King #3 Working title: Gift for a King
When King Augustus of Arun is gifted a courtesan from the High Reaches he tries to give her back. But ancient law prevents her release—until he finds a wife.
Author note: Are we going to punish Augustus for letting Theo listen in on his conversation with Moriana? Yes, yes we are…
They weren’t supposed to be in this part of the palace. Fourteen-year-old Augustus, Crown Prince of Arun, had been looking for the round room with the domed glass roof for at least six years. He could see that roof from the helicopter every time they flew in or out, but he’d never been able to find the room and no adult had ever been willing to help him out.
His father said that those quarters had been mothballed over a hundred years ago.
His mother said it was out of bounds because the roof was unsafe.
Didn’t stop him and his sister looking for it, even if they never had much luck. It was like a treasure hunt.
They wouldn’t have found it this time either, without the help of a map.
The floor was made of pale, moon-coloured marble, and so too were the columns and archways surrounding the central room. The remaining furniture had been covered with dusty drapes that had probably once been white. Above all, it felt warm in here in a way that the main living areas were never warm.
“Why do we not live in this part of the palace?” asked his sister from somewhere not far behind him. She’d taken to opening every door of every room that circled the main area. “These look like bedrooms. I could live here.”
“You want fifty bedrooms all to yourself?”
“I want to curl up like a cat in the sunlight. Show me one other place in the palace where you can do that.”
“Mother would kill you if you took to lounging about in the sun. You’d lose your milky white complexion.”
“Augustus, I don’t have a milky white complexion—no matter what our mother might want. I have black hair, black eyes and olive skin—just like you and father do. My skin likes the sun. It needs the sun, it craves the sun. Oh, wow.” She’d disappeared through another marble archway, and her voice echoed faintly. “Indoor pool.”
“What?” He backtracked, and headed for the archway, bumping into his sister, who was backing up fast.
“Something rustled in the corner,” she muttered by way of explanation.
“Still want to live here?” He couldn’t decide whether the hole in the ground was big enough to be called a pool or small enough to be called a bath. All he knew was that he’d never seen mosaic floor tiles with such elaborate patterns before, and he’d never seen exactly that shade of blue.
“I still want to look around,” his sister offered. “But you can go first.”
He rolled his eyes, even as pride demanded he take the lead. He was fourteen years old and born to rule a country one day. A rustling sound would not defeat him. He swaggered past his sister and turned to the right. There was a sink for washing hands carved into the wall beside the archway, and taps that gleamed with a dull silver glow. He reached for one and, with effort, got it to turn but there was no water. Not a gurgle, a splutter or even the clank of old pipes.
“What is this place? What are all these stone benches and alcoves for?” his sister asked as she followed him into the room. She kept a wary eye on the shadowy corners but eventually turned her attention to other parts of the room.
It was an old map of the palace that had guided them here. That and a history teacher who preferred giving his two royal students books to read so that he could then nap his way through afternoon lessons. Their loss. And sometimes their freedom. If they got caught in here, he could probably even spin it that they were continuing their history lesson hands-on.
“Maybe it was built for a company of warrior knights who slept in the rooms and came here to bathe. They could have practiced sword fighting in the round room,” his sister suggested.
“Maybe” Kings had ruled from this palace stronghold for centuries. It was why the place looked so formidable from the outside and wasn’t much for creature comforts on the inside, no matter how many generations of royals had tried to make it more liveable. There was something about it that resisted softening. Except for here. There was something soft and strangely beautiful about this place. Augustus plucked at a scrap of golden silk hanging from a peg on a wall and watched it fall in rotting pieces to the floor. “Did knights wear embroidered silk bathrobes?”
His sister glanced over and gasped. “Did you just destroy that?”
“No, I moved it. Time destroyed it.” Rational argument was his friend.
“Can I have some?”
Without waiting for permission, she scooped the rotting cloth from the floor, bunched it in her hand and began to rub at a nearby tile.
“It’s going to take a little more than that to get this place clean.”
“I just want to see the pictures,” his sister grumbled, and then, “Oh.” She stopped cleaning.
He looked, and … oh. “Congratulations. You found the ancient tile porn.”
“It’s art, you moron.”
“I wish we could see better in here,” his sister said.
“For that we would need electricity. Or burning torches for all the holders in the walls.” He closed his eyes and a picture came to mind, clear as day. Not knights and warriors living in this part of the palace and bathing in this room, but women, bound in service to the reigning king.
Augustus had never read about any of his ancestors having a harem, but then, as their eighty-year-old history teacher was fond of telling them, not all facts made it into history books. “So, bedrooms, communal bathing room, big gathering room … what else?”
There were more rooms leading from the center dome. An ancient kitchen, storage rooms with bare shelves, larger rooms with fireplaces, smaller rooms with candle stubs still sitting in carved-out hollows in the walls. They found chests of drawers and sideboards beneath heavy canvas cloth, long mirrors that his sister swore made her look thinner, and even an old hair brush.
“I don’t think people even know this stuff is here,” Moriana said, as she put the brush gently back in place. “I don’t know why they’re ignoring it. Some of it’s really old. Museum old. The back of this brush looks like ivory, inlaid with silver, and it’s just been abandoned. Maybe we should bring the history prof down here. He’d have a ball.”
“No.” His voice came out sharper than he meant it to. “This is a private place. He doesn’t get to come here.”
Moriana glanced at him warily but made no comment as they left the side room they’d been exploring.
All doorways and arches led back to the main room. It was like a mini town square—or town circle. He looked up at the almost magical glass ceiling. “Maybe our forefathers studied the stars from here. Mapped them.” Maybe he could come back one night and do the same. And if he took another look at those naked-people tiles in the room with the empty pool, so be it. Even future kings had to get their information from somewhere. “Maybe they hung a big telescope from the ropes up there and moved it around. Maybe if they climbed the stairs over there …” He gestured towards the stairs that ran halfway up the wall and ended in a stone landing with not a railing in sight. “Maybe they had pulleys and ropes that shifted stuff. Maybe this was a place for astronomers.”
“Augustus, that’s a circus trapeze.”
“You think they kept a circus in here?”
“I think this is a harem.”
So much for his innocent little sister not guessing what this place had once been. “I’m going up the stairs. Coming?”
Moriana followed him. She didn’t always agree with him but she could always be counted on to be there for him at the pointy end of things. It didn’t help that their mother praised Augustus for his sharp mind and impeccable self-control, and never failed to criticize Moriana’s emotional excesses. As far as Augustus could tell, he was just as fiery as his sister, maybe more so. He was just better at turning hot temper into icy, impenetrable regard.
A King must always put the needs of his people before his own desires.
His father’s words. Words to live by. Words to rule by.
A King must never lose control.
Words to be ruled by, whether he wanted to be ruled by them or not.
They made it to the ledge and he made his sister sit rather than stand. He sat too, his back to the wall as he looked up to the roof and then down at the intricately patterned marble floor.
“I feel like a bird in a cage,” said Moriana. “Wonder what the women who once lived here felt like?”
He wasn’t a woman but he knew what being trapped by duty felt like. “Sounds about right.”
“We could practice our archery from up here.” Moriana made fists out in front of her and drew back one arm as if pulling back an imaginary arrow. “… Set up targets down below. Pfft. Practice our aim.”
“Bloodthirsty.” He liked it. Unspilt anger had to go somewhere. He could use this place at other times too. Get away from the eyes that watched and judged his every move. “Swear to me you won’t tell anyone that we’ve been here.”
“I swear.” Her eyes gleamed.
“And that you won’t come here by yourself.”
“Why not? You’re going to.”
Sometimes his sister was a mind reader. “What are you going to do here all by yourself?” she wanted to know.
Roar. Weep. Let everything out that he felt compelled to keep in. “Don’t you ever want to be some place where no one’s watching and judging your every move? Sit in the sun if you want to sit in the sun. Lose your temper and finally say all those things you want to say, even if no one’s listening. Especially because no one’s listening.” Strip back the layers of caution and restraint he clothed himself in and see what was underneath. Even if it was all selfish and ugly and wrong. “I need somewhere to go where I’m free to be myself. This could be that place for me.”
His sister brought her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. The gaze she turned on him was troubled. “We shouldn’t have to hide our real selves from everyone. I know we’re figureheads but surely we can let some people see what’s underneath.”
“Yeah, well.” He thought back to the hour-long lecture on selfishness he’d received for daring to tell his father that he didn’t want to attend yet another state funeral for a king he’d never met. “You’re not me.”
She wasn’t supposed to leave the house when her mother’s guest was visiting. Stay in the back room, keep quiet, don’t ever be seen. Those were the rules and seven-year-old Sera knew better than to break them. Three times a week, maybe four, the visitor would come to her mother’s front door and afterwards there might be food for the table and wine for her mother, although these days there was more wine and less food. Her mother was sick and the wine was like medicine, and her sweet, soft-spoken mother smelled sour now and the visitor never stayed long.
Sera’s stomach grumbled as she went to the door between the living room and the rest of the once-grand house and put her ear to it. If she got to the bakery before closing time there might be a loaf of bread left and the baker would give it to her for half price, and a sweet bun to go with it. The bread wasn’t always fresh but the sweet treat was always free and once there’d even been eggs. The baker always said, ‘and wish your mother a good day from me’. Her mother always smiled and said the baker was a Good Man.
Her mother had gone to school with him and they’d played together as children, long before her mother had gone away to learn and train and become something more.
Sera didn’t know what her mother meant by more; all she knew was that there weren’t many things left in their house to sell and her mother was sick all the time now and didn’t laugh anymore unless there was wine and then she would laugh at nothing at all. Whatever her mother had once been: a dancer a lady, someone who could make Sera’s nightmares go away at the touch of her hand … she wasn’t that same person anymore.
Every kid in the neighbourhood knew what she was now, including Sera.
Her mother was a whore.
There was no noise coming from the other room. No talking, no laughter, no … other. Surely the visitor would be gone by now? The light was fading outside. The baker would close his shop soon and there would be no chance of bread at all.
She heard a thud, as if someone had bumped into furniture, followed by the tinkle of breaking glass. Her mother had dropped wine glasses before and it was Sera’s job to pick up the pieces and try to make her mother sit down instead of dancing around and leaving sticky blood footprints on the old wooden floor, and all the time telling Sera she was such a good, good girl.
Some of those footprints were still there. Stuck in the wood and no rugs to cover them.
The rugs had all been sold.
No sound at all as Sera inched the door open and put her eye to the crack, and her mother was kneeling and picking up glass, and most importantly she was alone. Sera pushed the door open and was half-way across the room before she saw the other person standing in front of the stone cold fireplace. She stopped, frozen. Not the man but still a visitor; a woman dressed in fine clothes and it was hard to look away from her. She reminded Sera of what her mother had once been; all smooth and beautiful lines, with clear eyes and a smile that made her feel warm.
Sera looked towards her mother for direction now that the rule had been broken, not daring to speak, still not daring to move, even though there was still glass on the floor that her mother had missed.
“We don’t need you,” her mother said, standing up and then looking away. “Go home.”
“My neighbour’s girl,” her mother told the visitor. “She cleans here.”
“Then you’d best let her do it.”
“I can do it.” Her mother stared coldly at the other woman before turning back to Sera. “Go. Come back tomorrow.”
“Wait,” said the visitor, and Sera stood, torn, while the visitor came closer and put a gentle hand to Sera’s face and turned it towards the light. “She’s yours.”
“Don’t lie. She’s yours.”
Her mother said nothing.
“You broke the rules,” the older woman said.
Sera whispered “I’m sorry” at the same time her mother said “I had no choice”.
And then her mother laughed harshly and it turned into a sob, and the older woman straightened and turned toward the sound.
“You didn’t have to leave,” the older woman said gently. “There are ways—
“You’re one of us. We would have taken care of you.”
Her mother shook her head. No and no. “Ended us both.”
“Hidden you both,” said the older woman. “Do you really think you’re the first courtesan to ever beget a child?”
Sera bent to the task of picking glass shards from the floor, trying to make herself as small as she could, trying to make them forget she was there so she could hear them talk more, never mind that she didn’t understand what half the words meant.
“How did you find us?” her mother asked.
“Serendipity.” Another word Sera didn’t know. “I was passing through the town and stopped at the bakery for a sourdough loaf,” the older woman said with a faint smile. “Mainly because in all the world there’s none as good the ones they make there. The baker’s boy remembered me. He’s the baker now, as I expect you know, and he mentioned you. We talked. I mean you no harm. I want to help.”
“You can’t. I’m beyond help now.”
“Then let me help your daughter.”
“How? By training her to serve and love others and never ask for anything in return? I will never choose that life for my daughter.”
“You liked it well enough once.”
“I was a fool.”
“And are you still a fool? What do you think will happen to the child once you poison your body with drink and starve yourself to death? Who will care for her, put a roof over her head and food in her mouth, educate her and give her a sense of self worth?”
Mama looked close to crying. “Not you.”
“I don’t see many choices left to you.” The woman glanced around the room. “Unless I’m mistaken, you’ve already sold everything of value. Any jewelry left?”
“No.” Sera could hardly hear her mother’s answer.
“Does the house belong to you?”
“How long have you been ill?”
“A year. Maybe more. I’m not—It’s not—catching. It’s cancer.”
The older woman bowed her head. “And how much longer do you think you can last selling your favour to the lowest bidder? How long before he looks towards the girl and wants her instead of you? Yuna, please. I can give you a home again. Treatment if there’s treatment to be had. Comfort and clothing befitting your status and hers. Complete discretion when it comes to whose child she is—don’t think I don’t know.”
“He won’t want her.”
“You’re right, he won’t. But I do. The Order of the Kite will always look after its own. From the fiercest hawk to the fallen sparrow. How can you not know this?”
A tear slipped beneath her mother’s closed lashes. “I thought I’d be better off away from it all. For a while it was good. It can be good again.”
“Do you really believe that?” The older woman crossed to her mother and took hold of her hands. “Let me help you.”
“Promise me she won’t be trained as a courtesan,” her mother begged. “Lianthe, please.”
“I promise to give her the same choice I gave you.”
“You’ll dazzle her.”
“You’ll counter that.” The older woman drew Sera’s mother towards the couch, not letting go of her hands, even after they were both seated. Sera edged closer, scared of letting the hem of the woman’s gown get in the puddle of the wine on the floor, and loving the sweet, clean smell that surrounded her. The woman smiled. “Leave it, child. Come, let me look at you.”
Sera withstood the other woman’s gaze for as long as she could. Stand tall, chin up, don’t fidget. Her mother’s words ringing in her mind. No need to look like a street urchin.
Fidget, fidget, beneath the woman’s quiet gaze.
“My name’s Linathe,” the woman said finally. “And I want you and your mother to come to my home in the mountains so that I can take care of you both until your mother is well again. Would you like that?”
“Would there be visitors for mama?”
“What kind of visitors?”
Her mother and the Lady shared a long glance.
“He would not visit. I would be taking you too far away for that.”
“Would there be wine for her?” Because wine was important. “Wine’s like medicine.”
“Then there will be wine until we find better medicine. Tell me, child, are you hungry?”
So, so hungry but she’d learned long ago that sometimes it was better to say nothing than to give the wrong answer. Her stomach grumbled the answer for her anyway.
“When did you last eat?” the lady asked next.
Same question. Trick question. “Would you like some tea?” Sera asked anxiously. There was tea in the cupboard and mama always offered visitors a drink. Tea was a warm drink. She knew how to make it and the best cups to use. There was a tray. “I can bring you some tea.”
The lady looked towards her mother as if Sera had done something wrong. Something far worse than forgetting to lock the door or not turn off the bedroom lamp at night. “You’re already training her in the ways of self-sacrifice and denial? It’s too soon for that. You know it is.”
Another tear slipped silently down her mother’s face. The Lady Lianthe’s gaze hardened.
“And now she looks to you for guidance and approval. Yuna, you must see what you’re doing here. This isn’t freedom. This isn’t childhood as it’s meant to be lived. This is abuse, and of all the things we taught you, no member of the Order ever taught you that.”
“He’s not to know,” her mother said raggedly. “He’s not to take her.”
“He will never know. This I promise.”
“She’s not to be sent anywhere near him.”
“You have my word.”
“She gets to choose. If she doesn’t want to be a companion, you set her up to succeed elsewhere.”
“Sera?” Her mother asked her name as a question but Sera stayed quiet and paid attention because she didn’t yet know what the question was. “Should we go to the mountains with the lady Lianthe? Would you like that?”
Away from here and the baker who was a Good Man and the kids who called her names and the men who looked at her with eyes that burned hot and hungry. Away from the fear that her mother would one day go to sleep on a belly full of wine and never wake up. “Would there be food? And someone to take care of us?”
Her mother buried her face in her hands.
“Yes, there will be food and people who will care for you both,” the lady Lianthe said. “Sera. Is that your name?”
“Pretty name.” The lady Lianthe’s smile wrapped around her like a blanket. “Pretty girl.”
She was a gift from her people to the King of Arun. An unwanted gift if his expression spoke true, but one he couldn’t refuse. Not without breaking the laws of his country and severing seven centuries of tradition between his people and hers. Sera observed him through a veil of lashes and the protection afforded by her hooded travelling cloak. He could not refuse her.
Although he seemed to be considering it.
She was a courtesan, born, bred and shaped for a King’s entertainment. Pledged into service at the age of seven in return for the finest food, shelter and an education second to none. Chosen for the beauty she possessed and the quickness of her mind. Taught to serve, to soothe, and how to dance, fight and dress. One for every king of Arun and only one. A possession to be treasured.
She stood before him ready to serve. She wasn’t unwilling. She’d already received far more from the bargain than she’d ever given. If it was time to pay up, so be it.
He was a handsome man, if a tall, lean frame, firm lips, a stern jaw and wayward dark hair appealed—which it did. He had a reputation for fair and thoughtful leadership.
She definitely wasn’t unwilling.
He looked relaxed as his gaze swept over her party. Two warriors stood to attention either side of her and another watched her back. The Lady Lianthe, elder spokeswoman for the High Reaches, preceded her. A party of five—with her in the center, protected—they faced the Arunian King, who stood beside a tall leather chair in a room too cold and bleak for general living.
The old courtier who had guided them to the reception room finally spoke. “Your Majesty, the Lady Lianthe, elder stateswoman of the High Reaches. And party.”
He knew who they were for they’d applied for this audience days ago. His office had been sent a copy of the accord. Sera wondered whether he’d spent the past two days pouring over old diaries and history books in an effort to understand what none of his forefathers had seen fit to teach him.
He had a softness for women, this king, for all that he had taken no wife. He’d held his mother in high regard when she was alive, although she’d been dead now for many years. He held his recently married sister, Queen Consort of Liesendaach, in high esteem still. His name had been linked to several eligible women, although nothing had ever come of it.
“So it’s time,” he said, and Sera almost smiled. She’d studied his speeches and knew that voice well. The cultured, baritone weight of it and the occasional icy edge that could burn deeper than flame. There was no ice in it yet.
Lianthe rose from her curtsey and inclined her head. “Your Majesty, as per the accord afforded our people by the crown in the year thirteen twelve—
“I don’t want her.”
Lianthe’s composure never wavered. They’d practiced for this moment and every variation of it. At the king’s interruption, the elder stateswoman merely started again. “As per the accord, and in the event the King of Arun remains unmarried into his majority, the people of the High Reaches shall provide unto him a concubine of noble birth—”
“I cannot accept.”
“—A concubine of noble birth, charged with attending the King’s needs and demands until such time as he acquires a wife and produces an heir. Thereafter, and at the King’s discretion—”
“She cannot stay here.” Finally, the ice had entered his voice. Not that it would do him any good. The people of the High Reaches had a duty to fulfil.
“—Thereafter, and at the King’s discretion, she shall be released from service, gifted her weight in gold, and returned to her people.”
There it was, the accord read in full, a concubine presented and a duty discharged. Sera watched, from within the shadows her travelling hood afforded her, as Lianthe clasped her bony hands in front of her and tried to look less irritated and more accommodating.
“The accord stands, Your Majesty,” Lianthe reminded him quietly. “It has never been dissolved.”
The King’s black gaze swept from the older woman to rest broodingly on Sera’s cloaked form. She could feel the weight of his regard and the displeasure in it. “Lady Lianthe, with all due respect to the people of the High Reaches, I have no intention of being bound by this arrangement. Concubines have no place here. Not in this day and age.”
“With all due respect, you know nothing of concubines.” Fact and reprimand all rolled into one. “By all means petition the court, your parliament and the church. Many have tried. All have failed. We can wait. Meanwhile, we all do what we must. Your Majesty, it is my duty and honour to present to you the Lady Sera Boreas, daughter of Yuna, Courtesan of the High Reaches and valued member of the Order of the Kite. Our gift to you.” Lianthe paused delicately. “In your time of need.”
Sera hid her smile and sank to the floor in a curtsey, her head lowered and her cloak pooling around her like a black stain. Lianthe was not amused by their welcome, that much was clear to anyone with ears. This new King knew nothing of the role Sera might occupy if given the chance. What she could do for him. How best he might harness her skills. He didn’t want her.
More fool him.
He didn’t bid her to rise so she stayed down until he did. Cold, this grey stone hall with its too-righteous king. Pettiness did not become him.
“Up,” he said finally and Sera risked a glance at the Lianthe as she rose. The older woman’s eyes flashed and her lips thinned.
“Your Majesty, you appear to be mistaking the Lady Sera for a pet.”
“Probably because you insist on giving her away as if she is one,” he countered dryly. “I’ve read the housing requirements traditionally afforded the concubines of the north. I do hope you can supply your own eunuchs. I don’t have any to hand.” His gaze swept over the warriors of the High Reaches and they stared back, eyes hard and unmoving. “No eunuchs accompany you at the moment, I’d wager,” he said quietly.
He wasn’t wrong. “I can make do without if you can, Your Majesty.” Sera let warm amusement coat her voice. “However, I do look forward to occupying the living quarters traditionally offered the concubines from the north. I’ve read a lot about the space.”
“Is there a face to match that honeyed voice?” he asked, after a pause that spanned a measured breath or four.
She raised her hands and pushed her travel hood from her face. His eyes narrowed. Reluctant amusement teased at his lips. “You might want to lead with that face, next time,” he said.
Sera had not been chosen for her plainness of form. “As long as it pleases you, Your Majesty.”
“I’m sure it pleases everyone.” There might just be a sense of humour in there somewhere. “Lady Sera, how exactly do you expect to be of use to me?”
“It depends what you need.”
“I need you gone.”
“Ah.” The man was decidedly single minded. Sera inclined her head in tacit agreement. “In that case you need a wife, Your Majesty. Would you like me to find you one?”