of mead. I had some rudimentary knowledge of their language, but not much. It was considered unfit for a noble daughter to speak. I pursed my lips. They might just be my solution.
Khuldunian warriors, known for their awe-inspiring brawn. . .and a regrettable lack of intelligence, notable for a blood drinking species that had not lost a single war in the last hundred years or so. Their reputation for ruthless fearlessness, quick tempers, and an irrational drive to constantly prove their dominance over everything breathing might work to my advantage.
I looked for a glimpse of fangs, fascinated. I’d never seen a blood drinker up close, and their fangs were as deadly as the ancient broadswords they passed down from father to son. A peculiarity, since their women ruled. That was the real reason my father held them in such contempt. They allowed women to rule over them.
I smiled grimly. Yes, they would do. In this situation the bloody wound at my side would work to my advantage.
After a moment of stillness, I stumbled forward, moving faster and faster until I’d nearly plowed into the group of warriors, calculating in those seconds how best to appeal to all their primitive instincts.
“Please help me!” I cried out, grabbing the wrist of a male about to lift his flagon of ale.
He exclaimed, surprised, but my trained ears detected no true anger or threat in the sound. The others at the table exclaimed as well, one of them speaking in their harsh staccato syllables. I filed away my observation of his swift reflexes—he’d twitched, but not attacked, having rapidly assessed me to not be a threat. Foolishly, of course, but the point was they were not slow, physically anyway.
I shoved the hood of my cloak down, revealing my face, already collapsing to my knees. “Please, I beg you. There are slavers trying to kill me. Or capture me, rather.” Everyone knew what Khuldunians thought about slavers.
I concealed a small flare of triumph as they all scowled in various expressions of outrage. The one I’d grabbed spoke to me, but I shook my head. “I cannot understand your language, Lord. Standard, please.”
“I smell blood on you, female,” he said, switching to the highly accented Standard tongue.
His nostrils flared. His gaze caressed my face, lingered on my lips, then traveled down. He frowned. The cloak enveloped me, there was nothing to see, not even a hint of the shape of my form. I was biding my time, of course. The beauty of my face and wide, pleading eyes would have to do for now. These things must be handled in stages. I needed to provoke a specific kind of reaction from at least one of them, a strong enough reaction to suit my purposes.
But I drew my hand away from my wound and held it out as if I was a stupid girl unaware of their nature, my fingers bloody. “I am wounded, Sir. I have no means to care for it.”
I grit my teeth, fainting not in my plans, but as I spoke darkness chased the edge of my vision.
Helix. I suppressed the curse and pushed to my feet, swaying. He grabbed my waist to steady me, his hand inadvertently squeezing the wound. I screamed, knees buckling.
A deep, authoritative voice spoke sharply. Then I was being lowered to the bench, someone shoving a flagon of mead in my hands.
“Where are your father and brothers, female?” the deep voice, his accent nearly imperceptible, said behind me. “Where is your mother?”
I nearly gasped in pain at that question and it took me a moment to determine that my heart had not actually split in two inside my chest.
I lifted my head after the wave of dual pain subsided, glancing at all of the warriors, who turned towards the one who spoke. Ah. I shifted on the bench, straddling it, and took a sip of the mead so as not to insult them.
Black eyes ringed thickly in silver met my gaze, a beautiful male with slashing cheeks and a cruelly sensual mouth, his silky black hair flowing over his shoulders and tipped in strokes of pure white.
“I am alone,” I said softly. It was dangerous to admit the truth, but they had probably already guessed it. Besides, I smelled like prey and nothing would save me now if violence was their desire.
He stared at me, lips pursed. A conversation was going on over my head in their native tongue, and I could tell this warrior, the leader of this troop, was not entirely convinced. I might be beautiful, but only a fool would fail to see that I was also trouble.
Time for the next reveal.
I stood on unsteady feet, then unclasped the cloak and let it slide to the ground, ostensibly to reveal my wound. It was a half healed bloody gash at the side, and the warrior’s gaze flickered. Blood and beauty and an appeal to their honor—the only currency I currently had to spend.
“I was wounded fighting to escape,” I said. “I would have failed if not for the crowd and the slavers’ need for discretion.”
That I was not in the most practical clothing aided my story. When the hunters had descended on my small hiding hole, I’d had little time to dress. Foolish, foolish. I thought myself safe for a few days and had peeled out of my jumpsuit and boots and donned my red silks, needing the softness against my skin, their familiar perfume a comfort.
Forcing myself to focus when I heard a thread of rising tension in the masculine voices, I realized the warriors were all staring at my side. The silver eyed one growled a few short words, and the gazes of his warriors averted.
“You come begging Khuldunian warriors for protection like a walking feast, female,” the leader said coolly. “I think you know what you do.”
I nearly grimaced. Why did I have to stumble on the one canny warrior at the festival? I suppressed my flare of impatient temper.
“I know it is a risk to shelter me, but I can offer…” I swallowed, the word choking in my throat. For though I was trained in the arts of seduction and intrigue, I’d never been called to use my training on behalf of my House.
I inhaled. “I have nothing to offer but blood and flesh,” I said, couching it in a formal, ritualistic cadence.
“What makes you think the prize you offer is worth the trouble?” he asked. There was no emotion in his tone. He simply watched me.
When no one said anything, I whispered, “If you cannot accept blood, I can pay thee in gold.”
Trusting in the famed Khuldunian honor that they would not simply kill me, defile my body, and take the jewels, I drew down the neckline of my gown, revealing the last of my heavy gold jewelry that I had not even dared to sell for food. Food was irrelevant. I needed weapons, strength. A ship would be nice. They had to have one since they were far from their home quadrant.
The silver-eyed warrior’s frown deepened. He spoke to one of his men then stood abruptly and walked around the table, staring down at me. “What is your name, female?”
I shivered, looking down as my energy waned. The scent of the mead was making me nauseous, a clear sign I was coming to the end of physical endurance. I had a few more days in me. A talon tipped finger settled underneath my chin, the warrior tilting my head up so I could meet his gaze.
“I am Khulril. You wish for my protection?”
I lifted my bloody hand, offering it to him. The wound had clotted again, but I hoped no other helpful citizens shoved me into a wall or a table and reopened it for the third time. He grabbed my wrist gently, but his hold was inescapable. The events of the past day had proven I needed to learn martial arts, something more deadly than poisons and slender knives in a dark corridor. I needed to learn to fight viciously. I could not be this soft creature any longer, and survive.
I stood, forcing my knees to lock. “I do, warrior. If you will protect me, then you can have me.”
My words trailed off into an exhausted murmur. His mouth thinned as my knees began to collapse and lifted me into his arms, barking a sentence at his warriors. I would have to learn their language. I had cut my universal translator out because it could be tracked. I would have to study the long way now.
“Tell me what we are facing, female,” he said.
“A unit of Jakkathian Black Morphs.”
He grunted, sounding neither displeased nor afraid. “We shall have some exercise then.” He looked down at me. “You are no escaped pleasure slave if a Gen’Lord’s elite soldiers are after you. How have you survived?”
The warriors snapped to, tankards forgotten, and as a unit strode off at the side of their leader, carrying me in his arms.
“Because I must,” I said as darkness finally overcame me.