Secrets and Seductions
The floor seemed to fall out from beneath him.
This was hardly the time to start a family, but that was the least of it.
His wife was carrying what could be another man’s child.
Worse, that of his worst enemy.
Worse still, that of the man who had raped her.
The man who had killed the unborn child she already carried.
“Alright,” he said, forcing calm; his pain would only amplify hers, and he would not allow that. “Alright. Clío, love, we do not know that it is not.”
She shot to her feet, pressing her hands to her belly. “But we don’t know that it is!”
He rose to meet her gaze, but she exited the privy, beginning to pace the bedchamber outside the small wooden door, seeming to think aloud.
“There are things we can do—teas I can drink, foods I can eat, to make it go away. Oh, we have to make it go away!”
“We have our physician, but can we find those foods, those teas, here? Do we ask Persephoni? Or her physician?”
“Do we dare tell them? Do the Faradeshi condone termination of–”
“Clío! What if it is mine?”
She stopped pacing, staring at him with wide eyes, scared and confused.
“Could you live with even the possibility that we may have ‘gotten rid’ of my– our child? The living symbol of our union and the heir to everything we’re fighting for? Could you?”
She drew in a breath. “No,” she uttered weakly. “I would always… I would always wonder, and fear.”
“Darling,” he said gently, taking her face lovingly in his hands. “I will not force this on you. You have had enough forced on you by men. But hear me out: no one knows– hells,” he swore, remembering the last counsels he had held in Ashworth. What he’d been about to say wasn’t strictly true. “Very few know of what happened. And they only know because nothing else I’ve said or done in the face of this invasion would seem to make much sense if they didn’t.” Did it even make sense at all?
Clío nodded slowly. “Who?”
“Those whom I trust most in the world: Julius, Olessa, Ryman. And those who love you enough to risk their lives to save yours. On top of that, I swore them to secrecy upon pain of death. No word of it shall pass any of their lips, ever.”
“You threatened to execute another king?” she mused in amazement.
“Clío. We’re getting away from the subject.”
She met his eyes again, waiting.
“I declare to you here and now—and you may consider this an official royal declaration, if it helps you in any way—that this child is ours, and if you choose to give it birth, we will raise it so.”
Her eyes widened. “That is dangerous,” she replied softly.
“I know,” he conceded. “But not even those who are aware of what he did to you need to know that there is any question of paternity. They may deduce enough to have suspicions, but they will not question my word. The less they know of a matter such as this, the better, and they all know that.”
“What if it becomes apparent in time, that he or she is… his?”
Despite the stab of pain that shot through Trystane’s chest at the notion, he said with conviction, “We will love the child too much by then to care.”
She nodded uncertainly, turning to resume pacing, silent as she considered. Finally, after long moments, she stopped and met his gaze decisively. “Then it is decided. We will raise this child as we would any other.”
Clío called Talia, Adora and Angelique to her chambers late that morning. Trystane was off to take the news to his newly appointed counsel, but Angelique was unaware of that. She was about to hear it from her queen.
“Ladies, I have news to share with you—good news,” the queen announced.
Angelique thought that the smile that accompanied that last seemed to waver; she frowned, wondering what good news might not actually be altogether good.
“I am again with child. It seems that after two years with no such blessing, the gods have seen fit to bless my husband and me twice.”
Talia’s and Adora’s reactions, like Angelique’s own, were appropriately joyful, if somewhat tempered.
Clío smiled, this time more convincingly. “I understand your reluctance to celebrate with the usual enthusiasm; everything is… a bit dampened by our present situation. But your well wishes mean much to me.”
It was Talia who found it in her to begin voicing the question Angelique suspected was in all three handmaids’ minds. “My Lady, are you sure…?”
Clío interjected firmly. “I think it best that you refrain from asking what you are about to ask, all of you.” Her tone was not hostile, but it brooked no argument, and she did not elaborate.
“Yes, my queen,” Talia deferred, lowering her eyes.
“And now,” Clío sighed, standing. “I must rest.”
The three other women stood as well; this was her way of politely dismissing them.
Outside the king and queen’s chamber doors, Adora murmured something about taking a stroll and drifted off in the opposite direction from the other two.
Gazing after her a moment, Angelique mused, “Does it feel like something is going on with her?”
“It does, sometimes,” Talia agreed thoughtfully. “But she has been through much; more, even, than we have.”
“I think I’ll take a stroll of my own, see if I can manage to get myself lost again,” Angelique half-kidded. “Would you like to join me?”
“That sounds lovely,” Talia replied a note of sadness in her tone. “But I am afraid I feel a headache coming on. I’ve been getting them lately.”
Angelique put a hand on Talia’s arm sympathetically. “Is there anything I can do? You mother the rest of us so well; it should be your turn to be mothered occasionally.”
Talia smiled, genuinely grateful for the sentiment. “Thank you; should I need anything, I’ll call on you. But I think for now, I just need to lie down.”
Angelique nodded in understanding. “Alright.” She watched Talia head off toward her chambers next to Adora’s and across from Angelique’s, which were just down the corridor from the queen’s. Talia had been almost as reclusive as the queen this past week. But then, she had been put through horrors right alongside Clío. Her body had been violated; she had watched a man die brutally, which was heavily scarring whether or not you were in love with the man; and the man she did love was still back at the Fortress. Angelique knew she missed him and worried for him.
Thinking about what Talia had been through made her think of what Adora had, and she once again wondered what was happening with the younger maid. She could not shake the feeling that the way in which she had chosen to deal with her own grief was not exactly a healthy one.
But then, who was she to say what the best way was to process such loss?
10.3. Angelique wandered the corridors for some time, at one point noting that she was indeed lost. But she had other things occupying her mind; she would find her way back eventually.
She had spent some time with the falconer Oliver, and she enjoyed his company—quite a bit, actually. He was very handsome, with reddish-blond hair, sparkling blue eyes and a smile so charming it was contagious; and he was sweet, intelligent and interesting. He seemed to believe a falconer could hardly have much of interest to talk about, but she found what he did fascinating; and after all, one of his birds had been instrumental in rescuing her, her friends and her queen. Why wouldn’t she want to learn more about them? She thought he might just be the one to finally break her of her futile emotional attachment to Trystane.
But that would take some time, especially considering that, while trying to distance herself from Trystane, she was actually becoming closer to him—and it was the king who occupied her thoughts just now.
She had nearly fallen over when he had offered her his arm yesterday. Of course, it was the customary thing a gentleman did while escorting a lady, so it was not particularly shocking. But this was not just any gentleman; this was Trystane Maquesta, king of the Sister Kingdoms and the man she had loved half her life, whether she should or not. Her heart had not stopped racing the entire time they had traversed the woods in conversation. Trystane was one to notice things one wouldn’t think anyone would, and Angelique was afraid he would sense what he made happen inside her body if she kept her hand on him too long. It was only her lifetime of practicing poise and restraint that had kept her from losing her breath and her wits with him so close.
And now Clío carried his baby again. If it even was…
No. She would not entertain that notion. It was horrifying, and it felt treasonous somehow.
How was she ever to finally break free of her feelings for him while working directly for him? This arrangement wasn’t likely to last forever, she reasoned; but what if she only fell harder for him while it did? Should she continue even seeing Oliver? It wouldn’t be fair to string him along while she still harbored such strong feelings for another.
Then there was a fact that she had trouble admitting even to herself, because it hardly made any sense: as much as loving Trystane hurt, it also felt so good. That feeling she got when she thought about him, the skipping of her heart, the fluttering in her stomach, was as thrilling as it was painful, and she was reluctant to let that go.
Love was such a strange paradox.
She was slowly making her way down a long corridor on the second story that was lined with windows on one side, looking out over an enormous, beautiful courtyard. She was so distracted by her thoughts and the view of the gardens below that she had no idea into whose presence she had wandered until he spoke. “My lady, I believe you’ll want to change direction before long.”
She turned, startled, and startled even more when she saw who had spoken.
He nodded toward a set of double doors at the end of the corridor. “Those doors. They lead to a brothel.”
She looked at the doors, then back to Prince Cristos. “Yes, I suppose I will want to change direction then, Radiance.” She then stood awkwardly, with no idea of what to say or do. She had not curtseyed, but to do so now would seem moronic. Initiating a conversation with him might be overbold. But how did one just walk away from an Imperial Prince?
Cristos was seated at one of the small tables that lined the corridor wall opposite the windows, and he gestured toward the high, long-legged chair opposite his. “Will you do me the honor of joining me, Lady…?”
“Angelique,” she answered as she moved hesitantly to the seat he offered her. “And respectfully, I believe you have that backward. It is you who honors me, Radiance.”
And my, he was radiant. He regarded her with sharp, bemused eyes the color of the Crystalline on a clear, sunny day, striking against his otherwise darker features. “I think we both know I prefer to place maids beneath me in a different way.”
Angelique colored, her eyes dropping demurely to the tabletop between them. Still, she couldn’t help a small knowing smile as she replied, “And how would I know that?”
“I know my reputation, I cultivated it,” he said dismissively, as he leaned back in his chair, continuing to regard her thoughtfully. He may not place maids beneath him, particularly, but he certainly wasn’t shy in the way he scrutinized one. “May I ask you a question, my lady?”
“Of course, you may ask me anything, Radiance.” Well, that was a rather enthusiastic answer. A simple “yes” likely would have done.
He raised his brows slightly and his expression became teasing. “Really? Anything?”
“You are a prince; I am a handmaid. I have to answer your questions, do I not?”
His pretty eyes narrowed slightly. “Are you being acerbic, or simply honest?”
“Simply honest,” she said, being just that.
“Why do you look at your king the way you do?”
It was the last question she could have possibly expected. She simply stared at him, struck dumb for a moment before remembering who it was at whom she was gawking rather ungracefully.
She dropped her gaze to the table as she considered how to answer. She could deny having any idea what he was talking about, but she sensed he could read people like books as well as most monarchs could. And what actual purpose would lying serve? “You’ve noticed the way I look at him.”
“I notice beautiful women, and you are quite beautiful.” He said it as if it were simply a fact spoken aloud, but Angelique felt herself go pink again. Even the most self-assured woman would blush at a compliment by a man like Cristos d’Torcien.
“I have misplaced feelings for him, that is all.”
He studied her silently a moment. “You say that as if it were nothing,” he finally commented softly, and she was stunned to hear a hint of what came across as an ability to relate to what she felt for Trystane.
She couldn’t imagine there was a single woman in the empire, unmarried maidens to widows and everyone in between—as well as some men—that Cristos could not have if he wanted them, despite his having two wives. Beauty and power like that which he possessed opened all the doors in the world.
“Well,” she began slowly, pausing a moment. “It can’t be anything, so it has to be nothing.”
“Your Radiance,” A man in Daskalaki purples and gold approached, and bowed deeply before inclining his head politely for Angelique. “You are needed in the Hall of Consorts.”
“Why?” Cristos inquired.
“Matters to do with the provinces, I believe, my prince.”
“I suppose it would be useful to know that Torcien isn’t burning down,” Cristos remarked wryly, rising.
Angelique rose as well.
“Alistaire,” Cristos instructed. “Show the lady to my chambers.” His eyes shifted to Angelique. “If she wishes.” With that, he turned and swept away with a particular brand of regalness only an imperial prince could possibly pull off.
Angelique watched Cristos go a moment as Alistaire turned his gaze on her, waiting.
“Yes,” she said, surprising herself, even as the word passed her lips. “Yes, I do wish.”
As they started off down the corridor themselves, Alistaire murmured what she thought was, “I would hardly expect different.”
Before she knew it, she found herself standing in the middle of the most beautiful room she had ever seen, taking it all in. As handmaid to a princess, and now a queen, she had been inside royal apartments before, daily since she was nine. But she had never seen anything like this.
The chamber was an enormous oval-shaped sitting room with a dining area at the end opposite the door, with a soaring white sculptured ceiling, windows that reached from it to the floor on the outside wall and exquisite frescoes adorning the others. Everything in the room seemed to be crafted of marble or porcelain or upholstered in silks and velvets. There was a large, ornate fireplace of silver-streaked white marble that sat cold this midsummer day on the wall to her left. To her right, large double doors stood open, leading to an equally large and richly-appointed bedchamber. It was here she was drawn, though she stopped short of actually entering the second chamber.
Even though she knew that was why she was here.
She stared at the large, beautiful bed, wondering just how many women Cristos had had there, and if one of them might be the empress herself. That idle thought reminded her of just how dangerous simply being here was, and she wondered why she was here. She knew what she was here for—but why? What in the world would possess her…?
But truly, she knew the answer to that as well: she had spent half her life denying her desire for a man far, far out of her reach. And now there was another, who was not, but whom she feared she might hurt if she continued to see him, one whose heart she feared breaking. The man who had summoned her here was neither. Well, he should have been far, far out of her reach, but for some reason, he had placed himself within it. He was offering her his body, but not his heart, and she realized with some surprise—though not much—that that was exactly what she wanted right now.
She whirled, startled. How long had she been standing there staring at his bed, imagining… well, exactly what was about to happen? She stared up into Cristos’ hypnotic sapphire eyes; he was so close, her heart began to skip wildly in her chest.
“I did not know whether to expect you here or not,” he said softly.
She smiled. “I imagine you are not much used to being told no.”
He smiled and the earth stood still. “You are right, I am not. But I really do not hold much power over you.”
She cocked her head to the side curiously. “And what would you do if a girl you do hold power over did say no?”
“If they are reluctant, I send them away,” he said, and she sensed it was the truth. “I am a whore, not a rapist.”
She burst out in giggles at that; what a creative way to put it.
She sobered after a moment. “I am not reluctant.” My goodness, aren’t we growing bold?
He caressed her face softly with one hand a moment before he kissed her, slowly but deeply.
Her breath left her as he parted her lips with his, tasting her. She had been kissed before, but never like this.
That reminded her of the other things she had never done, and her heart threatened to drum its way right out of her chest.
“Are you a maid?’ he asked her straight out, and she nodded. “Then I’ll be slow with you. Gentle. Come,” he took her hand and guided her to the side of his bed. There, he kissed her again while he expertly unfastened the buttons down the back of her dress, slid the sleeves down her arms and let it pool around the hem of her petticoat on the floor.
He began to slowly unlace her corset, and her breath quickened more and more as it loosened bit by bit and finally fell away to expose her breasts. He caressed them with experienced hands, causing her breath to catch as he grazed her nipples. It was as soft as a whisper, but it sent a tremble throughout her body and a longing so urgent, she snaked her arms up around his neck, pressing her body tightly against his, and kissed him pleadingly.
He made her petticoat and smallclothes disappear with the same expert touch with which he worked her tiny buttons and corset laces.
“Lie down,” he murmured at her ear after kissing and lightly nibbling her neck, sending more stunningly arousing sensations throughout her body. Naked, she lay on her back on the mattress, watching him undress, something she never would have thought could be so beautiful. But as he did so, he slowly revealed a body so exquisitely sculpted, she instinctively reached out, wanting—needing, with everything in her—to touch him.
Her gaze came to rest on his cock, and in his intensely turned-on state, it was a bit frightening.
“Do not worry,” he assured as he came to lie next to her, kissing her, letting his touch roam idly over her body. “I’ll see that you are more than ready to take it when it is time.”
“How?” she whispered, letting her own hands wander; his gorgeous physique was even more exciting to touch than to look at.
“I’ll make you come first,” he murmured, caressing her breast and kissing her before his mouth moved to her nipple, pulling it in and caressing it with his tongue.
This felt breathtakingly good all on its own, but when his hand moved down between her thighs and began stroking her there, she nearly cried out in stunned ecstasy. As it was, she let out a helpless moan, something that seemed to please him—she felt him smile against her breast before continuing with his erotic caresses.
What he was doing to her breast amplified what she felt between her legs, and what he did between her legs intensified what she felt at her breast, and she was overwhelmed at how incredible it all felt. So it was especially stunning what it felt like when she suddenly found her climax.
She cried out, arching her back and reflexively moved her hips in rhythm with his stoking touch. He did not stop until the very last wave of orgasm passed.
When he raised his gaze to meet hers his beautiful eyes were dark with lust and she grew slightly nervous again when she felt the hard length of him against her thigh.
“Come here,” he beckoned, shifting onto his back, placing a hand on her hip. “Get on top of me. I promise you, you’re ready, and if you’re in control, it won’t hurt at all.”
She did as he urged, climbing on top and placing her knees on either side of his hips. He took her hand and moved it to grip his cock and guide it inside of her. She drew in a deep breath as she settled on top of him, taking him completely inside. He felt even larger and firmer within her than he looked, but it was utterly intoxicating.
Taking her face in his hands, he half raised himself up, half pulled her in to kiss her before uttering two words that somehow excited her with their forbidden nature: “Fuck me.”
She started out slow, self-conscious about what she was doing to his body with her own. But as she grew accustomed to it, as he began moving his hips in sync with hers and she saw and felt the evidence of his pleasure, she lost herself in it, closed her eyes and let herself feel nothing but her own pleasure.
She opened her eyes when his grip on her hips suddenly tightened and stopped her movements, wondering for the briefest of seconds what was wrong. But it was clear nothing was wrong when saw him. She watched him, marveling at how beautiful he was as he let go inside her.
“Ra– my– what do I call you now?” she inquired awkwardly as the prince rose and moved to a table across the room where he began making some sort of tea.
“Inside these rooms, Cristos will do just fine. Outside these rooms, nothing has changed.” Moving back to the side of the bed, he said, “If we are too familiar and the wrong ears hear… Drink this. It’ll keep your womb from quickening.”
She took the small cup of warm tea, tasted it, and found it was quite good. “May I ask how many you have?”
“Children?” he asked, getting back into bed beside her.
“Two daughters with Medea. A daughter and a son outside the Shield. And I have my suspicions which of Persephoni’s are mine.”
“You aren’t allowed to know?”
“It is pointless to know.” Something subtle in his tone suggested a new topic was in order.
“You imply that you want me in these rooms again.”
“Damn right, I do. You are… well. I’ve never had a woman willing to take control like that our first time together.”
She smiled teasingly even as she blushed. “Do many have anything but a first time with you?”
As soon as the words were out, she thought it might be overstepping a bit, but the question didn’t phase him. “Some. But very few other than my wives.”
“Do you–” No. That was overstepping.
“Angelique, what did you tell me I could ask you earlier?”
He looked at her pointedly.
“Do you… love your wives?”
He thought a moment before answering, “I love them both. Only in different ways. But we don’t– We don’t marry for love.”
Angelique thought the trip in the middle of that sentence was decidedly uncharacteristic of the normally self-sure, say-it-straight-out prince. Again, she sensed a change of subject was in order. “Cristos?” Now that felt odd. Since when did she run around calling royalty by their first names as if she were their wife? Even though she was becoming like a sister to her, as Princess Haylia had, she wouldn’t dare address the queen simply as Clío even in private, yet Trystane and Cristos…
He was watching her, waiting.
“Why were you so… attentive with me? You could have just laid me down, had your way with me and been done with it.”
“I could,” he agreed. “Sometimes I do. But not with virgins, I don’t get off on cruelty. And it’s so much more fun to take our time,” he added with a wicked glint in his eyes.
She finished her tea, set the cup, which was probably worth more than everything she’d ever owned put together, on a table next to the bed, and lay down beside him. They lay on their sides facing each other, and just gazed at each other for long moments.
Just as it was beginning to feel even more intimate than everything else they’d just done, he said, “Alright. Like the arrogant prince that I am, I invaded your privacy earlier. I might as well let you into mine.”
“Invaded my privacy?”
“I asked you, a stranger, if you were in love with your king.”
“You did. Why?”
“That’s what I’m getting to. At several dinners, when you were in attendance to your queen, I saw something in your eyes that I’ve felt many times myself.”
“And what is that?”
“Heartache. Old heartache.”
She looked at him questioningly.
“Persephoni and I were lovers before she married Konstantinos. Long before.”
“Oh,” she breathed in immediate understanding. “You loved her, and had to see her marry another.” She knew acutely well how much that hurt.
“We never stopped seeing each other and eventually we were married, but she… she fell for him. I know our situations aren’t exactly the same, but… when you find yourself occupying a throne, people to whom you can relate are a very rare thing. I find myself drawn to you.”
Angelique considered. “I think they are enough the same. You love her and she loves another. It is the same hurt. At least I can comfort myself by remembering that it was never, ever meant to be. You can have her, just…”
“… not all of her,” he finished quietly.
Something occurred to her. “And all of her children are considered his.”
“Yes,” was all he said, but that single syllable was steeped in so much emotion, she could tell that this was what hurt the most.
“Gods,” she mused. “I don’t have it so bad.”
He gestured at the room as a whole. “I don’t have it so bad either,” he said pointedly, and she knew what he meant: pain is pain. It doesn’t matter the surrounding circumstances, it still hurts.
“How do you… how do you get past it?”
“I do not, really. I cope. But you can marry. Remove yourself from royal service, get out from under Trystane’s roof.”
“It’s not that easy. I adore Clío.”
“Really? Despite the envy you must have for her?”
“Yes. It’s hard not to. She’s just that sort of person: everyone loves her. And besides, he works in the Fortress too.”
“Oh?” Those eyes that could convey so much if you had the clout to really look into them, took on an intrigued glint. “So there’s already a man.”
She blushed. “Yes.”
“And yet you’re here with me.”
“Well, you,” she began with a small smile, scooting closer to him, “are very hard to say no to. I believe you’ll have need to make me more of that tea very soon.”
He fixed her with a teasing look as he slid on top of her. “Did you just order a Faradeshi prince to make you tea?”
She giggled. “Why, I suppose I did.”
“I’ll make you all the tea in the world if you give me reason.”
She responded by pulling her knees up and opening her legs around him. He shifted as she did so to enter her easily and she lost herself in him again.
Elsewhere in the Shield of the Heavens, another handmaid lay entangled with another Imperial Prince. Sotiris d’Campagna, much like his Torcienish counterpart, may have seemed cool and distant outside the bedchamber, but he ran quite hot inside it.
Adora, despite her demure demeanor in all other areas of life, was not half as hesitant in a man’s bed as her new sister-in-waiting. But then, she’d simply done it more often.
Sotiris was a beautiful distraction from what the man before him had done to her—and what the man before that had meant to her. With him, she was very much willing, and very much not in love. This was pure carnal indulgence.
Though she would be lying if she said she had no feelings of affection for the prince. Any man she let into her body willingly would always mean something to her. But falling in love with this man was out of the question. He was not exactly available to fall in love with—and it just wasn’t something he did.
No, what he was doing to her now was pure lust. Not that she was complaining in the slightest.
He took her roughly from behind—though no more so than she liked him to—as his seed filled her. She threw her head back and cried out with the triumphant feeling she experienced every time she made him climax. Doing that to him was an intoxicating addiction.
She collapsed on her belly and he lay on top of her, still tucked snugly inside her as they caught their breath. She loved the way it felt to be neatly ensconced between the soft mattress and the firmness of his strong male body.
He said something that surprised her after they parted, after he handed her a piece of soft wet toweling to clean herself with, dropping it to the floor beside the bed when she was done.
“Stay with me tonight.”
She rolled over with a small stunned smile, propping herself up on an elbow as she looked up at him. “Where will I tell the queen and the other ladies I’ve been when I am not there in the morning?”
“I’ll smuggle you back to your quarters before they wake. They’ll never know.”
“You would escort me there personally?”
“Why not? No one dares question my whereabouts.”
She regarded him through narrow thoughtful eyes, even as her smile widened. “Are you the same prince I’ve been consorting with? You look an awful lot like him, but I’m not sure I know you.”
“Do you plan on continuing to argue with me, woman?” he sighed, but it was clear he was not being serious. Altogether.
“No,” she giggled. “I’ll stay with you.”
He pulled her into his arms as they settled under the coverlets, and she snuggled up to him, closing her eyes. She tried to ignore the way her heart skipped as her hand came to rest over his, in direct defiance of her resolve not to fall too deep.