Sabine has come to Sakk, a winged female, a prize match. Her mate will be an older male, a general or master general. She has no choice in that. The only power she has is to refuse an abusive mate.
Sahtahn has no intention of fighting to approach the prize match, but when Sabine is attacked on her way to the riser, he changes his mind. She's not the cold woman he'd believed her. She's a frightened young woman in need of a gentle hand. If she accepts his advances, he will have the greatest prize imaginable.
CONTENT ADVISORY: This is a re-release title.
The door opened, and Cholla's mate slipped in. He wound an arm around Cholla's waist and closed Sabine in with a mirrored wing. "The word has spread," he informed her. "The males know a winged female is up for claim."
Sabine tried to force her breathing to even.
When she'd boarded the warship, she'd done so wrapped in a cloak, her nest parents' wings at her back and their bodies pressing in close around her. Of course, the warriors knew what that signified. In moments, their numbers had doubled...tripled...then more and more, all whispering and peering at her. She'd bolted into the nest compartment the moment they reached the doors and had collapsed into a bed far from the doors, shivering, listening for sounds of pursuit that hadn't come. Cholla had stroked calming hands down her back and face.
These males will be older...more starved. And I won't be permitted a cloak or guards.
Cholla and Lut each took one of her hands, offering silent comfort. Then they separated and motioned the two dozen matches into the presentation line.
As the only level-one purple-clad match, Sabine would lead the line. Women who wore purple were those that had caught pregnant with winged female young within a yan of sexual congress with the priests and those that were winged themselves.
The level-two red matches like Anlu--those that had produced wingless female young or a male in a reasonable period of time--would come next.
The level-three blue matches--those that had taken more than a yan to catch pregnant, even if the result was a winged female--would end the procession. With the need for females, even the blues were guaranteed to be chosen.
If a match caught later than the norm, she would likely be claimed by a man of rank, but a younger male not as concerned with time to produce his two or more young on her. The more young any woman produced, the more likely that there would be two or more females of her line, which was good for all of Sakk.
The only matches that did not travel to Sakk to be mated were the ones who had not produced young. The Sakk males were assured of strong stock for mating. If the match never caught, she remained with the priests as a concubine, worker in the temple, or even a nest mother and mate to a temple-born male without the urge to be a warrior priest.
The doors opened fully, and the mated pair stepped aside. Taking a deep breath, Sabine led the way down the purple carpet laid out for them.
She paused at the door to the claim stadium. There were so many males, it made her head spin. Though an accurate count was impossible, it seemed there were at least two hundred males for each female disembarking. It hardly seemed possible that there could be so many males in need of a mate, but she knew there were more...hundreds of thousands more of mating age, perhaps millions.
Matches were brought in every five turnings, alternating from seventeen seed worlds. A small group might have only five matches in it; this one was among the largest.
Males were ordered, she knew. The highest-ranking and those who'd waited the longest had priority. They were closest to the carpet and the dais. The younger men, those with less rank, and those who hadn't tried for a mate before were further removed.
Mine will be one of the closest. She had no choice in that.
Still, the females were not at the mercy of fate. They were told they could refuse a male who gave them cause to do it. Sabine suspected most females accepted their first out of fear or awe or the belief that males so deprived would have no self-control.
She had no such intentions; her male would be kind or be refused. Sabine may have no choice in whether or not he attracted her, but she had the right to demand a kind touch.
That in mind, Sabine straightened and stepped out onto the carpet between the parted crowd. A series of gasps and prayers went up from their ranks at the sight of her. She kept walking, focusing on the dais. The males knew their boundaries; there was nothing to fear.
That self-assurance lasted only until the rush of movement caught the corner of her vision. Sabine side-stepped, turning to face the male in question. A hand closed on the edge of her wing, and she struck for his face in a panic, turning and scampering the opposite direction the moment she connected with flesh. She stumbled, landed against a wall of muscle, and grasped fabric to catch herself.
The sound of screams from her scattering nest sisters had her heart pounding hard in her ears. The uproar from the males overlapped with it. They piled on the one who'd touched her. Angry shouts overpowered screams of pain.
Sabine squeezed her eyes shut, pleading for it to end. She'd heard males killed each other for females sometimes. A particularly gruesome scream had her hunching her shoulders. She pried one shaking hand out of the cuzta she'd fisted and pressed it to her ear, turning her head to mute sounds to the other in the chest she'd claimed.
Soothing sounds surrounded her, working their way to her shielded ears, muting the sounds of waning battle. Her grip loosened in response. She was protected; even her skin seemed to warm again.
Silence fell, and Sabine released her grip on the cloth beneath her cheek. The wings surrounding her eased back, and she straightened, trying to regain her composure. Sabine looked up, intent on thanking the male who'd shielded her, but the words lodged in her throat.
His hands were fisted at his sides. He hadn't touched her, which was a good thing for him. Battle-pumped as the other males were, they might have turned on this male next. His body was rigid, his expression tense. He stared down at her as if in shock that she'd run to him...or anger that she'd touched him.
Sabine pulled her hands back, breaking the connection with him. She took an unsteady step away from his body. Her shoulders bunched and released, her wings fluttering nervously.
Then Cholla and Lut were there, guiding Sabine to the center of the carpet. Cholla cupped her cheek, wiping away the sheen of tears from beneath one eye. She smoothed Sabine's hair-feathers and whispered assurances that she was safe.
Lut stood to the side her attacker had come from, his wings spread wide. Sabine glanced down, her stomach lurching at the stains that could only mean blood spilled.
Great quantities of blood. Surely, he's dead.
Cholla drew her face up again. "Another won't dare," she breathed. "Can you continue?"
Sabine started to answer in the negative. She wanted nothing more than to return to bed.
In the distance, she could vaguely hear Anlu's panicked cries. "I can't. I cannot go out again."
Angry grumbles from the males made Sabine shiver in awareness of their violent natures. They were emotionally charged and in need. If Sabine begged off, which they would allow after such an attack on her person, most of the others would do the same. Even if the claim-maker rescheduled the claiming for a day out, there might be additional violence as a result of her refusal.
She nodded, and Cholla took her arm, turning toward the dais. The nest mother raised her free hand and motioned the claim-maker that there would indeed be a ceremony. The grumbling of the males died off abruptly at the move.
There was a moment of silent expectation; then more of her nest sisters came forward and took their places at her back. A few might choose to wait for the next claim day, but the majority would not, if Sabine continued.
Cholla took the first two steps with her, then released Sabine's arm and let her continue on alone. Her breathing hitched at the loss of support, but she raised her head and focused on the dais again.
Two steps up from the floor, she turned, hoping for one last look at Cholla to bolster her waning courage. Instead, she met the gaze of the male who'd shielded her. Her heart tripped, and she turned away, hurrying to the far end of the dais as instructed.
* * * *
Sahtahn ambled toward the dais, his gaze locked on the prize match, the winged female. His skin was oddly sensitized in the memory of her touch, and her scent echoed in his mouth and lungs.
He'd initially dismissed her as cold, a female who knew the lengths males would go to in order to claim her and smug in the knowledge. That determination had lasted until the attack and not a moment longer.
Her panic had been no act. She'd trembled, clung to him, whispered prayers...not for her own safety but rather for peace. Her nesting pair had soothed the worst of her fears, but they hadn't been able to calm her completely. He was amazed she'd chosen the carpet when so many of the lesser matches had abandoned it for the day. All told, only sixteen of the twenty-four had made the walk to the dais.
Even now, she fidgeted, her gaze darting back and forth. As the males closed on the dais, she backed away on bare feet that didn't stay still.
Sahtahn hadn't intended to try for the prize match, but something in her frightened eyes said she was more than that. Those eyes said she was worth whatever fight it took to approach her for a claim.
The claim-maker motioned for silence. At his nod, the winged match took a single step forward, not as close as she was meant to be, but in consideration of the attack on her person, no male alive would dare press the issue. If one did, he'd likely find himself as dead as the attacker now was.