By Augusta Li
Ardythe, a hardened female warrior and assassin, is sent on a mercenary mission to find a legendary cursed castle and kill its lord. She is surprised to find Aurelian, a young and beautiful magician alone in the fortress. The two vie subtly for control, and eventually engage in an all-out battle for sexual dominance. Ardythe must deal with her strong feelings of attraction (even love) for Aurelian, her assignment, and the mysterious being called Celeste, who is Aurelian's source of power, lover, and captor.
By the time Ardythe reached the thick double doors of the castle's main entrance, she was too exhausted to knock or call out. It had been spring when she'd left Paris, but here in the north the cold stuck the way a cough lingered even after the fever had gone. A frigid, sporadic breeze rustled the dead leaves like a consumptive laugh. She let her cheek fall against one of the cottage-sized stones and almost let her eyes close. Her knees gave out, jolting her back to alertness. She stepped back and looked up, assessing the imposing structure she would have to enter.
She hadn't really expected it to exist. She'd honestly thought, during her horrific journey to reach it, that the cursed castle in the mountains would turn out to be a legend, and that she'd eventually reach the crest of the hill and find nothing but more trees. But she couldn't deny what stood in front of her. Four huge, square watchtowers rose past the treetops. Ardythe had never seen stones like the ones used to construct the wall: pitch-black with sparkling silver veins throughout. She pulled off her leather gloves and let her fingers graze the surface of the blocks. They'd been cut, somehow, so smooth that no tool marks were discernible. She could see no slits where arrows might be released, but the walls would be difficult, or impossible, to scale. All she could see of the inner structures were jagged silhouettes. If there were windows, they were dark and well hidden. Escape would prove as difficult as entry. The twisted trees reached almost to the entrance, their branches knitting together to form a canopy over the path to the gate. Ardythe heard a gaggle of whispering voices as chaotic as the diseased beggars that mumbled in the streets of the city from which she'd come. Sweating beneath her mail shirt, she raised her hand to knock.
Before she made contact, the doors swung silently open and an inviting orange light fell across her boots. A man in a black robe bade her enter with a flick of his hand. Though his face was completely covered by a thick hood, Ardythe noticed as she followed him that the stiffness of age had yet to come into his joints.
"Please, sir," she said in voice raspy with thirst. "I must speak immediately with your master."
They crossed a tiny yard, bare but for tumbling leaves, and proceeded under an arch and down a long hall. At the end of the corridor, her host parted thick curtains and they entered a small, square room lit by a single torch. He spun on the ball of his foot to face her and tucked his hands into his full sleeves. After several moments he spoke.
"My master is about to dine. Would you join him?"
She nodded and her host lifted a tapestry. Barely visible in the sputtering light, a woven crow feasted on the entrails of a thread-bare white horse.
They entered a huge square hall and the shrouded man led her to a long table on a raised platform. He pulled out one of the two carved chairs and she sat. The fire felt good at her back. A dozen more long tables lined the room's perimeter but sat empty save for candles. Looking up, Ardythe saw a wooden railing every twelve feet or so. She counted five before the darkness obscured any others.
The feast before her looked finer than those the king enjoyed. A pheasant stuffed with root vegetables gleamed, making her salivate. Several platters held silver stacks of herbed fish, and others overflowed with goat and pork. Baskets filled with steaming round loaves crowded the two plates that had been set.
Two plates set. "Why are there two places at this table?" Ardythe asked her host, who stood with long, pale fingers tapping the back of her chair. "Where is your master?"
"Here." He threw back his hood and sat beside her. The roundness of youth hadn't left his face completely, and full dark hair tumbled around his shoulders. Lips, thin but shapely, curled into a grin.
"Don't trifle with me; I bear a message from the King! Bring your master, the sorcerer who rules this castle!"
He muffled a giggle with his velvet sleeve. Black pearl buttons ran from the collar of his robe to the floor, each as large as a grape. Ardythe knew no servant or apprentice would be so attired, but a mighty lord's pretty minion might. That would also explain the spoiled young man's arrogance. Someone held him dear to give him such gifts.
A sudden vision of him entering a fire-lit room filled her head. She imagined him unbuttoning the expensive robe and brushing it from his shoulders, letting it fall around his feet like a pool of shadow. He stood still for a minute, smiling with pride at his own body, letting his lord admire it. Soon he was beckoned to the bed by what Ardythe imagined was a scrawny, ancient man propped on pillows. She saw him on his hands and knees above the old goat, working his way slowly to the place where he earned his keep. Grey, jewel-encrusted fingers twined into the back of that soft, dark hair.
If he thought that gave him the right to mock her, she'd show him otherwise.