BOOK THREE IN THE UNHOLY INC SERIES
AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | KOBO | IBOOKS
~~~ This is the Guardian Origination novella. Alexios & Sophia Part 1 (no cliffhanger) ~~~
Ruthless warrior Alexios of Sparta straddles two clashing cultures. As the bastard son of a slave woman and one of Sparta’s kings, his status as heir to the throne inflames not only the aristocracy, but also weaves distrust among the slave class who raised him.
Only Sophia understands his isolation.
The clumsy, crusading princess embodies everything Spartans despise. Softness in a culture that idolizes strength. Passion where there should be self-control. And an unquenchable hunger for equality in a society built on the back of slaves.
He should criticize Sophia like all the others. Mock her when she champions the weakest among them. Turn a cold shoulder when dangerous forces conspire against her.
By the gods, he has his own bloody agenda, and it doesn’t include a silly girl with stars in her eyes…
Yet when she implores his aid to remap Sparta’s legacy, he must choose between avenging a terrible wrong, or risk everything for the woman whose redeeming love might just be mightier than his sword.
Sparta, Greece ~ 527 BC
A choking, clay dust hovered knee-high as the procession of seventeen-year-old boys walked silent and naked to the temple where their blood would bring glory to Artemis. The goddess of the hunt was fierce and expected the sons of Sparta to be no less feared the world over.
Last in line, Alexios lifted his gaze from his bare feet. A small company of soldiers in full battle armor fanned out behind him. Four more years of agoge—the warrior-training school all Spartan boys joined at age seven—and he could be like those soldiers. Four more years and he’d wear his own bronze, wield sword and spear, and peer out the intimidating eye-slits in his own crested helmet.
The searing mid-afternoon sun cast wavering mirages near the altar where all twelve of the ephebes would be beaten so violently some might never rise from the dirt.
Today he’d receive his shield…or bring shame to his father’s house.
“Look, it’s the bastard! I bet he falls the fastest!” came a shout from the crowd assembled along the path that led to Artemis’s temple. A clod of dirt hit Alexios in the back of the head, but he didn’t flinch. In his peripheral vision he saw a soldier—one of his father’s personal guard—peel off from the procession to deal with the heckler.
Alexios gritted his teeth. Let me fight my battles alone.
It had to be that way. Even his father—one of Sparta’s two kings—knew that.
Arcadius had come to him before dawn, alone, dressed in a simple, belted chiton. He’d recently shaved his beard, though he kept his hair long. Arcadius didn’t smile, but his dark eyes held a treasury of emotion.
“Walk with me to find your mother,” he’d said. They found Kassandra at the helot slaves’ well, gathering water in preparation to tend to her son’s wounds. When she saw father and son standing together she froze, eyes widening, lips parting before she quickly schooled her features into the serene visage Alexios and the laboring women she so often cared for were accustomed to.
Would that I could take this pain from you, mother. Kassandra was beloved by the king, yet ever a slave by simple fact of her birth. Even the mighty Arcadius could not change their laws. Some days, when the king kept himself apart from them for weeks on end, Alexios wondered if he even would if he could.
But he wondered not today.
Arcadius caressed Kassandra’s cheek, his thumb brushing over her lower lip. Kassandra closed her eyes, holding herself aloof. “May our son bring honor to Artemis and the Eurypontid House.”
The king took her into his arms, whispered for long moments into her ear, then released her with a kiss on her temple. As always, Kassandra kept her hands to herself. To preserve her heart from longing for that which she could never have? Or to not anger the king’s wife who seemed to have eyes everywhere?
Alexios never asked, and his mother never spoke of it.
Arcadius continued to look at Kassandra as though desperate for her to share a soft word. When she remained mute, he turned back to Alexios, his face losing most of its warmth. “Honor is priceless and glad be he who has it. You will do me as proud today as you did during the Phouxir.” Alexios doubted the Phouxir—a rite of passage all thirteen-year-old boys of the agoge endured—would compare to the agony of today’s ordeal. Proving you could survive without civilization for forty days during the Phouxir meant you were no longer a child, and well on your way to earning the right to undergo the contest of endurance.
The Diamastigosis. A scourging until blood flowed in abundance. By accepting the most extreme pain, he could demonstrate he was indeed worthy to wear the Spartan scarlet.
Even though he was a bastard.
We train like no other so we do not have to live in fear.
Alexios closed his ears to the humming throng around him, focusing on the priestess who stood at the altar holding a wooden statue of the goddess. As the line of boys drew nearer, Alexios could see the hollowness in the eyes of the priestess. He’d heard rumors that she and others in the temple were being abused by a member of the elite. It was scandalous, but more than that…disturbing.
If those who held the ear of the gods couldn’t protect themselves, what hope had others?
One by one the boys gripped the bronze bar affixed to the altar, took the lash, and bled for Sparta. The sun continued its arc across the blue, Laconian sky as the crowd grew strangely silent and the crows cawed, hopping on their long, black tufted legs toward the blood that spread its stain across the cobbled tiles of the outer temple courtyard.
Five boys cried out. Three fell.
The boy who’d taken the most punishment yet remained standing had endured 39 lashes.
And then it was Alexios’s turn.
Every sense sharpened as his legs propelled him toward the altar—his toes gripping for purchase in the blood-slick clay, the buzzing flies, his stomach twisting with hunger and nerves, his mouth dry with dehydration from the required fast, his skin, hot from the unrelenting sun.
He wasn’t sweating anymore. A bad sign.
He glanced up toward Mount Taygetos, covered with its dense forest of pine and fir trees. Ares, god of war, I am no good with words, but I implore your strength.
His fingers curled around the bronze bar. He breathed in, but before he could exhale, the first lash came down like a lightning strike. PAIN. His spine jack-knifed, forcing all the air from his lungs in a rush out his mouth as his knuckles whitened on the bar. He bore down on a wave of shock, goose bumps breaking out all over his body.
He shook his head once, sucking back all sound that wanted to pour from his mouth. No.
No sound. Sounds were unacceptable.
Been here before. Survived.
He heard the whistle of the whip as it tore through the air. His chin lifted, his back bowing slightly from the force. And again.
He drew air through his nostrils evenly, through a count of ten, as he stared up at a single gossamer cloud that hovered above his favorite spot to enter the Eurotas River. Four more lashes bore down as he visualized swimming through the river’s soothing waters.
“Harder!” yelled the priestess and the crowd shifted restlessly, but remained oddly silent.
The seventh lash broke his skin. The tenth sent droplets of his blood to spatter the faces of those standing in the front row, some of them watching with gleaming eyes like vultures. He groaned long and deep in his mind, imagining the low sound. Like an animal who’d been caught in a trap, ready to bite its leg off.
Be silent and survive.
He slid his left foot closer to his right, tilted his hips under, and pulled his shoulders back. Lifted his chin and locked eyes the one who hated him the most.
Queen Theodora. His father’s wife, who’d borne the king three daughters.
And no sons.
Theodora’s tongue came out to lick at the blood spatter—his blood—on her lips as her hungry gaze dropped to his nakedness. He locked his knees, pulling his lips into a sneer, absorbing the next ten blows like iron yields in the forge. Stoking the rage. Feeding on the pain.
Be silent and thrive.
Show her. He’d be stronger than any child she’d ever bear.
He’d show the fucking aristocracy their superiority was a farce.
Show. Them. All. Blows punctuated every word.
Blood began to flow down his buttocks and legs. His eyes passed over his mother with her stoic face and anguished eyes. They had the power to undo him.
Don’t look at her. Show. Them.
Thirty. Flies began to bite, tiny pinpricks that distracted him from his focus. The agony wound its tentacles around every nerve ending. Cold rippled through his frame, though every bone and sinew felt aflame. His teeth began to chatter, vision to blur.
His knees wobbled once. Twice.
Honor is priceless and glad be he who has it.
He opened his lips a crack to exhale some of the pressure, imagining his pain and fear of failure taking to the wind, floating up, blowing away high above the trees. When he could follow its course no longer, he blinked, shaking, lowered his gaze…
And saw her.
A filthy child with soul-stripping eyes. He was caught in the web of them as her body straightened on impact with his gaze. He angled his hips and shoulders her direction. Her stained helot’s hood slipped from her head to reveal curly hair as dark as a night without stars. A pert nose perched between two clay-smudged cheeks. She was young. Ten? Fourteen? Hard to say.
He didn’t care.
She was no vulture, here to drink in his suffering.
Her vivid blue eyes poured out solace. Strength.
He dove into her gaze. Felt her warmth surround him until the shivering eased. The pounding in his head dimmed. The blows came, but he kept watch on her. I am here, her wise, old eyes implored. Let me share your suffering.
So he did.
When she gasped, the torment in his body rose like a great wave. It began to pull him under. Then she mouthed, No! Her eyes like Athena on the battlefront, her small hands curling into fists.
And he could breathe again.
Time and place faded. The sky merged with her eyes, and he knew.
I will show them all.
Show them today. Show them tomorrow and the days afterwards.
He would ever be grateful to this nameless slave child.
“Sixty lashes for Alexios, bastard son of King Arcadius,” the priestess shouted, bending down to drag her fingers through the blood at the foot of the altar and smearing the statue with it. “Enough then! The goddess is satisfied.”
As a soldier pried Alexios’s locked fingers from the bronze bar, the crowd swallowed up the young girl. Alexios opened cracked lips to call out to her, but only a puff of air scraped up his throat. She’s gone. And suddenly, so was his strength.
Soldiers caught him as he fell.
* * *
Sophia’s leg muscles went to wax the moment the priestess finally—Gods, finally!—ended Alexios’s torment. She sank to her backside on the hot tiles of the temple, tucking her legs under her so they wouldn’t get trampled by the shuffling crowd. Hot tears blended with the sticky clay she’d slathered on her cheeks to disguise herself. Lightheaded, she tried to draw in a shaky breath, but her chest felt bound by a giant serpent.
How he’d suffered. Even by Spartan standards. All around her, helot slaves and their Spartan superiors were speaking of him as they continued to mill around, as though reluctant to get on with their day.
And how could they? Alexios had been legendary.
She would never forget this day.
She shifted around to her knees and tested the strength of her legs as she angled for a better view of her warrior.
Yes. He was now hers.
He’d made it that way when he’d stripped away all her layers and looked inside her. If she’d had walls, he’d stormed them. Effortlessly. His invasion an appalling takeover that made her guts hum with energy.
Everyone always looked right through her, seeing only the gangly, clumsy child of Sparta’s other king.
But Alexios. He had touched her down deep where no one else had ever been.
She felt the truth of it like rain on her face. Her skin prickled pleasantly, restlessly. Now deprived of his gaze, she felt a yawning gap inside where before there had been none.
That gap was him.
She got to her feet and watched as soldiers brought him ladles of water. His mother hurried to his side as a hand on Sophia’s shoulder spun her around.
“Sophie! Damn your eyes! I’ve been looking all over for you. Hurry along before mother and father discover you’ve managed to sneak out of the palace unattended again.” Her older brother, Niketas, continued his gentle scolding as he took hold of her arm and pulled her through the crowd toward his groom and two horses.
As she melted deeper into the throng, her attention tossed about like flotsam on a heavy-flowing spring river. Snatches of conversation…
“The bastard won…”
“…must have made a deal with Hades…”
“…more Spartan than the braying donkeys in the Assembly!”
How could they even debate what they’d witnessed? Alexios had bled for all of them for Artemis’s favor, and he’d done so magnificently.
She glanced back at the place where he was being attended and pulled against her brother’s hold. What if they didn’t know to use poultice of clover, honey, and poppy on his wounds? “Niketas, can we go back and look upon him once more? Please? Then I shall return with all haste to the palace. Mother and Father won’t even know I’ve been away.”
Niketas hesitated just long enough for her to jerk out of his grasp and run toward the open area behind the altar. She stumbled once, bumping into a high-ranking Spartan Councilman’s wife. The woman shoved her, cursing and spitting on the tiles beside her. Doesn’t matter, Sophie, she told herself.
They didn’t matter. Their criticisms, their scorn.
She’d almost come abreast of the altar when a towering warrior in full military regalia emerged from behind King Arcadius’s personal guard, who were giving aid to Alexios. He was garbed all in black—even his leather breastplate and greaves, which were normally bronze. How utterly strange. The King’s soldiers parted, their stony faces slackening in silent awe as they retreated to let the massive warrior advance.
Sophia held her breath, afraid to move, afraid for Alexios. Please don’t hurt him. The dry wind stopped blowing through the trees, the crows taking flight to circle high above the soldier.
Who is this man? A god, surely. Ares? He was dark of hair, sharp featured with slashing eyebrows over forbiddingly dark eyes, broad of chest and shoulder, every muscle of his body hewn as though by a sculptor. Violence and power flowed in his wake.
Run. Hide from this man who couldn’t possibly be a mere man. Something about him made her…made her… He could irrevocably change my life.
No! What a ninny. He wouldn’t even notice a grubby little bug like her.
And of course, there was the boy on the ground to worry about.
And seven hells, if this soldier hurt Alexios—even a little—he’d find out how hard this bug could bite.
God-warrior transferred his sword to his left hand and leaned down to lay his right gently on Kassandra’s shoulder. Alexios’s mother stood, showing none of the fear or wonder like the others. She grasped hold of the outer edges of the warrior’s breastplate, curling her fingers against his flesh, tilting her head back to quietly plead with him.
What? What was she saying?
A subtle pressure began to press against Sophia’s body. She tried to move forward, but she couldn’t move her arms or legs. She looked left and right, but everyone—slave, Spartan, priestess—seemed to be frozen in time, unblinking, their faces reflecting the shock of seeing the unearthly warrior.
Heart knocking against her ribs, Sophie looked back at Kassandra and the warrior, trying to comprehend what she was seeing. Kassandra was a slave, mistress to Alexios’s father, Sparta’s other king. Yet this frightening warrior was running his hands slowly up and down her arms like a lover.
Sophia inhaled quietly. There were still hundreds of people in the area. No one moved. No one even seemed aware.
She brought her gaze back to Kassandra and the god-warrior who had now leaned down to lift Alexios—big, strapping Alexios—effortlessly into his arms.
Sophia shivered. Why am I allowed to see this?
Suddenly the god-warrior’s eyes lasered into hers. Her heart froze, then commenced pounding at such an alarming rate her vision grayed and her stomach lurched. I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead. God-warrior would smite her for her un-Spartan fearfulness and for witnessing this…this…celestial happenstance.
Sophia’s wide-eyed gaze dropped to Alexios whose skin had gone unnaturally pale, his body now lax in the god-warrior’s arms.
“Nooooo!” The shriek tore from her throat. In her head, she was clawing at the air but her feet remained rooted to the ground. “Bring him back! He can’t survive all that he’s endured just to be swept into the Elysian Fields! Please! I’ll make a deal with you. Give you anything, just bring him back!” she sobbed at the god-warrior.
Anything? The deep voice rumbled inside her head. Gooseflesh broke out on her arms and down her legs. Only gods can speak in your head like this.
And the gods liked deals.
They never did anything for man without a price.
She swallowed. “Tell me your name and what sacrifice you require.”
The god’s eyes were still dark—their deep blue irises like the river under moonlight. But now there was a warmth to them.
You are a child, came the voice in her head once more.
“Age is irrelevant to the soul.”
The god-warrior stared at her impassively. Murky gray clouds scrambled over the ragged peaks of Mount Taygetos, darkening the skies. Sophia’s throat ached with the need to cry. She would fail Alexios if she couldn’t bargain with this god. “Please. I was with him during—”
I know, Sophia, daughter of Tychos. And I foresee that you ever shall be. For now, though…somnus.
* * *
Sophie blinked in the hazy, pre-dawn gloom of her room, trying to orient herself. Dozens of birds added their vexingly merry song to the incessant pounding at her bedroom door.
“Sophie, open up, dammit!”
She groaned and covered her head with her pillow. “Go away, Niketas! It’s not even dawn yet!” But of course, he couldn’t hear her muffled irritation and barged right in—the rotting, cheerful scoundrel.
Her bed mattress sagged where her brother plopped down and promptly yanked the pillow from her face, ripping out strands of her long dark hair in the process. “Ow! I hate you and your morning pep,” she muttered.
Niketas raised his eyebrows. “You little brat. You’re rather thankless after I got you home unseen by anyone.”
Sophia’s gut wrenched as she shot up and scrambled to the edge of the bed, getting stuck in the linens. She kicked and wailed as she tried to free herself.
How had she forgotten?
How had she even gotten here?
One minute she was talking to the god-warrior—in my head!—thinking she was going to die, and the next minute…
She batted Niketas’s hands away. “What of Alexios?” Her chest rose and fell with deep gasping breaths like she’d run all the way to the Laconian Gulf. Which was absurd because she couldn’t even make it to the agoge drill fields without walking part of the way.
Niketas frowned and put the back of his hand to her forehead. “Are you ill?”
Gods, yes. A god-warrior knows I’m alive. Probably won’t be for long, though.
Unless she’d imagined the whole thing.
She batted her brother’s hand away. “Of course I’m not ill! He lives?”
Niketas screwed up his face. “Alexios? Yes. He’s at his kleros recovering like all the other ephebes who endured the contest. I suppose you’re sweet on him now like all the other maidens. That’s adorable, Sophie.”
She glared and made a rude noise, rubbing her chest, trying to ease the wild beating of her heart. “Don’t be ridiculous. Boys are stupid.”
Everything was right in the world again. Of course, she’d imagined the whole thing with the god-warrior. Niketas would’ve barged in here, crazed about that, not going off about all the ways she was going to pay him back for saving her butt.
Must’ve been temporary heat illness. Or something.
She glanced at the tray sitting on the bedside table. It was laden with all her favorite foods to break her fast. She looked sheepishly at her brother. “Thank you, Niketas. I am properly contrite. What else can I do for you today since you saved me from mother’s wrath and papa’s drowning concern?”
He smiled, and as her brother continued to list all the ways she’d need to atone, her gaze fell on a small round object sitting on her windowsill.
Twas not there yesterday.
Four prayers to Athena.
Four interminable prayers to Athena was how long she had to wait until Niketas finally left the room. She jumped out of bed and ran to the window, blood pumping vigorously through her body. The cool morning breeze lifted the edge of her sleep shift and slithered around her thighs, but it moved not the object on the windowsill.
A tiny circle of entwined, thorny vines.
If it weren’t so sharp, she could wear it as a ring about her middle finger. Or place it as a crown upon one of the gossiping birds in the olive trees outside in the courtyard. It was finely crafted. Dangerous and lovely.
She reached to touch it and pricked her finger immediately. She yelped, feeling no pain, but a zing of energy up her spine that made her scalp tingle. She raised her finger to suck at the welling blood, hearing the words she’d spoken to the god-warrior coming back to her in his deep tones.
Age is irrelevant to the soul.
Her heart lurched into her throat. He was real? When she looked back down upon the windowsill, drops of her bright red blood contrasted startlingly on the white stucco.
But the circle of thorns was gone.
Six years later ~ 521 BC
Alexios saw her coming down the mountain in that peculiar moment when day gives way to dusk. He should have looked away—the gulf between them was too great—but with her, he never could.
Before her, he’d never really believed in the existence of souls. But six years ago when he was at his breaking point, something had passed between them on a realm that couldn’t be seen or touched. And since then—since he’d learned she was King Tychos’s daughter instead of a slave girl—each time their gazes met across the marketplace or from her protected perch next to the king’s guard, he felt…
She was like his shadow, mysteriously familiar. He would feel a presence, and when he’d turn around, there she was. Close enough to see her crystal blue eyes, but not near enough to caress those soft cheeks that would darken to a dusky pink when he caught her staring.
Alexios rubbed his chest and rolled his shoulders, trying to dispel the restless energy that always bloomed whenever she was near.
Now her lush, dark hair was pulled up and away from her face, her piercing blue eyes squinting in concentration as she picked her steps carefully in the gloaming because…
She’d wrapped the wailing newborn in a fox fur and was squeezing it tightly to her chest. The infant had been left to die of exposure for some real or imagined imperfection by Sparta’s most elitist, controlling asses.
Sophia. Bold, emotional, and dangerously naïve.
“I don’t understand her.” Felix, Alexios’s second in command in their platoon, curled his lip disdainfully, eying the princess as the two soldiers made their way from the drill fields to the communal baths after several blistering training hours in the unseasonably hot spring weather. “Why does she care what happens to those squalling wretches? She should be enjoying her station at the top of the food chain, or better yet, practicing her balance so she doesn’t humiliate her bridegroom. Did you hear she’s been promised to Lysandros? As lovely as she is, she’s shockingly ungraceful. He’ll probably keep her on her back as often as possible so he isn’t shamed by her lack of coordination.”
Alexios froze on the dusty trail, a blast of heat surging into his chest. Felix only managed a single laugh before Alexios reached out and wrapped his fingers around Felix’s muscular neck. “Many words is poverty,” he gritted out, struggling to master his rage. Such a reaction to words that dishonored a woman out of his reach was unproductive and weak.
He despised weakness. In himself most of all.
He shoved Felix to the ground and continued toward the baths. He had more important concerns than Sophia’s intrigues. He was the bastard son of one of Sparta’s two hereditary kings; his mother, a helot slave who served the Spartan elite. Because his father had no legitimate sons, he’d claimed Alexios as his heir, angering the entire Spartan ruling Assembly, while simultaneously creating distrust within the helot population with whom he’d been raised. To save him from the controversy, his father sent him to the state-run military school for boys. He’d been seven years old. In the seventeen years since then, Alexios had straddled two cultures, but belonged to neither.
And only one other seemed as isolated amid the sea of people who surrounded her.
Sophia. Daughter of Sparta’s second, co-ruling king, from the other royal dynastic line.
Alexios’s gaze sought her tall, shapely form, but she must have already descended into the olive trees at the base of Mount Taygetos, so he could no longer chart her unsteady progress.
Damn her compelling eyes and his impossible fascination with her.
A dark shadow seemed to melt into the tall bushes that lined the north side of the path. Alexios frowned, blinking to refocus his eyes. He inwardly groaned when his mother appeared on the path in front of him, her teeth bright in the growing moonlight.
“Has she made it down yet?” Kassandra asked, all the exhilaration of her baby-saving passion suffusing her voice.
She was talking about Sophia, of course.
Alexios brought his stare back toward the shrubbery for several moments, alert to any shifting of the foliage. Nothing. Probably his eyes playing tricks on him—a sign of his fatigue. Time for a soak, a large meal, and sleep.
Kassandra reached up and snapped her fingers in his face, bringing his gaze to her amused one. “Well, hello there, warrior. Have you seen the princess?”
“I am bloody and weary, mother. Do not involve me in your crusade to save Spartan throwaways.”
Kassandra jabbed a finger into the wall of his chest. “Shame on you. I raised you better than that. Spartan throwaways! Do you know how many babies have been adopted into helot families? Those families are now complete—those babies are as loved and cherished as I love and cherish you. Well, almost as much.” Alexios’s lips softened into a slight curve. “And furthermore,” she continued, “if you don’t repeal this horrific infanticide practice when you become the next king, I will disown you.”
Alexios placed his hands on her shoulders. “Stand down, lady. Your word shall become law.” It was an easy promise to make because he’d never believed he would actually replace King Arcadius. The king’s wife was a brilliant schemer, determined to upend patriarchal tradition and see one of their three daughters inherit the throne. The Queen would succeed, or die trying. And she was much too ill-natured to pass easily into the Elysian Fields.
Either way, Alexios didn’t give a damn. If he actually became one of the co-ruling kings, he would never have the respect of either the full-blooded Spartans or the helot class. Besides that, he wouldn’t have earned the position like he had as leader of his platoon.
Honor—and his mother—were the only things that mattered.
But…he’d never shared any of that with Kassandra, and she was appeased at his easy agreement. She smiled up at him, turning around when Lydia, another helot slave involved in their baby rescue missions, called out, running toward them on the path.
When Lydia reached them, she leaned down, placing her hands on her knees, gasping for breath. “Where are…Sophia and…the baby? I’ve found a family…for the child.”
Kassandra clapped her hands with a joyful laugh. “Well done, my friend.” She turned back to her son. “Alexi, would you please go find the princess to make sure she’s all right?” She pointed to the general vicinity where he’d last seen Sophia enter the thick grove of olive trees. “The Elders have been leaving babies in that area for a fortnight now. There shouldn’t be many beasts this close to the city, but it’s getting dark, and Sophia’s eyesight is poor.”
Alexios’s hands began to sweat. “I saw her but a moment ago. She should be emerging from the olive grove shortly.” He moved to pass by his mother and Lydia, his pulse beginning to strum in his throat at the thought of being caught in conversation with Sophia.
Kassandra grabbed his arm, her voice low. “Alexi, you are a good man. You can be a new future for an inclusive Sparta. Though the road will be hard, don’t fight what your heart knows is right.”
He raised his eyebrows as he looked down at his mother, the bright moonlight bathing her tanned skin a warm white. “Sparta was not built by the heart, but by the sword,” he replied.
“And continuing that tradition is what will be her downfall. Sparta needs both. Because King Arcadius has accepted you as his heir, you are the only one who can bring unity. You, and the princess. She has the heart of a revolutionary. A good, loving heart, Alexi. You are just too stubborn to see it.”
“I will listen to no more nonsense. Nor am I needed to find the princess. She will be emerging from the trees soon.” He walked away from Kassandra, his face hot, his heart hammering. Stone the crows. This was madness. What could his mother be thinking?
Felix reached his side and walked silently beside him. Alexios offered up a prayer to any god who had a soft spot for bastards that Felix had heard none of his mother’s ridiculous speech.
The heart of a revolutionary, she’d said. A good, loving heart.
Maybe so, mother. But Sophia’s goodness wasn’t meant for him. He would pollute her with his pessimism and the slow-burning anger that never gave him rest. Then he would hate himself more than he already did.
Alexios had almost reached the first house on the outskirts of the city when he looked back. Sophia stood in a circle with Lydia and his mother who were leaning down to peer at the bundle in the princess’s arms. A dark figure garbed in battle panoply appeared out of nowhere, stepping up behind his mother and placing large hands on her shoulders. Power radiated from the warrior, raising the hairs on the back of Alexios’s neck. Alexios unsheathed his short sword, leg muscles bunching to lunge toward the three women when Kassandra turned toward the soldier, wrapped her arms around his broad trunk, and laid her head against the leather plates of his chest armor.
Alexios’s open-mouthed bellow died on his lips, his knees locking, his mind blanking out in complete disbelief. Everything quieted. The late evening birdsong, the croaks of the river frogs that echoed off the mountain walls, the hum of the insects.
The warrior was the tallest man Alexios had ever seen, judging by how small Kassandra looked in his arms. Alexios’s grip tightened on the hilt of his sword as he stalked toward the women once more, but as suddenly as the warrior appeared, he was gone.
Alexios froze on the moonlit path, blinking again. The evening critters resumed their chatter and Kassandra was fawning over the tiny bundle in Sophia’s arms like the massive warrior hadn’t even been here. Alexios looked at Felix, who simply stared back at him with an exhausted mien. Alexios rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. By the gods. He was hallucinating.
Too much sun? He’d never been addled like this from long training hours, but what else could it be? Obviously no one else had seen the man. No one even seemed alarmed that Alexios had drawn his sword and had been approaching the women like he was on a warpath.
Had he imagined that, too? He lowered his arms to his sides and looked down at his baldric to find his sword resting there, sheathed.
He exhaled slowly. Then did it again.
Of all the things he could have dreamed up, why would he imagine a lover for his mother? Was Zeus playing with phantoms to amuse himself at Alexios’s expense? It was the sort of thing the Supreme God of the Olympians might do…all with the intent to make Alexios mistake a loved one for an enemy.
Alexios swallowed back a deep sense of dread.
At that moment, Sophia glanced up from the women’s huddle around the baby to send him the purest, most radiant smile he’d ever seen.
It was as unsettling as the vision of his mother in the arms of a mysterious and dangerous warrior.
It push-pulled at him so strongly he could do naught but stand and stare.
But then Prince Niketas, Sophia’s brother, emerged from the shrubbery and stepped up to his sister. Snatches of the prince’s audible exasperation with Sophia’s crusading nature merged with the crickets’ song on the evening breeze. Nevertheless, the tall, lean prince ruffled his sister’s hair and pulled her into the crook of his shoulder.
She is not, and never shall be, your concern.
Alexios turned without acknowledging the princess’s smile and walked away.