Beyond the Red Forest

Chapter 1 – Zera

A right hook met the side of Zera’s head. Knuckles impacted the protective padding above her ear hard enough to make her see stars. Time paused for an instant, then fast-forwarded as adrenaline and outrage combined into a Molotov cocktail of pure fury.

Zera was nearly twenty-one and had never been struck by a man, or anyone for that matter. Certainly not hard enough to hurt. She sparred with Wills and Clara all the time, but they were civilized. They gave her time to bob and weave, to block their kicks and punches.

She gritted her teeth and trained her watery eyes on Master Nikolai. His lips twisted into an arrogant sneer, one that said he knew she was furious.

With a low growl, she flew at him, fingerless gloves pummeling at his face, but he blocked her strikes, one after the other. Despite his perfect defense, she refused to give in. She would batter him until he begged for mercy.

What annoyed her the most was the smile that refused to budge from his face, a smile that grew wider the harder she attacked. Then it dawned on her. He was wearing her down. His elegant blocks required less energy than her flying punches. Even if she jabbed at him a thousand times, he could block every punch and still have reserves to hit back when her arms turned to jelly.

She slowed her onslaught, considering a new approach. If she slipped an uppercut past his defenses, she could rattle his teeth. She drove forward.

One moment she was chiseling her way through his guard, the next she was on her back, arms pinned above her head, staring into a pair of flashing jasper-colored eyes.

She fought the urge to scream. Where were Wills and Clara? They were supposed to be watching. Why hadn’t Wills hauled this insult-to-the-crown off her already? She shifted her head sideways, searching for them.

“They won’t help you.” Master Nikolai’s voice grated on her ears like sandpaper.

“Why not?” she grunted, striving to break the bruising grip of his fingers around her wrists. Her entire body burned with indignation, and she was tempted to order Wills to pull this imbecile off her and into a holding unit.

Who did this man think he was? She hadn’t even met him until three months ago, so he wasn’t likely a resident of the Upper Domiciles. Not that she’d judge someone by their social status, unless they happened to be pinning her royal ass to a dojo mat. Such behavior was insufferable.

Even so, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her throw three years of training out of the biosphere by screaming for help.

A smirk lifted one side of his mouth, and at that moment, she swore she would see this man cast out for putting her in such a compromising position.

“You can turn the tables, Princess. Dislodge me.” His raspy chuckle gave her a slow burn.

She deeply opposed torture, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t fantasize about dismembering various body parts from the man straddling her hips. She fought the urge to add fuel to her fantasy by tilting her eyes toward his crotch, an obvious target for her imaginary knife.

Wills would have a weapon somewhere on his person, a switchblade or throwing star she could borrow. He was forever showing her his blades, as if his ability to slice a man’s throat in three seconds flat should provide her any comfort.

She’d never condone violence, except in self-defense, and Master Nikolai happened to be in an extremely threatening position. What if he really did intend her harm? What if he’d gained her friends’ trust, talked them out of coming to her rescue, so he could take her life while they stood there and watched?

The blood drained from her face at the thought.

His smirk slipped away. “You’ve rolled Clara from this position a hundred times.”

“You’re twice her size,” Zera grumbled.

He tilted his head. “Doesn’t matter. You’re using your opponent’s weight against them. You don’t have to lift me, only off-balance me. Go through the steps.”

She did as she was told: lifted her knees, hooked her toes over one of his legs, dragged an arm down on one side as she lifted her hip on the other. In slow motion, Zera performed the throw correctly, but the maneuver didn’t work.

Master Nikolai caught his balance and bent closer, his face inches from hers. “This is for real, Princess. A life or death situation. If you don’t throw me, I’ll kill you.”

Fear sapped her strength.

He released one of her wrists and produced a training gun from his waistband, which he pointed in her face. The smirk had returned. She wanted nothing more than to wipe it clean off him—in the most painful way possible.

“You have five seconds before I pull the trigger.” He drew back to sit lower on her hips, releasing her other hand so he could stabilize the weapon with both of his. “Okay, darlin’, whatcha gonna do?” His neon orange weapon exaggerated the ridiculousness of his fake accent.

“Do villains really talk like that?” She huffed. “You haven’t actually taught us how to disarm from this position.”

“I shouldn’t need to. It’s the same maneuver as standing.” He cocked his head. “Give it a try.”

Zera drew in a breath, gripped the barrel in the U between her thumbs and forefingers, then shoved its business end forward as she twisted the weapon from his hands. She executed the final step, jabbing the gun barrel into his chest.

“Nicely done,” he said, “but what are you going to do now? You haven’t hurt me enough to stop me wrestling the weapon away from you. Which I will do in…five, four, three—”

She swung the training gun at his groin. He twisted, avoiding direct impact, but by his gulp, Zera knew she’d tapped his cup. She bit back an apology. He’d started this.

“Okay,” he said. “Gun away.”
As she tossed the weapon across the dojo mat, he slid his hands around her throat, thumbs brushing lightly across her windpipe.
“Your arms are free,” he said, “use them.”

Zera threaded her hands between his outstretched arms to break his hold and unbalance him. His chest dropped toward hers as she thrust her hip, and they rolled.

With a soft cry, Zera found herself straddling his hips and staring down into his expectant features.

“Finish it,” he snapped.

She’d practiced these moves so many times they invaded her dreams. Adrenaline pumped as she lifted an elbow and sliced it across his face. Its point grazed his lip. She’d meant to come close but not actually hit him. Even so, she couldn’t help feeling the tiniest bit of satisfaction as she slammed her palms against his chest and leaped off him, accomplishing a full escape.

Standing a few meters away, Zera watched her opponent wipe a thin streak of blood from his mouth. Her eyes slowly widened.
His chest shook with laughter. “Finally, we’ve made some progress.”

Brow pinched, she yanked off her training gloves and walked away.
Wills and Clara stood at the edge of the dojo mat, fake clapping as she passed.

Zera rolled her eyes.

“That man is unbelievable.” She looked accusingly at Wills. “Where did you find him? Wait, let me guess, in the Catacombs searching for the Minotaur.”

“That would make him an epic hero,” Clara said. “Besides, it was a labyrinth.”

Zera shrugged. “Same difference.” She walked between them toward the dressing rooms. “Are you two coming?” She glanced over her shoulder and caught Master Nikolai staring at her across the training floor. He had a chip on his shoulder, something to prove. Everything about him made her uncomfortable. She punched Wills in the arm. “Seriously, where did you find him?”

“Works down in Science.”

She huffed. “Doing what? Being an experiment?”

Clara laughed. “Ouch. You seriously don’t like that guy, do you?”

Zera stopped. “He hit me, then threw me to the ground and pointed a gun in my face. What’s to like? And where were you two?”

Wills turned to her. “He’s been all over us for weeks about going too soft on you. Guess he decided to work with you himself. He told us to keep a distance and let you handle things on your own.”

“And you let him put his hands around my throat? He could have killed me while you stood there, smiling.”

He shook his head. “Nikolai Mykola comes with the highest recommendation. He’s been training in martial arts since before he could walk and has more black belts than you have fingers and toes.”

Zera harrumphed. “So, you set a highly trained killer on me?”
Clara’s laugh made her dark ponytail bounce. “He’s more pacifist than you.”

“Which makes no sense,” Zera replied. “Why spend your life training to be a killing machine when you abhor violence?”
“For a show of force,” Wills said. “It’s more about what he could do than what he would do.”

“Maybe,” Zera narrowed her eyes, “but I’ll bet there are plenty of egos around who’d take his reputation as a challenge, and not a deterrent.”

“How would you know that? Have you been sneaking off to the Lower Domiciles again?” Clara met Zera’s wide eyes and gasped. “You have! Ooh, you naughty girl.” She slapped Zera lightly on the arm with her grappling glove.

Zera avoided eye contact with Wills. “I am not devoid of imagination, thank you very much.” Wills was more than a distant cousin and friend; he was her personal guard. But he knew nothing of her frequent escapes through the Servants’ Way.

Since the day she’d wandered off course and found Mikhail playing the violin, she had traveled to the Lower Domiciles without trouble.

Her father, the king, referred to those from the Lower Domiciles as Commoners, a term Zera despised, especially because Mikhail was perfectly uncommon.

Wills offered no comment, which Zera assumed meant he didn’t believe it possible his line-toeing charge had the gumption to break the rules. If he knew the lengths she went, to escape her velvet-lined prison cell, he’d have handcuffed himself to her years ago.

“Speaking of imagination, I wonder what Master Nikolai looks like without a shirt,” Clara said.

Zera rolled her eyes at Wills, but when she saw his grimace, her imagination took a massive leap of its own. Wills and Clara?
Her eyes shifted between them. Wills looked away, but Clara’s smile was fluid and relaxed.

Wills’ reaction worried Zera. She couldn’t deny a romantic interest would be good for him, but his choice of Clara concerned her. Clara preferred to keep her options open—Master Nikolai’s upper body being the current case in point.

Zera’s mission to the Outside had complicated life for all of them these past three years. And more recently, it had brought the Master of a Thousand Black Belts onto their playing field and ratcheted up Zera’s training from a necessary evil to a serious nuisance.

She didn’t need to be manhandled into fending for herself. Why would she when she had Wills and a troop of royal guards to escort her to Chern Tower and back? She didn’t need to be an expert. Her only function was to be a key.

As they left Wills and headed for the women’s changing room, Zera leaned toward Clara. “Are you seriously going after that guy?”

Her friend smiled in a way that said it all. “I’ll need something to do while you and Wills are off on your mission, having fun. My first step is a private session with Master Nikolai very early tomorrow morning. We’ll have the training center to ourselves.”

Zera swept a hand across her damp forehead. “How old is he, anyway?”

“He can’t be more than a year or two older than us.” Clara smirked.

“He’s definitely younger than Wills. Better looking too.”

Zera sighed at Clara’s comparison and suspected Master Nikolai would have his work cut out for him, and not just on the dojo mat.

* * *
The next day’s training session was worse. Master Nikolai continued to be the only man to hit Zera in her life, his strike count now up to four. She’d been seeing stars and experiencing adrenaline spikes all morning.

Sweating from high heaven to hell again, Zera hit the floor, the victim of another takedown by the most annoying man in the whole of their biospheric city.

She tried to twist away, but he trapped her, his damp body pinning hers.

“Here, we are again.” He smiled in that villainous way, his face so close to hers she could see the sheen of sweat across his skin. She tried to wriggle out from under him. But each move she made, he countered until he’d trapped her arms behind her and his breath was cooling the perspiration on her neck.

Growling, she turned over to face him, which only tightened the knot. She expected him to offer guidance, but he only said, “Your boyfriend been kissing you too hard?”

Zera blinked, realizing he was referring to the cabernet-colored mark on her neck, the result of hours of violin practice. Her cheeks flamed.

With an angry grunt, she wrenched her arm out of his grip and palmed him across the chin. His autonomic reaction to pull back gave her just enough opening to jam her elbow against his breastbone. Not much of a strike, but something.

He twisted over to one side and trapped her in an armbar. “Guess I struck a nerve,” he said, then let go.

You bastard! she thought, conveying her opinion of him through her narrowed eyes and pinched lips, rather than her mouth. No one had ever pushed her to the point of wanting to kill them. But even more infuriating was the fact that no matter how hard she tried, the man with a million black belts would survive to insult her another day.

Without a word to her friends, Zera showered, changed and departed the training center. She strode out of the elevator on the top floor of the city’s Central Dome and stormed along the Grand Corridor, her tailored skirt flapping around her legs.

Zera had learned at an early age to conceal her emotions, but this continual abuse and complete indifference by the Royal Guard—namely Wills, who watched her get beaten and did absolutely nothing—was the final straw.

Her eyes stung, and her throat ached, but her face remained neutral enough that several passing dignitaries greeted her with standard formality, displaying no awareness of the storm raging inside her. By the time she reached the Corridor’s center, marked by an unassuming dedication to the Master Engineer, her fury had spun into a knot and dropped to the base of her stomach.

Struggling to calm her breath, she retreated into the alcove that housed a statuary tribute to Francis Strumbec, the man who had designed the City of Reflections. Francis was depicted with an architectural plan of the city spread between his hands.

The cupola, with its domed roof of blue-veined marble, gave her the sense of looking into the sky. Her love of open spaces contributed to Zera’s obsession with escaping to the agridomes at the tender age of eight. This need had led her to cross paths with Myr in the Servants’ Way. And years later, she’d met Mikhail after being drawn to the Lower Domiciles by his music.

Myr had been carrying a roll of drawings when they met in the Servants’ Way. He said Myr was his code name, which meant peace, then he helped her make up a code name too. She chose The Violinist. A few days later, they found each other on the messaging app, Communique.
Zera knew nothing about Myr’s past. They’d agreed to only talk about the present and future. It wasn’t easy hiding her identity. But truth be told, she was more open with Myr than anyone. She might not recognize him if they passed in a hallway—and maybe they had—but they knew each other so well inside, she was sure a five-minute conversation would reveal him.

Focusing on Myr extinguished her anger, and Zera resumed the journey to her rooms with the requisite poise of a princess. The sitting room was empty. She noted the glass of green juice on a tray beside the red velvet settee. Delivering the beverage was Elsia’s final task of the day. With her assistant gone, Zera would remain undisturbed until dinner.
She stepped across a worn Persian rug to sit at an ornate cherry-wood desk that was a century older than the City of Reflections.

Once settled, she activated her virtual desktop. A colorful vortex spun to life on the wall, and a holographic keyboard appeared on her desk. She switched the active window to Communique. Her last conversation with Myr was still open, his name written in cursive under an archival photograph of a Siberian husky.

Myr? You there? she typed.

Finally, he answered. Hey, Vio. What’s up?

Zera had set up her account with a picture of her Stradivarius, once the property of Queen Angelica, wife of Ivan the Second, who had commissioned the construction of their biospheric city.

She sighed as she typed. Oh, nothing.

As in everything? Tell me what’s going on.

Myr was too good at reading between her words, and he asked all the right questions, questions she needed to ask herself.

Is it okay to hate someone so much you want to kill them? she wrote.
It took a while for him to answer. I’ll assume that’s a rhetorical question.

She crumpled her torso over the virtual keyboard with an exhausted sigh. This…person seems to think he can knock me around, and I should deal with it.

Someone hit you? Vio, that’s unacceptable. Have you reported him to the Peace Force?

With a groan, Zera thumped the desk. He calls it training, and when I try to fight back, he humiliates me every time.

Oh, you’re talking about your self-defense class. Thought I was going to have to kick someone’s ass.

Zera chuckled, grateful for his gesture, even though it was ridiculous. Yes, that class, but he’s the one doing the kicking, and I’m his target. I swear an oath to Perun, this man has it in for me, and my so-called friends stand on the sidelines and do nothing.

But this is training, right? Myr wrote. If he’s an instructor, he’s probably pushing you for an appropriate response. I’d guess to fight him back, which it sounds like you’re doing.

So, how do I deal with his abuse? Every time he hits me, I want to kill him.

Ah, I get it.

Zera’s fingers flew across the keys. What?

I’ll bet provoking you is his aim—you know, to trigger your fight-or-flight response—so you defend yourself like you would in real life. If you want to stop him hitting you, you’ll have to jump-start your fight response before he whacks you.

She considered Myr’s advice. So, he’s not being a, um… she cringed as she typed, prick?

Ha, ha. But no, I doubt it. Not if he’s trying to teach you. Maybe give him the adrenaline charge he wants right away and see how it goes.

Myr’s suggestion made sense.

Wills and Clara had watched her fight off Master Nikolai—or try to—but neither had suggested he pushed her to trigger a fight response.

I’m so glad I have you to help me sort these muddles out, she wrote.

My pleasure. I’m always here for you, Vio. You know that.

Her heart warmed at his words.

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