We belong to the King—those of us with the black roses tattooed on our left wrist, directly over our pulse. As if every beat of our hearts reminds us that we are not our own. Those around us know it, too, and are reluctant to come close.
Ten gold coins were paid to my father when I was tested young and then tattooed. Another ten will be paid when the vehicle arrives to take me away. That is the full worth of our lives, as short as they will become.
In the King's library, The Book of the Rose says to honor the tattooed women.
More than anything, I wanted to spit on its pages.
Any girl who wears the tattoo is never befriended, as if our deaths are already assured.
Yes, there are tales of some who survive, but I'd never seen any of them. That led me to believe that tales were all they were—with no real survivors.
All those women who were found with talent—with the fire burning within them—they were culled and taken to the warriors, to provide more energy. Energy that the warriors would then use to defeat the barbarians from the ocean of sand.
Women with black roses on their wrists are emptied of their power by those warriors, who care not that they die a shrunken husk.
The King also has no care for these—his subjects who give their lives to repel the vicious hordes in their destructive machines of war.
"We fight with what we have," he always says.
That means the warriors with the fire within them, who draw more fire from the women who serve them.
Until they die.
The thought of running away is foolish.
The thought of taking a lover before they come for us—also foolish.
We must be untouched when they come; else it is a quicker death when they test us again.
As for running—there is one thing worse than having a black rose on your wrist. That is for the enemy to find you and see the black rose on your wrist. Your death will be slow and excruciating at their hands.
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I felt defeated. Helpless. If Sherra were alive, why didn't she mindspeak to tell me so? Every day, I floundered against that notion—that if she were alive, she'd have contacted me by now.
"Don't give up, Thorn," Hunter said softly. "We don't know everything there is to know."
"Hunter, every day reminds me of how little we actually do know."
Sherra has not returned to the King.
Seven months have passed and Kaakos, Ny-nes' leader, is rebuilding his army. His plan is to unleash an onslaught against Az-ca—in retaliation for the destruction of his troops and weapons.
In Az-ca, the King's health is failing, the enemy is on the march and Merrin and his rogues have forged an alliance with enemy infiltrators.
Will the Crown Prince be forced to deal with attacks from both sides, without Sherra's help?
Will Az-ca survive if Sherra is dead, as so many believe?
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