Copyright © March 2015 by Cara Bristol
Under a caress of sunlight, Reena floated in the pond, grateful to have escaped the watchful eyes of servants, advisers, and bodyguards. Well, most of them. She cracked an eyelid. Yep. Carinda was still there, keeping a firm grip on her electrical impulse disruptor and a steady gaze on the perimeter. Her bodyguard’s caution and devotion were admirable—but unnecessary. No danger could penetrate the protected grotto.
Reena rolled over and dove deep. Tiny fish scattered. She touched the sandy bed then swam along the bottom until the need for air forced her upward again. She broke the surface and flung her hair out of her eyes.
Hip deep in the water, Carinda splashed toward her. “Oh my Goddess. You scared me to death.” The big burly guard looked like an oversized drowned rodent. Reena would have laughed except for Carinda’s contorted, stricken expression. She didn’t want to scare anybody; she only needed solitude. “You worry unnecessarily. I have been swimming since I was a little girl.”
“I can barely float, Princess,” Carinda replied. “Anything could have happened. I feared you were drowning.”
“I apologize. I shouldn’t have frightened you. Why don’t you return to the palace and get some dry clothes?”
Carinda shook her head. “No, I won’t desert you.”
“You’re not deserting me. You’ll be right back.” Please, give me a moment to myself. No attendants, no servants, no guards. “I’ll be safe. Promise.” She flashed her most beguiling smile.
“I am not asking.” Treading water, Reena compressed her lips in frustration. “I command you to return to the palace.”
Carinda bit her lip then shook her head. “I’m sorry, Princess, the queen’s wishes supersede yours. I have been ordered not to leave you alone, in case…something befalls you.” Her hurt expression turned questioning. “I don’t know how you got out of the palace without anyone seeing you.” She stopped speaking, probably willing Reena to fill the silence with an explanation.
The bodyguard would have a long wait. The existence of the secret passage would go with Reena to her grave. She hadn’t shared that information with anyone, not even with her cousin Honna, her closest ally.
Reena lifted her chin, and Carinda conceded the battle. “It was fortunate I spotted you while patrolling the grounds.”
Unfortunate. Reena refused to feel guilty. “Please go to the palace. I won’t be long.”
“You are not well.” Carinda held her ground.
“I’ll stay with her.” Honna stepped from the path onto the beach.
Having her cousin nearby didn’t qualify as being alone, but Reena much preferred her presence to the guard’s. Despite a seven-year age gap, they were best friends, as close as sisters.
“If anyone can take of me, she can,” Reena argued. She owed her continuing life to her cousin. The Goddess had gifted Honna with a natural talent for the healing arts, which she had honed by intensive training. If not for her, Reena would have already died. Once, she would have become Shara, but her mysterious illness cast doubt she would live long enough to ascend the throne currently held by her mother, Ellynna.
Carinda waded out of the pool. Dripping and shivering, she planted both feet on the bank.
“If you catch a chill in those wet clothes, then how will you protect me?” Reena called.
Carinda’s resolute expression wavered. “What if there are invaders? Barbarians who would catch a woman alone? The Lajon.”
“At the very center of the palace gardens? Unlikely,” Honna scoffed. “They would have to scale the perimeter wall, neutralize our guards, storm the palace, and then choose the right path to this bathing pool.”
And if barbarians did achieve the near-impossible and breach their defenses, a lone bodyguard would be no match for them. Pointing that out would cause worrywart Carinda to freak.
“I suppose you’re right,” she conceded, wrinkles of doubt lining her forehead.
Reena swam toward shore until her feet could touch the bottom and then stood. Water lapped at her shoulders.
“Go,” Honna said. “Everything will be fine.”
“Very well. I will be back posthaste.” After one last reluctant, lingering look, Carinda hurried down the garden path and disappeared.
Reena expelled her breath. “I thought she’d never leave. Thank you.”
“She cares about you. As we all do.”
“She hovers, like she expects me to drop at any moment. She treats me like I am a doddering village elder instead of a woman of twenty-two years.” She omitted that she’d sneaked out of the palace, and Carinda had happened upon her by chance. No need to worry Honna.
“You must be stronger today to have walked this far and to have swum.”
“I do feel better.”
“You took the herbs on schedule then? I used a stronger strain. They must be working.”
“Yes.” Reena pursed her lips and lied. “They are.” So bitter, the herbs gagged her. The foul taste clung to her tongue for hours. She’d skipped yesterday’s morning and evening doses. It wasn’t like it mattered. Honna believed the herbal remedy had slowed the disease’s progression, but Reena knew otherwise. Her weight and strength continued to melt away, and she’d begun suffering strong abdominal cramps.
This morning, she’d awakened with an appetite and had been able to eat a bit of fruit and some bread. Not wanting to spoil her enjoyment of the meal by filling her mouth with the bitter herb taste, she’d omitted her first dose of this day, too.
“Good.” Honna beamed.
She worries so much about me. Reena dropped her gaze and prayed for forgiveness of her falsehoods.
Her cousin opened her medical pouch. “Let’s keep it working with another dose.”
Reena stifled a groan. No way out of this one. Not with Honna standing there, mixing a pinch of coarse powder ground from dried leaves and berries into a flask with some water. “Here.” Her cousin held out the vial, and she had to wade closer to accept it.
The sleeve of her cousin’s robe slipped to reveal her mating crystal. Not fully saturated, but definitely blue. Reena widened her eyes. “You never said a word…”
Honna’s amulet had changed to cyan the first time seven years ago, and already she had borne two children. Both male, but she could keep trying until she got a female. Now that the color signaled the onset libidinal fever, she would have another opportunity to try for a daughter. A chance Reena would never have. She peeked at her own mating crystal. Clear as ever. It was wrong to envy her cousin, but, sometimes, she couldn’t help it. To hold a babe, even a male one…
You are ungrateful. Be thankful you have recuperated enough to enjoy this beautiful day.
“I did not want to rub it in your face that I am in season again when you have yet to experience it,” Honna said.
“That’s silly.” Reena shook her head. “You shouldn’t hesitate to share your good fortune with me. It gives me pleasure to live through you since I have not been blessed in such a manner.”
Honna smoothed her thumb over her gem as if she could erase the color. “Blessing? Or curse?”
“Honna!” Reena glanced over her shoulder. “That’s blasphemy.”
To her relief, her cousin looked chagrined. “Perhaps curse is too strong. Let’s say I would surrender the dubious pleasure of mating for a calm mind. Although I’m in the early stage of libidinal fever, it distracts me, disturbs my sleep, and forces me to work harder to focus.” A slight smile touched her lips and she motioned. “Now…quit stalling. Drink up.”
Reena held her nose and downed the noxious concoction. Shuddering, she handed back the empty flask. “I wish something could be done to make that more palatable.” Her tongue seemed to be coated with the stuff.
“Its potency is greatest at full strength.”
Her mutinous stomach rebelled, and Reena pressed a hand to her abdomen, praying for the vile herb to stay down. If she vomited, Honna would mix another draught. Accommodating on so many other matters, her cousin was a stickler when it came to health.
Honna pointed to a large boulder. “I’ll wait over there. Finish your swim.”
“Why don’t you join me? The water is glorious,” Reena invited. “Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been out of the palace in so long, but the pool seems larger.” At one side, leafy branches poked out of the water. She could have sworn the plants had once been rooted on the dry bank, but maybe her memory was hazy.
“It has,” Honna said. “All of our pools and streams have swelled over their banks.” She motioned for Reena to swim.
“Please? Join me? We haven’t done anything for fun in a long time. It will be like it used to be.” Having desired to be alone at first, now she wished for company to relive the days when she hadn’t a care in the world. Before responsibilities then illness had taken over her life, she and her cousin used to swim together all the time. As children, they’d received lessons; Honna was a stronger swimmer than Reena even.
“Not today.” Honna shooed her deeper. “Hurry—before she comes back.” She took a seat on the boulder.
Reena dove into the water with a splash. She could hold her breath for many minutes—far longer than Carinda would have been comfortable with. It would have been impossible to enjoy herself with the bodyguard hovering as if she would expire at any moment. True, she was going to die, but it wouldn’t be today. She glided beneath the surface, grateful and happy that she felt well enough to swim and could enjoy the pool.
The first cramp grabbed her in the deepest part of the pool. She doubled over, expelling the air from her chest, and then sucked in a mouthful of water on the inhale. Agony exploded in her lungs.
Don’t panic. Trying to ignore the pain, she shot upward. She broke the surface, coughing and gasping. “Honna!” Another excruciating spasm hit and knotted her stomach. “Honna! Help!” she cried, scissoring her arms and legs to tread water. The boulder was vacant. Where is my cousin?
Her gaze darted over the sandy beach. There! Her cousin stood off to the side.
“Help me, Honna!” Her cousin seemed to stare right at her but made no move to enter the water. Stabbed by white-hot darts, muscles twisted, and Reena went under. Liquid filled her mouth, her nose. Flailing arms and legs, she sank to the bottom, holding her breath while her lungs threatened to burst.
I’m going to die.
Let go, death tempted. No more sickness. No more bitter herbs. No more.
Reena kicked to the surface. “Honna!” she screamed, using the last reserves of energy. She had enough time to suck in a breath before the next cramp dragged her under.
Please, Goddess, not like this…not like this…
Find The Goddess’s Curse at these sites:
Sharona women and barbarian Lahon men maintain separate lives until libidinal fever strikes, and the Sharona are forced to mate.
Stricken by a mysterious terminal illness, Reena, the Sharona queen’s daughter, jumps at the chance to accompany a cousin on her mating journey so she can at least see a Lahon before she dies.
Garat, leader of the Lahon, has only hatred for the Sharona because of the woman who birthed and killed his son years ago. Now that a massive earthquake has left his people with precious little water, he has the perfect excuse to avenge his son’s death by driving the Sharona from their homeland to take what the Lahon need.
When he encounters Reena on the mating journey he takes her hostage to force the Sharona to capitulate to his demands, but finds himself drawn to her instead. As his desire rises, lust for revenge wanes.