My Protector by J. C. Wilder

My Protector
by J.C. Wilder
Summary: A Major from the 21st Century is revived in the 22nd to face life as a slave to the empress in a society under rebellion.

Prologue

Weeks of suffering from a mysterious illness had dramatically changed the Empress of Dethra from a vibrant woman to a frail bag of bones. Knowing death was near she summoned what strength she had left and called for her daughter. She desperately hoped Sarika was ready to take on all the responsibilities of leadership. Ready or not, she would become the new empress at a time when rebellion threatened the empire. Sarika’s religious activities left little room for the strategies of politics and warfare. Her daughter would have to depend on the Council of Elders for guidance as she herself had done. The Empress hoped to pass on to Sarika more than a mantle of responsibility.

The Princess arrived, pale auburn hair mingling with the green of her robe gliding behind her. She brushed past the somber-faced priestesses and elders to reach her mother’s bedside. Clutching her daughter’s hands to her chest the frail empress sought to empower her only child.

“The future of Dethra is with you Sarika. Don’t waste time mourning over me when my spirit leaves, but take care to rule wisely and put an end to this rebellion of the Menials. The empire must not fall.”

Sarika moved closer to grip her mother’s hands while remaining mindful of her position and the importance of showing no weakness. As she always did when she felt tears threaten to betray her, she thrust her delicate chin forward and rose to the occasion.

“It will be as you ask mother.”

Words came much softer now as the Empress allowed herself to gaze fondly into her daughter’s liquid green eyes.

“I know it will. But you will need more than the priestesses and elders to help you restore peace to Dethra, and more than the spirits of your ancestors. Before long you will enter the time of union. Your power will increase with the strength of your mate.”

Sarika frowned, a brief lapse in her self-control. She had not selected anyone from among the eligible. She was not physically attracted to any of them even though the unmarried ones had made their interest in her clear one way or another. Even now she could feel Elder Tai-Po watching her with what she believed to be lust. She wished she could be alone with her mother but protocol would not allow it.

“Since you haven’t chosen yet,” the Empress continued, “join yourself with me and together we will call forth a vision of the Protector and hasten him to come to you daughter.”

Elder Tai-Po stood close to the Empress and her daughter, trusting that their vision would be of him. He considered himself the best choice and he wanted Princess Sarika. He watched her grow from a spoiled and precocious child to a spoiled and beautiful young woman. A woman whose aura of power wielded from that sensual little body stirred his passion to a fevered pitch. Although it was forbidden, he watched Sarika during her morning meditation in the palace garden. Every sunrise he found himself responding to the sight of her rising from the sacred pond and while enjoying this irreligious voyeurism he often pleasured himself to his own vision of her body beneath his. Now Tai-Po stifled a groan, acknowledging to himself that he would soon have her. Eyes narrowed, he watched the Empress and her daughter place their hands on each other’s temples.

The Empress spoke to her daughter without using her voice. Focus from the center of you being and join with me. We seek your mate, the Protector. Who will it be? Perspiration began to bead on the faces of both women as Sarika’s life force joined with her mother’s and together they reached into the unknown, searching.

Sarika searched with her whole being. ‘Who?’ She felt a new and unexplainable yearning well up inside of her and flow over her own boundary. ‘Where are you? I need you. Come to me.’ An image began to take shape and both women felt the joy of success until the form became clear. The Empress gasped and the color drained from her daughter’s face while they both surveyed the striking olive-skinned figure. Windblown hair, long and black as midnight, whipped across lean-muscled shoulders. Pale blue eyes revealed a spirit of great passion. Strong hands rested on hips supported by exquisitely formed thighs and calves, balanced on long-toed feet. Altogether, unfathomable strength and purpose radiated from the person before them. Unlike anyone Sarika had ever seen before, the woman was as beautiful as she was unexpected. And whoever she was, she would never be the Protector. Mother and daughter pulled their hands away and the vision vanished leaving Sarika with a disturbing sense of loss.

The Empress stretched a trembling hand to her daughter’s shoulder and pulled her down until lips were close to her ear and she whispered breathlessly, “The woman must be a key to finding your mate…. She’s on her way here. Let her be your counselor. That’s the role I sense the dark one to have in your life…Listen to her with your heart.”

“I will mother.”

Part One

The changing sleep patterns of middle age were unpleasant for Dr. Holis and she responded to the midnight call with bleary eyes and a nasty attitude. She was thankful to whichever benevolent spirit of nature it was that gave her the strength to hide her irritation from Elder Tai-Po. And when she saw the broken body of her patient she quickly slipped into her role of efficient healer, forgetting her vexation. She assessed the damage with a hand held scanner.

“Who is this unfortunate soul, a Menial from the outer realm?” She had gotten used to treating slaves brought to her by the elder and assumed this was the latest runaway.

Tai-Po struggled briefly with his thoughts about how much to tell the doctor. “No,” he slowly responded and ran thick fingers absently over his mottled goatee, both gray and brown. “The wreckage of her craft leaves many questions only she can answer since the rest of her crew are dead. When will she be able to talk.”

Cara finished scanning and programmed her mechanical assistant to begin the healing process, including a healthy dose of anesthesia to keep her patient unconscious during the most intense mending that would take place during the next eighteen hours. Her patient had lost half of her normal blood volume, suffered multiple broken bones in her limbs along with damage to her liver and intestines. She had a concussion and skull fractures but the brain itself was intact. All things considered, she was a lucky woman, whoever she was.

“She should be up and about and able to answer your questions in twenty-four hours”.

After placing a drop of blood in another scanning device, Cara waited a few seconds and then read what information the general data library contained about her patient. She inhaled sharply before turning to look at the elder.

“This can’t be right. Who is this woman?”

Tai-Po smiled grimly, revealing uneven teeth. “I checked the same data myself. Impossible as it seems, our patient was born in the year nineteen ninety-two AD, nearly a thousand years ago.”

Cara stared in awe at her patient as the Healer whirred and whined, bringing flesh and bone back together, sealing vessels and linking nerves that the doctor could not see. In a short time there would be little evidence of any injury at all. Realizing the anthropological opportunity that her new patient provided, Cara looked forward to tomorrow when she would regain consciousness. First hand information about what life was like a thousand years ago would break up the monotony around the palace and give them something to talk about other than the damnable rebellion. As she considered the welcome novelty, Tai-Po broke into her thoughts.

“And as I said Cara, there are many questions to be answered. Don’t tell anyone else about this patient until I’ve talked with her.” He tilted his head down to Cara in an intimidating gesture. “Agreed?”

“I understand Elder.” Cara felt relieved when he left abruptly. Tai-Po was the least liked of the elders, and the most feared. He was obviously courting Empress Sarika and Cara hoped the new empress would not take him as her mate. The only thing he cared about was himself. The Empress and the Empire deserved better.

_______O_______

“Brace yourselves for impact,” Major Ramsey shouted to her crew. One minute they were getting a closer look at a bantam asteroid only a short distance from earth and the next all hell broke loose. In rapid motion the asteroid and her ship collided. Their small spacecraft had not been built to withstand such an event. Bright flashes of light blinded her. The next thing she was aware of was the rapid descent of her ship through earth’s atmosphere and the instructions she shouted came automatically. They were going to hit hard. Her last emotion was regret that she could not save her crew.

A dull throbbing pain at the side of her head got her attention and she opened her eyes to see why she could not raise her hand. “What the…. ?” She was lying bare naked strapped to a metal bed.

Cara looked up from her desk and moved to stand close to her patient, speaking with a reassuring tone.

“Glad to see you’re awake. The restraints are only a precaution until you’ve talked with Elder Tai-Po.”

Ramsey calmed herself after rejecting the thought that she was literally in Hell. She wondered at the unusual accent of the gray-haired woman. “Who are you? Where is my crew?”

“I’m Dr. Holis, Cara Holis.” She covered Ramsey with a blanket and her tone turned sympathetic. “I’m sorry to say there were no other survivors of the crash.” She allowed Ramsey a minute to process the bad news.

“The Elder will be here in a while and he’ll have questions for you. It would be wise for you to answer truthfully. I just got you healed and I don’t want to have to do it all over again. In the meantime feel free to ask me anything you want while I check the Healer’s work.”

With the scientist’s eye for perfection she noted that there was no signs of trauma to be found on Laren Ramsey’s body as she scanned her once again. But the mind was another matter. She wished to ask her how she happened to crash and how it was that she was nearly a thousand years old. What was Dethra like a thousand years ago? Her dread of Tai-Po prevented such questions.

Ramsey had lost comrades before and it always left her sad and angry. And this time they were under her command. She was responsible for their lives and now they were dead. She should have died, not her crew. She pushed away her grief.

“Alright doctor, where am I?”

Looking into Ramsey’s striking blue eyes at that moment produced a tremor that moved along Cara’s spine. Now that she was no longer a smashed bloody mess, Laren Ramsey looked extraordinary. She seemed no more than thirty years old with a physical presence that could not be ignored. This one was strong. If Tai-Po could not find a use for her, he would probably feel compelled to break her before he killed her. She did not want to feel empathy for Ramsey, but could not help herself.

“You are in the palace of the Empress.”

“Empress?”

“Yes. The Empress of Dethra.”

“Of Dethra?” Ramsey repeated Cara’s words again as though she were doing a parody of a well-trained parrot. “We’re on earth, right?”

“Oh, yes. Dethra used to be called earth a millenium ago.”

“A millenium ago? What year is this?”

So she does not know, thought Cara. “Well, it’s not the twenty-first century.”

“You mean it’s the thirty-first century?”

“Not yet, but soon it will be. Well, we don’t keep track of years that way anymore and it’s actually the year four hundred and eight of the Era of Peace. But it would seem that you were born about a thousand years ago. Nineteen ninety-two, right?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“Recorded history. Even the minute details are in our data library, up until you and your crew disappeared in the year two thousand and twenty. You must have been twenty-eight years old.”

“Yeah.”

“But you’re not dead.”

“Seems not– The last thing I remember is an asteroid hitting my ship. Wait– there was a change in motion before the asteroid hit us. Everything seemed to speed up. I think we entered a time-space distortion of some sort that caused the collision and brought us into the future. A thousand years forward apparently. What do you think Dr. Holis?”

“Young woman, I think you’ve traveled a very long way and that you can call me Cara.”

_______O_______

Tai-Po entered the infirmary with a flourish and scowled. “Why didn’t you notify me that Ramsey had regained consciousness?”

“She hasn’t been awake for more than a few minutes Elder.”

Ramsey disliked the man immediately. She was repulsed by the edge of fear she heard in Cara’s voice.

“Leave us now. I have many things to ask and I’m sure you have better things to do than watch us talk Cara.”

“All right. But remember she’s been through a lot already.”

“I forget nothing, including insolence. Leave us.” Cara reluctantly left hoping her patient would not be harmed again so soon.

Tai-Po turned his intimidating look to Ramsey who was now amused by him.

“Ask away”, she smiled winsomely and looked down at her restrained wrists, “I promise not to leave.”

“Don’t be coy Major Ramsey, it doesn’t suit you.”

“Coy? I apologize for giving you that impression Elder…. Elder Tai-Po isn’t it?”

“You may call me Elder Tai-Po, yes. And if you answer my questions satisfactorily you will go free. Why are you here Ramsey?”

No more ‘Major’. Ramsey thought it was interesting that he insisted on using his title though. “I’m here as a result of a freak accident I figure. My crew and I had a little asteroid to watch and suddenly everything speeded up and our ship collided with it. The next thing I knew we were going down through the atmosphere and here I am. Apparently a thousand years has gone by since I left. Do you know of anything like this happening before?”

“No, never. And because I haven’t, even though our data library confirms your identity, I’m not convinced that your arrival here is accidental. You know we are in the midst of a rebellion.”

“No, I didn’t know.”

“Yes, a rebellion that will change everything and bring down the Empire of Dethra if it isn’t stopped soon. It’s a rebellion of the inferior class against the superior, slaves against the free. How do you feel about that Ramsey?”

“I admit I don’t like the idea of slavery and it was not allowed by the government of my time.”

“That’s right, it wasn’t. And guess what happened. Anarchy took over before the end of the next generation. Famine and disease and ignorance resulted. We lost much through the second age of darkness. It took a long time for mankind to become healthy again. We had world peace for more than four hundred years, and now the hard-won order is being shattered by the arrogance of reprobate Menials. They poison the minds of others and we are losing hold of the Era of Peace. Everyone must fall into one of two categories Ramsey, categories that you may not accept. You may even be here to bring down the Empire. Are you?” Tai-Po looked at a monitor near Ramsey.

“No. No, I’m not here for political reasons. It’s just a terrible accident. My crew is dead and I suppose I should be too.”

Ramsey turned melancholy. She had lost her soldiers and everything that was familiar to her, including her family and friends.

“I don’t know what’s happened to the world and I will leave the politics to the politicians. I always have.”

“It seems you are not lying. Still, I am not sure about you yet. You are a soldier, an officer who’s led successful military campaigns for political power.”

Tai-Po noted the elevation of Ramsey’s vital signs reflected in the monitor along with the intensity that he doubted she could keep out of her eyes even if she wanted to. She was really a remarkable specimen. The only thing that kept her from being beautiful was her dark skin. That and the fact that if she was standing she would be taller than he was.

He projected, “You don’t like me do you?”

“No, not much.”

“The feeling is mutual Ramsey, so you won’t be surprised about what I have decided.” A flash of Tai-Po’s grin warned her that she was not going to like his decision. “I will remove your restraints but not until you’ve been given the collar of a Menial. You will be my slave and if you please me, I will let you live. I will reconsider your life on a daily basis.”

The elder was not disappointed at the lack of fear in her eyes because he was anticipating the pleasure of giving her pain until hatred turned to fear, and then he would kill her. She might have been a superior woman in her time, but her time was long gone.

_______O_______

The warmth of the morning sun became unpleasant as the day wore on and believing herself to be isolated while she worked in the palace garden, Ramsey stripped down to her loincloth. For three days Major Ramsey had worn the black metal ring of a slave around her neck. She had learned that Tai-Po could cause her to drop to her knees in pain by merely pressing a black spot on his bracelet. He teased her with it, sometimes making her drop for no reason other than his whim. At night he threatened her with death.

‘So this is the future’, Ramsey thought with disgust. ‘People abusing people.’ She was glad that she had not had children. She had no descendents to be a part of this monstrous atrocity.

Time passed quickly and Laren was learning how to lose herself in the simple tasks assigned to her. She had not weeded a garden since she was a teenager at her grandmother’s ranch. She remembered and let her fingers play in the dark soil enjoying the texture. She loved the smell of the earth. Earth. Ha! Strange how good it feels to laugh even when my life is over. This is no longer earth, it is Dethra, Laren thought bitterly.

Inside the palace Empress Sarika was losing patience with one of her Menials.

“What do you mean you can’t fix the biosystem today? It’s positively awful in here and I want it fixed by this evening. Get more slaves to help if you need to but do it quickly Talbert.”

“I’ll do everything in my power Empress, but the system is ancient. I can’t find the schematics anywhere and the data library shows completely different wiring than what it actually has. Nobody does this kind of thing anymore.”

Talbert stopped when he realized he was whining and from the corner of his eye he could she the enchanting features of the Empress take on a pink glow.

“I’ll keep at it Empress.”

“Good. Now go.” Sarika allowed her personal slaves to place a cool compress on her brow and fan her while she sipped her favorite ice tea. She just began to feel better when a slave announced that Elder Tai-Po sought an audience with her. She waved away the compress and fans.

“I will receive him.”

Tai-Po entered with his usual fanfare, elegant robes flowing behind him. When he reached Sarika he got down on one knee, smoothed his goatee and placed a lingering kiss over the ring on her right hand.

Sarika inquired, “What concerns you that couldn’t wait until the council meeting in the morning Elder?”

It had been one week since her mother’s death and still Sarika had not softened to him, treating him with the same formality as the other elders. The Empress had not revealed who her mate was to be and his sureness that her vision had been of him was beginning to wane. He had already earned a terrible afterlife to get her. He would not allow anyone else to have her and he had decided to pressure her into accepting him.

“More attacks from runaways Empress. I need your approval to use level four nerve gas.”

“But that would contaminate the area for years, would it not?”

“Yes. But the renegade Menials have managed to make an antidote for the level three agent. They are approaching the boundary of the Holy Estate. It’s either the gas or the fire laser from one of our few workable aircraft. Either way there will be long lasting effects on the environment.” Her spiritual training was extreme and demanded that she protect the environment. How could she make the decision to act?

He noticed her look of pained indecision and his small spirit was glad.

“Empress, I long to help you with this. I would give anything to make this easier for you…. Have you considered making me the Protector of Dethra? You must know by now that I care for you very deeply.” He wanted to say more but he knew anything more would not be tolerated.

“I have considered many things, Elder.”

Sarika felt sick. Her vision of the dark woman with the blue eyes made little sense and before long she would have to take a mate. Her body itself would demand it. How unfortunate that Tai-Po was the best candidate. She had never liked him. His manipulations and harsh nature were not lost on her. But she did not have to give in to him today.

“I will consider your words Elder Tai-Po, and I will leave the decision about how to retaliate against the runaways for tomorrow. We will discuss it further with the rest of the elders during Council. In the meantime dispatch our crafts to blast sound waves. That will keep them from advancing too quickly.”

She was dismissing him again and he barely managed to hide his rage. She would not be able to put him off much longer. In two weeks she would celebrate her eighteenth birthday and the ritual of womanhood would bring on an irresistible drive to mate. The last empress who refused to mate had gone insane and killed herself. She will not say yes to me now but soon she will be begging me to take her. Who else would she choose? None of the other elders will compete with me any more. Her choice is simple. She must mate with me and make me the Protector of Dethra or die. With that thought Tai-Po’s rage left him and he offered the Empress a genuine smile that almost made him handsome before taking his leave.

Sarika yearned to be free from the responsibilities that lay heavily on her shoulders. The relief she found in a cool bath was only temporary and again feeling out of sorts she wandered to the balcony where she let her mind drift until her eyes settled on the lone figure of a Menial working in the garden. Rising from the ground laughing, the slave removed what little clothing she wore, standing tall and naked in the bright sunlight. Her skin glistened with the sheen of perspiration, her magnificent form marred only by the black collar around her neck. She glanced up and Sarika felt a jolt pass through her. ‘Those eyes. By all that exists in the universe and beyond, it is my vision in the flesh.’ And then her vision dove cleanly into the sacred pond. Rising quickly to the surface her long arms sliced through the water and her body glided smoothly away until the definition of her remarkably muscled frame could no longer be seen, only to reach the edge and turn to swim back again. Not daring to take her eyes from the dark-haired woman, Sarika uncharacteristically yelled for her slave.

“Celeste, come quickly.”

And Celeste came quickly to her. “Yes Empress?”

Nodding her chin to the pool below she demanded, “Who is that slave in the pond?”

Celeste gasped at the sacrilege unfolding below. Only the Empress was allowed to enter the sacred pond where she offered her morning prayers. “Her name is Ramsey and she belongs to Elder Tai-Po, Empress. She’s new to the palace and obviously has not been told about the sacred water. I will tell her.”

Sarika motioned for Celeste to be still, her cheeks blushed. “No, just bring her to me.”

“As you wish, Empress,” she responded, and made her way across the royal suite and down in the ancient elevator that made sounds of protest she had learned to ignore.

When she reached the garden she was relieved to find Ramsey out of the water and dressing. The slave was tall and the way she turned and looked directly at her caused Celeste to wish that she were not alone with her.

“The Empress has summoned you. Please follow me.”

“Really? The Empress? What does she want with me?”

“You just swam in her sacred pond.” Celeste was pleased that Ramsey was willing to follow her. “But I don’t think she wants to punish you.” Celeste recalled the expression on Empress Sarika’s face as she watched Ramsey swim and in all her years with the young woman she had never seen that particular expression before. She did not look angry exactly. “I don’t know, maybe she is curious.”

“So when I meet her should I bow or something?”

“Yes, and do not look directly into her eyes. Do whatever she says without question. She holds the spirit of The Source and you must show that you respect both her sacredness and her authority.”

Seeing the look of astonishment that played quickly across Ramsey’s face, Celeste felt a twinge of pity for her.

“It is true, isn’t it?”

“What’s true?”

“That you come from a place so far away that you are ignorant.”

“I don’t like being called ignorant and I’m getting enlightened real fast. Tell me, does the Empress give you much pain?”

“No, never. And you mustn’t talk about pain, especially around the Empress. She doesn’t like it.”

“Well now, that makes two of us”, laughed Ramsey.

Celeste felt trouble brewing. Ramsey had the temperament of a runaway. Nevertheless, she did as she was instructed and brought her to stand before the Empress who waited for Ramsey to bow before addressing her.

Ramsey had never met an empress before and did not know where to put her hands and she finally looked at Celeste for help. Celeste mouthed the word ‘bow’. Ramsey’s dark hair brushed the floor as she bowed elegantly.

Sarika sighed with relief. “Tell me your name slave.” Her voice wavered and she wished the woman could look at her.

“Ramsey. Major Laren Ramsey your Highness.” She let her eyes rest on the delicate fingers that grasped the arms of a chair barely small enough for the woman in front of her.

“You may call me Empress Sarika. Or just Empress. You have an unusual name. I have traveled the world and never seen hair or eye color like yours. And you form words strangely. Where were you born Major Laren Ramsey?”

“Texas. Empress, please call me Ramsey.” The Empress had a soothing voice and she wanted to match the sounds with her expressions. Ramsey thought it was awkward, not being able to look at her directly.

“Tell me Ramsey, where in the universe is Texas?”

“Not that it matters much, but didn’t Tai-Po tell you anything about me?”

“No. Elder Tai-Po didn’t. Should he have?”

Suddenly Ramsey was looking into her eyes. Sarika descended into clear blue stillness and felt as though she was in deep spiritual meditation. Radiant warmth filled her. She had never before seen eyes as exquisite as this, nor felt such a welcome connection to another person, let alone a Menial.

Ramsey was surprised that the Empress was so young. The tone of her voice did not match her youth. And her eyes were hypnotic. Ramsey felt drawn to her and the strength of it startled her to anger. This young woman was considered to be holy yet she ruled over an evil empire. And that made her evil.

“I don’t think you’ve had anyone from Texas in Dethra before Empress, I thought the novelty of it would have been mentioned to you.”

The sarcastic flavor was not lost on Sarika who snapped back as the stillness in Ramsey’s eyes was devoured by a hostile flare. No one had dared look at her so before. She was loath to say what came next but knew she must.

“Watch yourself slave and avert your eyes from mine.” Ramsey clenched her jaw but obeyed the young empress. “You’re arrogant and would not last long with Elder Tai-Po. It’s a blessing for you that I claim you for my own.” She scribbled a note and handed it to Celeste. “Take this to the Elder and tell him that my decision is final.”

“But Empress, the Elder will.…”

“She is no longer the concern of the Elder. My message will be enough Celeste.”

Celeste brooded in the elevator. Trouble was brewing all right. This slave would not do for the Empress. She did not even belong in the palace.

Sarika dismissed the remaining slaves except Ramsey who was struggling with the idea of being claimed by the young woman, empress or not. Sensing Ramsey’s distress Sarika rose.

“Kneel before me Ramsey.”

Ramsey kept her eyes averted from the petit empress but remained standing. No one had dared defy her this way before.

“You became mine the moment you entered the sacred pond. Now kneel.”

Still Ramsey stood and it was Sarika who shook slightly. She had to establish her authority now or Ramsey would be no good to her and she was sure that the magnificent person who defied her was the key that would help her find her mate, although she realized that Ramsey did not know it. Before her mother died she told her to listen to the counsel of the dark woman of the vision. She was willing to listen but only after she knew she could trust her. She used her most commanding tone against the resistance of the tall woman.

“Kneel Ramsey.”

Watching the still body she experienced desperation for the first time in her young life. She pointed an arm toward her slave and her finger touched the black spot on her bracelet. Ramsey fell solidly to her knees, gasping in shock at the shriveling, burning pain consuming her.

Sarika raised her chin and removed her finger from her bracelet. A shudder of empathy passed through her.

“I didn’t like doing that. Obey me from now on and I will never have to do it again.”

Ramsey filled her lungs with air while the searing pain began to subside. She had learned her lesson and would do her best to obey her new owner. She had thought nothing could hurt worse than Tai-Po’s torture but now she knew there was worse torment at the hands of her new owner.

Sarika knew it would be several minutes before Ramsey could stand. She placed her hand on the olive-skinned cheek.

“Will you do what I say?” There was regret in her face but Ramsey could not look into her eyes and did not see it.

“Yes– Empress.”

“Good.”

Sarika touched the silky black hair in a comforting gesture and knew that she was the one seeking comfort. She hoped her new slave did not force her to use the collar again. It was positively awful. And the growing need she felt to look into her eyes a second time was distressing. The attraction and the alarming power of it confused her. Forcing herself to step away from the slave, Sarika chose to lighten her mood.

“Tell me what kind of abilities you have, besides gardening and swimming.”

Pushing humiliation aside, Ramsey answered her new owner.

“I’m a military officer and a pretty good pilot, not too bad with computerized electronics and I make great chili. By the way, your elevators and cooling system could use some repair.”

Sarika gaped. “Who are you?”

“You can read all about me in the library I’ve been told.”

Walking to her work desk Sarika touched several places on it’s top and began to read aloud: “Ramsey, Laren Justice… Major, United States of America Airforce. Born November 26, 1992 AD and died December 2, 2020…. Led several successful missions against the Nation of China before her death at the age of 28 while commanding a craft that collided with an asteroid….” Sarika stopped reading and stared at Ramsey. “Very funny”, she said without humor. “What is your true name?”

“That’s it Empress.” Hoping to avoid another dose of pain, Ramsey made a suggestion. “Please, talk to Dr. Holis and she’ll confirm it. So could Elder Tai-Po if he would. He’s the one that found me half dead after my ship crashed.”

“And you expect me to believe that you’re nine hundred and sixty-three years old?”

“I’m about as old as Methuselah. I know I look younger don’t I?” She wished the Empress would tell her to look at her so she could see her sincerity. She did not.

“Please, talk with the doctor.”

“I will slave. If you are lying you will regret it and if you aren’t, then Elder Tai-Po will regret withholding the information.”

_______O_______

Wishing she had not missed the inspiring calm of noon meditation, Dr Cara Holis popped a couple of serenity pills into her mouth before responding to the summons. And still she was anxious, sitting in front of her young ruler while telling her just about everything she knew about Major Laren Ramsey. Chattering as if they were the best of friends, she knew that if her nervousness was annoying to her it must be even more so to the Empress.

“Yes indeed, Ramsey was quite the bloody mess when I first laid eyes on her, what with broken bones sticking out everywhere.” She paused only to take a breath. “But she healed very nicely, wouldn’t you say so Empress Sarika? I am so sorry for rambling but I…”

Sarika boldly grazed her eyes across Ramsey. “It’s all right Dr. Holis, I agree with your assessment.” She admired the glow of health shining from the strong figure. So different from others, and the difference thrilled her.

Ramsey could not see where the eyes of the Empress lingered but the sultry gaze may as well have been a caress. Once nicknamed Major Machismo because of her physical prowess and stoic demeanor, Ramsey now wondered at the warmth flooding her. Was it embarrassment? She thought that it must be, and had to marshal her will to keep from telling the young woman to stop whatever it was she was doing to her, empress or not. Instead, she spoke to the nervously fidgeting doctor.

“Cara, what convinced you that I am Major Ramsey?”

“The Elder convinced me. I mean, I didn’t really believe you were from the twenty-first century until Elder Tai-Po said he personally checked the data. And everything about you fit someone from that Era. Your dark skin, hair and height. Haven’t you noticed we all have brown hair and eye color? I mean all except the Empress?” Cara tilted her head toward the colorful Empress with dazzling light auburn hair and green eyes.

Cara was physician to the Holy Empress and knew her unusual coloring was due to the unique mating process that did not just require the joining of two people in the usual manner, but a medical procedure similar to cloning. Hair and eye color, along with telepathic kinetic abilities were thereby passed down from mother to daughter. An Empress always inherited more from her mother than her father.

The rest of humanity, what was left after the Second Age of Darkness, procreated the usual way until they shared a similar coloring of their own. The only thing differentiating them was whether they wore the bracelet of a Ruler or the collar of a Menial. Rulers were born to Rulers and Menials to Menials. Elder Tai-Po broke the pattern by putting a collar on Ramsey.

Cara continued her reasoning, her audience oblivious to the pause. “Yes, when the Elder confirmed the Library’s data then it made sense. You were listed as dead nine hundred and thirty-five years ago because somehow you crashed here. You said you must’ve entered a time distortion didn’t you?– Ramsey?”

It seemed that the time-traveler stared at the Empress. And if she was not mistaken her Empress was staring at Ramsey. Cara was shocked that the Empress allowed the intimacy and waited silently, feeling the tension.

Ramsey wondered what force caused her to look unguarded at the young woman. The Empress saw into her soul, and knowing that she also saw into the soul of the Empress paradoxically relieved her embarrassment.

Sarika sank again into the blue depths of her slave’s eyes. She believed. Ramsey was different from all others; she was from another time. And she knew Ramsey was as confused about it as everyone else. Perhaps she and her mother had even caused her to be here. Some things, she knew, could not be explained. She respected the mystical elements. Before she died her mother said this woman would be her counselor, but what could someone from nine centuries past tell her that she did not already know?

Ramsey felt a growing desire to speak to the Empress. “Trust me. I will always tell you the truth,” she finally said.

Sarika saw the gleaming white smile and was captivated. Her chin thrust forward.

“I do.”

The brief statements were meant as promises and sealed a bond between them. The intensity of the moment lessened when Ramsey looked away. Sarika was amazed that she felt the presence of the newcomer so forcefully. Turning to Cara, she willed her rapidly beating heart to calm.

“Why wasn’t I told about Ramsey days ago when she was found?”

Cara had been waiting for this question. “The Elder was in charge, Empress. I didn’t think it was my place.”

She wanted to add that the Elder had ordered her to keep Ramsey’s identity a secret but she did not intend to say anything Tai-Po would undoubtedly punish her for later.

“Of course.”

Sarika focused on Ramsey again, hoping the thrilling stimulation she felt at doing so was not projected to her slave. She could not always keep sudden responses from being telekinetically projected.

“Elder Tai-Po chose to make you his slave. Why.”

“He said he didn’t trust me since no one has been known to time travel before and I know how to wage military campaigns. But most of all, I think he wanted a target for his bracelet.” Ramsey fingered her black neck collar.

Sarika preferred that the Rulers use the bracelet only as a last resort for disciplining Menials and this was not the first time she it been implied that Tai-Po used pain liberally. Nothing could be done about Tai-Po unless another Ruler willing to report it witnessed the misuse. She was sorry that she herself had to discipline Ramsey with the bracelet. She had never felt such a mixture of distress and relief when Ramsey responded to the pain. Menials could not be allowed to ignore the authority over them, no matter how much one may like a slave, and pain induced by the collar was an effective way to insure obedience.

“Once the collar is worn, it can never be removed. Did you know this?”

“No. But I’m not surprised.”

Ramsey was a realist and thought nothing about Dethra could surprise her anymore, no matter how abhorrent.

“Perhaps it’s for the best that Elder Tai-Po made you a slave since you’re a foreigner and therefore could never be a Ruler. Everyone must be one or the other. To allow someone to live among us who is neither would disturb the order we strive to maintain. Since it is my duty as the Holy Empress to keep order, you will remain my slave, but know that I will be good to you. I will keep in mind that your adjustment is a process. And you will keep in mind that my authority is absolute.”

Ramsey had no other choice.

“Yes Empress.”

Sarika gracefully fanned her face.

“This evening you will tell me what the world used to be like.” She hoped the biosystem would be fixed by then. “In the meantime Dr. Holis can show you how to access the library. I want you to learn all you can about the world as it is, since this is your home now. And I will consider what work would be best for you.”

She dismissed the two women and contemplated the course of action she should take against Elder Tai-Po for keeping Ramsey a secret. She wanted to make it a harsh response but she needed him to help subdue the rebels, so it would be only a token. But perhaps for the proud elder, making him forfeit his chair at her right hand during council would be painful enough to make him think twice before keeping something important from her again.

_______O_______

Light from the clear ceiling of the library shone down onto Ramsey’s head making blue highlights. She could not gain access to all the information in the library but what she learned about the history of the world deepened her grief.

The war with China had ended with a nuclear holocaust that nearly desolated the earth. High tech systems were largely wiped out and radiation poisoned the food and water along with most of the people. Tai-Po was right. Sickness and anarchy reigned for a long time. Those who were strong hoarded resources and enslaved others to work for them.

A religion surfaced that was based on purifying the environment and establishing order. Status was determined by birth. Religion provided leadership for government and united the world under the office of the Holy Empress. But in the last few days the dissatisfaction of some of the slaves had grown into a rebellion that reached the borders of the Holy Land and would soon threaten the palace of the Empress.

Ramsey wondered what armaments were being used in this conflict but learned nothing other than that the Rulers had aircraft while the rebels did not. This advantage alone should have given victory to the Rulers long ago. Ramsey’s military mind was puzzled.

She learned that there were no emperors, only empresses. It seemed that only the females of the line of Dethra had the ability to impart cleansing to others, and to the environment. It was remarkable that the empresses resembled each other so much. Empress Vilell, Sarika’s mother, had been the twelfth, her life cut short by an unknown illness. Her holographic image revealed a beautiful woman in the prime of life. She died just a week ago, explaining the black robe that Empress Sarika wore. Her death also made Sarika the thirteenth empress of Dethra, an unlucky number according to superstition. And twelve had not been so fortunate either, Ramsey thought.

The sunlight pouring through the ceiling began to cause her discomfort and Ramsey decided she had spent enough time in the library for one day. She got up to leave and noticed the holographic screen at the next booth. It clearly represented the plot design for a temperature control unit, probably the one for the palace. Ramsey spoke to the man who watched the hologram with a frustrated expression.

“Have you been studying this design long?”

“All day and it still makes no sense. The actual system is not put together like this. The colors and connections are different and I can’t see how to fix it. Oh, I’m Talbert by the way.”

Ramsey noted the slave collar her wore and wondered how severely he would be punished if he could not fix the system soon.

“Ramsey. Pleased to meet you.” She made a quick decision.

“I know how to work on systems like this and I’d be glad to help, not only for the cooler air but to keep your owner from giving you the bracelet treatment. Who owns you?” If he said it was Tai-Po she had no doubt he would be cruelly punished.

“Are you kidding me?”

Talbert was willing to kiss the feet of this darkly majestic woman if she could help him fix the biosystem.

“I’ll take any help you can give, but not because the Empress would cause me that kind of pain. She never uses the bracelet on me. Actually, they say she’s never used the bracelet on anyone. But I don’t want her to be unhappy with me either. She can still make my life miserable, you know?”

Ramsey did not want to tell him that the Empress had used the bracelet to make an impression on her earlier in the day.

“Yeah, I know.”

Talbert showed her the biosystem control panels and she went to work, replacing coils and thin fiber wiring using magnifying lenses. She explained the layout to Talbert who was fascinated, thinking Ramsey was either making a mess of things or she was a genius. They turned on the repaired system and the air surrounding them quickly became more comfortable to breathe. He decided she was a genius.

Ramsey felt a surge of relief. “That should hold her for awhile. The next thing to go will be the microprocessors. We’ll have to make some if you don’t have any on stock. You know, this isn’t too different from my time.”

“Ha. What are you talking about, you’re younger than me, and this system is ancient.”

“I mean it’s not too different than the systems where I used to live.”

“Really? I didn’t know there were other biosystems around. Where are you from?”

“Texas”

“Never heard of it Ramsey, but I heard you came from some place pretty far away and that’s why you look different. Does everyone from Texas have black hair?”

“Nope.”

“Blue eyes?”

“No. There’s, variety back home, but Texas is pretty far away all right.”

“Sounds like you miss it.”

“I do. I’d give anything to go back.”

“Well, when I tell the Empress that you’re the one who fixed the biosystem, she just might be willing to grant you a visit back to Texas.”

“Somehow Talbert, I just don’t think so.”

_______O_______

Time was going by too fast for Sarika. She needed to find a way to stop the rebels with the least amount of damage to the environment possible, and she had to choose a mate before her birthday. The two tasks seemed impossible. Her evening prayers were filled with pleas for help and guidance from The Source, and the benevolent spirits of the dead.

When she heard audible voices in response she thought it was the result of taking too many serenity pills after meeting Ramsey. It sounded like her mother, telling her to listen with her heart. She waited for more but there was only the rumble of her stomach making her need for food known. She was not happy to have more mystery presented to her when it was answers that she needed.

Immediately after dining Sarika called for Ramsey.

“Talbert tells me the Palace has you to thank for fixing the biosystem. Thank you Ramsey.”

Remembering to keep her eyes averted, Ramsey bowed gracefully. “My pleasure Empress.”

“When we are alone like we are now, you have my permission to call me Sarika. Did you enjoy the Library?”

“Enjoy is not the word. But I caught up on the basics of world history over the past nine hundred years. It seems no one won the war. Not Asia and not North America.”

Sarika noted Ramsey’s sadness. “The holocaust was terrible. You’ve lost your family and your friends and you wonder if they suffered. I’m sorry. I too have lost someone close to me recently.”

“Your mother, I read. And I’m sorry for your loss Empress.”

“Sarika, I insist. Now sit and tell me about your life.” Sarika patted the cushion beside her.

Ramsey did not want to like the young woman before her. She reminded herself that she was a prisoner of sorts, and the Empress was the head jailer. She reminded herself of the bracelet on the wrist of the woman and the collar around her own neck. So when she sat next to her and reminisced about her past, she pretended that she was alone and Sarika was not a part of her world. She lost herself in the telling and forgot that she was speaking.

She remembered her dreams of wanting to be free and fly like the wind. Riding horses on the ranch her family had owned for generations. The face of her brother as they wrestled in the mud, his freckles disappearing. The hard work of branding cattle. The lessons about reaping what you sow, and if something was worth doing it was worth giving it your all-out best. The beauty of the big blue sky on a summer day that brought the family together for picnics. The excitement of summer storms and the first snow of winter. Cold hands, breaking the ice on the water troughs. Newborn animals. Togetherness. And the love of freedom. To have your own land and sit under your own tree. She remembered.

“Go on…. Continue Ramsey.” Sarika was enthralled by the beautiful prose that came from her slave’s mouth. She wanted to hear more of the rich voice, even if the ideas were strange. “You really rode a horse? And did everyone sit under their own tree?”

Startled by the voice and the hand on her thigh, Ramsey turned and looked at Sarika. She was lovely, leaning toward her with eyes wide and lips smiling in an altogether expectant pose. Ramsey’s stomach knotted.

“Not everyone Empress.” Ramsey turned her eyes away.

“No, I want you to look at me when we’re alone, and call me Sarika.”

Ramsey glanced at the hand on her leg and up to Sarika’s face, which had taken on a slight pout. She was really just a child who was used to getting her way. But a dangerous child, Ramsey knew.

“All right, Sarika.”

The Empress beamed with pleasure at hearing Ramsey say her name while looking in her eyes. Ramsey was startled, pleasure coursing through her and settling for a tingling, agonizing second between her legs. A child with a woman’s body, Ramsey amended. And Sarika was the first to break the contact, removing both her hand and her eyes from her slave, a look of shock on her face.

Oh shit! , Ramsey thought, knowing Sarika had seen the brief sexual response in her eyes. She felt humiliated again, a developing pattern she was determined to change.

“Can I go now?”

Sarika had just realized the nature of her attraction to Ramsey and although she was unaccustomed to the new thoughts forming in her mind, she was quickly adjusting. It was not forbidden for an empress to take a woman for a lover, just unusual. Even more unusual if the woman was a Menial but she was sure there was a precedent for such a relationship somewhere. And if not, she would set one.

She looked up at Ramsey with new eyes, sure of herself for the first time since becoming Empress.

“No you can’t go yet. I still have some things on my mind, and you will stay until I’m satisfied.”

Sarika wore confidence well. Too well, Ramsey thought. And suddenly she felt like prey for the young woman.

“What satisfaction can I give you?”

Now she purposefully projected her desire and ran her hand up Ramsey’s arm, cool skin rubbing warm until her hand found the slave collar at her neck.

“Tell me traveler, did you leave behind a mate?” Pressing herself against solid warmth, she felt her slave’s growing agitation and Sarika’s confidence wavered.

Ramsey’s skin tingled everywhere Sarika touched her and she was having difficulty thinking instead of feeling the delicious and yet unwelcome sensations.

“No. I have no mate.”

Sarika moved the back of her hand to caress her neck and jaw.

“But you were a soldier. Surely you have experienced sex.”

“Yeah,” Ramsey gasped and when Sarika placed her other hand on her thigh again, she stopped it from moving to more sensitive places by placing her own hand on top.

“Sex with a woman?”

Ramsey silently cursed herself for telling the Empress that she would always tell her the truth. “Yes.”

“Well I’ve never had a lover. You will be my first Ramsey, this is the satisfaction I need from you.”

She touched her lips to the olive-hued skin at Ramsey’s throat, causing her distraught slave to leap from the cushion.

“No.”

Sarika was confused again. “No? But you want me. I can feel your desire.”

“You felt my body responding, that’s all. I don’t love you, you don’t love me and I don’t want to be your lover.” Seeing the look of fury on Sarika’s face, Ramsey prepared herself for the pain of the collar.

“You dare defy me?”

“I don’t mean to be defiant. I’m telling you the truth. I told you I would always tell you the truth.”

Anger departed from the Empress when she saw the anxiety in her slave’s eyes and the brief thought of using the bracelet again was quickly rejected. Feelings that Ramsey inspired in her were almost out of control. And now she felt despair. If she felt this awful before the ritual of womanhood she did not want to imagine how she would feel in less than two weeks when the irresistible urge to mate took her over.

“Why won’t you love me?”

“You rule over me. I’m your slave. I’m not free to love you.”

She was the Empress and she would never beg although at that moment, looking at her splendid slave, she wished that she could. Her chin rose and she tore her eyes from the object of her yearning.

“Go then. Just go.”

When Ramsey left she took another pill. Just before she drifted into sleep she heard a voice from the Source once more.

‘Why do you hold on so tight to what you could so easily let go of?’

_______O_______

Without feeling rested Sarika arose and went half-heartedly to her morning prayers, numbly noting that the elevator did not offer it’s usual grumbling on her way down to the sacred pond.

When she got there the sight of Ramsey sleeping on the ground greeted her. She shook her slave and then put her fingers to her lips.

“Quiet, slave. I don’t want to alert the whole palace to our presence here. What are you doing here anyway?”

Ramsey rubbed her eyes. “I have no other place to sleep since you claimed me yesterday.” She watched as Sarika let the robe fall from her shoulders to the ground. “What are you doing?” She clutched the robe at Sarika’s feet and pulled it back up to her shoulders, bringing her breast to naked breast with the Empress since the robe remained open.

Sarika was rewarded with that tingling current she could not get out of her mind since she first felt it the night before. She placed her hands at the back of Ramsey’s neck and began to pull the dark head down for a much-desired kiss.

Ramsey knew what was happening and was powerless to stop it. The Empress pushed inexperienced lips against hers and the world spun around them.

Sarika heard herself moan when Ramsey took control of the kiss. Yes. This is what she needed. She had never felt so alive. The scent of the garden was potent but none of the blossoms smelled as good as Ramsey. The texture of her hot mouth was exciting beyond anything else she had ever experienced. She wanted to feel more of her.

“Oh,” she groaned when Ramsey pulled away only to claim her lips again in an even deeper kiss.

The sound of shattering glass broke the lover’s passionate reverie. Ramsey pushed Sarika to the ground and covered her with her own body, inadvertently pushing the air out of the smaller woman’s lungs.

“Who’s there?”

Ramsey looked around the perimeter of the garden. No one answered and Sarika struggled to move.

Once she caught her breath she decided she liked their position and wrapped her arms around Ramsey’s waist.

“No one’s here but us. I’m very happy that you changed your mind.” She began to taste the flesh of neck above her.

Ramsey felt the heat of passion stir again but this time she was prepared. “There is an attraction, I admit. But it’s not love and I haven’t changed my mind.” Ramsey rolled to the side and stood away from the little beauty. “It won’t happen again.”

Deciding she did not have time to push it, Sarika tossed the robe aside again, standing boldly before her stubborn slave. With a tone befitting a woman who was used to being obeyed, she flung out her instructions.

“Your sleeping arrangements will not be overlooked anymore. From now on you will spend your nights in my bed.”

“Where are you going to sleep?”

Not bothering to respond, Sarika dove into the water. Ramsey knew she had been dismissed and left to ask Celeste where she could find some breakfast, feeling as though she had no more control over her life.

Sarika let the water cool her until she was ready to meditate. Her morning prayers began with more than the usual thankfulness and ended with the never-ending need for guidance. The benediciton was odd. “I am willing to listen, mother. But I am going to have Ramsey, counselor or not.”

Her breakfast was not appetizing and she ate little of it. Her personal slaves wondered if she was ill but she assured them she was not and asked Celeste to get her council robe. Celeste knew that it was time and had it ready. She let Celeste dress her. It had been more than a week since she wore something other than the black of mourning. Unfortunately the purple robe clashed with her coloring and she defiantly added a long black scarf to match her mood before leaving her suite.

Tai-Po stroked his goatee while he simmered with jealousy and anger. His position in the council had been diminished and he no longer sat at the side of the Empress. Worse than that, he witnessed the lovemaking between the Empress and Ramsey in the garden. The Empress was giving to Ramsey what belonged to him.

Where was the fairness in life, he wondered. How could the Empress do this to him? But it would change. The Ramsey bitch had thrown his plans back a bit, that was all.

He stood with the eleven other elders when Sarika entered the hall, bowing and speaking in unison with the others, greeting the Holy Empress.

Sarika let it be known that she was as committed as her mother before her, to end the rebellion of the Menials but not at the expense of undo harm to the environment. Level four gas was a last resort, and not the choice she wanted to make today. She polled each elder for another plausible solution and one-by-one they failed to provide anything useful. Finally she reached Tai-Po. And he put in motion his revised plan.

“I think there is another solution. We have here at the Palace an expert in weapons and military strategy, someone who could probably repair some of our ancient weapons like she did the biosystem yesterday. Weapons that maim but don’t kill and won’t harm the environment. An ancient to restore what is ancient.”

The Elders looked to the Empress to explain what Tai-Po was talking about.

Sarika wondered why she hadn’t thought of it herself. Of course, Ramsey was an expert in computerized electronics. “Elder Tai-Po refers to Major Laren Ramsey, someone he rescued from a crash just days ago. Her undeniable identity is of someone who fought in the third world war, just before the nuclear holocaust.”

Astonished exclamations and questions erupted from the elders. Sarika quieted them with a raised arm. “What is important now is that she is the only one who knows how to make the ancient weapons useful for us. Tai-Po may have the right idea. But Ramsey is my slave and must be monitored by someone who knows more about the weapons more than I do.”

Tai-Po was the first to offer. “I would be glad to oversee Ramsey’s work.”

Sarika hoped another elder would volunteer but the rest of the council members agreed that Tai-Po was the most knowledgeable about the weapons of the ancients.

“So be it then. I will have Ramsey report to you Elder Tai-Po but I expect a progress report at least twice a day and you can anticipate that I will be making onsite appraisals at the garrison.”

She had learned that she could not trust Tai-Po completely and she did not want to hear that he was using the bracelet to torment Ramsey as he did when she was his slave. But for now, she had little choice but to give him his way.

Tai-Po showed his uneven teeth through a tight-lipped grin. “May your trust in me be fully regained Empress. Check whenever you like.” His little Celeste would let him know when she was coming to visit, he had no fear.
Part 2

Giving herself over to total fascination, she stood in the doorway to her imperial chambers and watched. She was unused to the way she felt when her slave was near, enlivened and peculiarly weak at the same time. Breathless.

Major Ramsey was tall and exotic. This afternoon she wore only the black collar and a white loincloth. The word ‘glorious’ took soundless form on the lips of Empress Sarika, who was rapidly coming of age at an unfortunate time. Responsibilities seemed endless to her after her mother’s death. The Rebellion of renegade Menials threatened to bring chaos to the empire and even though her obligation to end the conflict required her full attention, the sovereign’s mind was more occupied with her new slave than her duties.

Ramsey’s sable-black hair flowed around her firm breasts and wide shoulders while she exercised, sticking here and there to wet skin. Her strength revealed itself everywhere the empress looked, from athletic calves and thighs to her smoothly defined buttocks, and graceful back. The veins at the junction of Ramsey’s biceps and forearms were prominent, adding a slight blue-tinged perfection. And in her clear blue eyes a contradiction of peril and peace existed. Sarika felt an affinity more profound than what she experienced with The Source. It was an unrivaled passion. And once awakened, now she could not imagine living without.

She remembered the kiss they shared that morning. A pulse had beat wildly against her lips when she touched the warmth of that splendid neck. Those moments had seared themselves into her memory, haunting her the rest of the day and distracting her at inappropriate times. So much so, that the morning cleansing ritual with her priestesses had been nearly impossible to complete. As a princess she had meditated and prayed throughout her life, learning the discipline that was necessary, enhancing her natural ability to complete her destined role, and now that she was empress….

But it was wonderful. Ramsey must care something for her. Why else would she cover her body with her own when she thought there was a threatening presence in the garden. In a shared vision before her death, her mother had called Major Ramsey “the dark one.” She said Ramsey would be Sarika’s counselor and lead her to The Protector. ‘No,’ Sarika now reasoned, ‘a Menial doesn’t counsel a Ruler. Ramsey was destined to play a much different role.’ A single thought burned within her. She could make Ramsey love her.

The Major paused and narrowed her eyes. She was unaware that the empress watched her, but felt a burgeoning consciousness of her own body. Not being especially vain, it added to her disquiet. She concentrated on her makeshift punching bag, pleased that the white string, woven into shreds of brown cloth remained stitched to the leather-covered strong box. Although dented by the pounding it was receiving, the box still bore a remarkable resemblance to Elder Tai-Po.

Charged with vigor, her lean body responded and she attacked the box once more, reigning one heavy blow after another on the carefully drawn sinister face. She lunged and parried from alternating angles, a skilled dancer in the art of combat.

Anxiety had been building inside her since waking up in the palace infirmary a week ago and the forceful activity helped her deal with it. Her ship had crashed, her crew was dead and nine hundred and thirty-five years had passed. She did not know how the hyperspace jump into the future had been accomplished and unfortunately could not repeat it. She was doomed to remain exactly where she was, in a world that chose to enslave her.

On top of all that, she had to contend with the Holy Empress of Dethra, the dangerous child-woman who dropped her to her knees with torturous pain just by touching her Ruler’s bracelet. The young woman was anything but holy. She obviously wanted a distraction from the pressures of leadership and decided that seducing a slave was the way to have some fun.

In this world Ramsey had nothing. She needed a purpose beyond survival, although that would do for now. She concentrated on Tai-Po. ‘Take him out.’ That was her mission and her body responded as it had been trained to do in the familiar, streamlined comfort of the combat zone. She reveled in it until nothing else mattered.

Her slave moved like the warriors of old in Library holograms. And, just as Sarika had been affected the first time she saw the dark woman in her garden, she was gripped by a fierce longing that compelled her to respond. She approached her slave, but then she drew back with a gasp.

“Stop!” the empress ordered. Ramsey’s hands were covered with blood. “Stop it!” she demanded again, with stronger authority.

So intent was Ramsey on her target that she did not hear and continued the relentless, rhythmic thrusts that hit her mark with accuracy and power.

Why was she punishing herself? Was that the image of Tai-Po? Sarika stilled an absurd urge to laugh and stood beside her much-abused strong box. This time she spoke softly.

“You have killed him– you can stop now.”

She gave Sarika a dark, smoldering look before her sky blue eyes flashed with recognition. She grunted unintelligibly with the effort it took to stop. Her fists hung in mid-air while her breath came hard and fast. Ramsey had performed brilliantly as a military officer in her former life. Even now she looked ready to conquer. Ready to conquer anything – or anyone. Sarika ran her tongue over her moist lips before lowering her eyes.

“Your hands– ”

” –are fine.”

“They aren’t. You’re bleeding. Are you trying to scare me– or just break into my treasure box?” Sarika asked with disapproval. “The things inside are priceless.”

Ramsey dropped her bloody hands and looked around the room. “I’m a soldier. It’s who I am. This,” she drew a circle in the air while explaining to the empress, “is the only space I’ve had to exercise…”

“Who you are– is mine,” she reacted to the person before her quickly. Hers. Her soldier, and for some reason, much more valuable to her than what was in the strong box. “You were always destined to be mine.” Sarika reached out to caress her hot cheek and Ramsey flinched away.

“I have the right– to touch you. “Sarika reached out again and this time Ramsey allowed the soft hand to rest gently on her face. She let her head be drawn down until she felt the young woman’s breath warm against her lips.
“When it comes to my destiny,” Ramsey explained in a low, matter-of-fact tone, “freedom is the only thing I consider inevitable, Empress.”

Sarika shuddered and let go, hair shimmering as it cascaded down below her shoulders when she raised her chin even higher than before. She stepped back.

“In the future, you will do soldiering things only in the next chamber. I’ll supply what you need and you may have the room as your own– but you will come to me at night. I’ll make no further compromises with you.”

Sarika moved away and then turned back.

“It’s best that you prepare yourself now. You will be attending my coronation this evening. Elder Tai-Po will be there. Tomorrow you’ll begin working with him to restore disrupters. I’ll be checking while you work together– he dare not harm you anymore.”

“You are too kind,” she smirked. “At least the disrupters won’t kill the Menials they are used against….”

“You mean the Rebels.”

“I meant slaves, the poor bast–” Ramsey hesitated. “They’ll just be blank slates for awhile. Come to think of it, this could be a blessing in disguise. They never had much chance of winning. Needless deaths will be prevented this way.”

Sarika let the sarcasm go. She was finding that she could tolerate much from Ramsey. But there was a limit.

“I’m glad you have confidence in the empire. You’re under my protection now. But no matter what you may think of Tai-Po, no matter how he treated you when you belonged to him, he is an elder and a Ruler. You will respect his position and his authority over you. That…” Sarika pointed to the mangled replica of Elder Tai-Po, “must never happen again.”

Ramsey’s face was devoid of emotion. “On the other hand, Rebels probably prefer death over slavery.”

“My duty is to keep order,” the empress spoke as if she were talking to a child, “so don’t speak of death to me. Ever. And I don’t intend to use the bracelet, so don’t try to bait me by letting arrogance rule your tongue. It is right for me to expect obedience from you and you’ll learn to accept your position. Now come– it’s my will that we serve each other equally when we’re in these chambers.”

The dark woman raised an eyebrow. “Equally?” she asked, while gathering her long damp hair behind her neck with stiffening fingers.

“Yes. I’m going to bathe you and bandage the hands you have abused. Your injuries are not severe enough to ask the doctor to use the healer, are they? No broken bones?”

Ramsey shook her head.

“Good. Then tonight, after the ceremony….”

“No.” And Ramsey shook her head again to negate the offer, if that is what it was. The boundaries between them would never be equal. Not anywhere, and especially not in these chambers. The empress had always been a ruler over slaves. How could she comprehend someone like her – someone born neither a Ruler nor a Menial?

“I want to look after you.” The youthful empress’ eyes were unusually round and very serious.

“I’ve never done such things before. And I can’t do it, except in private. And you see– ” suddenly she looked vulnerable, “we’re alone, there is no one else here.”

“I mean no disrespect Empress, and maybe you’ve always had people waiting on you, but that’s not me. I wouldn’t be comfortable having someone– bathe me.”

“But there is something between us that I must explore.”

“What, a little bit of lust? How would it look if someone who’s still a child – and a Holy Empress no less – kept a…” she said the last with sarcasm, “sex-slave?”

The young woman’s face fell. “I’m certainly not a child, nor the first empress to have a primal connection with a slave.” Her chin lifted with determination. “You will be my lover.”

“There will never be any love between us.”

“I need only our physical joining, but since you desire more, then yes, Laren Ramsey, you will feel love for me.”

She knew that Ramsey liked her touch. She liked it very much. And she felt protective of her as well. It would be so easy to share a primal connection.

“Love can’t be coerced. And I don’t desire anything from you.”

“But you do, Ramsey,” she was getting to know the woman before her. “I won’t need to use force with you,” Sarika realized it was true even as she said it. “And strong as you are, as unforgivably stubborn as you’re being now, you can’t stop what is happening. Your first thought was for my safety this morning in the garden.” The empress smiled, not wanting to hide her pleasure.

Ramsey felt a tremor course through her. “What game are you playing?”

“We’re both too old for games, Ramsey.” The depth in her liquid green eyes was startling. “Don’t you think so?” Sarika smiled in response to her slave’s changed expression. She had given her something to think about. “There isn’t much time before the ceremony but I’ll summon Dr. Holis to bring something to sooth your hands.” She narrowed her eyes. “And I will get a robe for you.”

Soon Cara arrived with medicinal herbal extracts and bandages, inquiring how Ramsey received her injuries. Ramsey was the only one who could see the astonishing conspirational little smile that found its way to Sarika’s lips at Cara’s question and before she could answer, the empress did.

“Promise not to tell anyone else, doctor?” the empress inquired.

“As you wish, Empress.” The doctor, easily flustered in the presence of the empress, was pleased that she had managed not to ramble yet.

Sarika tugged on the heavy, dented strong box and it slid into view from behind her royal settee.

Cara chuckled. “Oh! Strong hands, Ramsey.”

The sovereign looked admiringly at her slave. “She’s very strong–” her eyes raked up and down, recalling parts of the tall body now hidden “–everywhere. The most beautiful person I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” And the doctor could not miss the sultry delight in Sarika’s voice.

The major bore the shameless appraisal with stoic silence. The empress’ entire life up to this point was not all that long, she reminded herself.

‘She’s undergoing a new awareness of things,’ Cara thought, ‘things that would cause even me to blush if I were privy to them. It’s very close to her ritual-time. But truth now Cara, something about Ramsey makes you blush too, and you have no such justification.’

“Perhaps I should check elder Tai-Po for any psychic side effect,” Cara joked to prevent the mounting sexual tension from filling every centimeter in the royal chamber.

Sobering, Sarika selected a tool from her desk and cut the Ruler’s likeness away from the box.

“I trust you to dispose of this and say nothing.”

Cara stuffed the evidence into her bag. She offered to wait and tend to the patient herself but Sarika assured her it was not necessary.

“Is there anything else I can do?”

“There is. Would you take Ramsey with you tonight? No Menial is allowed to attend without a Ruler– ”

She asked instead of ordering me. The doctor smiled at Ramsey while answering. “It would be my honor, Empress Sarika–my honor.”

“Thank you Cara.”

The doctor loved diversions from the daily routine and the coronation tonight would be an affair to remember despite the war going on. Cara was looking forward to it, although her excitement was probably nothing compared to the anticipation the new empress was experiencing. The royal emotions must be soaring.

But this turn of events could cause an uproar among those supporting Tai-Po – those who expected the empress to choose the elder as mate. The proud elder was undoubtedly stung by his lowered status in the Council. But he still held considerable political power. In fact, after the empress herself, Tai-Po was second only to Melborne, the most respected elder in Dethra.

Cara left hoping Major Ramsey was as strong as she looked.

_______O_______

Elder Tai-Po was well bred, powerful and everything she could never really have. Celeste was unable to prevent herself from responding to him and she moaned softly.

“Be silent!” he demanded.

His concentration was broken. Once again he began the process of visualizing Sarika’s body beneath him. He imagined it was the empress’ skin that flushed as he caressed soft contours of flesh, instead of the slave’s whom he had summoned to his chambers in secret.

Celeste had been ready for some time and although she wondered why the elder did not penetrate her, she dared not ask.

He groaned and held her hands above her head, teasing her with his movements.

“Please–” she moaned.

His hand shot to her throat.

“Quiet!”

The pressure on her throat increased until each breath was a struggle. She pulled at his hand but could not remove the viselike grip until he finally ground out Sarika’s name and shuddered. When he rolled away to rest on his back, he breathed as deeply as she did. She waited until her respirations were easy before washing herself in the adjoining bathroom.

Celeste was uncomfortably aware of the elder’s selfishness, but he had the right to think only of his needs. The fact that she wanted him even more because of it was not something she analyzed – just as both of them knew that he took her because she belonged to the empress, and never spoke of it.

She was not jealous. She knew her place in the order of the things. And until the elder became Empress Sarika’s mate, she would let him use her body to pretend he already possessed her. She would simply put on her robe as she always did and withdraw from his chambers – returning for his pleasure when he wanted her, however he wanted her.

But as she prepared to leave Tai-Po pulled the robe from her hands and tilted her head up.

“Did I hurt you?”

Celeste averted her face from him. Was he concerned about her? Her heart pounded.

“You excite me so much my little one,” he crooned, holding her while waiting for her to speak.

After a long pause she said she only wanted to serve him.

He stroked her hair absently. “You serve me well, but next time you must remember not to spoil the mood.”

“I try to remember– I will.” She wanted to remain in his embrace but he sat her on a large chair and began to pace in front of her. “Oh!” she exclaimed, remembering the coronation. “The empress will be calling for me soon.”

“We’re both interested in her well-being, aren’t we.” The elder stroked his mottled goatee. “I don’t trust Ramsey. She could be a rebel infiltrator. At the very least she’s going to hurt the empress with her strange ways. It’s up to us to secure her safety.”

“Us? What can we do?”

“Ah, I knew you would want to help.”

“Well– I have thought the newcomer is trouble because she talks– like a Rebel. But the empress likes her. In fact, this morning she told us that Ramsey would be staying in her royal suite. They news of their relationship is– growing. ”

“My slaves say they’re lovers. Are they?”

“If they are, I think the empress is making a mistake. You’re the one she should be turning to.”

“Yes. She should, and she will. You understand the correct order even before the empress. And because you do, I will share a secret with you. Here–” He picked up her robe and held it for her. She slid her arms in and wrapped the brown cloth into place, tying off the belt.

“I never knew my father,” he continued while she dressed him in return. Celeste was thrilled with the unprecedented intimacy between them. “He died before I was born. My mother told me that he received a prophetic message about me even before he received word that he was going to have a son.”

“He saved the life of a priestess who served Empress Sarika’s grandmother. After cleansing a village, the craft that was returning her to the palace crashed. My father found her floating in the ocean off the eastern continent, barely alive. She believed it was a miracle that he found her, and foretold that his son’s child would rule Dethra. So you see…” he smiled and showed uneven teeth to the spellbound slave who thought him most handsome, “…I am destined to be the Protector. I have known it all my life it seems. I want to protect Empress Sarika and the Empire even now.” He was perfect.

“What can I do to help?”

“Will you let me know when the empress leaves the palace? I want to make sure Ramsey doesn’t get the chance to kidnap her.”

“Kidnap? Oh, do you really think….”

“I wouldn’t put anything past a Rebel.” Tai-Po cupped her chin. “We’re allies now. Call me Chen.”

“Chen.”

“Yes, but only when we’re alone.” His hard eyes narrowed. “Will you notify me as I asked?”

“I will,” she rose onto her toes and dared to kiss him on the cheek, “Chen.” She had a special place in the order of the world, and she thanked the Ancients.

_______O_______

Celeste supervised Sarika’s readiness for extraordinary occasions and she arrived promptly after the empress summoned her for the final preparations.

“Behira made the absolute best choice, empress. You’re going to be the most beautiful empress to wear the crown.”

“We all look pretty much alike,” Sarika smiled indulgently.

“But none had a gown like yours. I wonder where Priestess Behira had it made?”

“I didn’t ask. It will be covered most of the time, but I agree. It’s beautiful.”

“Oh yes…the perfect choice for the most important event in a new empress’ life. You must be so excited–” Celeste walked into the closet and came back with the green robe, ominously tossing aside her initial determination not to pry into the Empress’ relationship with the new slave, but merely report the information the elder asked for. “–but are you sure Ramsey is the best choice among your slaves to serve you in your chambers? She’s not familiar with palace affairs. She could cause embarrassment.”

“Perhaps.” Sarika put out her arms and let Celeste dress her. “No, not perhaps– probably.” Ramsey was the embodiment of an arrogant slave, and she amended her statement a second time. “Definitely. But she is my choice.”

Celeste eyed Sarika’s attire and moved the royal sash higher up on her shoulder. How Ramsey had gained such a position with the Empress in so short a time could only be explained one way. She was different. She was bold and their young empress was impressed. It frightened Celeste. Order should not be forgotten, especially by the empress.

“Does she know what’s required of her?”

Sarika laughed. “Do you, Celeste?”

“You’re teasing. It’s no secret what an empress needs during– well, during the stage you’re going through.”

“Are you saying I’ve lost my better judgement….”

“Oh no Empress, only that– well yes, something like that I guess. People are saying that Ramsey is your favorite – and your lover. It’s spreading throughout the palace.”

“And you’re greatly disturbed by this gossip?”

“Yes! Ramsey is not like any slave I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t fit in. She’s different. She acts– she wants to be like a Ruler. Giving her a place here can only bring trouble.”

Sarika sat while her slave brushed her hair. “Your concern is misplaced Celeste– I’m the thirteenth Holy Empress of Dethra after all, with or without the infamous royal hormones.” She added the last with a peculiar grimace. “I know Ramsey has a lot to learn about wearing the collar but that’s only because it’s new to her. I’m educating her. ”

“And while you’re occupied with Ramsey, what thought are you giving to the Protector?”

Sarika’s complexion suffused with a pink glow and Celeste knew she had gone too far.

“Forgive me Empress.”

“Have you so little respect?” she asked in a hushed tone before raising her voice. “You are a greater liability to me than you think Ramsey is.”

Celeste was afraid and prostrated herself before her Empress. Seeing this, Sarika’s quick anger began to subside.

“You forget your position– but you are forgiven. Rise and never again presume to suggest I am not fulfilling my duty.”

“Thank you, Empress.” Celeste arose, and when she straightened, her collar shifted, revealing bruises.

“Who hurt you?”

“No one Empress.” Her voice was shallow. “I bruised myself.”

“On the neck? When anyone harms you, they harm me. Tell me what happened.”

“I haven’t noticed any marks. “Please,” she was close to tears, “may I take my leave?”

With a mix of concern and irritation the empress dismissed Celeste, wondering if all her slaves were going to resist her now.

_______O_______

Ramsey sat in her own chamber soaking her hands when Sarika entered from a side door connected to her own. Her light auburn hair was brushed to a shimmering luster and her majestic robe accentuated her high cleavage and small waist. The spirit shining from her eyes caught Ramsey with its unguarded openness.

She sat close and breathed in the delicious warm scent of her slave before taking each cold hand out of the bucket of ice – mostly melted to water. Gently she dried them. “Tell me if I hurt you,” she instructed, and her voice had a breathless quality that was strangely soothing. She gingerly applied medicine across the raw knuckles. Ramsey’s gaze followed every movement. Finally the young sovereign wrapped clean, flesh-colored cloth around her hands. Ramsey clenched her fists loosely and nodded.

“Not too tight. Good. Thank you…Sarika.”

The empress closed her eyes. Here senses were heightened and the rich, approving voice speaking her name lured her forward. She placed light kisses on the bandaged hands. When she looked up the blue eyes burned her with their intensity. Sarika’s throat felt dry and her fingers itched to touch the tanned face.

“Thank you for letting me serve you, Major Laren Ramsey.” She needed to trace the contour of the smooth cheek and red lips – needed to feel the soft silkiness of dark hair moving against her own skin. ‘Love me.’ Immoral or not, Sarika could not stop herself from mentally projecting her desire. She stood forcing Ramsey to look up as her eyes followed. She ran the back of her hand along the strong jaw, looking steadily into her eyes. She was taming her soldier. ‘Forget everything else.’ Slowly she drew a finger across well-formed lips and her eyes followed the path. The instant her senses took in the warm velvet skin of the soft lip sliding beneath her finger the young empress stopped breathing. She could have been floating in the air and not noticed or felt any different than she did now, so totally absorbed was she in the unfolding moment. She leaned down, bringing her mouth close to Ramsey’s. So very close….

Mindless, Ramsey parted her lips…..

“Major Ramsey, It’s Doctor Holis.” Cara chose that instant to announce her arrival through the communication panel outside the chamber door.

With an abrupt groan, Sarika moved away.

“Time to go to the auditorium. Ramsey? Are you ready? ” Cara waited.

Sarika’s voice was raw with frustration and something else that was becoming equally familiar to her. “I’ll be waiting for you in the reception hall following the coronation. Don’t forget to come to me. And,” she added with a shy smile, “I– I’m looking forward to tonight.”

The two of them existed in a world filled with expectancy and stunned, more by the suddenly demure behavior of the Empress than by the potent jolt of pure sensuality preceding it, Ramsey nodded. Her black hair moved like silk around her face. Thick black lashes framed her exquisite eyes. She made Sarika’s chest ache even after she left the chamber.

_______O_______

“I’d like to talk with you Cara. Would you mind if we took the stairs instead of the elevator?”

“No, but when I start wheezing you’ll have to put up with me,” the gray-haired doctor grinned.

“What’s on your mind, Ramsey?”

“There’s no delicate way to put this–”

“No need to be delicate. We’re getting older by the second so just say what you have to say and I’ll do the same.”

“That sounds like something my father would say.”

“A wise man.”

The tall beauty hesitated so Cara continued. “Look, if this is about the empress, let me assure you that I’ll keep whatever you say in confidence. Just don’t ask me to help you become a runaway or something. I won’t do that. You’d be caught and I’d be executed along with you.”

“No, it’s nothing like that–”

“So talk then.”

“I need some advice.”

“I’ll do my best to advise you.”

“Thanks. The thing is– the problem is– the empress is bored.”

“Really, you think so?”

“I think it’s obvious. And she is– that is, she has–”

“Yes?”

“Whenever we’re alone, she tries to– uh– seduce me.”

Cara’s lips formed a mute ‘O’ of astonishment. “And she hasn’t succeeded?”

“No, but she sort of mesmerizes me and it’s– hey! I’m serious.”

“I can see that. I’m sorry Ramsey.” Cara suppressed her giggles. “I forgot that there’s much about Dethra you don’t understand.”

“Yeah, and I could really use some help here. Do you know of something – anything – that I can use to distract the empress?”

“To make her forget about sex?” Cara grinned widely.

“Is this really humorous to you?”

“Sorry. Meant no harm. But the only thing that will distract the empress is time.”

“Time?”

“That’s right. A young empress undergoes enormous hormonal changes when she becomes an adult. Her telekinetic center is enlarging and she’s growing into the fullness of her power. It’s the amazing way their brain works. — You and I have the same bioactive endocrine functions, but hers are much more– active. And it seems she has focused a large part of all that activity on you.”

“Why me?”

“Why not you?”

“Why not me? Because– because we disagree about something very basic to our relationship– the whole thing of slavery– because I didn’t travel a thousand years just to lose my crew and end up a plaything for– for a sexually-obsessed teenager!”

“Stop there Major!” Cara gripped her arm and in her anger Ramsey pulled her down several stairs before she finally stopped.

“What?” Ramsey glared.

“Think about where we’re going. You’re talking about someone who is sacred. Not just to me, but to the world. Her power makes her the perfect conduit for The Source. Her ancestors kept the world alive, and so will she. And all that is possible because of a genetic anomaly that each empress passes on to her daughter. The increased sexual drive is an unfortunate side effect that will be dealt with to the best of the priestesses’ ability on her eighteenth birthday– if they still need to, that is. ”

“And how soon will that be? Why wouldn’t they need to?”

“Twelve days. On the day and hour of her birth, the priestess will conduct the Rite of Womanhood for her. It’s all very secret and mystical. Then she will officially be asked to chose a mate, if she hasn’t already done so. Her mate automatically becomes the Protector of Dethra, which is why I hope she doesn’t pick Elder Tai-Po.” Ramsey may as well know all of it since she had an important part to play. Cara resumed her way down the stairs and a startled Ramsey followed, quickly overtaking her.

“Tai-Po? Why would she pick him?”

“Because he’s the only single elder. And he wants the position.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Ramsey smirked, disgusted with the whole situation. “Aren’t there any others?”

“Nearly a dozen wealthy Rulers have tried to court her, but I’d say Tai-Po has managed to discourage them all. I haven’t seen any of them around the palace for weeks.” Cara was finding it difficult to catch her breath as they continued down the long stairwell. “Slow down Ramsey, your legs are longer than they have a right to be,” she puffed.

“Can’t she just refuse?”

“Sure she can refuse, but the consequences would compromise her health.”

“You mean she’ll get sick if she doesn’t lose her virginity? That’s awfully dramatic, doctor. Why doesn’t she just– just– you know…?”

“Her needs can’t be satisfied by autoerotic activity.”

“Don’t tell me. — It’s against her religion, right?”

“It has nothing to do with issues of morality Ramsey. It’s simply that a telepathic kinetic bonding is essential for an empress and that is only possible with a partner.” Cara tried her best to put something that was beyond physical science and rarely discussed into a framework that a military mind like Ramsey’s could appreciate. “Nothing short of her partner’s physiological crisis, or orgasm – acting as a trigger, or more like a release valve – can discharge the pressure building against her telekinetic center. Without that release, she would become ill and eventually die. Yes, it is very dramatic. Be thankful you don’t have to go through it.”

“I think I am going through it with her,” Ramsey mused darkly, having gotten more information than she wanted to know. “So, the empress hopes to use me as a release valve until she mates with Tai-Po.”

“Yes, well, I suppose you could think of it that way. The priestesses would still perform the ritual but it would be a modified version I imagine, and she would no longer have the pressure of needing to choose a mate until she needs to produce an heiress. I don’t think she likes Tai-Po.

She may want to keep you around for a long time.”

“Keep me around?”

“Yes, probably.”

“Shit! Cara, I can’t do this.”

“Try to look on the bright side. She’s not bad to look at….”

Ramsey cut her off at the end of the stairwell. “She’s a child!”

Cara raised her brow. “Hardly.”

“You’ve been no help at all, doctor.”

_______O_______

Tapestry offering muted colors and a two dimensional perspective, in the style of the Middle Ages, hung from the walls of the auditorium. Huge and impressive, the tapestries depicted the lives of twelve empresses of Dethra. After tonight, they would begin to include the thirteenth.

Music filled the air and it too was festive and oddly reminiscent to Laren Ramsey.

She and Dr. Holis received curious stares, some less than friendly. Ramsey wished she could make a general announcement that she had no plans of changing the status quo at the palace. But, she realized such a declaration would make no difference to most of these people who knew her only by descriptions passed during the course of gossip. And the empress apparently did have plans to use her to change the course of affairs.

She said hello to Talbert who patted her on the back and thanked her again for fixing the biosystem. Celeste pretended she did not notice her as she passed by and by the time she made it to her seat, she was ready for Elder Tai-Po’s cold glance. She nodded her head in acknowledgment. The thought of spending time with him in the days to come revolted her.

Horns blared abruptly. The arrival of “Her Holiness, Empress Sarika Dethra” was announced and a hush fell over the throng of people. “On this, the night of her coronation,” the announcer continued, “everyone is granted the privilege of looking fully at her Holiness until she leaves the auditorium.” The Royal Guard surrounded Sarika while she slowly marched to the cadence of the processional toward the front of the immense room.

She seemed impossibly young for her title. Head held high, she gave Ramsey a lingering glance as she passed. She was, the major acknowledged, stunning.

Melborne, the senior elder, and Behira, the oldest of priestesses, met Sarika on a platform where they had been attentively waiting. The elder bowed before her and declared his loyalty to the new empress. The crowd cheered with enthusiasm when he draped a golden cloak around her shoulders. When he stepped behind her it was Behira’s turn, and she came close to the young woman’s side to hold a simple gold crown over her head.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I am a vessel for The Source,” Sarika replied, her voice sure and clear.

“What is your destiny?”

“To cleanse the world, as my mothers before me.”

“Who are you?” she asked again.

“I am the foundation of order.”

“What is your destiny?”

“To govern Dethra as my mothers before me.”

“How will you fulfill your destiny?”

“By the authority given to me by my mother, who is now one with The Source.”

“Reveal to us your authority.”

The old priestess lowered the crown until it rested on top of the beautiful head. It fit perfectly and immediately radiated white, glowing light. Sarika surveyed the crowd and the light dimmed. She found the electric blue gaze of her tall slave and took it in. Her crown glowed with a brilliance that quickly grew until it was blinding and so hot Sarika had to remove it. Once removed, the crown returned to its original golden state. It took several more minutes for Sarika herself to stop glowing.

Even though she was engrossed in the display of power and the radiant young empress, Priestess Behira was still mindful to assure the crowd, and the empress, that all was well.

She bowed down. “You are the vessel of The Source,” she announced with adoration. Upon rising she whispered to Sarika, “Put your crown back on, but keep your eyes off the tall one for now.”

One-by-one, the twenty-two remaining priestesses and elders made there way to the platform to pledge their loyalty and bow before the empress.

Slowly Ramsey came out of her trance-like state to discover Dr. Holis had a painful grip on her arm.

“Wha–? Cara what is it?” she asked while she loosened the doctor’s hand.

“By the ancients! Didn’t you feel it?”

The dark-haired woman slumped in her chair. “I– I need to lie down.”

“How can you possibly be tired after that?” Cara whispered to her.

Heavy lids closed over her blue eyes and the dark head dropped just before she fell forward onto the floor.

“Ramsey!” Cara yelled, and all eyes turned toward them.

Within seconds guards were telling the doctor to move away from the stricken slave but Cara continued to feel for the beat of her heart.

_______O_______

In the infirmary Cara finished a third scan of Ramsey’s body. The results were the same.

Sarika’s hands hovered over her unconscious slave’s face. Afraid of hurting her, she wrapped her arms around herself to keep from touching the still form.

“Why is she unconscious?”

“Psychophysiological over-stimulation.”

“Cara, please– what does that mean?”

“Exhaustion. She’s– well, she’s completely depleted.”

“But she was fine less than an hour ago. More than fine, except for her hands.” Just remembering how Ramsey looked as they gazed at each other earlier caused Sarika to shiver pleasurably. Her slave had radiated with irrepressible life. “And she didn’t exert herself unduly since then.”

“That’s another thing.” Cara removed the bandages. “Look.” There was no evidence of injury. “I have to say I suspect her current condition has something to do with the coronation ceremony Empress– the part where you were shining– well, glowing really.”

“I don’t glow, the crown glows.”

Cara smiled. “Well, you definitely lit up this evening. I felt something –it was quite stimulating– while you ….Really, it was the most amazing–” she stopped to remind herself not to ramble and looked down at Ramsey, “…at least to me. Your telekinetic power is growing, and it seems our patient got more than her share of whatever it was….”

“It was The Source, flowing through me– more powerfully than I knew it could.”

“Yes well, it certainly overpowered our time-traveler.”

Behira made her presence felt. “Empress Sarika, please, I must speak with you– alone.”

“I understand.” She looked around the sterile infirmary, then lowered her head. It was her fault. She had wanted her slave to see her in all her sovereign glory- to entice her.

“Will she be all right? Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes well, she needs a good rest. Undisturbed.”

“Of course. I will have her taken to her chambers and see to it that no one wakes her.” They both knew the empress was the only one in a position to disturb her slave.

Cara injected supplements that would bolster her immune system into the pronounced vein of her inner arm. Sarika bit her bottom lip at the sight of the beveled needle puncturing soft skin, as if it were entering her own flesh.

“How long?”

“Until she wakes up, I’d say.”

“You don’t know?”

“I’m just a doctor. I know less about The Source – and what Major Ramsey has been through – than you do.” Cara was drawn to look into the forbidden green eyes and she communicated her concern. “It is best to let nature take its course.”

“I– Yes, Cara. That seems like the best thing to do.”

Priestess Behira waited for Sarika in the royal chambers while the empress saw to it that her slave was transferred safely to the her own new bed in her own chamber.

“Let me know when she awakens. She and Elder Tai-Po have important work to do with disrupters as soon as possible,” she informed the guard. At least the change will put an end to the gossip. Celeste would be glad. After a wistful glance at Ramsey’s sleeping form, she left.

She met Behira and removed her crown and cloak, relieved when the priestess suggested they share a time of meditation to relax before their talk. That was what she needed.

But after she joined herself mentally with the golden-robbed priestess, she was still unable to let go of the restlessness she felt. Her inner turmoil transferred to Behira as a lack of confidence and the old woman pulled back with concern.

“Both your grandmother and your mother called me friend. Now I serve you, Holiness.” She waited with calm expectancy.

Sarika gave a little smile, then brushed her auburn bangs with her hand and moved her hair long behind her ears, complimenting her youth.

“Like my mother, I value the friendship of a wise woman. ”

“You’re very much like your mother was. Vilell also had a difficult time choosing.”

“Did she? I didn’t know.” Sarika’s eyes widened.

“Oh yes, she resisted the idea, and on the day of her birthday your grandmother chose for her. She picked the only elder who was single.”

Sarika shuddered, thinking that history was going to be repeated. “My parents weren’t close,” Sarika said flatly and then sighed in resignation. Her mother had told her little of their relationship but she believed she knew that much.

“No they weren’t, but they learned to care for each other. Your mother was heartbroken when your father died so soon after your birth. She said he gave her something more valuable than passion, something that she would always treasure.”

“What. What was it?”

“You.”

The empress raised her chin and did her best to hold back her tears. As a priestess, Behira had considerable privilege and could look into the eyes of the empress, now filled with pain.

“I miss her too,” the wizened old woman revealed. “It’s all right, cry now and I’ll not respect you any less.

Sarika let the old woman hold her and was comforted while she cried. When the tears waned, Behira hoped the empress was ready to trust her.

“I ask permission to speak of private matters.”

“I- I thought that’s what we were already doing.”

“More private, then.”

“You have my permission.”

“I saw how you looked at the tall one tonight. Your concern for her is evident.”

“She’s important to me.”

“It is more than that I suspect.” Sarika behaved like a woman in love. “Are you sharing a primal connection with her?”

“No–”

Sarika closed her eyes and recalled how the light from the Sun glistened on Ramsey’s long black hair and olive skin when they first met. How she reeled when she saw the exotic blue of her eyes. The aura of strength that surrounded her was stimulating and different. She had been filled with longing for her before Ramsey collapsed tonight and changed everything. The next time she used her telekinetic powers it could be even harder on her slave if she were nearby – so strong was her yearning for her. When she opened her eyes, tears threatened to hide their green intensity. She rested her head against the thin shoulder of the priestess.

“–but to be honest, I did try. Oh Behira, you know everyone expects me to choose Elder Tai-Po as a mate. He certainly wants to be the Protector badly enough, but I don’t like him. I was going to take Ramsey as a lover until I’m ready to name a Protector. She’s attractive to me–” she sighed, “–she is very attractive. But I– I know now that nothing can come of it.” Sarika’s brow furrowed and her lower lip became distended, warning of her displeasure. “And I know what my duty is, but I won’t chose until I find the one I want to share a child with. I won’t do it Behira.”

The priestess moved away from the empress slightly, encouraging Sarika to look at her.

“I must tell you what has been revealed to me.”

“A prophecy?”

“In a way. Tonight, when you took off the crown, you were glowing.”

“So the doctor said.”

“In all my years with your mother and grandmother, I only saw such a thing one time. I was at the ceremony when your mother’s egg, prepared with enough of your father’s genes to create you, was planted inside her womb. The instant it was accomplished, Empress Vilell was filled with a bright light for several minutes, like you– today.

Sarika tilted her head. “Are you saying you think I’m pregnant?”

“I am.”

“An immaculate conception by the power of The Source?” Her voice was laced with sarcasm.

“With some help from the tall one, yes. It seems the choice of who your mate -and the Protector of Dethra – will be, has already been made for you by the Ancestors.”

Sarika paled. “What you saw tonight couldn’t possibly mean what you’re saying.”

“I saw your power fading until you looked at the tall one. I heard a multitude of voices saying clearly ‘this is the Protector, with whom we are well pleased’ and you were filled with light– life energy not from The Source, but from the tall one. Part of her was given to you.”

“And this is what you believe?” Sarika did not know if she wanted to laugh or cry or just call the old woman mad.

“I believe what I have seen and heard, yes. The process is opposite of what our tradition has been, but who are we to question the will of The Source? Dr. Holis can tell us if I am insane or not,” she cackled. “Will you humor an old priestess?”

“You’ve been hallucinating. That’s what I think. But, because I respect you- not because I believe what you are saying Behira- I’ll disturb the doctor one more time today.

“But do you want it to be true?”

“I would be overjoyed if my power was not a threat to her– if we could share ourselves as lovers do. But do I want to have a child with Ramsey? She’s a slave. I am– who I am. What would that make our offspring, no matter how conceived? What would that do to the order of the world? I can’t even imagine it. Why would the Ancestors do such a thing?”

“Indeed,” Behira sobered while the empress called Cara to meet them in the infirmary.

_______O_______

Riding her favorite horse on the family ranch in Texas was a dream that gave the major a refuge and she was reluctant to let it go. But finally, her body demanded consciousness and she opened her eyes.

The empress slept in a chair by her bedside. Blond eyelashes cast subtle shadows reaching to the crest of her pink cheeks. ‘Like an angel. Without a seductive movement or impatient demand to give away the complexity of her true nature. They believe she is sacred because she has a special power and can manipulate molecules with her mind. But whatever enables her to do that is making her like me- a slave, driven by her own body so she can “save the world”‘. The empress stirred and whispered Ramsey’s name in her sleep. ‘And who will save me from you, Sarika?’

Uncoiling fully from the deep sleep she had been in, the dark woman stretched her long arms and legs as far as they would go and then curled her hands and feet, emitting a satisfied groan. She stopped suddenly and looked at her hands.

“You’re awake,” Sarika blinked and sat up straight.

“So are you.” Ramsey yawned. “Sorry I fell out during the ceremony. The thousand-year time change must’ve finally caught up with me.”

“So it would seem.”

“My hands. Did Cara use the healer after all?”

“No. The power of The Source touched you last night.”

“Yeah? That’s why I blacked out?”

“That’s the verdict of the experts.”

“You’re being mysterious. And you look troubled. What’s wrong? Are you upset that you compromised with me after all?” she rolled her eyes, indicating her bed. She spent the night in her own chamber, and Sarika had supplied her with her own bed.

“No. You needed to rest. There’s nothing for you to worry about,” Sarika answered while she watched her slave run strong fingers through her mane of long black hair. She wanted nothing more than to join her in bed and forget everything else. But she could not do that. There was business to attend to now. “How do you feel?”

“Better than I have in– oh– about a thousand years,” Ramsey smirked as an odd humor came over her. She rose dramatically, pulling a soft bedsheet with her to cover her nakedness. “And now I’m ready to go to work for you my empress, to do your bidding and put an end to the Rebellion that threatens your empire,” she said half-joking.

Her long legs seemed to go on and on, Sarika noticed with appreciation, not really hearing what was being said.

“Damn, if that doesn’t sound just like a line from one of those old Star Wars movies or something,” Ramsey laughed. “I’ve seen them all. And you, empress, don’t have a clue about what I’m talking about do you? Say, do I have time to shower before I go? Maybe get some breakfast? I’m starving. Hello? Luke Skywalker, to Princess Leah. You awake in there?”

The empress remembered the Rebellion and the disrupters waiting to be restored. “Yes- yes, of course. I’ll inform Elder Tai-Po and a guard will escort you to the Garrison after we eat. My pilot will fly you both over.”

“Good. I shall be ready my empress,” Ramsey grinned.

Sarika’s smile was barely noticeable.

As Ramsey showered she wondered what seemed different about Sarika. She was subdued and had an underlying look of anxiety when she first woke. Like someone who just got notice that they were fighting a losing battle – and being sent to the frontline. Haunted. Whatever was troubling her must be big, and it did not seem to be the Rebellion.

_______O_______

Under Elder Chen Tai-Po’s watchful eye Ramsey began to rebuild the disrupters. She enjoyed working with the familiar equipment and her work progressed more rapidly than Tai-Po had anticipated. Ramsey passed the first of the hand held weapons to the elder. It fit neatly into his palm.

When focused on a living organism, disrupter beams altered bioelectric processes. For humans the result was a temporary catatonic state followed by amnesia. It rendered an enemy confused and helpless for a period of days. The Rebels would soon forget why they were fighting and be captured without a fight. The elder admired the weapon in his hand.

“Did you know that Empress Sarika and I are going to be mated?” He was pleased to see Ramsey’s eyes widen. “Oh yes. She is going to make me The Protector and our child will become heir to the throne. And you–” he pointed the weapon at her, squinting one eye until it closed while he aligned the front and rear sights, “…dear slave–” uneven teeth were revealed in his tight-lipped grin “…will be ancient history once again.” He lowered the weapon and laughed at the relief evident in Ramsey’s face. “But first I get to play.”

“We’ve got work to do. There’s no time for your sadistic games.” Under her breath she added, “And you sure as hell don’t have enough class to be as entertaining as Darth Vader.”

“What?”

Ramsey picked up a tool and began dismantling another disrupter.

“Bah! Who would have guessed you could be so boring Major. Don’t you know there’s always time to get pleasure out of work? Come here. I have something to show you.”

Reluctantly Ramsey followed Tai-Po into the next room. A bloodied figure lay in chains on the floor. The elder kicked at the huddled form.

“Get up Rebel.” He kicked again, harder. “I said get up, you traitor!”

The man on the floor struggled to his knees before impatience got the best of Tai-Po and he pulled him up by the chains that bound him.

“Talbert!” Ramsey breathed.

He coughed and opened reddened eyes. “Ramsey? Are we– in the garrison?”

“Yes.” Ramsey put a chair beside him and gently urged him to sit.

“Touching reunion,” the elder sneered.

“He needs a doctor.”

“Not until he gives me the information I want.” Tai-Po smiled calmly at the annoyingly tall woman. “Tell me where the Rebel camp is located.”

Talbert coughed again. “You know I can’t tell you that Elder.”

“Of course you can,” he replied dryly and retrieved a pen-sized device from his tunic. “Your friend is no less than a Rebel spy, like you Major Ramsey. You fooled our young empress, but not me.”

“I’m no spy, and I doubt Talbert is either.”

“No? He was caught sending a message that gave away our plans to use disrupters. Now the Rebels have retreated, probably to construct shields to protect them from this,” he held up the disrupter before tucking it back into his belt.

“Now, how do you suppose Talbert knew about the disrupters?” Tai-Po placed the long, thin object into Talbert’s ear and within seconds he cried out a bloodcurdling scream. Tiny wisps of smoke curled out of his ear. The elder asked quietly, “Who told you?”

The slave caught his breath. “Please– N–no one t-t-told me. I overheard the g-guards who watched Ramsey l-last night…w-when they changed shifts. That’s all. One s-said you and Ramsey would be d-doing some important work with d-d-disrupters. They were s-stumped. They didn’t know what disrupters were. I d-didn’t either– until I did research in the l-library.”

“It’s your lucky day Ramsey. I’m going to give you this opportunity to convince me you’re not a spy.” Tai-Po held out the device to her. “Get the location of the Rebel camp.”

“I told you– I leave the politics to the politicians.” She walked to the door and then dropped to knees. Searing pain engulfed her, robbing her of breath and all other awareness. When her vision cleared the elder’s self-satisfied grin greeted her.

“I do believe the empress is spoiling you. A slave is not allowed to walk away from a Ruler until dismissed, remember?”

A short series of beeps got his attention. He spoke into one of the bands circling his wrist. “Type your message.” A message from Celeste appeared. The empress and one of her priestesses were on their way to the garrison.

“Get up Major. Our pleasure-time is over– for now.”

Ramsey’s legs were unsteady but they supported her. “Bastard!”

“You just cost Talbert some teeth,” the elder smiled. “Remember, any tales to the empress will cost him an exquisitely painful death.” The cursed woman was soft and he knew how to use that trait.

Ramsey sat at her desk and forced her hands to stop shaking before she resumed her work.

Tai-Po was a gracious host when Sarika and Behira arrived, bowing to them both and kissing Sarika’s hand. He proceeded to give her a tour of the Garrison but avoided the room that held Talbert.

“I can see much has been done since I was here last. But where is Ramsey?”

“Yes,” Behira added, “Where is she? I want to meet the person who has traveled such a great distance to join us.”

“In the main room. We’re headed there now. The Menial is slow I’m afraid, but I hope to have the disrupters ready by tomorrow.”

As soon as her eyes found the dark-headed slave Sarika was pleased. She grabbed Behira’s hand while she walked across the stone floor, Tai-Po following behind them.

“Hello.”

The major looked up and Sarika’s chest constricted at the coldness in her ice-blue eyes before Ramsey remembered to avert her glance. No familiarities with the empress were allowed in public. She stood so that she could bow properly.

“Empress,” she greeted her. A curtain of long sable hair swept forward like precious silk, softening the sovereign heart beyond measure.

“Ramsey, I want you to meet Priestess Behira.”

“Priestess,” Ramsey acknowledged the introduction with another bow.

“Give me your hands,” the old woman requested.

Ramsey obliged her and Tai-Po peered over the priestess’ frail shoulder with undisguised interest.

“You came from the past, did you?”

“Yes.”

“You were summoned.”

“No, my ship crashed here. Good soldiers lost their lives.”

“The Ancients brought you, even so. Everything that happens has a purpose. Come to me when you return to the palace,” instructed the old woman. She dropped the major’s large hands.

“It isn’t safe, Priestess….”

“What isn’t safe, elder?”

“Forgive my concern if you think it unnecessary Priestess Behira, but it may not be wise to be alone with a slave as new to the palace as Ramsey.” Tai-Po desperately wanted to tell her that Ramsey was a danger to her, to Empress Sarika and everyone else, but he knew of Behira’s stubbornness and that the empress was not yet ready to accept the truth about the slave.

“I am not afraid Elder Tai-Po.” Behira looked deep into Ramsey’s startlingly clear blue eyes and saw Dethra’s future. “In fact,” she added, “I can honestly say I trust the tall one.”

The elder’s chagrined grimace lay hidden under the hand that smoothed his motley goatee.

“How is your work progressing?” Sarika asked.

“Not as fast as I hoped, but….” he began to assess until he was cut off by a gesture from Sarika.

“Ramsey?” Sarika asked pointedly of her slave, placing her small hand lightly upon the woman’s forearm.

“I’m working on the second of the smaller hand-held disrupters now.” She kept her gaze averted and wondered at the inexplicable sensation the empress’ touch had created.

“Elder, escort Priestess Behira to my shuttle and wait for me there,” the empress ordered.

“But ….”

“Now. There’s no danger here and I wish to speak with her alone.”

Lips tightening to painfully thin lines, he left the room with Behira.

Sarika moved closer to the dark woman. She waited until blue eyes were finally directed at her and for a moment she forgot everything except the beauty of the woman. Finally she found her voice. “Show me your work” she said softly.

Ramsey turned around and sat. She picked up a tool and the partially dismantled weapon. The empress was so close that her backside grew warm from the heat of the body behind her. Angling the toolpoint inside the metal casing, the major’s jaw clenched involuntarily while she probed until she heard a series of clicks and the final plate came free. “There’s what I want, just to the left of the morphotic amplification lense.”

“Oh,” Sarika replied more softly than before, leaning even further forward until her cheek rested against Ramsey’s neck. Ramsey became very still while royal hands traveled up her shoulders.

“What would you do if you weren’t a slave?”

Ramsey put down the weapon when the unexpected question registered. “Is that an offer?” The empress did not answer and Ramsey sighed. It was not an offer of freedom. That was something her owner would never give to her. “I’d travel the world a while if I could.”

“And then?”

“Probably join the Rebellion.”

“You would fight against me?”

“I haven’t forgotten my vow to tell you the truth. Given the opportunity I’d fight against oppression, yes. That’s what I committed to when I became a soldier. It’s what’s in my blood.

“But you said they couldn’t win.

“I could win.”

Her slave’s arrogance caused an unwanted thrill to run a tingling course down her spine. She breathed deeply, appreciating Ramsey’s stirring scent. “And if I freed the slaves, what would you do then?”

“I’d be a soldier without a cause. Like I am now.”

“I have a cause for you,” Sarika rubbed her cheek against Ramsey’s neck and felt her stiffen.

“I know,” the dark woman frowned. She hesitated, then pulled away. “I’m trying to work on it.” The disrupter in her hand was unrecognizable at the moment. Where was the landmark lense she found so easily just a minute ago?

The empress stood in front of her, the workbench between them, and removed the firearm from her hand, laying it down. “You know what I want.”

“Doctor Holis says you’re in heat.”

Sarika smiled. “Is that what Cara said?”

“My interpretation. She used words I never heard of before.” Ramsey looked away again. “I asked if she knew some way you could be distracted.”

“Did you? What did the doctor say?”

“In time.”

“No.” Sarika glanced at the strong pair of hands resting on the table before her eyes found her lips and lingered there. “Satisfaction. That’s what I need–.” She slowly raised her gaze. “If we hadn’t been interrupted you would have kissed me again last night.”

“You would’ve kissed me,” Ramsey corrected.

“Why do you resist me so strongly?”

“Our relationship is not balanced.”

“I can forget you’re a slave when we’re alone?”

“Neither of us can forget that. And you’re far too young for me.”

“I’m a grown woman.” It was only a matter of days before the Rite.

“I was speaking of your emotional age. But a literal interpretation works too- since you’re about a thousand years younger than me.”

Sarika’s frustration was growing. “No one talks to me that way.”

The major ignored her. “But right now the main reason is in the room over there.”

“What do you mean? What’s in there?” She rose and tried to open the locked door.

“It’s another one of your slaves. Tai-Po threatened to give him a torturous death if I told you about him, but he’s going to do it anyway,” Ramsey smirked.

Sarika called a guard and when he unlocked the door Ramsey introduced her to Talbert, who was covered in blood and was barely recognizable to her. The empress ordered him to be taken to doctor Holis and then she addressed Ramsey.

“The Elder told me he discovered a spy in our midst. I was alarmed it was Talbert. Of course he must suffer the consequence of treason, but his death is to be quick and painless. I don’t condone torture no matter what the crime.”

“And I can’t condone tyranny, no matter how it’s packaged.” The tall woman looked down at the empress while she ran her fingers across the black collar starkly surrounding her neck. “You’re really no different than Tai-Po, Sarika, ” she said ruefully. “I hope you two will be very happy together.” She returned to her work.

“Happy together? Wait!” The startled empress followed swiftly behind until she caught her arm and held fast. “Did the doctor tell you that?”

“Tai-Po made sure to tell me that you were going to make him your mate. You need a ‘release valve’, and since it sure isn’t going to be me, then that that leaves him. Doesn’t it.”

“You believe that’s how I think of you?”

“Of course. Are you going to tell me you don’t?”

Ramsey received the resounding slap without blinking an eye.

“Oh!” Sarika gasped, her eyes moist with unshed tears. “I can’t believe– you don’t know– you’re– you’re–”

“I’m a slave. Just one of your possessions.” She wondered if the empress felt pleasure like Tai-Po when he inflicted pain. Surely her tears were a result of not getting what she thought she wanted. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”

Sarika fled the room while Ramsey sat and rubbed her jaw. The empress packed a healthy wallop.

The empress returned to her shuttle with confused emotions and Behira caught her when she entered the craft. “Child!” Sarika was crying.

The elder drew near. “I knew it wasn’t safe. What did she do to you? I hope you used your bracelet. I’ll bind her and….” Sarika put out her hand to ward him off.

“No Elder. She did nothing but speak the truth. But you have overstepped your bounds once again. Since when do we hold prisoners at the Garrison?”

“I told you this morning about Talbert. We still need to discover the location of the Rebel base.”

“Not by torture. You don’t make the law. You withheld information from me again, after we talked about this very problem yesterday. Your secrecy and cruelty will stop.”

“What–”

“You don’t have permission to speak! From this day on you will not lay a hand on a slave. And if I ever hear of you touching one of mine, I will strip you of your title and you will be banished.” How could Ramsey believe he could be ‘happy’ with someone like him? “Elder Melborne will take over here. You’re relieved of your duty at the garrison.”

Tai-Po’s was ghostly pale. Did she just threaten to make him an outcast? “Empress Sarika–”

“My decision is final. You will return with Behira and I to the Palace. Now.”

What did Ramsey say to her, Tai-Po wondered. Whatever it was, she would regret it. She was going to wish she had never been born. Clearly it was the time for drastic measures.

_______O_______

Ramsey wondered why the Elder had not returned to punish her for telling the empress about Talbert. She called to the guard and asked where the elder was. “I’m finished with the second disrupter. I need to show it to him.”

“The Elder returned to the palace with the empress, but the captain will give him a message.” He spoke on the telecom and soon became alarmed.

“What is it?”

“They never arrived. The captain has issued an alert and is starting to organize a search party.”

Ramsey bolted from the chair. “Is there a shuttle here?”

“Yeah, several. Hey, wait. I can’t let you….” He stopped talking when Ramsey pointed the disrupter directly at his head.

“Shhh,” Ramsey instructed. “Where is the bay entrance?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“You can. I’m about to turn your brain into mush, and you’ve got less than 60 seconds to tell me everything I want to know.”

The guard swallowed nervously as the tall woman looked at the strange weapon she trained on him, then at the bracelet her wore on his wrist.

“Don’t even think about,” she warned. “I’m quicker than you. Where’s the shuttle bay?”

“The seventh and eight doors up the south corridor.”

“And how many soldiers?”

“Five or six and a maintenance crew. Maybe more along the way.”

“How are they armed besides bracelets? Lazers? Tazers?”

“Swords. Like me. We’re traditional palace guards,” he said, unable to keep a touch of pride from his voice.

“Will they be alarmed if you tell them you’re taking a craft to join the search party?

“No, but I never fly them myself.”

“Tell them I’m a pilot, and you’ve been ordered to take me with you.”

“They won’t like it.”

“I’ll take the chance.”

Minutes later they arrived at the bay door and the guard spoke through the intercom.

“The last shuttle never arrived at the palace. Captain Johnston has ordered me to join the search for the empress.”

“Enter”, came the alert reply.

Ramsey tucked the disrupter into her robe.

“Empress Sarika is missing?” the sentry asked incredulously when they passed. “What could have happened? There were no Rebels in the area.”

“I uh, I don’t know,” the guard looked at the sentry strangely and jerked his head toward the dark woman. Ramsey poked his back with a long finger in warning.

“Stop her!” he shouted as he turned and aimed the invisible beam from his bracelet at Ramsey. She grunted in pain, yet managed to knock him cold with a left hook before falling to the ground. Soldiers converged on her and with determination she ordered her body to respond. She stood and grabbed onto the rim of the hatch.

“Surrender, Rebel!” The closest guard pointed his long sword at Ramsey’s heart.

She swung her legs through the hatch. He lunged forward, catching her with his blade and she still she pulled her upper body into the shuttle, quickly locking the hatch behind her. Ignoring pain, the major found the pilot’s seat. She scanned the controls and was relieved they were not completely unfamiliar.

The colossal bay doors were closing. An alarm blared as Ramsey powered up the shuttle. “Okay little doggie, show me what you can do.” Aiming for the sky she shouted, “Heeyah!” as if she were riding the Texas range. It was a rush to be airborne and for the first time since waking up in Dethra, she felt unrestrained.

The guards watched helplessly while the craft turned on its side and flew out, clearing the bay doors by mere inches.

“Wow”, the stunned sentry let out the breath he had been holding. “Rebel or not, that’s a pilot”

By the time they were able to reopen the mammoth doors the shuttle that carried the renegade slave was gone from sight.
Part 3

Ramsey’s rejection had brought her to the point of disunion with The Source, but her sorrow had faded while confronting Tai-Po. And now, unexpectedly, the elder had hijacked her shuttle. When the empress felt her hand being clutched tightly into Behira’s palm she became more settled. She returned the reassuring squeeze to her priestess.

She saw that her pilot was ruined. He wore a blank expression, all his protests forgotten once the elder had fired the newly operational disrupter upon him.

Sarika tried to reason with the elder but he put her off with cold-edged hostility.

“Empress,” he dared to interrupt her, “I have not given you permission to speak. From now on you will do what I command,” he threatened, “or the same fate that has befallen your pilot will be yours.”

She should have been outraged over the treason but everything was changing for her. Her emotions were occupied with Ramsey and, after their earlier exchange, there was little concern left to spare the elder now.

They traveled for over thirty minutes, then flew in a circular pattern while the elder made adjustments on the communication panel. The Rebel camp was somewhere down below and since Talbert had used a com device to send them a message, he knew they would hear him if he found a channel the Rebels were using.

“This is Chen Tai-Po, once an elder of the Royal Council.” He repeated the message several times and was rewarded with a cracking response.

“You’re far from home. What do you want Tai-Po?”

Vertigo caused him to hesitate, and he fought the urge to head back to the palace. He shut off the speaker and turned. “Don’t use your telepathic powers on me. I’m no longer under your authority.”

“I did nothing, Chen.”

The elder turned away from Sarika with disgust and pushed a button on the com panel.

“Who am I speaking to?” he asked.

“Mikhail.”

“I have a royal present for you Mikhail. It’s your lucky day.”

“No!” Sarika implored.

The elder turned off the microphone again.

“You threatened to banish me. Why shouldn’t I give you to the Rebels?”

“Because…”

“You would destroy the world,” Behira broke in, aghast at what the elder was planning to do.

“I have nothing to lose since you’ve chosen someone else to share your bed,” he spoke with cold intensity directed at Sarika. “You humiliated me! Your grandmother’s priestess foretold that I would be the Protector, yet you dismiss me as if I was nothing more than a Menial. Even less than one of your slaves,” he ground out, “you threaten me. My life is nothing.”

“I’m sorry Elder– Chen. I should have considered how you would feel.” If the life growing inside her were to survive, Sarika saw only one way out. “But you have nothing to fear. Ramsey can’t replace you. Our relationship isn’t what you think. Yes, I have been curious about her– but you’re the only one I have seriously considered making the Protector.”

“Before or after you banish me? Bah! Of course you would say that now that death is staring at you.”

“How can I convince you?” Her eyes were sincere pools of green. “The priestess could not have been mistaken about you.”

“Nothing short of making me your mate would convince me.”

Sarika squared her shoulders. “With Behira as my witness, I appoint you the Protector of Dethra.”

“And,” his eyes glittered, “Will you make a public announcement before we land?”

“Yes, if that’s what you want,” she replied and Sarika’s heart withdrew into a small corner of her chest, hoping for protection.

He did not trust the empress but she would be bound by her word to the people. Tai-Po’s smile revealed his crooked teeth. “Then– I accept the appointment.” He turned the microphone back on. “Here’s your present Mikhail,” he laughed, and blasted punishing sound waves toward the ground, celebrating his victory before heading back to the Holy Estate. He knew he would have to prove himself one day – that he would have to be willing to risk everything for the empire. He was born to be the Protector. His parents had known it and now, everyone else would know it.

_______O_______

“When the child is born, there will be no doubt she is not the elder’s. She will be different than all who have come before her.” Cara’s concern led her to Priestess Behira. She did not know whom else she could talk with since the empress herself was overburdened.

Sarika tried not to let her unhappiness show but her misery was obvious to those who were close to the young sovereign. Some attributed it to the ‘infamous royal hormones’ but Cara and Behira knew what even the empress herself did not realize. She was in love with Ramsey. The doctor also knew that the child Sarika carried, the heir to the empire, would have Sarika’s light skin color but Ramsey’s blue eyes and black hair. She would be a dramatic departure from what was expected.

“The Ancients chose Ramsey for her but Sarika announced that the elder is her choice and it can’t be undone, Dr. Holis.” Behira shook her head and short white hair ruffled over her ears. “Empress Sarika will have to find a way to tell the elder the truth sometime within the next nine months. I hope he can take it.”

“But tomorrow is her birthday, Behira.”

“I know, and she must achieve a primal connection with the elder after the ritual. This isn’t the way things were supposed to go.”

“Did she ever tell Ramsey?”

“I think she was trying to decide how to tell her that she was with child on the day Ramsey disappeared. She couldn’t reconcile the fact that she was producing a child with a Menial, but then she didn’t have much time to try.”

Cara slumped into the back of her chair, feeling every bit of her forty-four years. “It stinks.”

“Indeed doctor, it does.”

“What will become of Dethra if Tai-Po doesn’t accept the child?”

“We shall have to wait and see.” The old woman shrugged her thin shoulders. “Nothing happens without a purpose.”

_______O_______

“You’ve been avoiding me, Sarika,” the elder said as he entered her chamber. He smoothed his goatee with his usual flourish and lowered his head to kiss the cheek she offered to him instead of her lips.

“I’m sorry Chen. I haven’t been well.” She wore a black robe with an intricate embroidered design of golden flowers. Her light auburn hair fell over it, shimmering with gloriously feminine appeal.

An aching, familiar excitement filled him and stirred his sex. He sat next to her on the royal settee and she stiffened noticeably. ‘Such as waste,’ he thought, ‘needlessly fighting lust that will eventually consume her.’

“Sarika,” his words slithered over her while he stroked her arm in the same ostentatious pattern he had used to fondled his goatee, “your body is telling you what you need. “Why do you persist in this ridiculous waiting when I could easily make you feel better now?” He had physically joined with her countless times in fantasy and there was nothing he wanted more than to possess her in reality and quench the fever her small, sensual body had aroused in him for so long.

She closed her eyes and immediately a vision of the tall woman appeared. Every part and fiber of her being longed for Ramsey’s touch but she knew there would be no fulfillment. Her slave was a renegade. Ramsey was probably traveling the world as she wished. Then she would join the fight against her empire. They were enemies now.

Tomorrow Sarika would do her best to find release from her growing torment with the elder, but such thoughts were always accompanied by a repulsive response and she realized that it might not be possible to accomplish a primal connection with him. She silently prayed once again that it would be possible, and that it would stop being so difficult to keep her thoughts clear, and away from the memory of blue eyes.

“It is preferable to wait until after the ritual,” she offered him what little she could and wondered again if she should tell him about her pregnancy. Unfortunately, there would never be a good time. It was now or never.

“But I’m glad you’re here. I must tell you something that will be– difficult for you to believe.”

“And what is that, my dear?” he asked, pleased that he was one of the few who could look into her beautiful green eyes, and would soon be the only one to know what she looked like during the height of passion.

‘He calls me his dear, but would have sacrificed my life to the Rebels,’ she cringed at his smug expression. “I want Priestess Behira and Dr. Holis to be present when I tell you.”

When the four of them were assembled together, Sarika told him what happened to her the night of her coronation. As she anticipated, the elder did not believe her, despite the affirmation of the witnesses.

“What are you three up to? Why have you conspired to tell me a ridiculous story? The Ancients choosing Ramsey?”

Hearing her name caused the empress to tremble, and she could only tell him that it was the truth.

“– But a woman– a slave?”

“Yes, a woman that you made a slave,” the priestess added.

“Bah! Impossible. The prophecy of one of your own foretold that I would father Sarika’s child.”

“Who told you that?” Behira asked with interest.

“My father didn’t even know that my mother had conceived when he rescued a priestess from drowning and the old woman said that his son’s child would rule Dethra. He died soon after, before I born.”

Behira was more concerned than before. “Don’t you know who your father is?”

“Of course I do, old woman. He was an elder– from the eastern continent. I carry his name.”

“Your mother should have told you the truth, instead of feeding you a fabrication because he was already mated. Elder Melborne is your father. There was no prophecy.”

“Lies!”

“If you’re sure, then you won’t mind taking a closer look at the record of your birth, will you.”

“I don’t need to prove anything here,” he sneered. “You’re the ones telling an unbelievable tale, for a reason I can’t even guess.”

“Let science provide some clarity, shall we?” Cara offered.

“Yes,” Sarika gave her approval. “”That’s what it took for me to accept what the Ancients have done.” She looked upon Tai-Po with something akin to pity. “Perhaps it will help you as well.”

In the infirmary, doctor Holis pulled out the test results that indicated Sarika was pregnant, and that the developing life was a genetic combination belonging to Sarika and Ramsey.

“This doesn’t prove a thing. You could have made this up from– from nothing,” he rationalized his protest.

“You won’t be saying that when the child is born,” Cara challenged, so much into telling the truth that she forgot to be anxious about the potential repercussions. “And, ah– look here–” she pulled up the Library record of his birth on her desk’s screen. “Look at the programming code. There are tracings of electron tampering here,” she pointed, “and here”, where your father is named and his background is listed. There’s no genetic code recorded for him. Probably erased. Shall we compare your record with Elder Melborne’s, or would you rather just have a talk with him?”

Tai-Po turned to Behira. “But how would you know anything about this?”

“Everyone needs to tell their story, elder. Your mother was no different. For all our sakes, telling you the truth now is more important than protecting you from it.

“Bah! I’ll talk with Melborne. And afterward, when he denies your lies, I will expect you both to stay away from the empress.” He stroked his goatee rapidly and stared at Sarika. “Better yet, I’ll expect the empress to banish you both. Your influence is damaging to her.”

_______O_______

Less than an hour later Tai-Po returned, looking ghastly. He told Cara and Behira to leave, but Sarika commanded they stay.

“They have the right to know this. Did you speak with Elder Melborne?”

“Yes. He’s my father.” His lips curled. “That doesn’t prove that the Ancients have chosen Ramsey. I will never believe that,” he let his head drop for a moment. “But I won’t ask you banish your priestess or Dr. Holis.” He was not softening, only tired. Very tired. He had spent his life believing a lie.

“I have told you the truth as I know it, Chen. When my child is born, will you accept her?” Even as she asked this of him, her heart cried silently, wishing it was Ramsey that she was asking.

The three women waited anxiously for his answer.

“I will accept your child, because it will be our child, Sarika.”

“Even when she has blue eyes and black hair?” the doctor asked.

“She will be mine, no matter what she looks like,” he promised. How odd that the prophecy his mother made up was coming true anyway. He would do what he could to make sure it come true, even if it meant giving Sarika just enough poison to abort the unholy child she carried. The Ancients be damned. He was willing to sacrifice everything for Sarika, now more than ever.

_______O_______

That night the Rebels broke into the Garrison and took control. The guards had no opportunity to alert the palace of the invasion.

After taking a guard hostage, they used a shuttle in a Trojan Horse maneuver to gain entrance into the palace. Then they gained one foothold after another, using the disrupters against the guards in a bloodless assault that rendering them useless and unable to offer any resistance at all. Each one was securely bound. They did not stop their assault until an alarm sounded.

“They’re onto us,” the Rebel leader notified his general as he whispered into his com badge, “but they have few soldiers left able to fight.”

“It’s almost over Mikhail, I’ve got the empress in my sights as we speak,” the general responded.

How the Rebels got this far Tai-Po could not imagine, but he was prepared to sacrifice everything to protect what was his. He secured the top floors with the guards that responded. “Protect the empress at all cost,” he ordered. “Do not let them pass.” He instructed the guards in the central hall to kill anyone who tried to exit the elevator. Then he found the empress.

“It’s time to make an escape, Sarika.”

“Now? Are you serious? How–”

“I don’t know how they managed it, but the Rebels have occupied all but the top floors and they’re still advancing. It’s time to escape in the shuttle. Come.”

“Not without Behira and Cara. I won’t leave them behind. And not Celeste either.”

“They’ll be all right. It’s you the Rebels want. We can raise an army from among the villagers and take back the palace in time. But right now, we have no choice but to leave. I must protect you.”

“I– I suppose so,” the empress said, not wanting to fall into the hands of the renegade slaves. What had gone wrong? The Source was silent as always lately.

They entered a small bay attached to her chambers and popped open the shuttled door. Elder Tai-Po helped Sarika in and then followed her.

“Leaving without waiting to greet your visitors, Empress?” Ramsey sat in the pilot seat, her long, lean-muscled frame relaxed.

“Oh!” the startled empress responded.

“Ramsey!” Tai-Po reached for his bracelet and pressed it.

“Don’t bother,” Ramsey said as she removed the disrupter from the elder’s belt. It happened before he remembered he had it. Seeing his confusion, Ramsey smiled and felt like a cat toying with a mouse. “It’s General Ramsey now. My new friends removed the collar you put around my neck.” She lifted her chin and swept the long hair aside to reveal bare skin. Ramsey flicked her eyes to the young sovereign. “Seems you were mistaken about it being at part of me forever, eh Empress?”

“I’m glad it’s– gone.” She leaned toward the dark woman, unable to completely restrain her body’s demand to close the gap between them.

“Are you?” Ramsey wanted to believe the empress whose complex nature had touched her in a way no one else had ever done, or would ever do. The open yearning in her liquid green eyes included a terrible sadness that pulled at the Rebel, making her want to take her into her arms and comfort her. It was startling how easily the young woman could mesmerize her.

The elder grabbed Sarika and put himself in front once again. “Let us leave the palace or the rebels will kill her.”

“Don’t worry, Protector Tai-Po,” Ramsey said sarcastically and with the same contempt she felt when she had first heard of his appointment. She had known that the empress would take him as her mate, but her emotional reaction against it was unexplainably extreme. “We Rebels have no intention of killing your Empress. We merely wish to make an agreement.”

“What kind of agreement,” the empress asked from behind the elder, trying to sort through the myriad of sensations that swirled mercilessly within her.

“A legally binding one that would free the Menials.”

“All of them?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“Anarchy!” Tai-Po shouted.

“Sit down and be quiet,” Ramsey ordered. “It’s Empress Sarika that I have business with.”

“I’m here to protect her and the empire– from you.” His chest puffed up as his lungs expanded.

“It’s too late for that,” General Ramsey grinned again and Sarika’s legs gave out, forcing her to sit down rather ungracefully. “But it’s not too late for you and I to settle things between us Tai-Po. I still owe you for the collar, and for Talbert.”

The elder was well-versed in martial arts and he looked forward to thrashing her senseless for things he did not want to discuss in front of the empress. More than that, he wanted her dead. “You’re certainly full of confidence for a woman who is past her prime.”

The major looked down at him for a moment before replying. He had read her military record and knew what she was capable of. “As are you, old man.”

Despite Sarika’s protest, they exited the shuttle.

Ramsey’s greatest strength was in her legs while the bulk of Tai-Po’s power lay in his shoulders. He blocked several powerful kicks she presented in quick succession until a fourth one caught him squarely on the knee. There was a loud crack and he went down.

“Gagh!” he grunted and quickly flung himself forward, knocking the tall woman onto her back with the full force of his weight pitted against her center of gravity. She recovered in a flash, rolling over and shoving her knee hard against his sternum. Again the sound of cracking bones was heard and then the sound of flesh hitting flesh as his fist connected with her jaw. She blocked a second blow aimed at her throat and after grabbing his wrist she continued the arc, moving his body forward until he faced away from her and his arm was securely twisted between his back and her chest.

Tai-Po pulled his arm out of its socket attempting to free himself. He was drenched in sweat and breathed hard while the Rebel general seemed to be having fun. “Sarika,” he groaned, willing her pick up the disrupter that had fallen from Ramsey’s belt. But the empress did not move. Sarika was in awe of the magnificent fighting machine Ramsey had become, turning her opponent’s every move to her own advantage.

Finally, she encircled his neck with her free arm and drew him up tight against herself, lifting him off the floor slightly and cutting off his air supply. His reddened face began to turn blue. Then an alarm went off in Sarika’s head.

“No! Don’t kill him Ramsey,” she pleaded.

“You may want him, but he deserves– to be killed,” the major blurted out between clenched jaws.

“But his death would mean yours too,” she added desperately. “And I can’t allow that.” She raised the disrupter she had retrieved from the floor and pointed it directly at Ramsey. “Don’t. Don’t make me do it– put him down.”

“Will you negotiate with me in good faith if I spare him?”

“Yes.”

Ramsey lowered the unconscious elder to the ground and stood straight, putting her clothing back in order.

Sarika forced her eyes away and wished her heart would cease its pounding. She needed to be in control.

They stared at each other. “You chose Tai-Po,” Ramsey said, disappointment weighing down her voice.

“I would have chosen you if I could.”

The major was shocked. “Me?”

“The Ancients wanted you. Badly.” Suddenly embarrassed, Sarika looked away again. She wanted Ramsey more than she could say, and did not know how to tell her that she was expecting their child, or even if she should since the elder would claim her heir as his. “It doesn’t matter now. You’re a Rebel and I’ve already announced my choice.” She focused on the still, broken body of the elder. “Will you let my guards take him to the infirmary?”

“When we’re finished here. I’m not a Rebel, Sarika.” She grinned crookedly and the young empress felt faint once again. “I no longer where the collar, so I’m not a rebel slave. I’m a freedom fighter.”

“Is it not the same thing? We’re enemies.”

“You want order and peace and so do I. I happen to believe that you will never again have peace in your empire unless you re-order your society and abolish slavery.”

“That would bring chaos,” she looked at the lips she hungered for, “and most of the Menials do not want the freedom you value so highly.” Her body ached with need and she shuddered before standing to stop herself from projecting her desire to Ramsey.

“Menials who wish to remain slaves are simply afraid of not having food and shelter.” The woman before her seemed much older than when they were last together and she felt a degree of empathy. It could not be easy for her to face defeat so graciously.

“Those are legitimate concerns,” Sarika said. Helplessly, her eyes lingered on the perfection of the bare skin on the tall woman’s neck. The memory of what it felt like to place her lips on the flesh above where a black slave collar once lay flowed through her in a hot wave.

“Please, sit empress.” Ramsey stood and held out her chair for her. “I understand this is a frightening change for you and many of your subjects.” Long auburn hair brushed her shoulder when Sarika moved to do as she had bid her. Despite the clothing covering her, the nerves of Ramsey’s skin responded with a melee of appreciation and for a moment she forgot what they had been discussing. “No one who is willing to work should be concerned about that kind of security,” she continued, reminded herself to avoid any physical contact with the alluring empress in the future. “And, for those who need it, there is already a system of charity. Why not free the Rebels, along with other Menials who want their freedom now– then give freedom to the rest in stages that they, and the economy, can handle?”

“That seems like a good compromise.”

“I think so.”

“And you have already pledged that you will always tell me the truth, haven’t you,” the empress smiled for the first time.

“I have,” the general confirmed, pleased that the empress remembered and valued her word.

“Will you stay and– and help me govern the changes you suggest?”

“I’m no politician.” The tall woman shook her head. “You already have your Protector to help you.”

“Nevertheless, I will need someone who has a strong belief in these changes. Protector Tai-Po does not hold such beliefs. So, this is my condition for accepting your proposal. You must stay and help me put the changes into effect, and deal with the consequences- whatever they turn out to be.” She glanced again at the elder and then pressed her. She needed Ramsey in a way she had not before. “Well?”

“All right, Empress. But only for a time.”

Mikhail knocked on the chamber door and Ramsey let him in. “Got it worked out yet?” He looked over her shoulder and noted the fallen elder. “Is he dead?”

“No.” ‘Damn the luck’, she thought. “It’s all done but the writing and signing of our agreement, my friend. The empress has given us what we’ve asked for.”

Mikhail smiled broadly and shook Ramsey’s hand. “Thanks. It wouldn’t have happened without you.”

“I needed to do it.” She pulled him into the room. “Empress Sarika, meet the Rebel leader, Mikhail Alexander.”

He kept his eyes averted, still mindful of her spiritual position despite his political opposition. “Empress,” he kneeled and when she offered her right hand, he placed a kiss over the ring.

“Rise Mikhail Alexander, you’re no longer a Menial, but a free person of Dethra, along with all the renegades.”

_______O_______

It was after midnight when the remnants of the functioning palace guards began their usual patrols. One Royal Guard, grateful that he had avoided the misfortune of the majority and was not a drooling idiot, made his rounds through the courtyard. The sound of fighting hounds caught his attention and led him to the garden. Once there, he met the grizzly sight of a body in the process of being ripped apart.

In her chambers, fruitlessly trying to sleep, Sarika received the message that Elder Melborne’s body had been drug from a shallow grave by guard dogs.

It did not take long for Dr. Holis to determine his death was the result of a broken neck. And when skin underneath Melborne’s fingernails was identified as belonging to Tai-Po, Sarika ordered a guard posted at his bedside in the infirmary where the healer still worked on his own injured body.

When the elder awoke he faced a quick trial that revealed to the Council members that one of their own was a murderer, along with the more startling fact that their empress was carrying Ramsey’s child.

It was not possible to successfully lie to the Council, since the physiological processes of those giving testimony was monitored by apparatus able to detect such things. And being small of spirit, Elder Tai-Po had not hesitated to name his accomplice, telling all in attendance that it was who had buried Melborne’s remains.

“Melborne asked to be killed, the way he treated me. But I blame myself for trusting Celeste,” he spat,” and if the bungling Menial hadn’t made a mess of it– Dethra would have the Protector it deserves.” He continued knowing his end had come, barnig his soul for no other purpose than to hear himself talk, if not to gain understanding.

“I did everything for you, Sarika. To be your Protector, I took your mother’s life little-by-little, giving her a poison no one could detect.” He laughed at the look of horror on the faces of his empress and his foolish peers. “I knew my place. I am the only one among you who knew my place, and acted accordingly. Now, men who have no vision at all will take my life.”

Before noon, Elder Tai-Po had been sentenced to death for the murder of Empress Vilell and his father, and the sentence was carried out without fanfare. Those who supported the elder in his quest to become Sarika’s mate would not mourn. He had brought dishonor on the Council, and its remaining members could imagine no greater crime than the murder of an empress. Murdering one’s parent was not far behind.

In time his name would be used as a curse, and it would be erased from the historical record except as it was necessary as a reminder of what happens to those who break the law.

Celeste was spared execution, but began serving a long sentence for her crime of deception in trying cover-up Elder Melborne’s murder.

Hours after the execution, it was with mixed emotions that Ramsey watched while Sarika signed the Declaration of Emancipation for Menials. The tall woman was receiving more variety of looks than ever before from the inhabitants of the palace, and some were strangely shy.

Afterward, while the Council members continued to debate the issues surrounding the declaration, Ramsey expressed to the empress her regret at the betrayal she suffered. Now, she could no longer think of the empress as an enemy, or anything other than someone who had lost a loved one and carried the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Sarika was greatly comforted by Ramsey’s warmth toward her. “I’ve already spent much time mourning my mother’s death. I’m sorry for the loss of Melborne, and I want you to know that I only named Tai-Po the Protector to prevent him from handing me over to the Rebels the day you became a renegade. He was a madman.” The empress wished she could lose herself for a while in the shelter of the tall woman’s strong arms. But now was not the time. “I should have known–”

When Ramsey heard this, she was angered and relieved at the same time. “He kidnapped you that day?”

“That’s right.”

“I knew it! My instincts told me he had, but I couldn’t find you and then I heard you chose him for your mate and I thought, well I thought that….”

“You searched for me?”

“Yes.”

“You would have rescued me.” Sarika’s smile was blinding. “But when you couldn’t find me and you heard Tai-Po was the Protector, you came to the conclusion that I wanted him. Of course you would think that. I’m so sorry.” The empress yearned to touch the strong jaw. She would have done so if they were not in public. “His death means that I’m free now. You see, I’m free too,” she said with her heart in her eyes. She blushed and pulled the major aside in a most undignified fashion. “I really must explain something to you. I’m giving you the chamber next to mine. May I come to you this evening?”

“Of course.”

She left and Ramsey found herself able to think of little else other than the way Sarika’s eyes lit up when she smiled. And her perfectly white teeth. And the way her beautiful hair seemed to radiate light.

_______O_______

The warmth of the water relaxed her back and shoulders and she sang an old cowboy song that was part of her shower routine. ‘Things were working out well’ Ramsey thought with a degree of hard-won contentment. ‘But what of the future? What of the empress?’ She was far from finished and she had not forgotten Sarika’s condition, nor her own response to the young woman. As if her thoughts had summoned her, the empress stepped into the shower.

“Oh! The water is just right. No, don’t stop singing. Your voice is beautiful, and it– it pleases me.” She took in Ramsey’s wet profile and saw the unbelievably attractive eyes narrow dangerously. Her ex-renegade was angry with her.

“I don’t recall planning to meet in here.” Sarika had intruded into her privacy as if she were a slave again. But in spite of her displeasure, in spite of everything, the major noted how her light auburn hair hung like a glossy curtain on either side of her high, full breasts– which were tipped with rosy pink…Ramsey averted her eyes. Shower forgotten, she made every effort to avoid contact with the nubile body so close to her own. Her pulse pounded loudly in her ears

“I won’t harm you,” Sarika assured.

A small hand touched her shoulder, gingerly at first, and she froze.

“The Ancients chose you for me– that’s why I’m here– that’s what I need to talk with you about.”

Ramsey stood very tall and still. She could have been an ancient statue, so perfect was her form. Sarika was overcome by the need to run her hands along her shoulders and the speech she had rehearsed was forgotten. “Let me– wash you.” Water continued to rain on them both, as if time itself was not standing still while she waited.

Anger transformed into another kind of heat when Sarika’s soft, warm breasts rubbed against her back.

Feeling the change, Sarika pressed harder against firm skin. “Mmm–” the empress leaned her head forward and breathed in deeply. The dark woman smelled wonderful, like warm spice. Ramsey was her mate, whether she knew it or not, and Sarika craved gratification that she had yet to experience. She was dissolving around a woman who caused wave after wave of heat to pool in her loins. Her hands found Ramsey’s hips. “You are the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. Is my appearance pleasing to you also? Tell me.” She rubbed her flushed cheek against the wet smoothness between Ramsey’s shoulders, stopping a few times to place hot kisses against the warming flesh. “Yes?” the empress prodded again and seemed to beg at the same time. Her hands stroked Ramsey and explored lower, moving down toward her thighs.

The tall woman had lost her voice. Fingernails grazed lightly over her skin and caused the muscles underneath to quiver. ‘God help me’, Ramsey pleaded silently. The young woman knew just how to touch her, and her internal conflict increased a hundredfold.

“This won’t work,” her larger hands caught Sarika’s and held them fast while she forced her breathing to remain even. “You’re a child!” she exclaimed and left the empress alone under the falling water. It should not have been so hard for her to do.

“Ramsey! –” Sarika called out to her, but she had already left the room.

_______O_______

Priestess Behira was thankful that Ramsey came to her. She had hoped that she would.

“The Ancients brought you to me at last, tall one.” The old woman watched and waited with wise old eyes, brown and sparkling beneath her short-cropped white hair. “You’re running from something. What is it?”

“The Empress says I have been chosen for her. I’m afraid– I mean I’m concerned. She wants me as a sexual partner.”

“Why does that make you afraid?”

“I’m not afraid, just concerned.”

“No, you were right the first time, Major Laren Ramsey. You aren’t afraid of much, but you are afraid of Empress Sarika.” Her look dared Ramsey to challenge what they both knew to be the truth.

“I know the empress has needs, but we’re not compatible.”

“What makes you say that?”

“She’s domineering– she’s too young, and I’m– ”

“She’s not as bossy as she used to be,” Behira cackled. “You’re teaching her nicely. But she is an empress and must retain her authority, you know.”

Ramsey ran her tongue across her lips anxiously and nodded her head.

“And as for her age, she’s not all that young according to her biology. She’s full-grown and ready to experience the Ritual of Womanhood this very day. In just a few hours, in fact.”

“She’ll have to choose a mate, won’t she?”

“We will ask her to name someone, yes. But what’s unusual this time, is that the Ancients have already chosen for her.”

“Who?” she asked, unsure if she was prepared for the answer.

“You, Ramsey. It’s you.”

She shook her head in denial. “I would know if I were chosen.”

“Not necessarily. You were in a daze when it happened.” Then Behira told Ramsey what everyone else knew, and what the empress had been unable to tell her.

“I, uh– I don’t– I didn’t–. Did you say the empress is pregnant– with MY child?”

“All the evidence leads to that conclusion. Wait here.” She called Cara and within a short time she arrived to verify the story.

“I don’t know what to say– what to think.” Ramsey shook her head as if to clear it. She was wrong to think nothing about Dethra could surprise her anymore.

“Say you’ll accept what has already been decided.”

“How does the empress feel. We– we don’t love each other.”

“Says who,” Behira snorted. “Judging from the way you two look at each other, I’d say the Ancients knew what they were doing, wouldn’t you Cara?”

“I can’t see all those looks, but I’ve picked up enough to agree.” Cara smiled. “She only want’s you, and I don’t think sex is all she wants.”

Ramsey glared at her. “And even though she’s pregnant, she still has to go through the ritual?”

“Afraid so,” Behira responded. “It’s the official deflowering ceremony. Since Sarika’s still a virgin, it must be done.”

“Aha!” Cara mused. “That’s what all the mystery was about? A simple deflowering, huh?”

Behira brightened. “Perhaps you will do it for her, Ramsey. She might enjoy the ceremony instead of having pain. Frankly, I haven’t been looking forward to it.”

“Yeah, Ramsey,” the doctor prodded, “do us all a favor.”

Behira and Ramsey looked at her with puzzled expressions. “What kind of favor would it be for you, Cara?” Ramsey wanted to know.

“Yes, well– for one thing, I wouldn’t have to restock the royal supply of serenity pills as often as I have been lately. And for another, I want to see the empress and her heir – and your child too by the way – to live and be happy. So do me a favor major.”

Behira took Ramsey by her wide shoulders, but did not dislodge the tall woman from her rigid posture. “If you care about the empress at all, partake in this,” urged the old priestess. Ramsey was still holding something back. “What are you really afraid of?”

“If I do– let myself love her– if I let her love me, then I won’t want to return to my own time. My home will be lost– forever.

“But this is your time Ramsey.” Behira pulled her dark head down and held her firmly to her narrow chest. “You haven’t lost you home child. You carry it inside you.” Then she raised the handsome, dark face and looked straight into her clear blue eyes. “Listen to me. Your love will mean life to Sarika, just as her love will restore you. I never knew two people who needed each other more.”

“Yes.” Dr. Holis smiled. “Listen, you big dumb soldier, you’re already home, you just haven’t realized it.”

“Doctor!” Behira chastised, “I was doing fine without your powers of persuasion.”

_______O_______

“Please, don’t harass me, I’m old and I don’t have the stamina I used to.” Behira continued to light ceremonial candles around the altar where Sarika lay. The altar was a round slab of smooth marble, one-and-a-half body lengths in diameter.

“But are you sure Ramsey will be here?”

“My impatient young empress, if I know anything about human nature she’ll be here.”

“Impatient? You have no idea how very patient I have been. I’ve been unbelievably patient.” Sarika removed her robe with trembling fingers and sat her bare bottom down on the stone. “Oh!” she bolted off the cold altar.

“Such a hurry,” Behira shook her head, laughing quietly while placing a soft fur upon the marble surface. “Now you may recline in comfort and prepare yourself with prayerful meditation.”

Sarika groaned. “You know I haven’t been able to meditate all day, and it’s the last thing I feel like doing now.”

“Nevertheless, Empress Sarika, I must encourage you to offer prayerful meditation to The Source. It will be easier for you if you are relaxed.” She placed a box near the altar. “When it’s time, give this to Ramsey.” She closed the curtain that hid the empress from view behind her and motioned for the eleven other priestesses to begin the ceremonial music while she herself prayed.

Ramsey stood outside listening nervously to the soothing tones of harmonious flutes juxtaposed by the driving beat of drums. It was appropriate music, she thought, and used the communication panel to announce her arrival.

A joyous greeting welcomed her. “Ramsey!” Behira beamed, “I knew you wouldn’t disappoint us.”

“Uhuh– I hope the Empress feels the same way.”

“She’s been asking about you every thirty seconds since we arrived.”

“I’m not exactly sure what’s expected– I think Sarika and I have a lot to talk about before– you know.”

Smiling with agreement, she handed Ramsey two large goblets filled with a dark red liquid. “Something to help you share yourselves. You will have plenty of time to say what needs to be said while you drink this together.”

Ramsey looked curiously around the room. Priestesses playing their flutes and drums lined the circular room. In the center was a five-meter area encircled by velvet drapery, thick and red.

“She waits for you behind the curtain.”

“Very symbolic, Priestess Behira.” She stood tall and squared her shoulders, refusing to be intimidated. She had plenty of experience.

“Something you will come to appreciate the more time you spend in Dethra, Major Ramsey.” She opened the curtain. “Be gentle with her.” When the tall woman passed she smiled and pulled the curtain shut, enclosing her inside. She hoped the empress could still be gentle.

The music suited Sarika’s mood and when she heard Ramsey’s voice she thrilled under its richness. ‘She’s come for me.’ Rising on her knees, she thanked the Ancients.

That is how Ramsey found her when she entered the enclosure. Sarika’s eyes were closed, her chin tipped up and the shining hair that reached her buttocks covered the only part of her body barred from view. Her fingertips touched the fur blanket beneath her, providing added balance while the position of her upper arms pushed her breasts together, emphasizing their fullness.

“You’re beautiful, Sarika.”

Smiling, the empress opened her fully dilated eyes and directed her gaze at the object of her desire.

“Thank you. I’ve been waiting to hear you say it since you already know how I feel about you.”

Handing her one of the goblets, Ramsey joked, “Either you’re underdressed or I’m overdressed.”

“Take off your robe.”

Ramsey cleared her throat. So it was right to business, as usual. “A toast first,” the tall woman suggested. “To life”. Sarika touched her goblet to Ramsey’s and raised the red liquid to her lips, keeping eye contact while the dark woman while they both drank and the liquid burned a path down their throats. Whatever it was, it was good. “Dr. Holis and Behira told me you’re pregnant.” Right to it.

Sarika put down her cup and busied herself with easing the robe down first one, then the other of Ramsey’s glorious shoulders. “Yes.” She was more interested in action than talk. She placed a kiss against one warm shoulder and Ramsey shivered. “You aren’t going to run away from me this time, are you?” She looked anxiously into beautiful, crystal-clear blue eyes.

“Not this time.” She finished pulling the robe from her own body and let it fall to the ground. She wanted to reassure the young woman who had stolen her heart and she wrapped Sarika in her long arms.

The empress shivered with delight. “You won’t say I’m too young?”

“No. Young, but not too young. Especially not when you’re having our child. I’m not running anymore, Sarika.” The major leaned down and softly pressed her lips against sacred ones. The thought of their child brought increasingly familiar and extremely pleasant warmth to her chest.

Sarika’s heart pounded. “Our child,” she said, awash in sensations that were beginning to drive her wild. Instinctively parting her lips she kissed the major soundly and hot breath mingled with her own. The world began to spin. Overcome with need, she moaned and pushed her lips more firmly against Ramsey. She ran hands along her broad shoulders. Quaking inside, she brushed her ardent body against the solid form that surrounded her.

Ramsey felt Sarika’s breasts rub and press against her and she heard a pounding in her ears. She groaned into the mouth that clung to her own until she had to capture the sweet tongue that teased her.

The empress moaned with pleasure. She loved Ramsey’s response and hungrily sought an even deeper connection. Her hands found Ramsey’s hips and she pushed her pubic mound against the tall woman’s muscular thigh. Ramsey tore her lips away, breathing hard. “Wait.” She had quickly become lost in a sensual daze. “Let’s slow down.”

“Please– Ramsey, I need you to– love me.” Sarika sought her lips again but Ramsey picked her up and her arms clung tightly around her neck while she placed her softly on the altar, lying down gently beside her.

“I do,” Ramsey softly said into her ear. “But we need to talk while we finish our drink.”

“You love me?” She had dreamt of this moment, and was very eager to have their encounter reach fruition. Sarika picked her goblet up off the floor and downed the rest of her drink in one long swallow.

“Yes. Now that I’m free to do so I realized that I, uh–”

“You–?” A lone droplet ran down the corner of her mouth to her chin.

“I–.” Ramsey stopped while she leaned down to lick it off with her warm tongue. Sarika easily caught her lips with her own. But Ramsey did not lose control of the kiss this time, keeping it shallow and short.

“I realized that I wanted to share my life with you,” she kissed her nose, “that I want to make a home with you and raise our child together.” She placed tender kisses on both her eyes and when she pulled away she was startled to see tears pooling in her green eyes. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” She thought the empress wanted those things too. Ramsey felt foolish. Perhaps it was only sex that the empress wanted from her after all.

“No, I- I’m sorry. I hoped that you would, and to hear you say it– ” Ramsey’s strength surrounded her once more and she gave herself up to profound joy. “I love you too.” She kissed her soldier and shuddered with need. “Please– ” she handed the goblet to her, “finish your drink.”

The beat of the drums grew louder and faster. Sarika took the empty cup from Ramsey’s hand and placed it beside her own. It was time. “We belong to each other, and after tonight I will call you My Protector.” She reached for the box and handed it Ramsey.

“And I will call you my love,” Ramsey said as she took the box and opened it. Her eyes grew large. She should have suspected as much. She held up the flesh colored dildo and raised her brow.

“I selected it,” Sarika said with sensual pride and pulled out the matching belt, eager to begin. “It matches your darker skin perfectly. And it will give you pleasure too–” She pointed to the smaller appendage at its base. Her lover hesitated. “Don’t you like it?”

Ramsey had never used a supplemental device, but… “I’m sure I will, but it’ll be a new experience for us both.”

“Oh,” the empress was surprised. “We don’t have to. There are other ways–” She forgot to speak when Ramsey inserted the dildo into the strap and attached the belt so it rode low on her hips. She pulled out a packet labeled “wet” and poured the contents over the length of the rod, adjusting it until the smaller projection slid into place inside and pressed against her clitoris at the same time. Breathlessly, Sarika watched as Ramsey’s strong hands manipulated the dildo that protruded from between her legs. She would not have guessed it was her first time.

Ramsey recognized the lust in her young love’s eyes. “Touch it,” she commanded huskily.

And Sarika enfolded the smooth object in one of her small hands, noticing how sensitive Ramsey was to its movement. The empress was impressed. “You,” she continued to run her hand up the firm abdomen and kissed the smoothly muscled flesh there, “are wonderful.” She began to explore Ramsey’s navel wantonly with her tongue.

Awakened nerves fluttered with excitement everywhere the empress touched and when her warm, wet tongue burrowed into the recess of her belly Ramsey’s powerful legs trembled. She pushed Sarika away and stood away from her for a moment. Her midnight-black hair draped around her firm, brown-tipped breasts and wide shoulders. The lines of her back were well proportioned and graceful. Her smoothly defined buttocks presented a torturously erotic picture for the empress.

“Ready to be ravished?” she asked so quietly that Sarika barely heard her over the flutes and incessant beat of the drums.

The prominent veins at the junction of Ramsey’s biceps and forearms added that slight blue-tinged perfection while the phallus protruding from her groin waved slightly and her eyes smoldered darkly. Sarika thought again that she looked as though she could conquer anything.

“You know I am,” the empress responded, her voice low and thick with passion. “Are you?” she dared to challenge her soldier.

Not bothering to answer, Ramsey covered one rosy pink nipple with her hot mouth. Sarika gasped at the incredible sensation and her head fell back when she began massaging the other breast with her large, warm hand. The young woman reclined, clutching at the dark head when she teased the erect bud with her tongue and alternated licks with lusty sucks and pleasurable moans of her own. Sarika tasted intoxicatingly sweet, and the major knew she was going to make love with her as often as she could. She gave similar attention to the other mouth-watering breast and then spread the lovely thighs apart to wedge her body lower over the writhing woman.

“Yes!” Sarika groaned again and Ramsey believed she could feel Sarika’s pleasure along with her own when she touched her tongue to the moistness between her legs. Ramsey drew her tongue across the swollen outer lips again and again before finally pushing her exploring tongue inside to caress her depths.

“Ramsey!” Sarika shrieked and thrust her hips forward.

Ramsey wanted to give her more, wanted to give her everything. She inserted a finger into her vagina and felt the resistance she expected. She pulled on the shaft of the empress’ clitoris lightly with her teeth and then gently sucked on the hard nub at the end, driving Sarika to the brink of orgasm and then pulling back before sending her over the edge. Sarika would need Ramsey’s orgasm to get the relief she was in need of.

“Oh no…don’t stop! Oh please, don’t stop.”

“Relax sweet empress, we’re not finished.” She placed her long, lean body over the smaller woman and kissed her neck. The pulse she found with her lips was beating much faster than the drums that seemed to fade into the distance. She slid her tongue up to the delectable jaw before latching onto the delicious pink lips that had been silently mouthing her name like a litany of worship.

Sarika met her tongue with her own and felt the length of the phallus against her abdomen. With a deep moan she spread her legs. “Come inside,” she said breathlessly.

Ramsey positioned the distended rod between the turgid lips of her sex. “It will hurt at first.”

“I know,” Sarika breathed into her dark hair. “I’m ready.” When Ramsey penetrated her she felt a white hot flash of pain that faded to pleasure as Ramsey’s thrusts continued. She wrapped her legs around Ramsey and her own pelvic thrusts met hers with increasing abandon. She was stretched full and the world spiraled as she expanded with each movement. The empress knew what she needed and could not stop reaching for it. She was in a sensual delirium, prodding her lover on with her involuntary movements and sounds of wild, salacious pleasure.

“Oh god!” Ramsey cried, feeling an intense orgasm approach. She was soaked with perspiration, her black hair sticking to places on her olive skin and mingling liberally with Sarika’s light-auburn strands. She tried to slow it down but the empress had other plans, driving their bodies together even faster in the ancient dance of physical love. The major’s began to tremble.

Head whipping back and forth while she whimpered, the empress was enraptured, realizing Ramsey was not going to last much longer and she tried to prepare herself for the release that she knew was coming.

When she climaxed, Ramsey thought she would die, so intense was the discharge of energy that lasted minutes instead of seconds. She moved through time and space in an endless kaleidoscope of colorful, pulsing pleasure that squeezed and expanded her, and spread wave after wave of heat throughout her being. It was almost terrifying in intensity, and for a moment it was painful. She gave a final shudder and collapsed on top of the empress, gasping for breath.

When Ramsey would have moved Sarika tearfully clasped her even tighter to herself, whispering words of devotion. She was complete and joyously relaxed.

Ramsey finally eased away and removed the strap before lying back down on her side.

Sarika placed a reverent kiss on her hand. “All right?”

Ramsey opened her arms and invited the empress to snuggle. “Don’t know. Never been ravished before. Where are we?” she groaned before kissing the top of the royal head. “Oh yeah,” she managed a satisfied, hoarse chuckle, “we’re home.”
The End

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