Silence reigned in the room following a light dinner amid close family and friends. Zera once more wore the mauve dress Enos liked. She planned to retire the dress after tonight. Teriana relaxed in wide-legged pants of soft suede and a linen shirt with long, wide sleeves gathered at the wrists, the embroidered neckline open on her delicate shoulders. Both stared, numb, into the glowing fire dancing in the fireplace. Despite the warmth of the summer night, the palace held a peculiar chill, and an eerie dampness seemed to seep in. The quiet, dismal voices of a somber group of courtiers and military gathered around the royal dais began to filter through the single anteroom door behind the throne—a low, sullen murmur.
Outside the main double entrance doors to the anteroom a raucous disturbance shattered their tranquility. Zera jolted out of her trance and stood to an alert posture. She turned toward the commotion, amazed when the doors burst open. Her bodyguards spilled through from the entrance in a defensive manner.
Training and battle reactions had become instinct. Zera grabbed her sword from the nearby table, drew it from the sheath, tossed the sheath aside and pushed her less-experienced sister behind her.
Her people were subdued by mass numbers, some down with injuries. She was amazed none were dead, but it appeared the invaders took care not to kill or cause serious injuries. Zera stood braced to meet the lord she knew would follow the men who forced the doors. She recognized their uniforms. They weren’t pirates. Pirates didn’t wear matching, freshly-pressed attire, their dress best. Zera’s blood surged hot with anger.
* * * *
Sarc strode through the door. His sword was sheathed and unbloodied. He hoped to keep it that way. Confident of his dominance over the circumstances, he surveyed the room. With deliberate purpose, he avoided looking at Zera until he read the situation. Zera’s well-trained bodyguards were subdued and posed no threat. They had been taken by surprise, overwhelmed by numbers, and Lord Sarc’s men held them impotent at sword point. He was relieved more sophisticated weapons hadn’t been needed. He glanced at his second-in-command and nodded at him to carry on. When he was satisfied all was as planned, his gaze settled on Zera.
Now secure in his command of Seti-Cronus regardless of the outcome of his confrontation with their high lady, he appraised her and their stares locked. Zera raised her chin in obvious defiance of his scrutiny.
He saw she was unaccustomed to being so evaluated, offense at his inspection clear in her reddened eyes. Her entrancing blue eyes showed signs of weeping mingled with exhaustion obvious in the dark circles beneath them.
Sarc, Victor by Conquest of Seti-Cronus, had Zera’s military under his control and was aware she was unconscious of the fact. Maintaining a stern countenance, he could ill afford to show any empathy for this magnificent woman–not yet. Despite the effects of her predicament on his sympathies, he kept his compassion in check. Sarc held his features impassive and cold.
She stood ready for battle, her sword grasped tightly in her hand. Yet her lips seemed to beckon a kiss, tempting him, slightly parted in surprise. Sarc’s gaze drifted from her face, and he squelched the urge to lose his fingers in her heavy blonde hair.
Compared to Zera’s true beauty, the pictures and stories of her loveliness proved unworthy. He remembered her picture on his desk. Sarc’s gaze swept over her again. He wet his lips without realizing, observing she didn’t flinch away but met his stare without fear.
Does she fear anything?
She wore a gown and was unprepared for combat so femininely attired. In her grief, he assumed she had dressed for comfort. All the pictures of her flashed through his memory, not one of her in a dress.
Sarc was aware of Zera’s skill as a warrior. He didn’t expect her to surrender her throne without a fight, but wanted to avoid bloodshed, especially hers. He refused to resign himself to the possibility he would have to kill her and marry her much-younger sister. Something he refused to do. She was a child. Sarc hoped Teriana and his younger brother Phorx would find each other compatible and double seal the throne. He wanted Zera as his wife—at the very least, his mate. If she wouldn’t concede to marriage, she would fill the role of his concubine. Her death must be avoided at all costs, but he feared he might not be able to. Zera’s skill with a sword was legendary on both worlds.
* * * *
Zera needed no introduction. Then again, she was astonished at Lord Sarc’s insolent audacity, entering her palace without invitation or petition.
How did he and his men get past planetary security?
Zera stood stunned. Sarc’s presence dominated the room like a living force. His charisma focused on her, surrounding her. His imposing personality threatened to draw all defiance from her and she felt an unfamiliar disturbance in her core. She pushed the sensation away. Instead, her fiery temper flared at his bold affront. She was incensed he would come to her as a conqueror at this time. But no training prepared her to meet such a man. Reports furnished by her intelligence community detailing Lord Sarc were useless underestimates of the true measure of both his physical stature and natural demeanor. A man’s height had heretofore been meaningless to her, even in hand to hand combat. The High Lord of Alphxorn, taller than her by almost a full head, seemed to tower over her. For a moment, her perception tilted. She dismissed the unfamiliar wave of frailty that washed through her, refusing to believe he could in any way be the source. She attributed it to the strain of the past two days and squelched the rush of unfathomable emotion he evoked deep inside her innocent body and credited such foreign sensations to the grief and trauma of recent events.
Zera leveled her gaze and appraised him as she would any enemy she prepared to battle. Sarc’s dark hair showed a hint of auburn accenting his strong, masculine face. The determined and confident set of his firm jaw and chin further indicated the measure of sound character. She gazed a second longer to glimpse past the stern countenance he portrayed. His demeanor suggested a man of courage and honor. Still, a hint of arrogance slipped through.
Large, heavy-lashed, fierce amber eyes held her gaze captive from the distance of the room with little effort. She felt his ogle explore her body, which was untouched by a man’s hand. His stare caused a tremor to flow through her, and she knew his touch from across the room as surely as he if had caressed her. Her mouth went dry.
What power does this man hold over me?
Zera sized-up Sarc’s garments. He had come to her not attired as a warrior, but as High Lord. Beneath a golden-hued cape fastened at his left shoulder by the Royal Triplat emblem of Alphxorn, he wore a double-breasted, leather vest giving his arms freedom, should he need it. She appreciated the tunic accented his toned and tanned, muscular shoulders and biceps, the reflection of dedication to hours of physical training. Zera recalled reports of his bravery in battle, defending the autonomy of his leadership. A flush warmed her face. She was embarrassed, unaccustomed to admiring a man’s physique. He crossed his arms over his broad chest in regard of her. His stern countenance wavered. A slight upturn of his generous lips seemed to mock her reaction. Her temper flared hotter. Zera scowled and concentrated her attention. With a deep breath, she prepared for the duel she was about to fight, fearing this might be the first one she would lose. He stood with assurance, his powerful legs clothed in snug suede breaches. Sarc’s presence and self-assured poise aroused Zera beyond her understanding. Her face grew hotter—abashed at her own tenacity, appraising him. She never so measured a man before. Resisting her reaction to the High Lord of Alphxorn, gripping her sword a little tighter, and pressing the hilt into her ungloved hand, she positioned her stance to attack.
“How dare you!” Zera demanded in a low growl. Infuriated he would interrupt their period of bereavement.
“You bade me bring my proposal in person, did you not, Zera?” Sarc retorted in a low, rich voice that challenged her decision of his proposal. Their gazes clashed before their swords.
“Lord Sarc, your presence at this time is unwarranted. As I am sure you know. Your timing is terrible. Or is it?” Zera sneered. “What of the apology from your Ambassador? It would seem you should be mourning your own dead from this tragedy. We paid them high honors, as it appeared they gave their lives attempting to assist our warriors. Were we mistaken in such an assumption? Or were they complicit in our people’s deaths?” Zera’s stare didn’t waver, nor did Sarc’s at the accusations she threw at him. Despite the clarity of the recorded transmissions, she made her reservations known.
* * * *
What a woman! She has no equal!
Sarc read grief in her eyes and knew she couldn’t mask it, but her spirit amazed him. Her sword was gripped so tightly in her bare hand her knuckles were white, the blade lowered, but ready. Even in the comely, simple dress, Sarc appreciated her supple, toned muscles tensed beneath the fabric. He would rather kiss her, hold her close, and comfort her than do battle. A sigh slipped past his stern countenance.
Combat had to come first. To win this woman he would have to best her in a duel, prove his honor and win her trust to gain her heart. The realization came to Sarc he wanted Zera as much as the crown of Seti-Cronus, and her security as much as that of Alphxorn’s.
“Circumstances change, Lady. Your brother’s death and the manner in which he died, brings the threat closer.” Sarc tempered his demeanor, his position clear.
“You do propose war!”
“No!” Sarc was firm. “War with you, Zera, has already been avoided.” He saw a questioning look pass over her face. “My ambassador overstepped his authority and no longer represents Alphxorn. Zera, the threat isn’t from me. I suspect you know this. The threat is from the pirates. You know they are massing. Lord Enos discovered their larger fleet, and because he found their lair, they attacked and killed him. As the transmission shows, my squads did attempt to assist your brother.” Sadness over his own losses drew his brows tight. “Kudious didn’t want their presence, position, and numbers revealed.”
“How would you know? Unless you are in collusion with them,” Zera accused. Blue flames lit her frigid stare.
“Spies! Well placed ones. That was why two squads of Alphxorn fighters were hidden on one of the smaller outer planets.” Their gazes remained locked. “Lady Zera, Kudious’ plans include you. He wants you as much as he wants Seti-Cronus,” Sarc informed her. His lusty ogle swept over her, his own desires unmistakable.
“I wouldn’t wed Kudious! The man’s lower than a snake,” Zera hissed. “Now, leave us with our grief.” She suppressed a sob, yet it was a command.
Sarc allowed some sympathy to show in a pained smile. “You don’t understand, Zera. Kudious doesn’t care if you are willing to wed him or not. He plans to conquer your world with you as his prize. If he did so, and his military were strengthened by possession of Seti-Cronus forces, Alphxorn would be his next target. That is a risk I cannot allow.” Sarc’s stare became hard as stone. “You, beautiful Zera, will be my bride. Seti-Cronus and Alphxorn will again be one!”
* * * *
“No!” Zera scoffed. Her sword raised a fraction in anger. “Not while I can still fight. I will not marry.” She hid her heated, racing blood behind a frozen glare. “My people will not follow you, Sarc,” Zera warned. But her mother’s words, two nights prior, haunted her.
Is this the man who will rule beside me? Still, I have no way of knowing, and only a duel, fairly fought will reveal the truth. I will not marry a man who may have had a hand in Enos’ death!
Oh mother, how will I ever know for sure?
Zera’s blood surged hot through her veins, and heat flamed in her face. Sarc’s stare scorched her with amber fire, melting the icy fear he’d sent through her with his words. She remembered witnessing a firestorm once and found she was in its midst. Zera shrugged off the feeling, drew her strength into her body as she did before a battle, preparing to win. Never having lost, she didn’t intend to now.
She watched Sarc draw his sword. The grim line of a cold smile made his face hard. She almost missed the shadow of pain that passed through his eyes and wondered at the emotion.
“Then, My Lady, let us settle this now! Your military will follow me. They have no other choice. They have been neutralized,” Sarc imparted, a sly grin glinting in his eyes.
“Neutralized? What do you mean?” Immense alarm entered her voice. What he had said about war with her already being avoided, repeated in her mind.
“Contact any post you wish, all are now under the control of my forces,” he said confidence tangible in his words. “Join me Zera, for both our worlds’ safety. Together we can defeat the pirates.” His voice held an earnest appeal and his gaze locked with hers.
Zera was in shock; she needed time to think. She backed away from Sarc, who held his sword low and unthreatening. He waited, patiently, allowing her to contact three of her posts at different points around her planet. Zera found all manned by Sarc’s people. All addressed her respectfully, she noted, as “My Lady” or “Your Majesty.”
“How?” she demanded in a tone she would use on a subordinate. Though frightened, her training and her bravado helped Zera hold her composure.
Anger flashed in Sarc’s amber eyes, angered by Zera’s tone. “By use of a series of neural tranquilizer bursts two hours ago, following the services for Lord Enos. We waited out of respect for him…and you.”
* * * *
“Treachery!” Zera snarled. He heard death in her tone. Sarc strode two paces closer at her accusation.
“No! Treachery would have been to kill your people, your nobles, imprison your family as hostages and take you as my slave.”
His stare, with slow intent, stripped her clothing from her body. “I offer a choice!”
“Choice? Lord Sarc, I will not give my people to you!” Zera growled in vicious defiance tightening the grip on her sword. She swayed slightly.
“I propose a union,” Sarc offered in a reasonable tone. He retained some hope for a peaceful settlement. He wondered at the sudden change in the pallor of her face, her eyes unfocused for a second, and there was a slight sway in her stance. Should the stress of the past few days, and the present circumstance prove overwhelming, he would be gallant and catch her should she swoon. Despite the venom of her words, he envisioned holding her body close in a protective embrace. He prayed she would faint.
“With my people subject to you? Never! If you want my kingdom, Lord Sarc,” she threw the challenge at him and bravely lifted her chin, “you will have to go through me.” She raised her sword and fiercely attacked, giving Sarc a mere second to guard against her first, lightning strike.
Sarc noticed Zera’s bodyguards, the uninjured ones who remained standing, moved back and assisted the others. Lady Zera’s skills were well known, by her close guard more than most. She had trained them well enough to know they couldn’t become involved in a one-to-one duel of honor.