Lies That Bleed Chapter One

 

Chapter One

My governess knocked on the open door to my room and I peered up at her, picking at my nails as nerves ate a hole into my stomach. 

As the emperor’s eldest daughter, I had trained for this day since I was four years old. I normally had guts of steel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried or gotten upset, but today wasn’t just a regular day.

Today was the Lottery, a drawing in which I knew my name was already chosen—as was my right as the emperor’s daughter at the age of nineteen.

“I’m ready,” I told Elaine, but my voice cracked, revealing my weakness. 

She stepped into the room, a frown pulling at her mulberry-colored lips. Her russet brown hair was the same color as Vespa, her fox creature that stood beside her, mirroring her movements as she crossed the carpet.

“Claiming a creature of great strength and power is what is expected of you so that you can rule the empire.” She appraised me, looking over my Fleet-issued fatigues, likely making sure everything was tucked in properly. Today I represented my entire family, and if one boot lace was untied it would be a stain on the Everhart name. Even Vespa cocked his head to the side, as if checking me over one last time, and I couldn’t help but stare at his bright pink ember marks. They ran the length of his back in three jagged lines, glowing like they contained fire. Normally a fox would be seen as a more timid creature but not Vespa. She was twice the normal size of your average fox and had sharpened claws and huge fanged teeth.  

I nodded and stood. “Yes, ma’am.” I assumed a military position, back straight, hands held behind me, fingers overlapping. Elaine served eight years in my father’s Imperial Fleet before she left to become our governess. In those eight years, she achieved the rank of first lieutenant. My father wasn’t going to hire just anyone to raise his daughters. No. He needed someone who knew how to kill a man with their bare hands. 

Elaine walked over to me with Vespa trailing right beside her, and I took in my governess for what might be the last time. Elaine always wore her hair in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She told me when I was younger that it was because long hair left untied could be used against her. I didn’t understand what she meant until she grabbed my long black braid in a sparring session and slammed my face to the floor with it. I never sparred with my hair in a braid or ponytail again, always a bun. 

Elaine had been with me all of my nineteen years. Once a spritely young twenty-eight-year-old, she was now pushing fifty, and yet was every bit a badass as the young warriors in the Imperial Fleet. 

She saw to it that I bathed each night, that I went to all my lessons, that I showed respect to my master teachers. She disciplined me when needed, and showed little affection when appropriate. She was for all intents and purposes a mother figure. But she was never one to show much emotion. She was even-keeled and stiff-upper-lipped, much like her employer, my father. 

So it shocked me when she swam into view suddenly with unshed tears lining her eyes. “Claiming a great creature is what is expected of you,” she repeated herself. “But coming back alive will do.” Her voice shook with emotion. 

My mouth popped open in surprise, then she opened her arms and pulled me in for a stiff hug. My heart burst to life in my chest at her sudden show of sentiment. I wrapped my arms around her, breathing in her lavender and coconut shampoo. That smell was home, and I would miss it when I went to boot camp. Assuming I survived The Wilds. 

“I promise to come back as something powerful or not at all,” I told her, knowing my father would kill me if I limped out of The Wilds with a ferret at my side. I’d be better off dead. 

She pulled away from me, wiping her eyes to erase all evidence that she had showed too much emotion. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” she said, reaching out to take hold of my shoulders. “Have I been too hard on you? Too much pressure to claim a powerful creature could send you home in a body bag,” she warned.

I frowned. Where was this coming from? For my entire life, Elaine had drilled into me that I was Aisling Everhart, future empress, eldest of the ruler of Amersea himself, and the most badass woman in all the world. 

I tried to hide the hurt that crossed my face. “You don’t think I can do it?” 

Elaine sighed. “Of course you can. You’re cut from the same cloth as your father. I just… there will be many creatures to choose from. Not choosing too low, or too high, is a gift. And, Aisling, you can be…”

“Cocky.” I grinned, placing a hand on my hip. 

She let out an exasperated sigh and shook me slightly. “Yes! And a puma, lion, or a bear will be good enough. What I am trying to tell you is… if you see one, don’t go for the Talanagi.”

She slipped into the old tongue and chills raced up my arms. The Talanagi were so rare they were almost myths. Dragons, griffins, firebirds, creatures of such great power; they killed ninety-nine percent of those who tried to bond with them. Unless you were Luskin. Those bastards seemed to have no problem bonding the ancient creatures. The word was hard to translate from the old language; it was like magical ancient, but that wasn’t quite right. 

I chuckled. “Don’t worry. If I see a Talanagi, I’m running the other way. I’m not stupid.”

Elaine pursed her lips as if she disagreed with that. “Just remember, you look into the creature’s eyes first, and you will feel if the bonding is good. If the creature looks away too quickly—”

“It’s too weak,” I told her. 

She nodded. “If you feel the need to look away too quickly?” she quizzed. 

“It’s too strong for me,” I answered. 

She nodded as if she felt satisfied with that and released my shoulders. 

“Well, I have to wake your sisters. So…” She lingered as if she didn’t want to let me go yet. I’d never told her I loved her, though I did. It wasn’t something that was verbalized in my family. We loved by taking care of each other, not flinging around useless phrases. But the three words burned on my tongue now. 

“Wish me luck,” I said instead, holding out my arm for the age-old ritual. 

She grinned, reaching out and pinching me lightly on the forearm for good luck. “Good luck, Aisling. May the stars look after you.” 

With a nod, I grabbed my three-day pack. I needed to get out of here before I cracked under all this emotion. I wasn’t used to seeing Elaine like this. 

“See you at the ceremony!” she called as she and Vespa left the room and split up, each going to a different bedroom down the hall to wake my fourteen-year-old triplet sisters, Virtue, Valor, and Victory. My mother was into weird names and I kind of liked that we were all unique in that way. My name might be spelled strangely but was pronounced Ash-ling. My close friends called me Ash. 

Reaching out, I touched the locket at my neck, the one that held the picture of my mother, and rubbed it for good luck. It was weird to love someone you barely remembered. I was only five when she died in childbirth with the triplets. But in every story I had heard about her, every picture of her, she brightened the room, and I felt connected to her even though she was no longer in this world. 

Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I grabbed a muffin from the kitchen, where Tonia was cooking up a huge feast, and snuck out before she could see me. There was no way I could eat eggs and bacon on Lottery Day. I would yak the second they called my name. 

Every Amersean citizen was invited to put their name into the Lottery at nineteen years old. From that batch, once a year, only twenty percent were called at the ceremony and given a chance to enter The Wilds. Because I was the emperor’s daughter and future leader of Amersea, I automatically got chosen. Of the cohort of chosen lottery candidates who went into The Wilds in the hopes of claiming a creature of awesome power, only around five percent came out alive. The odds were not good.

My stomach soured at the thought of the statistic and I chucked the muffin on the entry table as I moved to the front door. I needed to see Jace, my boyfriend, who would know how to calm my nerves. 

“I thought you were riding with me to the Lottery ceremony,” my father’s voice came down the hall, and I stilled with my hand on the knob. 

Turning, I kept my back erect and chin up. “Yes, sir, I will be back in time. I just wanted to go check in with Jace first.” 

My father’s creature, a black puma with orange glowing ember marks, stalked towards me, sniffing my leg. I stilled, wondering what Zuri was smelling me for. She was the most ruthless creature known to our kind, other than the Talanagi. Her magic was unique in that she could not only breathe fire but she had awoken the power in my father to teleport through her fire, allowing him to jump from one end of the world to another in the blink of an eye. He could be on the battlefield at The Wall and home for dinner on the same night. 

My father strode over to me, wearing his battle uniform. The sleek black leather with gold shoulder caps and a gold puma crest on his chest reminded me of the glowing embers that fell from the sky and glowed on the creatures we brought back from The Wilds. This same ember powered our houses and motorized cars, our factories and trains. Our entire society ran on it, which made it more valuable than gold, more valuable than anything.

My father’s inky black hair was slicked back perfectly without a strand out of place. Only in the past year did I notice the slight grays coming in at the sides, which he quickly dyed over to cover. My father would never want to be perceived as old. To him, getting old was a weakness he would stave off as long as he could.

He glanced down at me. The normally stoic emotions that he held softened when he gazed at me. 

“You know, when you were born, I was sad that I didn’t have a son first to fill the role of successor and heir.” 

My father was not one to mince words. He told you what was on his mind, even if it hurt. 

I nodded. “I know. You’ve told me before.” 

The firstborn, whether male or female, would be the next ruler when he died or stepped down. 

My father grasped my shoulders, and a proud smile graced his face. “Little did I know you would be everything I wanted in an heir, daughter or not.” 

I swallowed hard, fighting a grin. That was a high compliment coming from him. 

Bowing my head deeply, I cleared my throat. “Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.” 

He squeezed my shoulders before letting go. “Just claim the most powerful creature you can find and then we’ll have nothing to worry about.” 

Those words were in stark contrast to Elaine’s. She just wanted me to come back alive. My father wanted me to come back only if I bonded to a creature powerful enough to bring his legacy into a new age. I wasn’t surprised though. He expected perfection.

“Even if it’s a Talanagi?” I asked, meeting his gaze. I didn’t know why I said it. It was almost taboo to talk about them and I regretted it the moment his brows drew downward. 

“I’m not sure claiming an animal that powerful is smart.” He laughed off my comment.

What he’d implied was that claiming a creature more powerful than Zuri would not be smart. I needed to be powerful enough to take over for my father, but not more powerful than him. 

I swallowed hard. 

“Yes, Father.” I bowed my head lightly and then turned to leave, shifting my pack to my other shoulder on the way out.  

“Tell Jace I said hello,” he called as I shut the door behind me.

I crossed the well-manicured garden and slid my leg over my motorbike. My father loved Jace. He would arrange our marriage right now if I’d allow it. As the son of the commander of my father’s fleet, Jace was a prime candidate to be my husband one day—something I was not quite ready for. At nineteen years old, marriage was not uncommon in our culture but it was reserved for the working class of society. Unless of course you were the emperor’s heir, then you should be married by twenty with a male heir on the way. I knew it would be expected of me soon, and I loved Jace, but we had a little more time, so I wanted to enjoy life just dating for now.

I sat there for a second, surveying our fifty-acre property affectionately deemed “the emperor’s palace” by the locals. It sat on top of a hill and looked out over the entire city. I could even see the Imperial Fleet Training Center from here. Inside, among the many bedrooms and bathrooms, we had a bowling alley, a library, and a salon. All fully staffed. Then outside were the horse barns, riding arena, and archery corner. It was amazing and yet never really felt like home to me. I often longed for our smaller country house in Cedar Creek, nestled among the forest in a quiet village.

I rode my bike through Riverine, the capital city of Amersea, with the wind in my hair and a smile on my face. This bike was a present from Elaine for my seventeenth birthday, and the freedom it gave me was something I treasured. The small chunk of ember, about the size of a marble, that powered the bike glowed within the motor against my calf. 

After turning down Jace’s street, I waved to his security guard, Yuri, who stood at the entrance of his property. He waved back, pushing the button to open the giant wrought-iron gates for me. Jace’s father’s estate was beautiful, with well-manicured lawns, a swimming pool, and a grand guesthouse that Jace now lived in. When we eventually married, we would likely buy a house in this area of town. It had enough security to be safe for us but wasn’t overly pretentious like my father’s place.

I parked my bike and hopped off of it, taking long strides through the garden to his guesthouse. Jace moved out of the main house last year and it afforded him freedoms I could only dream of. No governess, no parents asking where he was going, and he threw some killer weekend parties. 

I wanted to surprise him on Lottery Day with the news my father had told me last night. He’d promised to rig the Lottery in favor of Jace’s name being picked so that we could go to The Wilds together. It was frowned upon to pre-pick names, but as son of the commander of the Imperial Fleet, Jace would need to bond with a creature of great power to take after his father. He would never get that chance without getting picked in the Lottery. 

The back door of Jace’s guesthouse opened and I smiled, ready to greet him, when a young girl about my age, with long messy blonde hair, stepped out. She was wearing jeans with a shirt that was half tucked in and she had one boot on. She leaned down to put the other on when Jace stepped out, shirtless, and pulled her up for a face-eating kiss. 

My soul left my body in that moment.

A whimper escaped my throat and Jace yanked his head away from the girl and met my gaze from across the yard. 

“Shit,” he grumbled. 

The girl looked at me wide-eyed and wisely bolted in the opposite direction, limping as she fought to get her boot on the other foot. 

My heart shriveled into dust and died right then and there, but somehow I kept breathing. How was I still alive? It felt like a hole had opened up inside of my chest and I just wanted it to swallow me up and eat me alive.

Jace cheated. He cheated on me, I told myself as I processed what was happening.

Jace ran for me, hands out as if trying to calm a raging bear. “Aisling… this was nothing—”

Him calling cheating on me “nothing” made my sorrow morph to red-hot rage in a millisecond.

I will kill him. I will rip out his guts and decorate that blonde chick’s house with his entrails!

When he got within range, I punched him in the balls as hard as I could. Which was pretty damn hard. Elaine would be proud.

He fell to his knees with a groan, keeling forward, grasping between his legs and sucking in lungfuls of air.

Jace peered up at me in misery, his angelic blond hair swept over one beautiful blue eye. “Aisling, men have needs,” he managed to get out. “She was the scratch to an itch. It meant nothing. I love you.”

That bastard! He knew as future empress I was not allowed to bed a man until marriage. It ruined all prospects. Every year when I went to the doctor, my father had purity checks done on me. Being the emperor’s daughter came with a huge responsibility. Jace had said he was fine with it, that he loved me and would wait, but clearly that wasn’t true.  

He was curled in the fetal position on the grass, and I stooped low and pressed my lips to his ear. “I trusted you with my entire heart,” I breathed, each word threatening to drown me in sorrow. “I hope your dick rots off and you die in The Wilds.” I growled the last part and stood, storming away from him. 

“Aisling! Come on. You can’t break up with me over this!” he bellowed after me, still curled in a ball on the lawn. 

I was on my bike and halfway down his driveway when the first tear threatened to fall. 

No. I was an Everhart. The daughter of the emperor of Amersea. I wouldn’t let this derail my future. I wouldn’t let Jace make me cry. I had a Lottery ceremony to attend. The entire country would be watching me to lead them. Every little girl would look to me when my name was called to go into The Wilds. I had to give them the confident smile that they deserved. 

Jace Ledger was dead to me.

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