Chapter 14: New Plans
Even if I was not yet ready to give up, every failure did break me a little more than before, and if it kept going like this I would have no option left but to give up. It will call for a celebration on part of Vincent though.
Now that my last beacon of hope had burned out with Harold’s letter, my mind was clouding with the fog of anger and despair. I needed to clear my mind, needed desperately something to hang on to, or, I would go out of my mind thinking about my uselessness. I had to do something, I could not stay still. Restlessness coursed through my veins.
Once again slipping into Alden’s clothes, this time wrinkled cotton pants, an equally wrinkled shirt accompanied by cheap worn out boots, robe and turban, I found my way out of the house as the night began to descend. I needed fresh air to clear my mind. I planned on walking to the docks at the opposite end of the market than my house, and sit near the sea. It may sound weird, but seas and oceans or any water bodies in general calmed me. It was perhaps the freedom and the strength of water that washed over me and caused my worries seep away.
The night air was cold, and slightly stung my hands as I stepped out of Castle Black’s boundary into the open. I twisted one end of the turban cloth around my face such that only my eyes showed, and blew out air on my hands as I rubbed them to generate some heat while I walked on to the road that would take me to the heart of the market area. Closer to home the road was completely deserted, but nearer to the market place it was still crowded despite being night time.
In the guidance of the light from moon I placed one step after another and another and another until I could hear the rushing sea in the distance amongst the sounds of the human world.
The area nearer the docks was humming with activity. People moved around in groups; mostly men returning from work to have a night of fun, and rarely people like me just passing through. Bits of music wafted out of the bars and brothels as the doors opened frequently to let in and out customers. Laughter and flirty words from men and whores; trying to lure the men into their beds and empty their pockets, floated on the air. The scent of rain, dust, sweat and food met my nostrils, but faintly, as the stench of freely flowing liquor from the abundantly found brothels in the area over powered rest of the smells. Not wanting to stay in the area any longer than necessary, on account of the area being not the safest in the empire, and by the looks of it the creep to respectable men ratio had gone down to hundred to one, or could even be down to a hundred to zero keeping up with my luck currently, I quickened my pace of walking.
The moment I escaped the enclosure of the city and stepped on the lands of the dock, the sea breeze calmed a bit my raging nerves. As compared to day time or even night time in other areas of Beygul the commotion here was less, but still far from nonexistent. I could trace out the silhouettes of at least fifty plus ships against the moonlit horizon; most were devoid of activity for the night, but some still were full of commotion. Sounds of feet shuffling, heavy objects being moved, and bargaining punctuated with the orders of ship captains and much frequent cursing by laborers, greeted me.
Careful to not fend any attention towards myself, I walked away from the men hurrying around to load and unload ships and finish their work for the day. I slipped behind a boulder devoid of activity around and laid down on the cool sand. The boulder formed a canopy of sorts, and protected me from the eyes of any rare passerby. Closing my eyes, I took deep calming breaths and allowed the tranquility from nature to wash over me.
It had not been that long since I had delving into the seas of peace when I heard two voices quite near to my hiding spot. I could not help but eavesdrop on to their conversation.
“God damn! Leonardo, you have been hiding here all day. I had to look through the entire city to find you, friend,” said a deep, gruff and quite masculine voice.
“Hello Adrian! I just wanted to finish writing the manuscript, so I slipped out of the castle,” replied a softer yet still masculine voice.
“How is the writing going on?”
“I am done with the noting down of history of the Estercrest Empire up till now.”
“King Cedric will be very happy to know that, and reward you a lot.”
“Let’s just pray I get to keep my head for years that will be enough of a reward. Anyhow, how is it going at the palace?”
“The prince is mad that he will be forced to have a mistress.”
“Like always. What’s new?”
“Next week a delegation from the kingdom of Conza comes to Beygul, to renew the contracts of its allegiance to Estercrest Empire and seek our protection. The king has sent out word that the prince will have his mistress by his side at the masquerade held in the welcome of the Conzan delegates.”
“Oh that sounds bad. Prince Vincent would be furious at this. He hates keeping a harem like the king.”
“Either Prince Vincent impregnates any mistress of his choice, or he would be forced to marry the princess of Zensky empire; King Cedric’s express orders.”
“He’s adamant to have a grandchild by the looks of it.”
“Poor prince. Tomorrow we will be going to market and purchase slave women, maybe the prince will like one of the new women to be his mistress.”
At that point I tuned out the ongoing conversation between the two strangers, who seemed people of influence and recognition at court. Wheels of my mind were spinning with great ferocity to whip up a brand new plan.
A few moments later I pushed myself up from the sand, and dusted my hands and clothes to lose as much of sand that clung to my body as I could. With a new found determination alight in my heart, I strode purposefully back to Castle Black.
Getting to father’s library, I pulled out a paper and set to work on my newly composed plan, immediately. I wrote a letter addressed to Genevieve, requesting her to write back on my behalf if any letter comes from my siblings or father, and not even hint anyone that I no longer am staying at Carter Manor. I told her to not be an embodiment of worry at getting no replies to the million letters she will write me after receiving my letter. With the instruction of burning the letter after reading it, I closed the envelope and dispatched a rider the very moment for it to be delivered to Genevieve’s hands only.
Next I summoned Francis to my chambers and explained him what I planned on doing, since his help was mandatory. After what seemed like ages of argument, I finally convinced Francis that the risks were worth taking, and he reluctantly agreed to provide me with his aid, because, he knew I would do what I intended to do with or without his help.
With the plan set, I headed to bed with the intention of getting some rest before I do anything crucial tomorrow on account of my journey to vengeance. For long I tossed and turned but the sleep did not come to me. My mind was clogged with millions of thoughts that were hell bent on keeping me awake. It was somewhere around dawn when exhaustion took over me and I fell asleep.
Around noon, I heard a distant knock accompanied by someone speaking. The voice sounded familiar, I thought still under the sleep haze. Oh it was Francis, I remembered.
“Lady Eleanor, I got news from the castle. Lord Adrian is leaving for the market in a while, we need to hurry.”
What was he saying? Adrian who? Market what? Is he cra... My mind clicked, and the happenings of previous day came rushing to me. The sleep was already a very distant idea as I stirred to action. Quickly throwing away the covers, I cleaned myself up a bit and pulled on a tattered dress, left on my door by Francis, befitting a slave girl. I did not bother to brush my charcoal black, waist length hair, leaving it in a mess. It would add more authenticity to the part I’ll be playing for a while from now onward. Saving me from the eyes of few maids and servants present in the currently almost abandoned castle Black, Francis took me to the stables where a horse stood all saddled up and waiting for us. Grabbing the reins, Francis flung his muscular body on to the horse back, before offering me a hand and pulling me up along himself; my back resting against his front. Under Francis’s excellent horsemanship, the horse broke into a run and we were able to see the beginnings of the market rush in no time. Stopping at some distance from the populated area, I hopped off the horse and Francis placed me into the hold of shackles. Holding the chain attached to the collar, secured around my neck, in his hand, Francis tugged on it in order to give the impression of forcing me to walk along as he rode the horse at a gentle pace. We made it to the area specified for slave trade in the market, walking like that; me on foot shackled and shoe-less, Francis on the back of his horse pulling on to my chain as on dog’s leash. By the view of Francis’s clenched jaw it was evident he was not happy with our travelling arrangement, but he still went along it as per the command I had issued him last night.
As we went deeper into the market the crowd got denser, so Francis dismounted the horse, took its reins in one hand and the chain attached to the collar around my neck in his other hand.
Females of varying age groups were being pushed and dragged around mercilessly by men. A wailing little girl who could not be any more than five years old bumped into me as her master back handed her. My heart constricted at the sight of the tear stained, dirt smudged and fear radiating face of the child. I was moving forward to hold her and induce a fight likely to get her freedom, but Francis dragged me away with a warning look. I was pushed roughly by Francis towards a considerably large group of women around the same age as I, losing my balance I fell on my face. Grabbing my hair Francis pulled me up to my feet just in time to see a fairly aged man strolling towards us. The thick, beautifully designed, somewhat tight robe clinging to his huge belly screamed money. Removing his turban to reveal an almost bald grey hair covered head, he scratched his few hair as his beady, black eyes ran over me from head to toe, with a carnivorous glint to them, sending a disgusted shiver down my spine. Placing the turban back on his head, he ran his hand up my bare arm. Repulsed by his touch, I took a quick step back and glared at him.
“Hands off my property, old man,” Francis growled, with a threatening glint in his eyes.
“I’ll buy this one. How much is she?” He almost barked.
“Out of your reach.”
This time he really did bark.
“You bastard, how dare you insult me.”
With that he flung an entirely too clumsy and inexperienced punch at Francis, which Francis deflected far too easily. Grabbing his still clenched fist, Francis gave it a well-practiced twist, and an audible cracking of bones filled the air. With a lot of cursing, groaning and screaming while the old man fell back, staring daggers at Francis.
Just as Francis was about to grab my chains and move me to another position, someone clapped, and unmistakably the same voice as last night boomed.
“I must admit that was very entertaining.”
Now that it was day time and I was not in hiding, I could see clearly the source of the voice standing right in front of me, a big smile plastered on his face. He was tall, and the fitting of his utterly pricey gold thread embroidered blue robe falling from his shoulders till his feet hinted on a muscular broad frame. The blue of his robe excellently complimented his almost pale complexion. His brown eyes and kind smile, danced with mischief as, he brushed off a stray curl from his eyes with his index finger, while talking to Francis. I wasn’t aware of what he and Francis were conversing about, as I was busy giving him a once over. My eyes were stuck on the mass of black curls that hung from his scalp. For some reason I found his hair amusing and could not help bursting out into laughter.
“Sheep-head,” I said, pointing towards his hair. His eyes narrowed in on me before he broke into a fit of laughter too.
“I am buying her. The prince will definitely like her.”
I heard him saying to Francis.
Within few following moments a deal was struck between my captor and buyer, Francis was paid, rather generously and, I was hauled along thirteen other slave women towards the king’s palace by uniformed soldiers. Trek to the castle was highly uneventful but tiring. The blazing sun rays beating against our backs stripped me and my companions of water and left us dehydrated. Stopping at castle gates I sighed with relief for my feet ached due to walking without shoes on blazing earth failing to be a common practice for myself.
We were ushered inside the castle some moments after sheep head had rode inside. On the other side of the gates a not manly at all man stood in our wait. Hands on hips, he stood scowling, as under the order of soldiers around us we walked up to him in a queue. He walked in a circle around the line of slave women, flapping his hands like a caged bird. He was a comical sight to witness, but viewing the way soldiers followed his commands I could see he was someone of influence at the castle. He was dressed in fine clothing, but his clothing was nowhere near to as fine as the ones sheep head was wrapped in. Scrunching his nose, he clapped his hands and ordered one of the maids along him to take all the new comer girls in for a bath and clean clothes. With that he made exaggerated shooing motions with his hands and arms till every last one of us disappeared from his sight.
The redheaded maid, who had introduced herself as Mary, led us to vast communal baths, after walking through unending, extremely beautiful garden and excessively confusing passageways of the main building of the castle. The bath was warm and very welcomed. It felt great to let the water slide on my skin and soak away all of the lingering tension. Sadly the bath was short and quick. I was handed a plain white, cheap, cotton dress accompanied by a faded brown vest and belt, as every other girl that was around. Quickly putting on the clothing, I joined the girls who were already done with cleaning up. We did not have to wait much longer for everyone to finish, after which we were taken to a large hall with food covered tables. The menu was not very classy, but the food was nicely cooked and plentiful. We were given an hour to feed ourselves, after which we were presented in front of the comical man; who we previously encountered at the castle gates, once again.
“Girls, I’m Frankie, and I am lord icharge of all maids and servants working here at the castle. You all are going to be under my command as well. You are all going to be given different tasks ranging from sweeping floors to doing dishes, and you will get monthly allowance which you can call your pay and spend on your personal whims.”
He looked at all of us to see whether we understood what he said or not. Seeing us nod he continued.
“The important thing to remember is you all are king’s property, and your goal is to please him. Now some lucky ones of you will end up in his bed and be playing in money and gifts from the king, and if you bear him a child you are going to be of great status, but only very few of you would get to the point of ending in king’s bed. Who is sent to the king to please him, I choose, so it will be wise for you to not displease me. ”
“What about the prince, Lord Frankie?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“What is your name, girl?”
“Well, Eleanor the women going in the service of the prince would be even luckier, because our very handsome prince allows women in his bed rarely, and on top of it he has a reputation of being a very good lover.”
Frankie winked; giggles erupted from most women in the room, while some blushed too.
With that lord Frankie proceeded on to individually examining every girl brought in the very morning, and declared we all needed serious amount of grooming to be let anywhere near the royal family. I could not help but roll my eyes at that, though I refrained myself from making any sarcastic comment.
After lord Frankie was done with us, we were given a tour of castle, and briefed about the rules we needed to follow. The castle was massive in the least. Castle Black was not small by any means, but this castle was ten or perhaps fifteen times larger to say the very least. Every part of the castle was tastefully decorated with paintings and flowers and other artifacts, in places artists were still working as we passed by. We were shown most of the castle except for the chambers of the royal family, which was constituent upon King Cedric his son; Prince Vincent, and his granddaughter; Princess Emily. We were informed that the chambers of royal family were off limits to all, except for the staff charged with cleaning the chambers and serving the royal, and of course the whores of the king and the prince or whatever they were termed, I do not know and nor do I have any wish to know. I was here to find whatever that the prince had found in course of the investigation of Andre’s assassination, and leave after. I wanted no more, no less. I will be investing all my energy in to being one of the cleaning ladies for his chambers, and sift through his documents there at any present chance.
The castle tour ended with us in the dining area again for dinner of rice and some sauce that reeked but tasted somewhat good. With our bellies full, Mary took us to the bed halls. It was a vast rectangular hall with a dome shaped roof covered in delicate artwork constituent upon tiny pieces of painted glass. Against the two longer walls of the hall countless small wooden beds were lined parallel to each other, with vacant space for walking in between the two lines of beds. I was allotted the bed two beds away from the door, which I gladly sunk in. It was a long day and I was exhausted to be honest. It did not take long for the strings of sleep to tug on me. I feel into a nightmare free oblivion, a first in a long while.
The next morning we woke up to the scrawny voice of an elderly maid, yelling for us to get our lazy behinds out of the beds. Grudgingly, I rubbed my eyes, dragged myself out of bed, and got cleaned up to extent that one would not get an instantaneous scare for life at the sight of me. Breakfast was preceded by dancing and music lessons. We were taught to play violin and showed basics of dancing for the sole purpose of entertaining the men especially the king. Lord Frankie gave us a really good preview to dancing, such that we were left clutching our bellies and tears in eyes from too much laughing.
Life at castle was not bad, but was a rush. A week flew past at such pace that I was stunned. There was a ball being held at the castle the following day, in honor of some foreign guests, which meant even more work for the maids and no time for me to work on what I really came for. For a week I fell into a routine of switching between lessons, sweeping, scrubbing floors and decorating the unending piece of art, known as the royal castle.
The night before the impending ball, I found a break in the tedious routine, when Lord Frankie summoned me at the hands of Mary, who I believe was right hand to him. I would be lying if I said I was not scared at being summoned by him. My mind began to fill with negativity, as always. Maybe my secret was out. Maybe lord Frankie had discovered who I was, and now I would be charged with treason. Silently reprimanding myself, I pushed my frame away from the floor I currently was scrubbing and wiped my hands on my dress, before walking after Mary, who led me to the chambers of Lord Frankie.
Lord Frankie rested in a chair, eyes trained on me as I entered the room. Under his stare I did not get a chance to take in my surroundings, and kept my eyes on the ground as I gave a low bow in front of him.
“You are one very lucky girl, Eleanor.”
A very sarcasm filled retort was about to leave my mouth, but I pulled back my tongue not wanting to get anymore unlucky than I was since a while, and let him keep talking.
“Lord Vergara has sent this for you.”
He spoke as he pointed in the direction of a table resting in front of him. My eyes followed his movements, and found a big, blue box lying on the table.
“What is that?”
My curiosity had peaked.
“A dress for you, with jewelry and a mask.”
In reply to my confused expression he sighed and went on.
“Lord Vergara, sent it specifically for you, for the occasion of tomorrow night. I am guessing he wishes to take you along.”
My jaw was left hanging with the shock. So many questions sprung in my mind. Getting over my surprise, I spoke.
“Who is lord Vergara?”
“Oh god! Girl, how can you be so ignorant? Lord Adrian Vergara is the prime minister of the realm.”
Oh right, I remember studying about him in the book I took from my father’s library.
“Why does he want me? I don’t know him. I never met him.”
“Sweetheart, you did meet him. He was the one who bought you and brought you here. If not for him, you would still have been rotting as some old hag’s slave.”
That sheep head was lord Vergara then. Now that I think, I heard him being called Adrian the night I heard his conversation on the dock site. Thinking of him wanting me as his whore made me scrunch up my nose in disgust.
Lord Frankie informed me about the next day’s schedule, and dismissed me. I went about with my routine; finished cleaning around and attended meal time before finally going to bed. I lay wide awake for long while thinking about what was to come next. What was in store for me tomorrow, I did not know, but what I did know was that that if sheep head; also known as lord Vergara, tries to lay his filthy hands on me, I would be rotting in dungeons waiting for being sentenced to death for committing murder. Somewhere between my fifth plot for killing sheep head, I drifted off.
Next day was a rush, more so than usual. Everything and everyone was in a whirlwind, on the whims of our perfectionist prince. He required everything to be exactly according to his wants, all through the ball. Everyone was saying a good impression was very necessary to intimidate the other empires.
By the evening lord Frankie sent me to get dressed to impress sheep head. I took a long warm bath before other maids helped me put on the dress and jewelry.
It was a long black dress that hugged my form in all the right places, accentuating my curves very well. On the black base was golden embroidery from shoulder down to feet. I had to admit sheep head had good taste when it came to dresses. The maids put my hair into a high bun letting some strands loose framing my face. I liked what I saw in the mirror.
Just as the maids were adding finishing touches to my hair do, arrival of lord Vegara was announced. He came fleeting in gracefully, clad in black pants and boots, topped with a dark blue coat with gold patterns on. He looked nice. My thoughts were confirmed by the looks other maids gave him.
“You clean up well, Eleanor.”
He did not eye me like a greedy wolf, which I took as a good sign. I smiled in return to his smile, before placing my hand in his outstretched one waiting for mine. He placed my hand into the crook of his arm, and walked me out of the room. I managed to grab my mask before walking away with him. We fell into a comfortable silence as we walked through the twists and turns of the castle passageways, he expertly navigated us through. He broke the silence as we stepped towards the restricted to most servants portion of the castle.
“Well, I am guessing that you are trying to think why I brought you along, why you specifically, or what I want from you, right?”
I nodded a little too vigorously.
He smiled at my reaction.
“So Ms. Eleanor, the thing is all the bad things about the king you have been hearing lately are all true. He is cruel, merciless, stricken by the god complex, a sadist and a lot of other stuff; none good. He finds solace in inflicting unhappiness in other people’s lives. You must be thinking why I’m telling you all this?”
I nodded again in affirmation.
“The thing is he is our king, world’s most powerful king, we need to abide by his wishes or there are dire consequences. Our king wants the prince to have mistresses and bastards but the prince does not wants that. What is important here is if the prince as his usual disobeys the king, then this time his niece will pay the price as the king has warned, so the prince needs a mistress by his side in tonight’s event as per king’s order he sent lastly in his letter from the borders. From the time I saw you at market I think you are different and the prince will like you surely. I would prefer if the prince is at least a bit happy to be around his mistress, just enough to not show his foul mood. So I want you to try your charms on the prince. Please just do not pull up that trick of throwing your cleavage in his face; it will not work as desired.”
I laughed out loud.
“Why, is the prince not a man?”
It was his turn to laugh.
“By the reference to rumors I have heard, I would say he very much is, maybe just not the kind impressed by ample cleavage.”
He said as winked at me humorously.
I laughed and wiggled my eyebrows at him.
“Maybe, but I’m not your boobs man.”
We both laughed, and he offered me his arm which I put my both hands around.
Lord Adrian Vergara was not a bad man at all. Strangely I felt at ease with him. I just hoped this prince of ours is not so bad either.
By the time sheep head, with me on his arm, made it to the garden, the masquerade was in full swing. A catchy beat from drums was floating on the air, accompanied by beautiful melody from a violin. All eyes were transfixed on the spectacle taking place in the fountain in the center of the garden.
A tall and sleek gentleman, dressed in black from tip to toe, stood in the middle of the fountain dancing and playing a violin. My eyes fixed on the man just as everyone else’s. He wore black pants and shirt with a black embroidered and beautifully styled coat flapping against his knees as he jumped, his leather boots splashed the water while he danced around. I could not see his face for he was wearing a black mask covering his eyes and almost all of his right cheek. The shadows did not help much either, since the garden was not lighted too much, which I would say is intentional, seeing the guy with violin playing with and in the shadows so hypnotically. Transfixed by his movements, his posture, his aura that exuded power and charm, I almost did not see the men and women dressed as mermen and mermaids dancing behind him. It was all so beautiful and hypnotic; I had never seen something of that sort before.
It was too soon that the piece of music ended, everyone erupted in thunderous applause. The man in black jumped out of the fountain and stopped to talk to sheep head. I was staring at him, when he looked at me suddenly and our eyes locked. Not moving his eyes from mine he nodded to sheep head and started walking towards me. His gaze was so intense it set fire to every inch of my existence. Who was he?
The spell of his gaze broke as sheep head, who now stood in front of me, called my name. When he had my attention, he introduced the masked man in black as the prince. I was shocked to say the least.
With the introduction, sheep head left. I stood gaping at the prince. He stared back at me, raising his hand in front of me asking for my mask in a very sultry, deep, alluring and silky voice that sounded very familiar. Without a word I handed him the mask which he put on me and fastened the string behind my head. With my mask in place he grabbed my hand in his, taking me in the middle of the candle lit garden to dance with him.