Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels
- Age: 18
- Grade: 12
He calls himself the Prince. He is humanoid but not human-fascinating, sensual, at the cusp of maturity, and accustomed to getting what he wants. And Lydia has awoken in his world with no memory of her life before to find that she has been given to him: as a pet, a plaything, and, if he so desires, a lover.
As Lydia comes to realize that the Prince is as much a prisoner to his culture's ways as she is, her resentment slowly unfurls into pity, curiosity, and a deeply unpredictable and confusing lust. She wants him too, on her own terms. But in a world fraught with hidden dangers, her terms are not open for discussion, not when their thirst for one another could doom them both.
In a court where monarchs are obeyed and sexual hierarchies are strict, one wrong move could end the Prince for ever... and what would happen to Lydia then?
About the author
"Peggy Barnett" is the erotica pseudonym of a Toronto-based SF/F author. She likes to write stories that are both one-handed reading and topical discussions of consent, non-binary gender, the full spectrum of sexuality and romanticism, and relationships that bloom beyond monogamy. Peggy writes stories for the thinking erotica reader.
Excerpt: Lips Like Ice (by (author) Peggy Barnett)
"They have given you over to my child," are the first words Lydia can parse out of the throbbing ache between her ears, the dull thud behind her eyes. "I believe it is to teach care for lesser creatures. To instill kindness. Tch."
There is a huffing scoff of disbelief somewhere off to the left of her, and Lydia turns her head to follow the sound, but finds her eyes won't open. All remains wrapped in nauseating darkness. She tries to remember where she is, how she got here, but all that will come is her name, and the vague sense that this is not her home. The bed, even the smell of the air is wrong.
The woman (for she sounds like a woman; voice age-worn and woven with threadbare compassion) mops at Lydia's brow with a tepid cloth. Perhaps once it had been cool, and that is what had woken her: the short, sharp shock of cold water on skin. But the fever that Lydia can feel crawling over her flesh has warmed the cloth. The water is uncomfortable. Her whole self feels uncomfortable, and itchy, and clammy.
"If it will work, I do not know. But I can hope. I do hope. My child is filled with such caprice. It burdens a mother's heart. Ah, but why my husband thinks... well, many and mysterious are the ways of the King." The woman scoffs again. "Tch."
Lydia pries her dry lips apart and tries to un-stick her tongue from the tacky roof of her mouth in answer. She's not successful. And even if she were, she has no idea what to say in response. Lydia closes her eyes again instead. That is the first and last time she ever hears the Queen's voice.
Lydia wakes wondering what kind of crazy dreams she's been having, what she'd eaten to cause them, and if she'd gone to bed drunk. She always has crazy nightmares when she goes to bed drunk. She feels like seven kinds of garbage, her mouth tastes of stale fuzz, her joints feel swollen and achy, her skin hot. She feels like the crap left at the bottom of a pan when you lift the bacon. She wants to get out of bed, go to the washroom, stare blearily at her reflection and try to figure out where she was last night. But she can't seem to move.
It isn't restraint; it's weighted lethargy. She feels like she literally doesn't have the energy to move her arms, to get her feet under her, to do more than roll her head side to side on the pillow and crack open her eyes.
The air is more than cold, it's freezing, and it stings the sweat that's making her face sticky, her scalp itch with grime. It takes a few tries, but when she does finally manage to pry her eyes open, the cold makes them water. Beneath the billowed duvet, she's warm as toast, but her face is tight with the chill. She grunts with the effort of trying to tuck her head under the covers, the wriggling an exertion that is agonizing in her extreme weariness.
Lydia doesn't own a billowy duvet. There's no duvet in her apartment, not in her room at her parents' house. Not even in the guest rooms of any of her friends' houses and condos, that she can recall. Lydia is allergic to feathers, there's no way she should be even remotely comfortable, let alone breathing without sneezing, if this is a real duvet.
The urge to jerk upright in shock is great, but the dark lethargy refuses to give her limbs any of the necessary strength. She crashes back into sleep still wishing she could totter to the washroom and vomit. Only now fear colors her every breath, tries to keep her eyes open, wriggles and fights against the lethargy. It cannot win. Lydia is sucked down.
Her eyes are open for a while before she realizes that she's actually awake.
It's only when she parses the strange tingle between her eyes as the feeling of being watched that it occurs to her that her own eyes are open and staring back.
There is a creature by the window. The thing back lit against the impossible view is tall. Slim. Undefined. It sort of looks like a hall tree, blue-green fabric draping down from rail-thin shoulders, resembling nothing so much as over-full curtains draped over a jumble of upright sticks. Lydia doesn't know how she knows that this stunning, terrifying creature isn't human. Only that, with a cold and perfect understanding, it is not.
Fear skitters across her spine, shivers around her shoulders, trembles down her arms until her fists are clenched under the duvet. She presses her knuckles against her thighs and swallows hard, trying to push away the sensation of her whole world sliding precariously to the left, leaving her stomach somewhere far away and sloshing with nausea.
She distracts herself from the vertigo-summoning reality of the creature with a perusal of the room. Lydia's apartment doesn't have big windows like this. These soar up to a ceiling that has to be three times higher than what is standard in even the loftiest of condos. They arch and tumble far above her, like the over-wrought ceilings of a cathedral. And standing as it is before them, the creature is silhouetted against an impossible city, all golden lights filtered through amber glass; vaults and domes, and spires cutting into a too-purple sky.
This is not home.
This is nowhere Lydia has ever seen in a travel magazine, in photographs or films. If what she is seeing through the windows is real, then this is a place that is not possible.
Even the air feels wrong—she's light headed simply from breathing. There's too much oxygen, or something. It's like the high from being in a shisha bar, only the air is crisp against the inside of her nostrils, not warm and smoky and tinged with mallow and dried fruit.
The creature shifts, and the fabric itself shimmers, like the throat of a hummingbird; a hundred shades of indigo and emerald, turquoise and navy dancing with every breath the creature takes. Dark hair, or something like hair, is slicked back, and curling around the bottoms of the creature's ears. It is so black it shines blue. It looks like the kind of thing that might give her an allergy attack.
A cool palm, too big, rests suddenly on her forehead and it cuts through the fever sweat so sweetly that she can't help the groan that crawls up her throat.
The thing leans over her. She hadn't even seen it move. Its eyes are tilted upwards, catlike and disturbing, and its irises are so pale as to be nearly colorless, only a pinprick of dark, dark green pupil shaped like a star-burst breaking up the silvery-white. Its gaze is narrowed, searching for something on her face that she doesn't know how to give it, even if she'd wanted to.
The face is narrow, up-swept and angular, the nose a knife slice and the chin a dagger. The cheekbones are so sharp that anyone pushing back the creature's hair might accidentally slit their wrists. The lower lip is plush, but the upper has arrows like ice peaks on a mountain range, and just as cold.
She shivers, burrowing lower into the cascade of pillows.
"It is awake," it says, voice a rich mix of alto and basso profondo, and like the creature's mere existence, its voice is also completely vertigo-inducing. Lydia's ears ring like a deep gong and a dog-whistle have been sounded together. She is absurdly reminded of that film where Alanis Morrisette played God and her voice made the angels' heads explode like dropped watermelons.
The creature tilts its head, vaguely lizard-like, studying her, and says: "It is alive." It makes a dismissive noise with its mouth, a sucking of air between the teeth followed by a sharp click that Lydia's fuzzy brain parses as a scoff. "I did not think it had the strength to fight off the Sickness." It scoffs again. "Now Father will make me care for it. Better for me if it had died."
"Not m-me," Lydia mutters, wondering at the strange structure of this creature's words. Surely English can't be its first language. Right?
The creature recoils to the window, sneering. "And it speaks. What an unnatural creature it is."
Lydia tries to sit up and by the time she's got her elbows under her, she's panting with the effort, feels sweat beading along her chin and hairline. "Me? I'm unnatural?"
The creature tilts its head to the side, birdlike, eyes narrowing again. Curiosity blossoms along sleet-hard features. "And listens, and reasons."
"And walks, and dresses herself, and ties her own shoelaces," Lydia says. She flops back down onto the pillows, defeated by the shaking in her arms, the weakness in her muscles. She whimpers and with fingers that feel like lead, manages to tease the duvet back up to her chin. "And wants to know where she is."
"And has chosen her gender already," the creature says. When it's clear that Lydia has no intention, nor ability, to strike out at it, it comes back to the side of the bed and peers down at her from what appears to be, in the grip of her dizziness, a great height.
Lydia wrinkles her nose in confusion. "Chosen?"
The creature reaches out again, and again the touch of chill fingers against her flushed face is so good that she groans and can't resist the instinct to turn her cheek into its palm, desperate for more contact. The creature's fingers are long enough to reach from the bottom of her jaw to the top of her head all at once.
It slides the hand downwards, the heel soft and gentle against the hollow of her throat. Fingers press just above her jugular, testing her leaping pulse, and Lydia shudders with the knowledge that this thing could easily wrap its fingers around her neck and squeeze. Hardly any effort would be required on its behalf.
In the heat of the fever, it just doesn't seem like that great of a concern, however, and she lets her eyes slide closed as the second hand joins the first, carding through her oily hair, and ghosting over her eyelids, nose, catching for a moment on her bottom lip before sweeping down to her shoulder. Together the hands push down the duvet, and cool air wafts across Lydia's overheated skin. The prickling of goose-bumps is just on the bright edge of painful. The creature examines her arms, each joint, and each finger, careful and gentle. Lydia begins to shiver, the fever-sweat evaporating in the wake of the creature's touch. The creature moves on to her toes, the soft arch of her feet, ankles, shins, calves, knees, flesh brushing against her own lightly enough to not be painful or intrusive, but not so light as to be ticklish.
"What are you doing?" Lydia whispers. She wonders if she should be allowing this. She would never let a doctor or a stranger touch her like this, but she's so tired, and its touch feels soothing, despite the chill. Clinical and yet fascinated at the same time.
"Shush," the thing says. "Nearly done."
"Studying. I am seeing how she is put together."
Lydia makes a confused sound in the back of her throat, requesting clarification, but the creature does not elaborate. A sharp shock of concern slashes at her thoughts when she realizes it might be figuring out how she's built in order to be able to take her apart, but she's too frightened, too ill to lash out now. Hands sweep to the back of her legs, between the mattress and her skin. They move swiftly over the swell of her buttocks, then up her back to cup her shoulder blades, fingertips dancing up her spine. And then one pair of fingers wraps around her left breast, and the other slips down to cup her mons, brush against the lips of her entrance.
Lydia squawks and jerks in surprise. "What the hell?" she yelps, indignant, shock and adrenaline lending her temporary strength. She squirms out from under the creature's touch and snatches the duvet up, hauls the heavy cover up to her nose.
"Ah, I see. Erogenous zones around a receiving channel," the creature says, and leans back, folding its arms behind its back in a pose that Lydia would call scholarly on a human. Who the hell knows what that gesture signifies here, now, with this thing and its culture. "Female."
"Hell yes, female!" Lydia snaps.
The creature's head tilts one way and then the other, eyes widening and narrowing in turns as it scans her posture, her expression. It feels like it's able to see under the covers, but even the most bizarre of animals on Earth can't do that, so why should this... thing? For all that it looks like a creature out of science fiction, there's still no such thing as x-ray vision. Hopefully. Lydia stays silent, and the dark lethargy crawls up her body again, making her eyelids heavy now that the surprise is ebbing away.
"Take sustenance," the creature says, nodding to a small table beside the bed that Lydia had missed in her earlier perusal. On the table sits a small pottery bowl filled with something amber and liquid. She takes it by the thick, square handle that juts out of the side, and lifts the steaming, oversized mug to her face. It smells of broth and salt. She hesitates.
"I will not feed her by hand," the creature scoffs.
She sips. It tastes like meat and spices, and she coughs. It burns her tongue. She drinks it all anyway. It warms her core in a way that the duvet can't, and it loosens her cold-tightened muscles. The effort of finishing the thin soup is enough to exhaust her again, and she lays back down, all adrenaline spent. The creature cants a hip against the windowsill and watches her as she loses the fight against sleep.
"I loved this book... !!! Right from the blurb till the last line..."
- Zaira, GoodReads Review
"This is such an interesting read. It explores concepts like consent, bodily autonomy, self-identity, sexual discovery, life, death and grief all wrapped in a sort of alien/ portal fantasy romance."
-Andrea, GoodReads Review
"Well now, this certainly wasn't the book that I was expecting. When Peggy Barnett pitched it to me, I thought it would just be a fun bit of erotic gender-bending fluff. Of course, knowing Peggy, and knowing what else she writes, I really should have expected more. Yes, there is a lot of eroticism here, and it definitely breaks the gender binary, but none of it is fluff. In fact, Lips Like Ice is a very deep, very thoughtful story that goes to some very dark places, both physically and psychologically."
- Sally Bend, Bending the Bookshelf