"I was brought up in a small village outside the largest city, Fallique, where the emperor's palace is located." Nina poured herself a glass of wine, propped some pillows up, then reclined.
"My parents were very poor. The emperor, Zarek, cares nothing for the people. He lives in luxury while they suffer. If he desires anything, he sends raiders into Fallique, or out to the surrounding countryside. They take whatever he orders. They plunder the villages." She sipped at her wine.
"I was one of six children. Unfortunately, for my parents, four of us were girls. In Chiran, girls are a liability, an expense to a family. The cost can be devastating to a poor one."
"I've heard that in Chiran, some people destroy their infant daughters and keep only their sons," Mara commented.
"That is so today. But things were a bit different when I was a child." Nina hesitated as footsteps came down the hall, passed the door, then grew quiet.
"As I said, there were six of us. Every winter grew a little harder as our stomachs grew a little larger.
"My brothers helped my father farm, but my parents feared for us girls. They knew Zarek's men could come at any time and that they raped the land and the women, taking whatever they wanted from whomever they chose." She swallowed hard. "My family tried to protect us, but eventually the pressure became too great."
"What happened?" Mara pulled her chair closer.
"Zarek's men caught my oldest sister, Marise, on her way to the well one afternoon. They . . . enjoyed . . . themselves with her for the remainder of the day." Nina's eyes spilled great tears. "They left her a shell of her former self. Worse—they also left her with child."
"Oh, I am so sorry."
"She was never the same again. But now we had yet another mouth to feed—and wouldn't you know it—another girl at that. My parents were desperate."
The young woman took another taste of her wine. The flavor she might have savored at any other time was bitter now as her story unfolded. She put the glass down, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes.
"Our circumstances were dire. We didn't have enough food for the approaching winter. There hadn't been enough to begin with, and then Zarek's men raided what little stores we'd accumulated.
"About that time, Zarek put new policies into place. He decreed that he would pay families who had sons an annual royalty, while he'd charge those with daughters double the amount as a penalty.
"So my parents were to receive two royalties for my two brothers, but were to pay ten penalties for my three sisters, my sister's child, and me. We were going to starve." Her body tensed as she recalled her memories.
"And then?" Mara prompted.
Nina bit her lip. "Then a handler came to my parent's farm."
"Yes. Zarek sent handlers out to purchase servants for his palace and women for his troops."
"Yes," Nina whispered. "The handler explained to my parents that they would pay enough for a single one of their daughters for them to make it through the winter."
She closed her eyes. "I cannot imagine the horror they must have felt. Still, they thought they might save five children and a grandchild, by sacrificing one of us.
"When the handler returned a few weeks later, my parents offered Marise. She'd become nothing more than a mouth to feed. But the handlers refused her. So my parents offered Erin. She didn't know they'd sold her. She thought the handlers were taking her to Fallique to work so that she could send money back home.
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An Oath Sworn. A Struggle Engaged. A Sacrifice Required. When Mara, a trained Oathtaker, is drawn by the scent of the Select to battle underworld beasts summoned by powers of evil to destroy the guardians of life, she swears a life oath for the prot...