Chapter 1: Betrothed
It was a night unlike any in recent memory. This spring had been unusually wet, raining almost every day, soaking right to the pulp of the newly blossoming trees and turning freshly planted gardens to muddy mires. Shortly after nightfall, this night’s deluge had brought with it thunderclaps that seemed to shake the very foundations of the castle and lightning that lit up the darkest chambers brighter than the midday sun. There was half-mirthful speculation among the servants that even the lowest cells in the prisonholds might see the light of day for once this night.
Not that there was anyone down there to be affected; the preceding winter had been mercifully mild, cutting theft, murder and other mischief caused by more desperate winters to a minimum. The newly-amended alliance between Aesha’an and Anglica’a—which was in fact much more than that, as the marriages of the Aesha’ani princes to two Anglica’an princesses effectively blended the two kingdoms into one—had recently been made law. Inexplicably, it had seen the incidence of petty interkingdom skirmishes decline, despite the tendency of such alliances to have quite the opposite effect. The realm was presently enjoying a time of relative peace, and as such, the prisonholds were all but empty, save for a few thieves by trade and petty con men. Only the weather seemed bent on violence and upheaval this spring.
For hours, the wind had torn open hastily fastened shutters and the rain had pelted the windows with such force, it seemed to be itself trying to find its way in out of the storm. Some fretted that there might be dire need of a shutterman come sunrise, despite the servants’ efforts to replace the rebellious ones when needed. One took its leave of the castle entirely, flying furiously off into the darkness to quickly be dashed to splinters against the soaring stone walls of the keep. The palace guards atop the battlements, normally impervious to unpleasant weather, were grateful for the relative shelter of their formidable armor—though had they been given the choice, they’d have come spluttering out of the downpour in a heartbeat. Each was grateful when his shift came to an end, and expressed genuine sympathy for those whose watches were just beginning. The Aesha’ani were not accustomed to such ferocity from the elements.
Yet high within the westernmost of the three towers that housed the royal apartments, the storm went all but unnoticed by Lady Clío Ashworth of Anglica’a, High Princess of Aesha’an. Her Grace lay naked beneath her coverlets, watching her husband as he entered her bedchamber. Her breath caught at the fire in his dark eyes as he closed the door softly, leaving her handmaidens out in the sitting room and the guards standing dutifully outside, exchanging knowing glances. In fact, Talia and Adora had likely scurried off to their own apartments at the arrival of their High Prince, for decency’s sake. It was well-known within the palace that the prince and princess enjoyed a marriage that was not only a fulfillment of duty; in fact, they were a rare breed among royals, for they were truly in love.
Affairs had not always been so harmonious.
Clío had been orphaned at the age of eight, when her father, the younger brother of the Anglica’an King Alleck, had been brutally killed on the orders of two duchesses who claimed he had fathered bastards on them—illegitimate boys he refused to acknowledge as his. Despite the young noblewomen’s conviction of murder, defamation and treason and subsequent executions, Clío’s mother Princess Raena was a proud woman, humiliated by her husband’s alleged indiscretions. One morning two moon’s turns after Prince Randon’s death, she was found dead in her chambers, hanged by her own hand.
Young Clío was left stunned and feeling utterly abandoned by the mother who, until the tragedy of her husband’s death, had been quite loving and attentive. She had come to the palace of of her aunt and uncle, King Alleck and Queen Olessa, where she spent the remainder of her childhood.
The rulers of Anglica’a and the neighboring Aesha’an often hosted lavish feasts for visiting royalty and nobility, and when one was hosting, the other held a standing, and for many years, unspoken, invitation. At the first Yule celebration after the loss of her parents, despite her despair and lack of any holiday spirit without her mother and father, a depressed and lonely Princess Clío was dutifully in attendance. It was that night, at barely nine years of age, that she met the love of her life.
Trystane had been a beautiful baby, who grew into a handsome child, who grew into a gorgeous young man, with nary an awkward stage in between. From the day of his birth, his extraordinary beauty was oft-discussed by highborn and village people alike. His older brother, Liam, the Crown Prince of Aesha’an, was rather plain of face and stature, though his sense of self-importance and entitlement more than made up for it. But Trystane was the quintessential handsome prince, with a disarming charm and flirtatious smile that made the girl toward whom it was directed turn into a puddle on the floor. Moreover, he was whip-smart and deadly with a sword. By the age of twelve, he displayed a mastery of blade and horse not yet achieved by many men twice his age.
It was a year prior to that, that he first turned that smile on Princess Clío.
The moment she saw him, as his family was being formally presented in the Great Feasting Hall just prior to the Yule celebration meal, her already scant appetite abandoned her. Beside her, her cousin Princess Haylia looked bored and unimpressed; she had known Liam and Trystane since they were toddlers, and anyway, she intended to marry the Crown Prince one day. But Clío was instantly infatuated. With shaking hands, she fidgeted with her skirts under the table on the dais, and her tongue stumbled over her normally flawless delivery of the customary greeting. Blushing furiously, she dropped her eyes to the table; when she raised them again, he smiled sweetly at her, and her blush returned, twice as furious. Somehow she managed a shy smile of her own, but quickly dropped her gaze once more.
The rest of the evening was a long series of furtive looks and blushing grins, and when he asked her to dance, she thought she might lose her legs any moment for how dizzy and flustered she became. Every moment she was in his arms, she was absolutely terrified that she would fumble the next step, and if not that one, the one after it. It was the most petrifying and the most exquisite seven minutes—which felt like an hour, yet all-too-short just the same—of her very young life.
It was all quite innocent; after all, they were only children experiencing the first blushes of puppy love.
Two-score other feasts followed over the next half-dozen years. The High Prince of Aesha’an and the princess of Anglica’a were together at every one, each growing more and more comfortable in each other’s presence, dances and conversation coming more and more easily. But all innocence was forgotten one evening shortly after Clío’s fifteenth nameday.
“You are a radiant vision this evening, princess,” he greeted her, kissing her hand. “and every other evening, I have no doubt.”
She blushed and smiled at him in her usual way, which was becoming ever more flirtatious of late. Even so, she dropped her eyes and gracefully bowed her head in deference as she responded, “Thank you, Your Grace; you as well.” He was a High Prince, and she, a lesser princess.
“You know there is no need for that,” he admonished her gently as she took his arm and he led her off to dance, “I feel it is you who belongs on a pedestal, not the other way around.”
She giggled softly as he took her hand and drew her close with the graceful yet authoritative firmness deeply bred into any highborn male. “Nevertheless, I will give you the deference you command.”
“My station commands it; I do not. Not of you.” His tone had changed dramatically at that last, his voice suddenly dropping in volume and pitch, with none of his customary regality. Her breath caught and her head spun at the passion that permeated his words and radiated from his person. Raising her eyes to his, she simply stared. Words hovered just beyond her reach.
She tried in vain to conceal the way her breath came hard and uneven as she gazed into his eyes, his beautiful eyes that were so dark, they were almost black; it was the very first time she saw them burn with the intense desire and reverence both, that had been there every time he had looked at her since. Her racing breath almost stopped all together, and for a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her, right there in front of the entire Feasting Hall.
Suddenly, he glanced up, as if just remembering there were others—at least a hundred others—there with them. Glancing furtively around herself, Clío noticed that many eyes were on them, and she felt herself flush once more before his gaze returned and drew hers back to his eyes. Those eyes she loved so much; this man she–
She gasped audibly as the realization abruptly crashed into her: she loved him… loved him with an intensity that pummeled her in the middle and took her breath away.
His expression shifted subtly, and he appeared bemused, as if he could read her thoughts. Leaning closer, he spoke rapidly, yet softly so only she could hear: “After this dance, return to your table. When you see me leave, count to one hundred, then follow. Meet me at the edge of the Northwood.” His words were in the form of a command, but his tone was imploring and held the same uncharacteristic vulnerability of a moment ago. She swallowed hard against her nerves, and silently nodded.
In moments, she was back at the high table on the dais, sipping watered wine with shaky hands and smiling inwardly at the way he was very careful not to look at her as he made conversation with his brother. He did this with apparent ease for what seemed like hours to her flustered mind, and she wondered if the thought of being alone in a dark wood with her made him as nervous and giddy as she was then. Lost in thought, it took her a moment to realize he was halfway to the hall’s back exit. She began to count to one hundred, but her racing heart distracted her and she kept losing her place. After starting over twice, she gave up and simply sat there another moment before slowly rising with what she hoped was nonchalance. She ignored those nearby who hastily jumped to their feet when the princess did; it was really rather unnecessary, but many felt that over-deference was better than not enough where royalty was concerned. Claiming to be tired, she kissed her aunt and uncle and her cousin and quietly excused herself.
Exiting the hall through a different door than the one Trystane had used, she turned left and angled toward the edge of the wood. It was late summer and still warm during the day, with only a slight chill moving in at night—the light cloak she had hastily thrown over her shoulders inside was more than sufficient. There were late summer blooms here and there along the path she strode, and the garden was still quite green, the turning of autumn still two weeks away. The sky was an inky midnight blue, the stars like countless brilliant diamonds, dimmed only a slight bit by the waning moon. It was a beautiful night, but she took only a cursory note of any of it. She concentrated almost solely on not allowing her knees to turn to jelly as she hurried through the Falcon Gate, seeking her prince. The guards let her through with little fuss; they worried less over her than they would Haylia or the queen.
She stopped suddenly to catch her breath when she saw him. He was exquisite to every eye that fell upon him, but for her, the sight of him was the most beautiful in all the world. He wore nothing that named him royalty, save fine textiles, for this night’s feast was not a formal one, and he detested donning a crown. Nonetheless, he looked every inch a prince. It was in the way he held himself, the grace with which he moved, the cool confidence in his expression. He was seventeen years old with gorgeous dark curls and those beautiful smoldering eyes. He was not quite as tall as his older brother or his father, but he was tall enough, and his stature was not lacking in regality. He was well-practiced in weaponry and on horseback, and had the strong physique to show it.
As she came closer, his eyes met hers and she froze as if she had magically sprouted deep roots, struggling to breathe. He smiled and closed the distance between them in several quick strides. She only hoped she appeared half as at ease as he did.
Which, in fact, he was not.
She was absolutely beautiful. He had thought she was beautiful the very first time he’d laid eyes on her; and every time he’d seen her since, as she grew from child to young woman, she was more beautiful than the last. She had flawless porcelain skin. Curls the color of dark caramel swirled with milk chocolate that cascaded almost to her waist when she did not wear it in her customary elaborate braids. And big innocent eyes nearly the hue of blue topaz. Two years prior, sometime during a six month period between engagements, her girlish figure had transformed into that of a very-much grown woman, with a slender waist and a delicate curve to her hips. And her breasts… sometimes it was all he could do to maintain decorum when she was near. He was well- and high-bred to maintain a sense of dignity in a lady’s presence and never to detract from hers by staring; but with Clío it was a very difficult thing not to slowly take in every gorgeous inch of her every time he looked at her. She was absolutely and incomparably beautiful.
For several years his brother had paraded hand- and kitchenmaids, even unapologetic prostitutes, around in front of him, declaring it was time he “became a man,” but he never wanted any of them. A time or two, a girl had fled in tears, leaving him feeling dreadfully guilty for hurting her feelings; but he simply had no desire for any girl who was not Clío Ashworth. His father, and mother before her departure from the world, both stressed at any chance that he must one day marry a pretty young girl with supple breasts and childbearing hips, “to ensure a solid line of Aesha’ani heirs,” and Clío was all of that. But even if she hadn’t have been, he would not have cared. He quite simply was in love with her, hopelessly and undeniably.
He caught her chin with a gentle hand as she lowered it and her eyes in her customary gesture of deference. Smiling softly, he nudged her head back up, and lost his breath as her eyes met his. “None of that; not now,” he quietly scolded. “And please, especially now, do not call me Grace. You know my name.”
She blinked and began, “But Your–” She cut off at a subtle look from him and breathed, “Trystane…”
He smiled, his eyes slightly darkened, and her heart raced so fast, she thought it must surely burst before long.
She rested a hand lightly on his wrist, and his hand dropped away from her face. “I am sorry.”
“No, I want you to touch me,” she blurted, and immediately, her face burned so hot she thought it might burst into flame. “I mean…”
“I know what you meant,” he reassured her with a small smile, then offered her his arm. “Come?”
They continued down the path a short way, until they came to a bridge that crossed the creek that wound through the Northwood. There, Trystane turned abruptly to face Clío, and pulled her close like he had a hundred times to dance; but instead of taking one of her hands in his and placing his other on her waist, he drew her all the way into his arms. She rested her head beneath his chin and pressed her body to his. Her head spun as she heard the rapid beating of his heart that echoed her own, and she was glad he was holding her up, or she might have crumpled.
For long moments, they simply stood like that, and she closed her eyes so as to feel him as thoroughly as possible—the warmth and strength of his body, the deliberate rhythm of his breath, the firmness of his arms around her. As he held her, her arms tucked between them, hands pressed against his chest, she felt as if nothing could touch her; nothing in the world could possibly hurt her.
He turned his face in toward the top of her head, and took in the sweet scent of her hair. After another moment, she looked up at him, and the whole world suddenly ceased to exist. He was all she saw, all she felt, all she knew or wanted.
He took her face in his hands and kissed her, and suddenly, she could no longer even feel her own body. She was pure, raw emotion for endless moments as he kissed her and her soul became his.
Then all at once, her body came back to her, and she felt sensations she’d never even dreamed of. His hands remained on her face, but as the kiss intensified, her body reacted as if he were making love to her… which in a way, he very much was.
Once, when she was ten or eleven, she had stumbled across a book in the palace library, shoved way back on a far shelf behind some other tomes. How it had even gotten past the staunchly prim palace librarians, she could never fathom. It was a storybook of a sort that made her blush the very second she began reading it. For many nights after that, she had sneaked to the library well past dark to read it by the light of one small candle. It was only for having surreptitiously perused that book that she’d ever even heard tell of a kiss like this. Slow and gentle, it was not altogether lustful, but it was nothing resembling innocent either. She wanted it never to end.
But eventually, end it did, and her heart almost broke, but in the next moment he said breathlessly, “I love you. I am in love with you, my princess, and I want to marry you.”
She looked up at him with wide eyes, no longer even aware if she was breathing or not. Her beautiful face breaking into a bright smile, she said, “And I love you, my prince. But…” Her smile slipped a little, but before she could form more words, he spoke.
“I will make it so, love. I do not care what I have to say, I will convince them, and I will make it so.”
Soon after, Trystane began making the day’s journey from his home to hers every moon’s turn or so—sometimes only a fortnight between visits—officially to maintain contact and a good rapport between the royal families; but his true purpose was to see Clío. He would stay a night or two, and each one, she would go up to her bedchamber an hour or so after dark, under the guise of calling an end to her day; then thirty minutes later, she would slip out to meet him at some predetermined place. On colder nights, it would be some far corner of the palace; on warmer ones, it was usually somewhere deep within the Northwood.
After a few months, she began to long desperately for him to come to her bed, and she sensed he wanted that too; but she never requested it, and neither did he.
More than once, she caught herself wondering if he kept girls near to hand—high-priced whores or even his mother’s young handmaids—to relieve his frustrations. All he would have to do was toss the right sort of glance and any woman in the world, from scullions barely past tugging at their mothers’ skirts to queens in their twilight, would drop to her knees, no questions asked. The thought was like a double-edged greatsword, still hot from the forge, plunged into her heart and brutally twisted, but she never asked; she might not want to hear the answer. He was not the sort to lie, if for no other reason than he had been bred to believe that what he wanted he should have—though she had the distinct sense that he would never lie to her in particular. Anyhow, the knowing would hurt more than the wondering, many times over. Every time the thought entered her mind, she simply shoved it aside and refused to entertain it, for fear that it would quite literally break her heart. Instead, she lost herself in his kisses and the sensations that coursed through her body every time he touched her. When they were married, he would take mistresses, or he would not; women who resided in castles and wore fine silks and rubies had very little say in that sort of thing.
One particularly warm night, she fell asleep in his arms under a great weeping willow in the Northwood. Very early in the morning, as the first rays of the sun touched her face where she lay at his side, she started awake.
He came awake suddenly and sat up, groping instinctively for his sword belt. She giggled.
“Love, it is alright. But it is morning, and by now my ladies must have noticed my absence. Not to mention your men. My ladies… well, they will guess who I am with, and cover for me, but I cannot make them do so for long.” More out of curiosity than anything, she stopped her frantic attempt at straightening her tousled hair and asked, “What have you told your entourage?”
He smiled as he stood and offered her his hand, helping her to her feet. She gave up on fixing her hair and instead began methodically unwinding her braids instead. “It makes no matter what I tell them. They know not to speak out of turn about anything concerning me. Even to my father.”
At that last, she stopped again. “Has… has this happened before?”
Taking both her hands into his, he gazed at her evenly and said, “You mean their finding me gone in the morning because I was off with a girl? No.” His unwavering tone left no room for doubt. “My father commands they not speak out of turn—even to him.”
She frowned curiously. “That’s odd. Why would he do that?”
He shrugged and said simply, “Trust,” as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “They tell him of anything that threatens me; otherwise, my affairs are simply that.”
“Is there a lot that threatens you?” she asked quietly.
He smiled softly. “No more than any second son of a king.” A vague and somewhat evasive answer, but she accepted it. “Love, you must not worry for my security or my faith. Both are firmly intact.”
She kissed him, deeply but hurriedly. “Give me two moments’ head start so I may maintain some small sense of dignity,” she giggled, then breathed, “I love you… so much.”
“And I, you, my love.”
Clío dashed off toward the palace, trying to ignore the quizzical stares she received from castle servants when they thought she could not see. Her maids Talia and Adora greeted her with knowing smiles and stifled giggles when she reached her chambers.
On Clío’s sixteenth nameday, her aunt, the queen, called on her in her chambers. Kindly dismissing Talia and Adora, Olessa turned to her niece with a contemplative look and asked her to sit down.
“Of course, Majesty.” Clío glided to the settee the queen indicated and waited for Olessa to sit first before taking a seat next to her aunt. She often addressed Olessa as my Lady, Aunt Olessa, or simply aunt in private; but she sensed the queen was there for a reason that called for more formality.
Queen Olessa was a pleasantly plump and still quite beautiful woman with deep blue eyes and formerly dark hair that was now mostly grey, which she usually wore in a simple bun atop her head. As she clasped Clío’s hands with both of hers, the contemplative expression she wore turned to one of sympathy, and she launched right into her purpose for visiting. “You love him, do you not, dear?”
Clío was visibly taken aback. Blinking, she said, “I… of whom do you speak, Majesty?”
Olessa gave her a look that clearly said, You know very well of whom I speak. Nevertheless, she replied softly, “Prince Trystane.”
Clío stared at Olessa wide-eyed, not at all sure what the correct answer was. Finally, she admitted the truth: “Yes. I do love him.”
Olessa sighed, abruptly appearing as if a weight had been dropped on her out of nowhere. “Please at least tell me you have not given him your– tell me your maidenhead is still intact?”
“Of course, Majesty!” Clío replied much more sharply than she had intended. Taking a breath, she said more evenly, “I remain a maid, and will until I am wed.”
“Good, good,” the queen said almost absently, but with visible relief. Pressing her lips together, she regarded Clío intently for long moments, her brow knitted as if in worry.
Finally Clío couldn’t take it anymore. “Forgive me… but is there more? Something you must tell me?”
“Clío… Your uncle has decided it is near time for you to marry. And as such we have considered a number of potential marriages for you, and Trystane was one of them.” A pause. “Clío, your uncle has decided–”
Pulling her hands from Olessa’s, Clío felt her stomach turn to ice. She had been sorely dreading this day and hoping it would never come. Or that when it did, he aunt uttered the right name. “‘Was’?” she whispered sharply.
“No… No!” Jumping up, Clío took a step back. “Forgive me, Aunt Olessa, but I… I cannot–” She shook her head emphatically as if to keep the prospect at bay. “Please do not– please. Do not make me!” she pleaded. She did not know who her uncle had decided on, and she did not care. All that mattered was that it was not the one she loved. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she balled her hands in to fists at her sides.
“Clío, you know this is not ultimately my decision–”
“Then make him change his mind!” Clío burst out without thinking, which earned her a stern look from her aunt.
Rising herself, Olessa admonished, “Clío, one does not ‘make’ the king do anything. You know that. A princess has her duties. I was one myself not so long ago, and your uncle was not always my first choice either; but in time, I grew to properly love and respect him.”
It was a story Cio had heard a hundred times from married highborn women, and one she was inclined to believe, but of which she was tired nonetheless. “But…” The tears were falling freely now. “He might listen to you…” she finished without really believing it. Once King Alleck had made up his mind, it was thoroughly made up.
“Oh, darling. Do you not think I tried? But His Majesty has decided on what he thinks best.”
“Who?” Clío choked out, not caring for the moment about decorum.
Olessa hesitated, then said, “We can talk about that later. For now, I will leave you be so you can come to terms with this.” Her tone was sympathetic and gentle, yet it brooked no argument. Her niece would do as she was told, because that was how a respectable princess behaved, was the assumption and firm expectation.
Clío stood rigidly as Olessa quietly kissed her cheek and took her leave.
The moment the door closed after the queen, Clío sank to her knees on the floor beside the settee, her body wracked with painful sobs of despair. She had known the odds of this happening all along, of course; she was neither naïve nor delusional. The man a princess wanted to marry and the man she would were rarely, if ever, one and the same. There were those who much preferred the common man to royalty, and those, like her, who wanted a prince she could not have in the end. At least, not publically.
But, oh gods, why did she have to go and lose her heart so thoroughly? And why did it have to hurt so terribly?
He came to her two days after. The moment she was alone with him, it was clear that he knew. Word of royal betrothals traveled fast between kingdoms, and Aesha’an was not even a full day’s journey away. He looked as if his whole world had shattered, which it indeed had. Meeting her on the little bridge over the creek around midnight, he pulled her close almost roughly, clinging to her hard. For long moments, he simply held her while she wept bitterly, only just maintaining control over his own composure.
Word had come to him the day before, when he returned from a ride with his brother in the Wooden Grove, the small forest that surrounded his family’s ancient and heavily fortified home.
“Your Highness,” a messenger had greeted his brother with a bow before turning to Trystane with the same. “Your Grace. His Majesty sent me with this for you,” he explained holding out a small piece of plain parchment folded once. “I don’t know what it says. The king says it’s a private matter.” Normally messengers delivered their news orally, unless it was classified information.
The six words written by the king himself on the parchment hit him like a panicked horse’s hoof to the chest. He drew in a deep breath, exhaling slowly and deliberately.
His brother beside him stepped closer and inquired in a low voice, “Trys, are you well?”
Trystane shook his head slowly. “No,” he said simply, shoving the parchment at Liam. He wanted those vile words out of his hands, yet he spoke them aloud anyway. “The Lady Clío has been betrothed.”
Liam frowned with sympathy as he read the note for himself. Aloof and arrogant as the sturdy, dark blond, dark-eyed man could be, he was also a good and empathetic man, and one who knew his brother like the back of his own hand. Trystane’s feelings for the Anglica’an princess were known to him, and to their father.
He also had matters of state in mind, as every Crown Prince must as a matter of course. “Trystane,” he murmured, lowering his voice more, “have you bedded her?”
The High Prince fought the urge to backhand the even higher one, and answered instead with an annoyed shake of his head. “Of course not, she’s not like one of your whores.”
“No need for obstinance, brother,” Liam admonished lightly. “I only ask because–”
“I know why you ask,” Trystane snapped irritably. If he had deflowered the princess and her future husband found out about it—ever—it could mean her death on the block.
Without waiting for another word from his brother, or for a dismissal, he turned and headed for his apartments. He had another ride to embark upon, and the sooner, the better.
Now, holding his love as she wept in his arms, he said softly, “I am so sorry, love; I should never have made vows I could not– Do you know him?”
“I have never met him!” she cried. His name was Altair, he was twenty-one, and he was the second son of a kingdom about a week’s journey to the south. That was literally all she knew. Her uncle had chosen him for political reasons she didn’t know or care enough to understand. He was a perfectly respectable, maybe even kind and attractive, young man, she was sure. But he was not Trystane.
Suddenly her mind was made up about something she had been deliberating non-stop for two sleepless nights. Looking up at him, she said simply, “I have always meant it to be you. I want it still to be you. I need it. To be. You.”
He briefly looked a question at her, before abruptly realizing what it was. Sighing, he held her head to his chest and buried his face in her hair. His voice sounded strangled as he finally answered, “I cannot–” Cutting himself off, he stepped back. Looking as if it nearly killed him, he repeated more firmly, “I cannot. I will not.”
With simultaneous surges of adoration and despair, she understood what he left unspoken: no matter how desperately he wanted her virginity, wanted her, he would not use her in that way. She was not a whore to be fucked and then handed off to the next man.
But before she could form a protest, he hastily murmured, “I must– Forgive me; I must go, love,” and left her there, knowing if she asked just once more, he would not have it in him to refuse her again.
Some hours later, Adora knocked softly on the door of her bedchamber. “My Lady? His Grace Prince Trystane is here.”
Clío, who had been lying silently in her large maple four-poster bed, unable to sleep, staring up at the white intricately carved plaster ceiling, turned and pulled herself up to a sitting position. Absently sweeping her loose but barely-mussed curls over her right shoulder, she said, “Send him in.”
The girl’s eyes widened and she blinked, nearly gaping openly. “M– my Lady?”
“Adora, I do not care what is ‘proper’; send him in.”
He appeared at her door a moment later, stopping to await an invitation before entering.
“My love,” she said softly, reaching toward him, “come here.”
He approached her bedside and stood looking as close to awkward as she had ever seen her self-assured Prince of Aesha’an. Taking his hand, she gently pulled him down to sit close to her. Drawing her knees up under her nightgown and resting her chin on them, she wondered aloud, “How did you get past my guards?”
Shrugging, he said, “I may have bribed them,” as if it were the most natural thing in the world; he had a way of doing that often.
“Why, those…!” she huffed, but her outrage was hollow.
Grinning, he said, “Do not be angry; at first they refused. But one of your handmaids was near, and she convinced one, who convinced the other, to change their minds.”
Clío giggled. She had always suspected her maids had romances going with two of her night guards—and one of them happened to be on duty now. After a moment, her expression sobered.
“Trystane…” she murmured at the exact moment he said, “Clío…”
As was her habit still, she lowered her gaze and waited; and as was his habit, he touched her chin and gently guided her eyes even with his. The pain in his gaze broke her heart, and tears clouded her vision. “Do not–” His voice broke, and he paused, started again. “Please do not think I do not want you. I want you so badly, it literally hurts.” She couldn’t help it; her gazed dropped fleetingly to his lap, and she flashed a wicked smile at his implication. He smiled wickedly back, and said, “You know that is not what I meant. It hurts here.” He pressed a hand, balled up in a tight fist, to his heart.
She shifted, tucking her legs under herself and drawing her height even with his on the bed. Silently, she kissed him, softly at first, then growing more intense by the second. “Clío…” he whispered between kisses, but she simply kissed him again and replied, “Stop it,” in a commanding tone that rivaled even his. Pulling back only enough to speak again, she repeated her own words from earlier: “I need it to be you.” She began unlacing his breeches even as she said it. It was a bold, even unladylike, move, but she didn’t care.
And as he had suspected before, he could not refuse her even one more time. Within moments, all of their clothes were on the floor and he was in her bed, kissing her and touching her in a way he never had before. Feeling the unmistakable evidence of his desire against her thigh, she drew her legs up to encircle his hips. “I need you,” she breathed, “now.”
He hesitated a moment, and whispered, “I love you… tell me you know that.”
“I know you do,” she murmured, “And I will always love you…” She gasped as he gently drove into her.
It hurt a little, at first; the gods had been feeling generous when they sculpted his body. But she pushed her hips upwards against his, drawing him all the way inside. As she did so, she sighed as she felt the warmth come flooding in and her body respond appropriately. The earth spun and dropped out from beneath her as he slowly made love to her. She knew without a doubt that no matter who they married, they would only ever belong to each other.
Twice more between the night of her deflowering and what was to be her wedding day, Clío had given herself to her prince.
On the one occasion when she had met Altair—he was indeed handsome: quite tall, with fair hair and eyes nearly the color of her own, and a pleasant, respectful manner—her betrothed had kissed her, and she burst into tears immediately. She had let him believe they were tears of happiness, but of course, that was anything but true. She saw Trystane three days after, and kissed him furiously, as if to erase the other man’s kiss from memory, then made love to him under the same great willow where she had slept in his arms that night months before.
Another time was in her bedchamber the last night she was to see him before her marriage, on the plush fur carpet in front of the hearth. The fire burning on it paled in comparison to the one in her heart, and all at once, she lost herself in orgasm, the first of her life. She clung to him afterward and refused to sleep that night, though she had no intention of ending their affair. If kings and princes could have mistresses, well then, she would have a… gods, there wasn’t even a word for it! That was how dangerous the mere notion was, but once again, she simply did not care.
Two years hence, on a night unlike any in recent memory, as the wind tore at the shutters and the rain tried hiding from itself and the lightning and thunder flashed and screamed across the heavens, he came to her bed again, this time in a different tower within a different castle in a different kingdom, as her husband. Looking at him, she wondered, not for the first time, at how she had come to be there.
She could never, ever think of her uncle’s sudden death from pneumonia as in any way a good thing; she had loved Alleck dearly after all, and his relatively early death had devastated the queen. But because of it, just days prior to the day she was to marry Prince Altair, the queen unexpectedly broke the betrothal. Fearing the war that would almost certainly break out over her husband’s suddenly-abandoned throne, given the lack of a male heir, Olessa expedited a treaty that had been in quiet talks for some time, securing a strong king for her people in Gavin of Aesha’an and uniting the two kingdoms into one by marrying her daughter, Haylia, to the Crown Prince Liam… and her niece, Clío, to Trystane. It was a whirlwind decision followed closely by two whirlwind weddings that left Clío reeling, but happier than she had ever dreamed of being.
And her cousin would be queen! That was a marriage almost all had long assumed would happen, but the reality had Haylia over the moon with joy.
“You are far away, my love,” the sound of his voice—she loved the beautiful sound of him—together with a blinding flash of lightning outside, brought her abruptly back to the present.
Smiling serenely, she said, “No, not really.”
She propped herself up on one elbow as he reached down and touched her knee before trailing his fingers lazily along her thigh through her coverlet—a sensual gesture that was punctuated by a giant rolling thunderclap. At her hip, he gently grasped the coverlet and drew it slowly down, revealing her naked body inch by inch. His eyes darkened and glazed over in that familiar way as the fire in them burned even brighter. Gently shaking his head, he pretended to chastise, “Now look, you have gone and left nothing for me to do yet again.”
Laughing softly, she raised herself to her knees on the edge of the bed and draped her arms around his neck as lightning streaked across the sky again. “Would you like me to put everything back on again, so you can take it off of me?” Arranging her pretty face into a careful pout, she added, “You would not really make me do that, would you… Your Grace?” These last words were spoken from behind a teasing grin; he had implored her time and again not to call him that. She was a High Princess now, second in line for queendom. But in truth, she was intensely turned on by the thought of his dominance over her; at least behind closed doors.
Eyes narrowing in mock consternation, he all but growled, “Gods, no,” and in the blink of an eye his own clothes were on the floor. She wasn’t even altogether sure whose hands had removed them. With one hand gently fisted in her hair and the other moving up her body from hip to breast, he was kissing her ravenously; he tasted of mint and wine and passion.
Everything began to rush by in one blissful blur, as outside, the thunder rolled in tandem with the storm building inside them.
Suddenly, she was on her back and his hands were everywhere as his kisses began to travel south, slowly, down toward…
She let out a low moan as he lingered at her lower belly, teasing her until she couldn’t take it anymore. She felt him smile as she pushed against him and scratched at his shoulder, silently begging.
He spent long moments down there, slowly exploring, until she flung her arm up and grasped the bedpost roughly, crying out as Paradise rolled over her. Before the last waves of her climax were on her, he was inside her, fucking her and making love to her at once; he was all that existed for her in that moment.
She felt the tension in his body growing, until finally, she wrapped her legs and her arms tightly around him. Suddenly he thrust hard once, twice, thrice—“Come with me, love,” she whispered softly—and he did.
His orgasm always sent her over the edge one last time, no matter how many had come before, and tonight was no different. Gripping, almost clawing, his hips, she felt intense spasms inside her as his seed filled her. Her passionate cries were all but drowned out by the cacophony of rolling thunder and pelting rain on the windowpane. Sighing, she let her legs relax around him, still holding him inside as they slowly kissed, hands moving lazily over each others’ bodies.
After several moments, he gently withdrew and shifted them both onto their sides, facing each other, one hand coming to rest on her breast. She wriggled closer to him and tucked her head beneath his chin, her face nuzzling his neck. She kissed the hollow of his throat, and heard his breath catch. “I love you,” he breathed, almost too softly to hear.
“I love you too, Your Grace,” she grinned and he poked her in the ribs. “That tickles!” she squealed, swatting at his hand.
“I know,” he teased and wrapped her tightly in his arms. She wished she could just stay wrapped up in him like that forever. She loved every inch of his body, not just because it was gorgeous, but because he was strong, and she never felt safer than when he was close to her.
She lay quietly for some moments, her hand absently caressing him here, then there.
Some of what he had deposited inside of her took its leave of her body then, abruptly bringing her thoughts to her womb. “Trys?”
“Mmmm?” He sounded half-asleep.
She paused.“Never mind…”
“What is it, radiance?”
She smiled—she loved when he called her that—and hesitated before asking. “Why am I still not with child?”
“Certainly not for lack of trying,” he replied mildly. It was true; one was in the other’s bed every night, and most nights, passion came before sleep.
She smiled. “Trys.”
“I do not know, love.” She didn’t say what she was thinking, but he sensed it. More and more lately, it seemed he could read her mind. He drew back a space and tilted her head up so she looked at him. “Do you really think I am going to put you aside if you do not become pregnant?”
“Well… are you not sort of… supposed to?”
“I do not much care what I am ‘supposed’ to do.” As he had made clear the first three… no, four… times he had taken her to bed.
“You could be king someday.”
He laughed. “I highly doubt that. My father and brother are living steel, and they would both have to die first. And word has it your cousin may once more be with… with child…” he trailed off sheepishly as she sighed. After a short pause, he said softly, “I will not give you up, heir or no heir. I nearly lost you once already.”
Remaining within his close embrace, she twisted herself around into a spooning position, pressing firmly against him as he curled around her. With one hand caressing her breast, the other on her belly, he kissed the soft spot just below her ear before they drifted off to sleep.
Later on that same night, Prince Altair Rothford of Kartha’an lay abed in some nobleman’s home—he had forgotten who hosted them that night, and he didn’t much care. It had been a long journey, staying in other kingdoms’ palaces and the nobility’s homes, and one was much the same as the other. He was impatient to make it home to his own bed.
The High Prince lay staring at the ceiling as the whore that warmed his bed of late quietly slept beside him. Whores had been his predominate vice since he was fourteen years old. Really, any pretty young thing that was willing to open her legs for a prince, but professionals were the easiest to obtain. When he found another whom he fancied more, which was inevitable, he would give this one a horse and some gold and send her on her way.
He doubted he’d have given up whoring after marriage. Not that he would yet know one way or another; the girl he should have taken as bride two years past was in Aesha’an with another man.
He threw back the covers testily and climbed out of bed. Without bothering to dress, he exited the bedchamber on to the balcony into the pre-dawn blackness. He stared off in the general direction of the Sister Kingdoms of Aesha’an and Anglica’a, which lay just to the south of where he presently stayed, looking more at his inner thoughts than at the meticulously kept gardens that lay before him.
It was a name that never failed to make him seethe. Like most High Princes, Liam and Trystane Maquesta had reputations that spread for a thousand leagues in every direction but down, and the younger was even more notorious than the elder. Some said he was a playboy, but most seemed to think he had hung the moon and the stars. Altair was inclined to believe the former. He had never met a highborn man that pretty who hadn’t fucked every willing female that crossed his path, and some of the unwilling ones. Seemingly half the young women in Kartha’an claimed to have bedded him; some even alleged that they had borne his bastards. Whatever the truth was, Altair was sick of hearing that name.
Before, he had simply been tired of it, in that alright, alright, enough already sort of way. But when Altair’s betrothal to Clío Ashworth had been announced, rumor had spread like wildfire that she was devastated; for she was already in love—with Trystane of Aesha’an. That had fanned the flame a bit, turning that spark of distaste to a blossoming flame of hatred. It was even said that the Aesha’ani High Prince had had Clío’s maidenhead, which would have fanned that flame into a bonfire, but at the time Altair had refused to believe that his intended was a whore. Then that bitch Olessa had turned it all upside down, and Clío had married…
Alleck’s death was no accident; the pneumonia wasn’t simply brought on by cold and contagion. That was the rumor which had immediately followed the death of the king. That one Altair believed. That little whore had had the king of Aesha’an murdered, with or without the help of her pretty lover. Whatever the cause of Alleck’s death, Olessa had united the Sister Kingdoms to protect the future of her lands and people, which, in any other case, Altair would have respected. To avoid a war.
Oh, you will have a war, woman, he mused, and I will take what should have been mine, since you will not give it. I will have his princess… and his father’s newly remodeled kingdom.He was simply biding his time, but soon; it would be very soon now.