Since joining the harem, Helena has been surrounded with luxury and extravagance. But, she’s not sure of much anything – herself included. What does it mean to be a harem girl? Are her dreams as she knew them over? And how in the hell is she supposed to tune a harp?
Love is a distant thought. Helena’s more concerned about learning to survive in the new world of palace life... that is, until she glances at the young prince of Salomana, and finds him gazing right back, his gold-flecked eyes burning a hole straight through to her heart.
Arad is tall, wild, and has a pair of curled horns to match his machismo. He’s never considered settling down... until a mysterious woman he’s never noticed catches his attention. Entranced by her curves, her eyes, and the way she moves, Arad isn’t about to look away, even if she catches him staring.
But in a kingdom going back a thousand years, love is never simple.
She’s a commoner. He’s an ibex-shifting royal, destined to be king. For Arad to take Helena as his wife would be akin to blasphemy. When he decides he must be with her forever Arad knows the old ways must have to go. If that means he has to topple a kingdom, so be it. He won’t stop until he has her, and can calm the ache in his heart.
Will their love survive the fires of revolution? Or will Arad and Helena be swallowed up in a world of politics and intrigue that neither ever wanted?
“Damn it all!” Helena plucked the harp just so that the note came out like a dying catfish’s muffled cry of agony. And then, because she’d pulled too hard, the catgut made a springing noise and popped out of the harp’s frame. “Why do you do this to me?!”
She stood up, huffing, and waved her arms around wildly. She didn’t notice Maret, her trainer in the harem and the eldest member of it, enter her curtained-off quarters. “Are you trying to fly?” the old woman asked, and then laughed though she masked it; it’d never do to have the younger members in high spirits when they couldn’t finish their harp lessons. “Sit.”
“Yes, matron,” Helena said, letting out a groan as she sat. “I can’t do this. I try and I try, and nothing ever happens.”
“Hum,” the older woman grunted. “Show me.”
With a heavy hand, Helena plucked at the harp, to the exact same effect as before, only without the string breaking.
“See?” she asked. “I’m doing exactly what you showed me, and this is as much of a failure as my singing.”
“No,” Maret said. “Very little is as disastrous as your singing.” Again she smiled, laughing to herself. “Now, put the string back through the peg. Good, tighten it down and test the sound. Lightly, like this.”
Maret swept her hand across the strings, bringing out a thick, melodious tone. Only the newly-replaced string didn’t sing quite right. “Tighten it until it’s in tune with the others.”
Helena turned the peg in quarter-turns, testing it each time until it seemed to be on key. “Did I get it?”
“Close enough for royal work. Now, sit again.”
Helena did, and Maret sat behind her. The older woman’s heavier, thicker frame settled comfortably behind Helena’s smaller, younger one. Maret’s heft made the bench creak, but as soon as she began stroking the strings with her fingers, she seemed a half-century younger. Tilting her head back, her thick, callused digits danced across the strings, producing a melody that flowed like sweet butter into Helena’s ears. When she finished, she sat back in on the stool, clapped Helena on the shoulder and smiled. “Light fingers, dear. If you tug at it like you’re trying to yank a dog through a sieve, then you’ll get the sound of just that.”
Before Helena could wrap her head around exactly what she’d just been told, Maret had disappeared back into the common room with a little grumbling and some good natured laughter. As the old woman made her way through the room where all the women of the harem – some eighty of them these days – gathered, Helena tried to smile, but couldn’t.
It wasn’t that she hated where she was, or even that she felt sad at having left home. Truth be told, spending her days completely failing at learning to play the harp, or squeaking her way through old Saraman songs instead of beautifully singing them was far from the worst things could be.
But there was something nagging at her.
The prince, she thought. The way he watched me, the way he stared at me with those smooth, commanding, beautiful eyes the color of the sea where it touches the horizon. Why was he looking at me like that? Why did he keep watching and watching? Was I doing something wrong?
She looked into the oval-shaped, turquoise rimmed mirror that she kept on top of the desk she was given when she joined the harem. “Joined” might be a bit of a loose term for what happened. Really, she was the sixth girl in a family of eight children that barely survived in the good years. Her father worked tirelessly, or at least did so before he got too old to keep pretending to be tireless.
In the short farming season, he did what he could to raise enough figs and dates and tubers to keep the family in food for the year. For the rest of the time, he worked in the huge oil fields an hour from the family’s home by bus. For most of her childhood, those were her memories of her father. He was away for two weeks at a time, then at home for one. During that week, he cooked all sorts of wildly spiced meals, he drank and sang with his friends all night long – but never with the children. But that had less to do with him and with the children than it did with tradition.
For all its riches and wonders, Salomana was stuck in ways so old they made the surface of Mars look like the inside of a brand new Land Rover.
But then, the famines came. Three years of low rain, dead dates and broken dreams. Three years of pain and suffering. Two sisters and one brother lost to illness broke her father’s heart. The drinking and singing turned to just drinking, and the friends he used to merrily greet the dawn with turned to a television that played nothing but state announcements and commercials.
Her father’s madness saddened Helena’s mother, but she didn’t turn cold or bitter, only inward.
So, no, things could be worse than clumsily plucking a harp or singing badly and feeling embarrassed.
She ran the tip of a finger along the turquoise rimming the mirror. All women who came into the harem were allowed to bring with them whatever they wanted, to make their transition to court life more comfortable. For Helena, it was just the mirror. Her mother made it for her when she turned eight, and she’d treasured it ever since. Seeing her pack the mirror brought tears to her mother’s eyes, though her leaving had not.
“My very own prince,” Helena said, pouting slightly at the mirror. Her full, red lips were just perfect for a good pout – her father had always said so, and her mother had always said that one day she’d get everything she wanted from some fool of a man with those lips. Somehow, she thought that she wouldn’t get this man to do what she wanted. “What an idiot you are,” she chided herself. “A commoner and a prince? Not only is that unlikely, it’s illegal.”
She shook out her curls, and re-fastened the barrettes that held her mane back out of her face. When she had the veil, the comical wildness of her hair wasn’t visible, but without it? She smiled at herself in the mirror, the dimple in her chin begging for a jewel. The fashion was to mark dimples with simple studs – diamonds if you could afford them, sapphires if not. The dimples in her cheeks now had diamonds. Luxury was as uncomfortable to Helena as it was unfamiliar, and in a way she resented it. Why should she have so much while people like her father and so many others just like him had so little? It didn’t seem right.
“Helena!” a voice, shrill and unfamiliar, came from the common room. She was so new that it was rare for anyone to address her by name – usually it was ‘girl’ or ‘you’ so hearing her name was a bit disconcerting. She shook her head to clear the cobwebs of memories both good and bad. “Helena Araka! Are you here?”
Is that the messenger? She’d heard him before, now that she had a moment to think about it, but why on earth would he be calling for her?
“Here!” she answered, gathering her things. She went for her veil and then remembered that certain members of the court – the messenger, Frido being one of them – were allowed to see members of the harem in their various states of undress. So long as they were decent, the accoutrements were not all necessary. “Back here! One second!”
Helena pinned back her hair in a hurry. She didn’t want to look like a terrified lion charging around the bowels of the palace. Her room was very airy and open, which she loved a great deal, especially these sweltering spring days. The breeze swept through her quarters and blew her open silk robe apart, baring her breasts.
Another seductively warm breeze swept through her quarters as she gathered herself, and her nipples pebbled, brushing sweetly against the inside of her silk robe. The outside of the garment was patterned with swirls and whorls of rich purples, reds and greens – the colors of the kingdom. The inside was the softest, purest cotton that money could buy, and it felt every bit the expense that it was. She felt her body whisper in pleasure as the fabric brushed her nipples and she tied the belt around herself, aware that she was vaguely visible through the cloth, but not particularly worried about it.
Her inhibitions about her body hadn’t lasted through the first week of her training as a woman of King Saram’s harem, though every so often she’d get a crimson blush across her cheeks when some new person commented on her body, or she let slip more than she meant to.
“Helena Araka! I have a note for you from Jon Crane! Hurry up, don’t have all day to sit around and wait for you to pretty yourself up!”
She huffed, and cinched the silk belt down tight on her hips. The way the garment hugged her body accentuated the natural curves she’d had since she became a woman. Her hips were wider than her shoulders, and her stomach a little fluffier than most of the other women in the harem had. She wasn’t embarrassed of it though, her curves made her unique, to her eyes.
And apparently to the eyes of a prince, she thought, grinning to herself as she pushed through the curtains and into the common room. The general commotion that she’d grown so accustomed to over the past few weeks had been replaced by quiet excitement. This was what happened when anyone got a note that involved someone important.
She crossed the room, summoning every shred of grace and elegance that Maret had taught her, but she felt them nonetheless.
Every single eye was on her, every woman of the harem was watching her movements, her steps. And Helena knew they were all judging her at once. Sizing her up, trying to figure out if she was a threat to their position. If politics in the front of the palace were dangerous and tricky, politicking in the harem was a careful chess game of backstabbing, maneuvering and jostling for power. Not a day passed without someone suffering some indignity and someone else taking advantage of it to take a piece of their influence.
This is what made her uncomfortable. And it wasn’t just discomfort – the jockeying for position, the fighting and backbiting... it made her wish to be back at the farm, barely surviving. No number of diamonds or silks or leering princes could replace the sedate routine of home. Helena was not one for competitions like this.
“Here! Good lord, woman, you’d think I asked you to learn to juggle and then come toss some torches for me. Take your note, I need to get out of here.”
Helena accepted the note with a trembling, outstretched hand. She didn’t notice her fingers were shaking until she heard a giggle behind her, and a comment about her nervousness. “She’ll get over it someday,” the woman said. “Either that, or she’ll grow old and barren and useless and end up the king’s yarn spinner.”
“That’d be too good for a body like hers,” another said. “She’s so awkward, so unwieldy.”
“All right!” Maret clapped her hands together like two cymbals made of ham hocks. “Everyone to your quarters. Dinner service is in two hours and you’ll be expected to be at your best. Mara, get your harp tuned, Leta, clean the food off your cheek and treat your throat – you’ll be singing tonight.” And with a few words, the two women harassing Helena had been sent away.
“Helena!” the matron called. “Go read your note in private and prepare your oils. You won’t be performing tonight. The king has requested you specially after the party, though.”
A hush fell over the crowd. Helena’s stomach hit her feet, then bounced back up into her throat. “The... the king?” she asked. “But... but why?”
Maret smiled. When she smiled like that, her full cheeks made her jowls stand out a bit more. “We don’t question him,” she said with a note of mischief in her voice. At least outwardly, Helena though. “We just do as he asks. Though, he doesn’t much care for stuttering.”
Helena blushed and nodded. “Will he want—”
“Whatever he wants, you’ll provide. But... I wouldn’t worry about it being anything outside of your training. The king has his favorites.”
By which you mean he won’t try to get between my legs because he’s got you for that, Helena thought – and correctly. “Oils, you said?”
Maret nodded. “He’s been riding today. Hunting and, whatever else he does while he takes his recreation. When he comes in from a day of exercise, he likes his legs massaged. Keeps him vigorous.”
“Why would the king want her?” she heard someone whisper. “Why would he want that stump of a girl when he could have anyone he wants?”
The other woman shook her head in disbelief. Gold coins were tied into that one’s hair, and they tinkled as she shook. Before either could say anything else, Maret clapped again. “Now, ladies! I’m not yelling for my own good. We have a job to do!”
“Go,” she said to Helena, urgently. “Go read your letter, and prepare. If it’s from Crane, it must be important. Or, he’s drunk,” she said, knowing well the Englishman. “It’s hard to tell with that one.”
Bodily, the older woman turned Helena in a half-circle so that she faced her room, and then gave her a swat on the backside. “Go on now, quickly!”