If done right, it left an impression to last a lifetime, or in Annani’s case, millennia. Five thousand years, give or take a few hundred.
Age was meaningless to a goddess.
But even after all these years, and all that Annani had witnessed, the fire that first kiss had ignited at the tender age of seventeen still burned hot in her heart.
After all, it was the most important kiss of all times, affecting the destiny of gods, immortals, and humans, and altering the course of history.
Five thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries.
“Are you ready, my lady?”
“Patience, Gulan. I need a moment.” Annani attached a small silk sack to one of her spun-gold belts. After tying it around her waist, she inserted her uncle’s lapis lazuli tablet inside it, then hid her makeshift carrier between the folds of her dress.
The tablet was priceless and irreplaceable. Ekin had once told her that the amount of information stored inside it would have filled several human libraries, and as far as she knew, her uncle did not keep a copy. And yet he let her borrow it whenever she pleased.
Sometimes Annani did not even ask, taking it without his permission. Ekin did not mind. The scientist was an easygoing god, not a stickler for the rules like her father—the head god, the commander, the one everybody had to obey, or else.
Except, even though Annani had broken the rules plenty of times, she did not know what that ‘or else’ meant. Her father’s idea of punishment was a stern look and an admonishment not to do it again.
It was not very scary, or an effective deterrent to further mischief.
Her maid paled. “My lady, you cannot bring the tablet to the throne room.” Twisting her hands, the girl looked at the folds of Annani’s dress, which were not very effective at hiding the carrier and the square tablet inside it.
Poor thing. Gulan was a year older and more than a foot taller than Annani, not to mention stronger than most men—even immortals—but she had the heart of a little rabbit.
And to think Annani’s parents entrusted her safety to Gulan’s hands.
Her impressive size did not make the girl brave, and even though she was loyal to a fault and loved Annani as much as Annani loved her, she did not have the heart of a warrior. She was timid and shy, and embarrassed about her size and her strength instead of taking pride in it.
Not that it really mattered. Annani enjoyed Gulan’s company and was not overly worried about a traitorous attack.
The people loved her—gods, immortals, and humans alike—she was everyone’s favorite. As the only daughter of the leading couple, she was one of the few pure-blooded gods born to her people.
Precious beyond compare.
No one harbored ill intentions towards the cherished next leader of the realm.
Annani patted Gulan’s arm. “You worry too much. Watching my father and mother and their endless meetings bores me to tears. I need the tablet to keep me busy. Imagine how embarrassed they would be if I yawned or fell asleep. I might even snore.” She winked.
Gulan could not help a smile. “You do not snore, my lady.”
“Yes, I do, and you know it.”
Gulan opened the door and peeked outside as if there was danger lurking in the palace’s corridors she needed to look out for. It was almost comic. First of all, because Gulan would sooner faint than fight, and second of all, the two guards posted outside Annani’s room were more than capable of taking care of any threat to her.
“Good afternoon, my lady.” The two bowed.
She nodded. “To you as well. May the Fates smile upon you with kindness.” The official greeting should have given them a clue that she was not happy.
With Annani and Gulan heading the procession, the guards trailing behind, the four of them walked in uncomfortable silence until Annani glanced back at the men. “Who won the game last night? Was it you, Gumer?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“And why was I not invited?”
Gumer blushed. “We thought you were asleep and did not wish to disturb you.”
She shook her head. “Just admit it. You did not want me there because I always win.”
Annani was the champion of the five-stone gambling game, but that was no reason to exclude her. After all, she never took the winnings, distributing the coins between the guards instead.
“This is true, my lady. But that was not the reason. It was your head tutor’s threat to report us to your father.”
Ugh, she was going to have that grouchy old goat fired. The nightly game with the guards was one of the few bright spots in her boring court life. And besides, she did not need the dumb tutors. Her uncle’s tablet contained all the knowledge Annani could ever seek, and when the subject was too difficult for her to comprehend, she could always ask Ekin to explain.
Her uncle was the smartest of the gods.
Not that Annani would ever dare say that in front of her father. The half-brothers were not on the best of terms. Ahn thought of Ekin as an irresponsible philanderer, which was true, and Ekin thought of Ahn as a stick in the mud, which was also true.
“I will ask my father’s permission to participate.”
Badum groaned. “You are going to get us in trouble, my lady.”
She waved a hand. “You worry too much. My father grants all of my wishes.” Except, excusing her from the mandatory daily attendance in the throne room.
Ugh. It was torture.
Her parents wished to prepare Annani for her future role as ruler of the realm, but in her opinion, it was a complete waste of time. It would be thousands of years before Ahn and Nai stepped down and Annani ascended to the throne. She was only seventeen, for Fates’ sake. There would be plenty of time to learn all about court politics when she was older and actually cared about all that incredibly boring stuff.
Gulan motioned for the guards to keep quiet and opened the back door to the throne room.
Hidden behind a perforated partition, it allowed Annani to sneak in and out unnoticed. In one of her cleverer moves, she had asked to be allowed to sit there with Gulan, convincing her parents that she could learn a lot more by observing people unseen from behind the partition. Her argument had been that by being less concerned with appearing regal, she could pay better attention.
Her parents had bought the excuse.
What they didn’t know, though, was that she and Gulan had a whole language of hand gestures they had developed, which allowed them to gossip with no one any the wiser. It also meant that as long as she kept the green glow from the tablet at the lowest setting, Annani could read instead of listening to the proceedings she had absolutely no interest in.
Today, though, turned out to be different. She was in for a big surprise.
Even before taking her seat, Annani heard a voice she would recognize anywhere.
What is he doing here?
Peeking through one of the holes in the partition, Annani felt her knees turn to jelly at the sight of him. She had not seen Khiann up close since he’d graduated school over two years ago, and the only other time was during a celebratory ball she’d had to spend up on the dais with her parents.
He’d come with his family, bowed respectfully without sparing her a glance, and then departed to mingle with the rest of the guests.
The boy had acted as if he did not know that she existed, which was preposterous since she was Annani—the most important young goddess of the realm.
But Khiann was no longer a boy. He was a grown man, and there was no way he could ignore her now. Two years ago she was still a girl, but now she was a woman—the most beautiful, most coveted goddess of them all.
She was also of age and free to choose a lover.
Well, not exactly.
It would have been true if she were anyone other than Annani, the next ruler of the realm. Unlike other immortal females her age, and young goddesses if there were any, she was already promised to a god, and therefore deemed taken. But she had no intention of ever mating with the god her father had made the ill-conceived pact with.
Ahn should have asked her before promising her hand to Mortdh. Unfortunately, for her, he had done the deed when Annani was still a baby. If it were up to her, she would have never chosen Mortdh as her intended.
She would have chosen someone like Khiann.
He was exactly the kind of mate Annani dreamed of—a young, honorable god, who had a sense of humor and was gorgeous like a god should be.
Mortdh’s godly beauty must have been marred by his cruel nature because all she could see was his ugliness. How did her father fail to see the darkness inside that male? How could he have promised his only daughter, the one he claimed to love more than anything in the world, to a man like Mortdh?
It was all about politics.
Mortdh was powerful, the only god who posed a threat to her parents’ rule. By giving him Annani, her father hoped to keep Mortdh’s ambitions at bay until Ahn and Nai decided to step down.
The ambitious god would get his wish then.
The thing was, her father’s plan had one glaring flaw that even she, a seventeen-year-old goddess, saw clearly as if it had been already written in the historical records. It might have postponed the eventuality of Mortdh’s rule, but the result would be the same.
With the wrong male on the throne, the gods’ way of life would change for the worse, and with them that of everyone else, immortals and humans alike.
Still, even if she was wrong about Mortdh, and he turned out a decent ruler, love should have been more important than political alliances—her father’s love for her to start with, and then her love for her future mate, and his for her.
Mortdh, who had many immortal concubines and dozens of children, cared nothing for Annani. He had not bothered to come see her even once.
She could have settled for a mate that was not her true love, but not an indifferent one who saw her only as a means to an end.
With a sigh and a deep longing in her heart, Annani looked at Khiann.
If only he had shown the slightest interest in her, she could have entertained the illusion of him being the one fate had intended for her.
Khiann was nervous.
His first official meeting with the leader of the gods as his father’s business partner.
If it were up to him, he would have waited a few more years, but his father, who had been unreasonably proud of Khiann’s achievements, insisted it was time for him to meet their leaders in his official capacity, and not only as Navohn and Yaeni’s son.
Ever since Khiann had finished his schooling, he had been apprenticed to his father, the only god who’d turned to commerce, leaving politics and the governing of humans and immortals to the other gods.
The move had made their family rich beyond measure, but at the same time had lowered their status in the eyes of the other gods.
Commerce was held in higher regard than manufacturing, and manufacturing was held in higher regard than farming, but all three were considered occupations unbecoming of gods.
Except for the few who worked directly under Ahn in the palace, the other gods were each in charge of one of the city-states. Those in committed relationships split their time between the neighboring cities they ruled.
Khiann was not opposed to their seemingly parasitic way of life. In exchange for goods and free labor and worship, the gods provided leadership and guidance to the humans and immortals they ruled, ensuring peace between the city-states.
Without them, the humans, and perhaps even the immortals, would have instigated endless wars over territories and resources. Humans were a violent species, prone to irrational behavior.
Not that the gods had always been peaceful. Khiann’s father had told him some of their people’s history, and it had not been pretty. Maybe that was why it was omitted from the school curriculum. The new generation of gods was taught that they were a benevolent people, seeking only to improve the lives of others.
Sometimes Khiann wished his father had not told him the truth. He had been much happier believing in the moral superiority of his people. His only hope was that they had evolved, leaving their bloody past behind them for good and committing to the utopia they had created in their new home.
The question was how long it would last.
Fortunately, gods lived very long lives, which meant their history was measured in tens of thousands of years, as opposed to mere centuries for humans.
“I am heading out east in eleven days, my lord,” Khiann’s father said. “The journey should take about seventeen days and the trade two or three. I should be back in about forty-eight days.” He clapped Khiann’s back. “My son is in charge while I am gone, and he can take care of supplying any of the local goods.”
Ahn regarded Khiann with a smile. “How are you enjoying working for your father?”
Khiann bowed. “I enjoy it very much, my lord. I find commerce exhilarating.” If Ahn harbored hopes that Khiann was vying for a leadership position in a new city-state, he was going to be disappointed.
The human population was proliferating, and the new generation of pure-blooded gods, who counted only twenty-three members, were each expected to take leadership of a new city-state at some point. But Khiann wanted nothing of the sort. He wanted to travel, to take caravans to distant lands and encounter new people, then bring back goods no one had ever seen before, and stories no one had ever heard before.
Tedium and boredom were the bane of the gods’ never-ending existence. Khiann saw himself as the deliverer of the antidote to that malady. At least for himself. Staying cooped up in a temple built in his honor and living off human offerings was not his idea of a good life.
Ahn sighed. “Ah, to be so young and free. To travel, to see the world. I understand your fascination with trade. But one day you may wish to do something more meaningful.”
Khiann bowed again, sitting down as soon as Ahn returned his attention to Navohn.
As the two droned on about this and that, Khiann glanced around the throne room, admiring the various artifacts displayed on pedestals or hanging on the walls, many of which had been gifts from his father that he had brought from his travels.
Apparently, Ahn put a high value on them. Or was it Nai’s work?
The goddess did not talk much, but on the rare occasion that she did, everyone listened because every word counted. Despite her humble origins, Nai was smart, stately and refined, just as one would expect from the ruler’s mate.
It was a mystery how those two created a child like Annani—the little hellion.
Khiann could not help the smile the memory of her evoked. On the days they had had school together, he used to watch her, her antics and theatrics a source of endless entertainment.
Naturally, he had kept his fascination with the princess a secret, giving her and everyone else the impression that he was not paying attention, but of course, he had been. It had been impossible not to, even when she was much too young for him to have such indecent thoughts about.
Annani was pure fire. Red flaming hair, eyes blazing with intelligence and mischief, and a giant personality to match. A powerhouse contained in a tiny yet stunning package.
She was hailed as the most beautiful goddess of them all, and it was the honest truth, but her beauty was so much more than skin deep.
Shining like the sun, cheerful, confident, but never condescending, and always into one kind of prank or another but none of them malicious.
The girl was all heart.
No wonder every human, immortal, and god was in love with her.
Khiann had been taken by her even when she was a young girl, but he had done his best to avoid her in school. It was wrong for a thirteen-year-old boy in the grips of puberty to even notice an innocent eleven-year-old girl.
His infatuation had only deepened as he had watched her grow and blossom, but in the meantime, he had done some growing up too and realized that Annani was an impossible dream.
The princess could never be his. Even if she were not promised to Mortdh, the second most powerful god after Ahn, Khiann would have never been considered a suitable match for her. Not by Annani nor her parents.
Her mate would one day rule by her side, and as a merchant’s son, Khiann was neither qualified nor suitable for the position.
Goddess's Choice is a full-length prequel novel to The Children of the Gods.
I recommend you read it before Book 20-- Dark Survivor Awakened.
IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON
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