The walk from the doors of the throne room to the dais had never seemed intimidating before, but now the polished floor seemed to stretch out before her like an expanse of desert - uncrossable and without a refuge in sight. The guards at her elbows gave her no quarter as they continued forward, their grip all but keeping her upright. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of dragging her, of letting go of that last vestige of her dignity. This was not the moment for rebellion.
The General stood upon the dais - Arden refused to give him his name in her mind: it was shouted enough from the streets, in both rage and exultation, but perhaps if she had her way it would fade into nothing more than bad history - looking imposing and resplendent in his armor. The bright yellow of his cloak and polish of his pauldrons told her all she needed to know about the ceremony she was being coerced into and just how functional that armor was. Before she could come within striking or spitting distance, the guards who had drawn the short straw of their shift forced her to her knees, the thick leather of their gloves a reminder of how useless it would be to try and turn to bite them.
“It is a shame that in the end, the fabled defenses of Ars Tagig fall on the shoulders of a single woman, and a further shame that you cannot be allowed to live. It would have been quite the coup to turn you to my own stables. We could have provided a unified front and your people would not have had to suffer so. But it is not to be, is it, Arden?”
Despite the cloth shoved in her mouth to absorb her saliva, despite the ropes chafing her hands, Arden made sure her eyes promised the General his deserved fate. Her sisters had died before his armies had even breached the walls, their forces so depleted already that they had been called to the front. She had been the only one of them left when Ars Tagig had been overrun, had been the only one to hear out the pleas of the citizens that they could not voice as their doors were broken open, children dragged into the streets, throats slit. She had been the only one who watched the flames rise higher to overtake a city that she had sworn to protect.
So she had bowed her head, presented her wrists, and kneeled willingly when the invaders had breached the palace walls. She knew the weight upon her shoulders as she was bathed and dressed, kept her mouth shut and her pulse slow, her movements languid so as to prevent even the smallest drop of sweat from beading at her brow and giving her away. The servants had looked to her and she had given them instructions, telling them to act servile in the ways the invaders would expect, to demur and avert their eyes, to keep silent and report back to her. She had batted her eyelashes, swayed her hips, and ensured that when the General called one of the women to warm his bed, it was her, and that when that night had come, she allowed no one to touch her as the cold sweat of nerves broke out all over her skin. She had lain, waiting, the sheets damp and in her stomach, the cold surety that this was what she had stayed behind to do.
It had all been ruined, in the end, which left her here, kneeling, wanting desperately to show any disrespect but physically unable, bound and trussed in every way but her spirit. And what did that count for, in terms of the survival of Ars Tagig? What else could she do?
The invaders were within the city walls, there were only long games now. But what game was left? What could she do but gather her dignity in the twilight hours of her survival? What was left but hoping she could leave behind an example of resistance? She knew better than to think that the General would allow her to live, now that he knew - there was no place safe from her, and she had squandered her largest chance at victory. Her spit in his wine would do little but keep him bed-bound for a few days, which would be useless unless there were guards loyal to the cause. Her sweat upon his skin would weaken him, but without access to a knife to serve the killing blow, the phalanx of guards would enclose around him before the news could escape the courtyard. So she knelt, bowed her head, and knew that living and dying on her own terms was the best challenge.
Until the General opened his mouth. “We hear that the Planting Festival is upcoming.”
A pit, colder than ice, settled in her stomach. Instead of nodding, instead of giving him the satisfaction of reacting at all, she stared at the floor. Her gaze focused on the polished spot, staring at her distorted reflection until it felt like her memory was the one incorrect, that she was unclear and imperfect, blurry around the edges and wavering and had never been anything else.
“We hear that it is tradition to offer Rovena tribute.”
She’d forgotten, entirely. The siege of war tended to swallow every other priority, until nothing remained but the pile of bodies, the pulse of blood and the beat of drums. One of the advisors at his elbow nodded, bowing slightly and Arden hated her, even as she hoped she would live.
“Yes, sire. It is customary to select a consort to give the sun god a link to her people, to ensure the prosperity of Ars Tagig in the year to come. It is traditionally a high honor.”
“Well. It seems to me that we have a perfect candidate in front of us: one who has served her people well, with a true heart and unyielding devotion, who would make an unparalleled consort to Rovena.”
Arden felt her face blanch, her entire body going still. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she would be selected for the honor of consort. Her gaze, her future, had always been focused on the day-to-day. Yes, the future of Ars Tagig had been her goal, but the details had been mundane, not divine.
She’d never even tried.
Then she had been accepted to be a Damsel, and any passing thought of being a consort had faded.
She couldn’t be a consort.
She fought against her bonds, thrashing for a moment before she realized that it was exactly the reaction the General wanted from her, and stilled.
She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of even making another noise against her gag.
“It’s remarkably easy to manipulate a system that assumes its candidate is willing and desirous of the appointment.”
She felt sick to her stomach, but he was right. The consort was an honor, and he would...distort it so, would make it her greatest punishment.
Bound was her constant state of being these days, it seemed. She’d almost become used to it, almost adjusted into a position that was comfortable, almost drifted off into something like sleep when a bright radiance filled the room, bouncing off the white marble and giving her no quarter, nowhere to hide.
“Rise, and greet your mistress with the due given to a new dawn.”
The customary words should have washed over her, leaving peace in their wake, and a piece of her soul wanted to turn over, to give over to it and simply accept the course of the actions set for her, for what was she but a pawn, carved and created to be used in someone else’s game? Instead she struggled, thrashing once again at the wrongness of it all, and at that, Rovena seemed to truly acknowledge her for the first time.
“What is this?” She circled Arden, investigating her bound state. Arden had been given every other courtesy due a consort: her hair was braided, carefully brushed and twisted and adorned with a traditional coronet of protea, amaryllis and camellia, though it had been interwoven with leaves of belladonna. She was dressed in flowing linen, easy to drape and easy to part, arranged so that it flowed from her onto the floor in what she was sure was to beautiful effect. But undeniable was the way her hands were bound behind her, tied to her ankles to keep her immobile, a gag in her mouth to keep her from shouting.
“Has so much truly changed in a year that there are no willing consorts left in Hira? Have you all fallen so far that no one is worthy?” Rovena leaned forward, gently untying the knot behind Arden’s head and pulling the gag from her mouth.
Arden let her saliva flood her mouth and alleviate the dryness, careful not to let any of it escape. To harm Rovena was the last thing she wanted, even if the end result was perhaps inevitable.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”
With her hands and feet still bound, Arden could only drag her eyes up to meet Rovena’s, then immediately lower her head. The goddess was beautiful, the sort of beauty that hurt to look at it, though perhaps that was simply Arden’s unworthiness in the face of her divinity. Rovena was dressed in linen as well, thinner strips than had been given to Arden, draped more for utility and movement than modesty. There were flashes of gold as she moved, but Arden couldn’t look long enough to tell whether they were decorations against her skin or part of it, the light within her shining through. She swallowed and tried to find the words she needed.
“There are many who would have taken my place, but I am unsure if Hira deserves your blessing.” Perhaps Rovena would simply sacrifice her - there were rumors, from the time of the last war, the last prisoners. Back before the consorts were willing.
“Are you not a child of Hira yourself?”
“I am, mistress.” Arden kept her head bowed, but for all her training, she couldn’t keep the bitterness from seeping into her voice.
“Then why do you wish lean years upon those who will succeed you?” The worst part was that there was only curiosity in Rovena’s tone, as if she truly didn’t know.
“Have you not been keeping one eye upon us? There may no longer be a Hira in a year’s time.”
“Are there not still Hirani? Do you presume that my blessing would benefit those who seek to subject you and ruin me? Are you who remain so weak as to roll over before the last battle is lost?”
“You’ve no idea, none, what we’ve been doing—” Arden spat, her eyes hot, barely restraining herself as she realized she was fighting with a literal goddess and bowed her head once more.
“Do not apologize. Just as you do not believe I fully understand what has been going on, it is unlikely you comprehend the full scope of what it means to be a god. This is not a failing on your part, merely a fact.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better? That what’s been happening is so inconsequential that it’s beneath your notice? That our lives are worth so little that you only pay attention when it’s time to pay you tribute? Well soon there might not be anyone left to give you tribute, so maybe it’s time to pay attention!” Arden panted as she finished, daring only briefly to glance up at Rovena. She was staring at her, head tilted slightly to the side, a look that Arden couldn’t decipher in her eyes. But Arden was still alive, still upright instead of being struck down for blasphemy.
Suddenly, Rovena was kneeling in front of her, one hand outstretched to caress her face. Arden jerked back instinctively before she could feel Rovena’s touch, but there was only so far she could go, bound as she was. Contact was inevitable, but the thought that cut through her panic was only that Rovena’s hands were cool against her cheek as they wiped away the tear rolling down it.
“It has been a long time since you felt safe, has it not?” The tone of Rovena’s voice made Arden want to lean into the hand now cupping her cheek. It was true - it had been too long since she’d been able to simply relax and be. Even before the war, she’d had to watch herself around other people constantly, having to force herself to be cool and calm, even in the sweltering markets. Even the other Damsels weren’t immune — not entirely, and many of them were given different plants. Diversity, they’d been told, when all it meant was that not a moment, not a touch went by without any of them wondering if they’d ever be able to let down their guard, even amongst themselves.
It had already been fifteen years since she’d ingested her first weed, and from the first drop of oleander against her tongue, she’d accepted her new fate. She just hadn’t realized what a burden it had become.
Seeing the wetness of her tear against Rovena’s finger and the lack of any other reaction gave her hope. It was unfamiliar after so long.
“Do you claim to keep me safe, then?” Arden’s heart beat in her chest, picking up pace.
“I will keep you safe as I keep all of my consorts. You will be mine, and I shall be yours; all that is yours shall be mine and all mine yours - that includes the extent of my protection.” The words sounded ritual; for all that nothing they had done here so far had been at all within the bounds of any stories of consorts, the weight of it still settled over them.
Arden nodded slowly, the plan taking shape in her mind. “It’s true that I did not consent to this, not in the way that brought me here — I hadn’t thought I’d ever be in a position to volunteer, and the reason for that is the same reason why I was forced into it. I am—”
“You are poison.” Rovena interrupted her, smiling, the shape of it not at all gentle, but Arden felt at ease all the same. “They hoped I would not notice, that it would be so easy to keep the sun from rising. As if the plants that kill do not also draw sustenance from me and I do not love them all the same.” She drew her fingers down Arden’s cheek once more and once more Arden shivered. “You feared for me, not for yourself. You feared for Hira, yet you have no hesitation to putting your own life at risk.”
“It has been a long time since I’ve needed to care about my life over another’s, my lady.”
“Ah, so we are back to formality now? If you are to be my consort in truth, you may call me Rovena, as you knew me before you picked up the trappings of adulthood. Though,” she said, and Arden looked up to see her eyes twinkling. “A well-placed ‘mistress’ has been known to do wonders for requests if you have any in the future.
“And what should I knew you as?”
“Arden, my—Rovena.” Strange as the whole situation was, Arden felt the corners of her mouth start to tug up. Conversation was a more familiar battleground.
“No family name? Curious.”
“It was one of the things I gave up when I took on my new life. A new name, a new family. Who I was before is merely someone else I needed to know to become who I am.”
“Is that what you truly believe?”
“No, but it’s easier.” She would have given a bow, but her limbs were still behind her, so Arden merely inclined her head slightly, a little mocking. “Can you actually help us, or will this simply be the this plan not working out the way they predicted but our people still in the same position?”
Rovena gave her another grin then, a sharp one brilliant with teeth. “Oh, I will help.” She snapped her fingers and the bonds at Arden’s wrists and ankles fell away, the dull thuds as they hit the ground barely registering over the thudding of her pulse. “Though I will need your help to do it.”
“My help? But I’ve already failed, more than once.”
“But it has brought you here, to me, has it not? Someone who would challenge my view of the years so that they are clear, so that they do not run together, so that we are living in the same moment, in your time rather than mine.”
Arden blinked. “I...I don’t understand.”
“Did you think you were the only ones receiving a benefit from this ritual? That I would have required a life for a year on a whim?”
Arden felt her cheeks flame. “I knew you got something out of it, at any rate.”
Rovena’s laugh brightened the room; she sounded truly delighted with Arden’s answer. “Yes, but that is only part of it, and mutually beneficial, as all such interactions should be. Though the greater ritual is also mutually beneficial. A show of dedication, a life for a year, is enough to heighten my powers. In that state it is possible for me to not only work the everyday miracles to which you are accustomed, but the greater ones. To address maladies, droughts, catastrophe, to protect you as is your due as those under my protection. By giving your dedication to me, it becomes my power—the stronger the faith, the greater my strength once it is given.”
Rovena extended her hand down to where Arden was still on her knees. “Now, will you give your strength unto me and restore me once more?”
Arden took her hand, half expecting it to be hot, despite the fact that she could still feel Rovena’s cool touch on her cheek, and stood, her heart blazing in her chest. “I will, if you promise to help Hira.”
“I will always help when I am needed, as you will learn.”
“What do I need to do?”
“I believe you already know, as your title now is ‘consort’.” Suddenly, Rovena’s arm was around Arden’s back, pulling her close.
“I…” Words were suddenly hard to find as Arden was pulled flush against Rovena’s body. Up until this point, she had still held out some thought of the goddess being intangible, of the whole thing being some sort of test, but the linen Arden was draped in was thin, providing no sort of barrier at all between their bodies, and the linen Rovena wore even more so, and sparser, leaving too many points where their skin met.
“You have nothing to fear, little one; you cannot harm me.”
Arden felt her face flush again. “I’m far past being called ‘little’,” she protested, trying to find any sort of footing in the conversation again.
“Oh, but you are all little to me—it is nothing bad, just a good reminder of how much faster your lives are.” Rovena tilted Arden’s head up and leaned in to press a soft, swift kiss upon her lips. “You remind me to pay attention.”
Arden would not have counted herself amongst the innocent, not with the fate of most Damsels, nor with what she herself had done in the name of a mission. But all of those times she had been in control; it was against the point for her to lose it on those occasions, but as Rovena’s hands traced the fall of linen along her back, circling lightly when she found bare skin, Arden found herself flushing — there were no questions as to who held the upper hand here. It had never been like this, those calculated seductions of heads tilted just so, looking up through her lashes, leaning over so that her breasts brushed oh-so-accidentally against their back. Here, her limbs were still regaining sensation from being behind her for so long, though she wasn’t sure which tingling sensation along her arms was the blood returning to numb fingers and which was simply the wake of Rovena’s fingers along her skin. It wasn’t that she hadn’t enjoyed sex before, it was more that each time had had an end goal in mind, and that goal had little to do with her own pleasure. This was fire in her veins, gasping into Rovena’s mouth as she leant down for another kiss, deeper this time.
Arden had rarely been kissed — too much of a risk of giving away her position too early, the poison in her saliva too weak to do more than make the other ill, leading to a messy end — but even then it was never like this, Rovena’s tongue sweeping through her mouth as if she meant to map each part of Arden. It was all Arden could do to clutch at her shoulders as her head swam, as a part of her mind wondered dimly if this was what being poisoned felt like, the slow overtaking of her senses until thinking was an impossible task. Rovena’s mouth was hot in the way her hands weren’t, and Arden felt like she was being set aflame from the inside out. She imagined the poison in her veins being burnt out, even as she remained intact. She was safe for Rovena to touch, and the weight of that knowledge dropped from her shoulders. It was like unlocking a door and suddenly she was kissing back, her hands going from using Rovena’s shoulders as an anchor to winding them around her neck, giving herself leverage to pull herself closer.
“Mine,” Rovena breathed as they separated, her eyes blazing.
“Yours,” Arden agreed, dipping her chin but not her eyes, as she was walked backwards towards the altar in the center of the chamber. Rovena’s hands at her waist lifted her up to the stone slab, the coolness of it counterpoint to the heat of Rovena’s mouth at her neck.
The ritual of it still followed a sacrifice most closely, and Arden supposed it was. She would give up a year of her life, give herself over to Rovena, and nothing would ever be the same again. She had already given up her life once for her land; it was the same sort of loyalty to give it up again.
Rovena’s touch along her sides felt like those first drops of oleander, burning now, changing her, and Arden arched up into it. The stone beneath her didn’t give an inch so she arched higher, the linen around her falling away to leave her bare beneath Rovena’s touch. Suddenly, Rovena stepped back, simply watching her, but the fierce gaze in her eyes pinned Arden to the altar so she lay back, exposed, waiting.
“You come here freely, give yourself unto me, join with me.”
Somewhere deep within her, Arden felt the response rise to her lips and let herself relax against the altar to speak. “I do.”
“You give a year, as agreed by ancient contract, with true heart and true intent.”
“In the joining, all that is yours will become mine and all that is mine, yours.”
“All that is mine I give freely, so that it may elevate us both.” Arden wanted to shift, to ground herself against the sensation that was building up inside of her, an anticipation and wanting not unlike arousal, and with a jolt, she realized her legs had splayed open upon the altar and that she was wet. Wet in a way she hadn’t been in years, enough so that she could feel it slick between her legs and beneath her, even spread as she was. She wondered, dazedly, if this was part of the ritual or merely Rovena’s effect on her, then decided it didn’t matter.
“Your loyalty does you credit, as does your true heart, beloved. Such bravery and beauty will be rich in my veins for years to come.” The words sounded strange, a twisting of the weight of the ritual building around them, but they had the ring of truth to them that Arden thought would only be possible here. Summoning up a bit of that bravery, she finished the ritual the way she wanted. “Then drink, shining one, and keep me... always.”
Her last word, out of place, snapped the haze around the both of them, and Arden felt Rovena’s gaze sharpening to focus on her like a physical thing, the same way she felt her core pulse again, her legs falling apart impossibly wider. “You do not know what you promise, I cannot hold you to it,” Rovena said, her hands brands on the inside of Arden’s thighs as she moved forward and knelt, her breath hot against Arden’s open sex as she spoke.
Arden said, “I do—there’s nothing else this life could offer me alone, that much has been made clear. But it brought me here, to you, which I can only call fate, and don’t see why I should fight it.” She caught Rovena’s eyes, even as her breath caught in her throat, and she repeated her line from before. “All that is mine, I give, freely. Drink, Rovena. Please,” she added, feeling like she would lose her sanity in the waiting.
Again, her last words seemed to catalyze everything, and Rovena only paused once to fix Arden with a look that almost set her to coming simply from the heat behind it. Then she bent to lick Arden, a slow stripe up the seam of her and Arden was coming, unravelling as she screamed and arched off the altar, the cry echoing around them.
Rovena kept her mouth on her, licking her through it and drinking her down, her hands keeping Arden anchored to the stone as she writhed, feeling herself come harder than she could ever remember, even before she became a Damsel and had to keep a tighter rein on such things. Her tongue gave Arden no quarter — no sooner had Arden’s senses returned then Rovena’s tongue slipped into her, one hand shifting to better hold her open. Arden clenched around her, around that soft, hot tongue tasting her like no one had, like she had never allowed anyone to do. She wondered, fleetingly, if the poison had affected her taste, if she was strange or different, but if she was, Rovena showed no signs of it, no signs of stopping. Indeed, she seemed to drink more deeply the more slick Arden produced, so much that Arden could feel Rovena’s fingers slipping against her thighs with it.
The pressure was building again, and wild with it, Arden’s hands came down on Rovena’s shoulders to try and ride it out, but with a move faster than she could track, Arden felt her hands being pulled up, over her head and gathered in one of Rovena’s and held there, the order in the action implicit, even as Rovena pulled her own hands away. Arden only moaned - she couldn’t have moved her hands for all the power or wealth in the world. Not with Rovena back between her legs, the hand that had held hers now running along her outer lips, the fingers dipping inside beside her tongue. Two of them pressed further in, stretching and twisting inside of her until Arden felt herself writhing again. Rovena already seemed to know her, seemed to know all the places against her to press, how to tap her fingers from within until Arden was screaming and unable to focus on anything other than the way Rovena seemed to envelop her, for all that she was the one inside Arden.
Even through a second orgasm, Arden kept her hands above her upon the altar, spread out and pliant as Rovena pulled back to rise up and kiss her, her mouth slick and hot. Muzzily, Arden realized that the sweet taste upon Rovena’s lips was her, and she laughed.
“Why do you laugh, beloved?” Rovena’s fingers still moved in her, three of them now, making thoughts hard to grab onto and follow, especially as Rovena’s thumb came to rest on her clit, circling it lazily.
“I...I’m...I always expected poison to taste bitter,” she panted, trailing off into a moan as Rovena began to kiss down the column of her throat, sucking lightly on the jut of her collarbone.
“You are perfect. As the sun illuminates all things, there should be no shadow of doubt in your mind that you are mine in this moment and the next. You are mine, and thus you are perfect.” She rose again to kiss Arden more fully, and in that moment, Arden believed.
As if sensing that change, Rovena shifted as well—she flowed onto the altar alongside Arden, covering her body with her own. The robes from earlier hadn’t covered much, but they had disappeared from one moment to the next and now she was bare, as bare as Arden was, the heat of her searing.
“In sharing your essence you have shared your mortality, and so you are able to withstand my divinity,” Rovena said by way of explanation, but Arden was far more focused on the way she had shifted Arden’s legs, both of them moving until there was only the heat of her sex against Arden’s, the pressure and slickness of it so good Arden hardly felt bereft as Rovena’s fingers left her.
“Take me in, Arden - I am yours as you are mine, and together we will be unstoppable.” She was clutching Arden close now, one arm under her back, pulling her into a position that made thrusting against her all the easier, and giddily, Arden realized her hands were still above her head. The position arched her spine and made her feel all the more on display, but before she could feel any shame about it, she heard the reverent tone of her name upon Rovena’s lips. She was Rovena’s and Rovena’s was hers — she could hold the sun in her hands and it would illuminate her from within. Rovena had said they would be unstoppable, and in this place there were no lies.
So Arden let herself arch, let her mind fall away until there was only the burning point of Rovena’s hand on her back, the warmth of her spreading over Arden entirely until she was consumed by it. She had not realized she was given to being loud during sex, but she was now, pants and shouts and whimpers and pleas as Rovena drove her higher, as the fire blazed through her.
“You are a marvel,” Rovena whispered in her ear, when Arden felt that it was all too much, that she would shatter under this heat and pressure. Instead she shook, feeling Rovena curl around her, protecting her as she fell into oblivion, feeling everything start to coalesce, the spark within her crystallizing.
When she came to, Rovena was stroking her hair, which had come undone rather spectacularly. The petals of the flower crown were strewn about the altar, and her braid had been mussed beyond recognition. She felt Rovena’s touch along her arms, which were starting to ache from being held in one position for so long, then her lips, following her fingers.
“You were beyond perfect.” Rovena’s eyes shone as they looked on her, and Arden wanted to duck her head in the fact of such admiration.
“Can I really stay longer than a year?”
Rovena’s gesture was too fluid to be called a shrug. “Most consorts leave to see the world when their year is done; none have ever tried. Even if they stay in the divine realms they are released from me and none have returned.” She brushed a stray curl behind Arden’s ear. “Though I do not expect you to shy from anything just because no one has done it before.”
“I pledged myself to you, a second chance of a life, and I intend to do something about it, so long as life beats within me. As you’ve said, I’m loyal— I don’t intend to lose that reputation so easily.”
“Indeed. Now, you tell me Hira is in danger. You would have my help to bring our enemies low from the pedestal they have built themselves upon the Hirani, and I will give it. Tell me of those who believe it is so easy to stop the sun, and I will light your return.” Rovena pressed a kiss to Arden’s nose, and even through the delicateness of the action Arden felt her strength in her blood. “We will do miracles, beloved, you and I.”