Thais (Tay-iss) lost her mother, her queen, and most of her tribe at the hands of brutal foreigners, all while she enjoyed a respite from duty. But the young Amazon with vengeance in her heart refuses to lose anything else. She’ll bring back the queen’s crown or die trying. Life in the Territories has its perils: the Nature Laws, carnivorous beasts, and treacherous men who survived the Time of Dying. One man in particular, a warrior in his own right, has an odd effect on her senses. She comes to desire him, to trust him, and she doesn’t like it. Men are good for war and breeding, neither of which Thais has time for, not when she’s so close to finding those responsible for the crown’s theft. In the course of her quest, Thais finds much more than atonement for her troubled past, but a pure and lasting love, if only she has the courage to accept it.
Welcome to the New West, where the Nature Laws dictate who lives and dies by the way they treat the land, carnivorous horses and blood trees are accepted mutations courtesy of the sky rocks, and the Impact Zone separates the earth-friendly territories of the West from a more sophisticated, steam-powered East. Women are rare commodities, living in extended families with more than one husband, and children are a necessity in a world where sterility is often the norm. Life is full of challenge, romance and adventure. Something one courageous, wounded Amazon will find out firsthand.
Thais studied the painted woman before her with unease. Kitty wore her sexuality like a moth-eaten cloak. Such age and pain could not be covered by the cloying paints these whores used. In the four years she and her sisters had spent acclimating to the Territories, Thais had come across some strange things. But this driving need men, and apparently women, had for sex baffled her.
“So you want to know if I’ve seen who?” Kitty paused to take a puff of a smoke that smelled of clove and another substance Thais couldn’t identify.
Yara would know what it is. Thais missed her friends dearly. They’d parted two months ago, and in the time since, Thais felt more alone than she’d ever been. Or at least she had, before she’d run into that male, a warrior with light blue eyes.
When Kitty raised her hand in front of Thais’s face, Thais coughed through the smoke and apologized. “I’m sorry, Kitty. I’m not used to such libation,” she said haltingly, not sure if she used the right word. It had taken her two years to conquer the Territory language, and she still misused words when she took the time to speak them.
“My clove cigarettes?” Kitty laughed. “Honey, that’s not libation. That’s good clean medicine. The clove helps me to swallow. Numbs my throat.” She winked, as if sharing a joke. Thais had no idea what she was talking about. “The filler is homegrown leaf. The damned UTO outlawed tobacco ages ago. One of our last great vices.” She sighed. “It was organic, but toxic. Well, shee-it. Who the hell wants to live forever, anyway?”
Not sure what to say, Thais tried to regroup. “I am looking for a man.”
“Ain’t we all,” Kitty muttered and took a long drag.
“This one goes by the name Aaron Bartel. He’s very rich. His chest is broad, and he stands this high.” She held a hand slightly above her own head. “He also has dirty yellow hair and dead eyes. He’s a leader of men like him.” Murderers and rapists and thieves.
“Hmm, Bartel, you say?” Kitty puffed away on her cigarette. “Why are you looking for him?”
The sharp look on the woman’s face urged caution.
“I think he may be traveling with a few women I know. The warrior—ah, women would be like me. Tall and strong, maybe with darker skin than many of you here, from time spent in the sun.”
“I’d bet they talk funny, too, eh? Like you. One of ‘em have a purple flower with a yellow dot inked on her cheek, just under her eye?”
Pilar. Thais’s heart pounded. The traitorous Amazon would lead her to Bartel. She knew it.
Kitty smashed her cigarette on a ceramic plate. She blew out a residual puff of clover scented smoke, and Thais fought the urge to gag. “What’s it worth to you?”
“What do you need?”
Her quick answer took Kitty by surprise. “Hmm, what do I need?” She eyed Thais up and down. “Take off that hat and lose the bandana.”
Thais grudgingly did so.
“Holy shit, honey, you’re a beauty. Now take off that vest and open a few buttons.”
Thais had a bad feeling Kitty would demand of her something she refused to give. She slowly took off her vest and unfastened a few buttons.
“You binding ‘em?” Kitty nodded at her chest.
“Thought so. You have a build that screams sex, you know.”
“No, I do not.” Not sex. Never that.
Not sure if it was her tone or her stillness, Thais watched as compassion replaced the speculation on Kitty’s face. “Oh, okay, hon. You can’t gimme another girl to use. I get it. What about currency?”
Thais buttoned up her shirt and donned the vest again. The thin barrier of clothing made her feel safe. As if cotton and leather would protect her from the evils of men.
“I have some gold, but I think it will not be enough. Is there some service I might perform instead?” Realizing how Kitty might interpret that, she hastily amended, “Some man who has wronged you? Someone you wish dead?”
Kitty stared in surprise. “You a merc?”
“A merc,” she tested the word. Chow Yen had taught them much when they’d reached the Territories, but apparently the little man hadn’t taught them enough. She learned something new every day.
“A mercenary. You a killer for hire?”
“No, but to learn of Bartel, I would right a wrong done you.” To balance the scales of justice. The Goddess encouraged right. Death was a natural part of balance, an accepted occurrence in Thais’s scattered world.
“Right a wrong, hmm? You know, honey, I think you and me just might have a deal.”
Not only did they have a deal, but Kitty added in a room and a meal for Thais’s promised service. Considering what Kitty wanted done, Thais would have done the job for free. But she needed information about Bartel.
As Thais settled in for a night’s sleep, she tried to tune out the moans and groans around her. The rooms in this building had thin walls. Conversations droned like the buzzing of bees, low and insistent despite her closed door. The constant banging of something against her wall and the accompanying moaning of both a man and a woman made her think, surprisingly, of the tall stranger she’d encountered twice today.
He’d led her here to Kitty House with the expectation that she’d service him the way the women here pleasured their customers. Despite what had happened to her village four years ago, Thais didn’t hate men. Chow Yen had seen to that. She didn’t necessarily like them, nor did she anticipate ever mating with one of them. Though from what she’d heard, sexual intercourse wasn’t always painful, and most men seemed to derive pleasure from it.
To hear Kitty tell it, nothing satisfied like a good ride from the right man, whatever that meant. Though well-intentioned, Kitty’s offer to help Thais get over her discomfort with sex—and she still didn’t know how she’d been so transparent—bothered the hell out of her. Thais couldn’t imagine spreading her legs for a man, surrendering to his control. Still, today when the warrior had asked her to thank him, she’d felt a stirring of… something. Unfamiliar yet exciting. Her heart raced, her breath grew shorter, and her face heated. Nerves, not anxiety. A kind of interest, she supposed.
And why not? Even Mother consented to lying with a male once. Besides, he’s the first decent looking warrior you’ve seen out here in the land the Goddess forgot.
Taller than Thais and strong of form, he’d impressed her at first with his stillness and steady reserve. As he’d drawn closer on his vore, she’d sworn she sensed an answering wildness in not just the beast he rode, but in the man as well. Shoulder length black hair so dark it shone blue under the sunlight had captivated her, but his eyes had held her attention like nothing could. An exact match to the crystalline blue waters in the Goddess Cave, those orbs possessed unfathomable depths.
His voice, when he spoke, sounded rich. Like the rumble of a jaguar, yet clear of intent and strong. Unlike most of the filthy men in the Territories, he smelled of sweat and power. The burning energy in his gaze discomfited her, the way the guardians at home could unnerve the enemy with just a look.
He handled a rifle with ease and sat atop a vore as if he’d been born in the saddle, as she’d heard many a man comment about natural-born riders. Thais herself didn’t care for horseback. Riding a vore, on the other hand, appealed to her, maybe because vores were rumored to be nearly as intelligent as people, or because they could never be fully tamed. Oddly enough, the vore and the man reminded her of home. And she began to dream…
Thick, humid air seethed with impending rain while variegated green leaves fluttered in the dying wind. The muted hum of insects, yowling jungle cats and screeching monkeys sweltered around the alien sounds of men in the village. Their presence remained a puzzle, an affront the Goddess had, for Her own reasons, once again allowed.
“I don’t like them.” Hidden carefully behind a fragrant shrub, Thais pushed several white petals aside for a better look. She glared with disdain at the pale skinned foreigners. Males. She rarely trusted them, but this group aroused her suspicion more than most.
“Neither do I,” Yara whispered, so as not to be caught by Thais’s mother standing close by.
The thick jungle that served as their home seemed oppressive under the weight of so many stares. Thais glanced at herself and Yara, still not understanding such extreme curiosity. The brief leopard-hide loincloth protected her sex, while the snug halter top gave her the support she needed for running through the jungle.
She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. The brevity of garb also gave her respite from the intense humidity. She took a perverse sense of pleasure watching the males in their long pants and heavy shirts sweat through their clothes.
Thais shoved her knife into the sheath at her waist. A gift, the dagger marked the anniversary of her birth just three days and eighteen years ago. On this very day that should have marked her passage into the warrior’s circle, she was forced instead to watch their queen entertain men from the Territories, a place she’d never even heard of.
Absently brushing a pink-toed spider the size of her fist from her shoulder, she continued her perusal through thick green leaves. She whispered to Yara, “They look as if they rarely see the sun. And their language is so ugly. It’s a wonder anyone can understand them. I sure can’t.”
A subtle breeze wafted through the air, bringing with it the scent of vanilla tea and pork cakes flavored with ginger. Thais’s mouth watered. She’d been so busy avoiding the foreigners, she’d forgotten to eat.
A rumble of thunder took her attention. Above, the darkening sky heralded oncoming rain. The canopy overhead would shield some of the village; the bamboo huts would cover what the trees didn’t, with the exception of the meeting ground. Sweat dripped down Thais’s back. She welcomed the rain, if only to ease the stillness in the air.
“If we hope to visit The Cave tonight, we must go before we are missed,” Yara urged. “If your mother or any of the other guardians see us, we’re doomed to sit around the fire and pay tribute for hours.”
Thais and Yara looked at one another then hurriedly backed away from the thicket. Grabbing the sacks at their feet, they tossed the bags over their shoulders. Yara set off into the jungle to meet their friends who had departed earlier. Thais finished sweeping their tracks and turned to follow when a large spear tapped her on the shoulder.
Shaken by the recollections she could never quite escape, Thais woke with a start, trembling. After calming herself, she drew in on the strength that had promoted her to royal guardian just four short years ago. No fear of the past, only faith in myself, in the here and the now. Horses and vores. You were thinking about them.
An image of the warrior’s mighty black vore popped into her mind, and she settled back down, holding onto the creature like a talisman against unwanted memories.
Copyright © 2012 Marie Harte