Where is She? I pace back and forth across the hardwood floor of the royal chambers, fidgeting with my hair and grinding my teeth. I’m alone in the lavish bedroom—Helena is off at a private meeting. Which is fine. Good, even. My head has been much clearer in the week since Her Majesty granted me release, with my arousal back down to a manageable state. This is an ideal time to decide on my next move, to assemble the information I have into a coherent picture of Arlunn’s political moment. As I brush past the massive canopy bed, I consider what I currently know:
First: There’s conflict in the south—likely on a small scale—between Berinni’s goons and the sun-knights.
Second: The crown hasn’t interfered as of yet, but if they did, they’d either turn on Berinni or keep him on a short leash.
Third: Helena said She’d return within half an hour, and that was over two hours ago. Which is fine. I don’t want Her around while I’m busy plotting Her demise. Besides, She’s undoubtedly very busy and cannot be expected to keep a perfect schedule.
“Hmph.” In a gesture of defiance, I kick one of the legs of Her armoire. Damned unpredictable schedule. Damned curse, making me care about Her damned schedule. Damned assassins, botching a simple job and making me get cursed. I could be queen right now were it not for them, rather than merely pacing about and waiting for the Queen to come back. Which I am decidedly not doing; I’m actually pacing about and devising a cunning strategy. Whether or not Helena actually cares for me is completely irrelevant to my political operations. As I push past a pair of silky lavender-colored curtains, I consider what will likely occur:
First: Francine will realize the lead I gave her is far larger than mere corruption—it involves enough nobles and enough money that even I kept my distance from it when I was in power.
Second: ‘Lady Vigilance’ will live up to her name and follow every thread available, making a significant portion of the court very nervous and very defensive—especially Berinni and his followers.
Third: The court will—
My train of thought is interrupted by the sound of footsteps echoing down the hall. I stop in place and stare eagerly at the door, waiting and listening as they grow closer and closer. It’s Her. It has to be. She came back for me! Just before She reaches the door, I hurry to a nearby chair and try my best to look disinterested—an act betrayed by the smile I can’t quite wipe off my face. I hear Her arrive, pause just outside the threshold, and then…the footsteps continue down the hall. Which is fine. I exhale and slouch in the high-backed velvet chair, resting on my tailbone and leaning my head against one of the armrests. It was probably a guard or servant walking by. A sharp tinge of longing strikes me, and I promptly ignore it. Helena will be back soon. She told me as much, told me She’d be back in half an hour. Which was a lie. Or an honest mistake. Either way, She left me in Her bedroom; She’s obviously not abandoning me.
Unless…unless She’s always intended to leave me. I leap up from the chair, pacing once more at a faster clip. Sure, She proclaimed Her love for me a week ago, but only in the heat of coitus—such passion makes lying simple. What better way to manipulate me than with such declarations, especially while the curse makes me pliable? Gods, is this part of Her punishment as well? She’ll string me along with affection and kindness, then cast me aside once I’ve grown thoroughly dependent—thereby crushing me emotionally and spiritually. I cringe as I think back to my confession of love last week, realizing I played perfectly into Her hand. No longer will I be caught unawares. As I shove past a poorly-placed nightstand, I obsess over why Helena will definitely leave me:
First: She has Her pick of any number of gorgeous and charming lovers, against whom I do not compare favorably. Therefore, I am only Her companion because She intends to break me.
Second: Love is not an option at the highest levels of society; there is only power and the exercise thereof. Her Majesty knows this just as well as I.
Third: She knows I am not lovable; said pushing others away is my ‘pattern.’ Certainly, She does not lack evidence that loving me is a fool’s errand: Like Paolo, broken-hearted and resignedly accepting an arranged marriage after my rejection. Like Mother on her deathbed, staring at the ceiling and refusing to acknowledge my presence. Like Alice…
“Your brandy, Lady Veronica.” Marin, the new servant boy, delivered the nightcap to the head of the long table where I sat. The chandeliers had been extinguished after dinner, leaving only a few candles to cast dim light and twitching shadows across the lovingly varnished wood surfaces of Tiern manor’s dining room. “Will there be anything else?”
“No.” He exited hastily. I drank half of the sweet liquor in a single gulp, perhaps overeager in my excitement, and coughed at the corresponding burn. The hefty drink could be excused as a toast to my imminent success; tonight, weeks of planning would pay off in a spectacular fashion. I even dressed up for the occasion, wearing a slim, sharp dark green backless dress and an assortment of cosmetics to highlight my aristocratic cheekbones and brow. If there was ever a night to emphasize my nobility…
The manor’s front door slammed in the distance, and I sprung into action. I sat up straight, swapped my brandy glass for a pen, and pretended to be lost in writing the half-finished letter before me. My expression slipped into a perfect mask of nonchalance right as the dining room door flew open.
“You bitch!” Alice stormed into the room. She was sweating and panting, still partially in costume—an absurd and frilly purple number. She must have heard the news at one of her rehearsals and run home immediately. The thought filled me with glee.
“Good evening, dear sister.” I didn’t look up from my work. “What seems to be the problem?”
“You stole my inheritance, you miserable cunt.” Alice strode closer, looming over me. Our physical appearances were similar—same facial features, same hazel eyes, same smile—but where I was tall, Alice was taller, and where I was toned, she had the remarkably lithe body of a dancer. “This is low, Veronica, even for you.”
“I didn’t steal anything.”
“I swear to the gods, if you start explaining some loophole—“
“—I merely put our estate into a trusteeship, then—“
“ARRGGHH! You are the WORST! It’s like I’m talking to a fucking automata!”
I couldn’t help grinning at her outburst. “Perhaps you should have paid more attention to the paperwork, sister.”
“Oh? Well if YOU looked closely at it, then you must have noticed I was barely getting anything!” Alice yanked a chair away from the table and plopped down, maintaining her death glare. “But that wasn’t enough for you, was it? You had to have it all.”
The thrill of victory flared within me at my sibling’s resigned tone. If she were to take this to court, I’d probably lose—Alice was the older sibling, and as such had a right to our estate by blood—but I was counting on her falling for my bluff and assuming I had already won. It was a relatively safe bet; she had a habit of acting without forethought.
“To be frank, Alice, I’m doing you a favor. You would have thrown away whatever you inherited on frivolities. This way, I’ll still provide you with a reasonable stipend while the family’s fortunes remain safe under my watchful eye.”
For a brief moment, Alice quivered with anger so intense I thought she was going to tackle me. But then she merely sighed, closed her eyes, and started rubbing her temples. Well and truly defeated indeed. “Fine. Keep your damned coin. But at least have the decency to tell me what this is really about.”
I sipped my brandy, taking an indulgent pause to roll the flavor around my tongue and make her wait. “Money and power. Bringing glory to our house will require a great deal of both, and I’d rather not have to share.”
“So what, this takes me out of the picture?”
“Precisely. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“Bullshit.” Alice leaned forward in her seat and furrowed her brow in contemplation. “If you genuinely wanted to keep me away from your wretched ambitions, you would have let me take my pittance so I could continue dancing and staying far away from the court.”
My smile faded. I’d had the same idea multiple times, but had always found it…insufficient. “How astute. Perhaps you should become a philosopher.”
To my annoyance, Alice ignored the jab. “There has to be another reason.”
Such prying hadn’t been part of my plan—I’d assumed she would quickly get furious and storm off. “This is a waste of my time. If you’ve nothing else, then I at least have actual business to attend to.” I made a show of going back to writing, hoping she’d get the message and leave. For a moment, the only sound in the room was pen scratching against paper.
But Alice wasn’t finished. After a moment of sitting silently, her eyes widened in realization. “You wanted to make me upset, didn’t you?” she stated bluntly. “To take me down a peg. Gods, no wonder you’re gloating so much.”
“What I want is for you to stop bothering me,” I grumbled under my breath.
“Why? Why do you want me to suffer?”
“I’m not having this conversation.” My pen pressed harder into the page, blotting ink and marring otherwise stellar penmanship.
“Are you jealous of me?”
I scoffed at her sheer nerve. “Jealous of what? The diseases you’ve gotten from lying with half of Niol?”
The earlier excitement I felt seamlessly transitioned into simmering indignation. “What are you talking about?”
“I followed my dream and can do what I love.” Alice crossed her arms.
The dining room began fading away as my vision tunneled onto her. “You abandoned your station in life to traipse about with vagabonds and whores.”
“See? Like a petty child. You can’t stand that I’m happy and you aren’t.”
The air around me grew hot and thick, and I had to take shallow, rapid breaths to force it into my lungs. “The entire nobility sees you as an embarrassment.”
“It doesn’t matter what they think!” Alice shouted in exasperation. “I’m free of their stifling expectations, Veronica, and I think deep down you envy that. Why else would you go to such lengths to hurt me?”
The audacity of her ignorance sparked an uncontrollable blaze within me. “Because you left your family!” I snarled, “Your duties and obligations! Left all of it behind so you could fucking play pretend!”
“What do you think happened to those burdens after you left? Those ‘stifling expectations’?” My hands ached from desperately gripping the edge of the table, but I felt as though I’d fall into the abyss if I ever let go. “Tell me, when you were off fellating sailors, did you ever stop and think about your sister? The one you promised to protect?”
Alice winced. Her voice was a determined whisper. “Every day.”
I felt a pang of grief, but the blaze within didn’t stop; words kept pouring out of my mouth as I worked myself into a manic frenzy. “Once you left, I had to become everything you were not and more: the obedient daughter, the diligent student, the proper noblewoman. I worked tirelessly on my own to build back the prestige and influence of our house. Even now I cannot rest and cannot make mistakes, for my peers already view me as a pariah; a second child in court only because of her sister’s failings.”
Alice put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “I’m sorry you’ve struggled so much, Veronica, but you have to know it wasn’t my fault. I had to get out. I couldn’t have stayed another day, not with how things were back then.” She offered a conciliatory smile. “But mother and father are gone now. You don’t have to be perfect anymore; I’ll be here to catch you if you fall.”
Her eyes were sincere. I wanted to accept, to embrace my sister once more. To have her support, empathy, and protection against a cruel world, just like when we were children. But I couldn’t. The grim oath I had sworn so many years ago remained lodged in my heart and soul: I would never allow Alice to be in a position to hurt me ever again.
I pushed her hand off my shoulder. “Let me make this perfectly clear, sister: You are pathetic. I don’t envy you; I find you pitiful. You were too weak to stay with me then, and you’re too weak to stand up to me now. That’s why I claimed my full inheritance—you don’t deserve a single coin of this estate.” A harsh, grating chuckle poured forth from my throat. “Do you really think I need your help? I flourished without you. I flourished without anyone, and in time I will lead house Tiern into a new golden era. And while I’m sitting on the throne, you’ll be off fucking for a living.”
Alice shook her head, then stood to leave. “You sound like mother.”
My near-empty brandy tumbler sailed right past her head and shattered against the wall. Jagged shards, some still adorned with beads of the amber liquid, flew across the room and landed with a chorus of gentle clinks. And then, all was silent. I blinked. I was standing, and my hand was coated in ink from the crushed pen within its vice-like grip. My sister gaped at me in abject horror.
“You should get back to your rehearsal, Alice.” My voice came out even and calm. She hurriedly complied, brushing bits of glass out of her hair as she exited the dining room. I sat back down once I heard the front door shut, losing myself in the mesmerizing pattern of ink mixing with blood where the pen had stabbed my palm. Eventually, a clock struck midnight somewhere in the manor, startling me away from my fascination.
“Marin?” I called out, voice wavering for only a moment. The servant timidly opened the door and poked his head through. “I need another brandy. And bring a broom.”
My entire body tenses instinctively, as if attempting to exorcise the painful memory via physical force. Why does it hurt so much? Normally, such a recollection would be an unpleasant but bearable reminder of my path to power. But now, it’s a knife in the heart oozing sorrow into my veins; an emotional vortex I don’t know how to handle. I slide out of the chair and onto the floor, rocking back and forth in the fetal position. My stomach churns and black dots appear in my vision as I struggle to take in breath. Poison. This must be poison. Cold and clammy hands grasp the bedroom’s braided rug, dragging me toward the door. I need Helena. I need…
Helena. Icy horror prickles its way down my limbs as I grow still. She did this to me. Just as Her curse made my flesh more sensitive, so too has it heightened my emotions. Guilt and regret, once easily ignored, boil ferociously in my gut. Excitement and anxiety, no longer well-contained, constrict and pull at my lungs. Love and hate blend seamlessly into gorgeous shades of ambiguity I cannot turn away from. Her Majesty doesn’t merely want my love, She wants every feeling I can possibly give Her. She wants me vulnerable and open, whereupon She will no doubt exploit my weakness and tear me apart.
That’s why I have to lash out first.
Eshe wasn’t particularly impressed with Niol. In truth, they hadn’t seen much—they donned their full regalia before approaching the city gates and were immediately taken into custody by the guards. What little they saw, however, was typical of a disordered land. The impoverished aimlessly wandered the streets, while those in houses and shops greedily clung to whatever they could claim. They lived by the grace of Sol’s light and heat, yet refused Its purpose and guidance; thus they would remain committed to self-interest and worldly squabbles. The sun-knight had seen many places in similar states of chaos, and Niol had neither the serene landscapes of the southern steppes nor the mind-bending architecture of the Qen mountain-dwellers to compensate.
Nobody in the city quite knew what to make of Eshe. The guards escorted them to their captain, who immediately passed the group on to his superior, and so on and so forth until they had worked their way through what felt like the entire military hierarchy. In the meantime, passersby gawked at them, amazed that a figure out of legend was walking through their streets in full armor astride a warhorse. Eshe made a point of ignoring the onlookers, staring straight ahead—though they’d been a novelty many times before, the experience never stopped making them nervous. They could almost feel the questing eyes roaming over every inch of them, demanding answers or begging for salvation when they could offer neither. Fortunately, the makeshift parade didn't last long. They were soon separated from Gruch (after several assurances that the steed would be well cared for) and brought beyond layers of thick stone walls to the royal palace proper. Guards and soldiers gave way to servants and maids, while the harsh conditions of the road gave way to luxury amenities. The head butler informed them that they’d be given the best hospitality Arlunn had to offer before conducting any official business, and they were far too filthy and hungry to protest.
And while the First Executor dictates the importance of an ascetic life, Eshe can’t help but appreciate the warm bath they find themselves in. It is absolute indulgence: servants clean off sweat and dirt from days of hard travel using flowery soaps, lathering the knight’s bronze skin with soft brushes and washcloths. They close their eyes and lean back as they are rinsed off with buckets of warm water, steam softening their face and soothing their nose and throat.
“You are kind indeed, to bring a stranger such peace,” Eshe murmurs as the nearest servant, a thin young man with deft fingers, begins massaging a cool gel into their short dark curls.
“I am happy to provide, Ser knight.” He presses his thumbs in gentle circles around the top of their spine, rolling out tension and a gentle sigh.
“Mmm. What is your name, peace-bringer?”
The servant begins gently kneading their scalp. “Max, Ser.”
“Thank you, Max.” He washes their hair thoroughly, cleaning away the grease and grit before brushing out its tangles and knots. The persistent kind touch overcomes Eshe’s natural wariness, and before long they are fully relaxed. A servant passes them a glass of wine—they think it was the redheaded woman, though they aren’t sure—and soon enough a gentle buzz rolls through their body like a warm summer breeze. Max continues working his magic, his hands working down their muscled shoulders and back, until he reaches their hips and his true intentions become clear.
“Hold on, Max.” Eshe grabs one of his delicate hands and brings it to their lips.
“Bathe with me.”
“Ah. Uh, yes Ser.” They watch as the young man slips out of his simple white robe. He’s pale, and has little body hair other than a dark, curly patch around his sex. Eshe beckons him, and he descends into the warm water.
“If I am not to your liking, I could—” They wrap their arm around Max’s shoulder and pull him close.
“You most certainly are to my liking, Max.” Eshe’s index finger traces down his spine, making him shudder. “Am I to yours?”
He nods vigorously. “Yes! Um, I mean, yes, Ser knight.”
They giggle at his enthusiasm, their hand reaching down to cup his ass. “Good. For I once swore an oath of charity, that I would give back whatever I may receive.” They thought the line was somewhat ridiculous, but meek lovers tended to go wild when they heard it.
Max gasps, proving himself no exception. He turns to face Eshe, his eyes wide with amazement. “Please,” he whimpers.
They indulge him, grabbing the young man’s chin and guiding his lips to theirs. The kiss is slow enough to avoid overwhelming him but firm enough to remind him who’s in control. For his part, Max seems happy to go along—he wraps his legs around theirs and begins grinding his hard member against their even harder abdomen.
“There we are,” they whisper into his ear, “There’s my strong squire.” An old captain told them about the “squire” trick; apparently a lot of common folk have sex fantasies about legendary knights. Max lets out a shaky, restrained moan as they run a finger around the rim of his tight asshole.
“Oh, Ser!” Eshe grins. They allow others to take them occasionally, but nothing can compare to giving pleasure. Nothing can compare to making a lover so excited and satisfied that their hands grab at you while their eyes flutter open and shut.
He pants, his heart beating quickly against their chest. “Y-yes Ser?”
They grab the tip of his cock with their thumb and index finger, stroking it with minimal pressure and enjoying his little twitches. “I am ready for you. If you so choose.”
The servant leans in for another quick kiss. “It would be an honor.”
Eshe pushes him down onto one of the bath’s stone seats, then perches atop him. They slowly guide him into their waiting pussy while putting the tip of their thumb in his mouth, which he immediately begins to greedily suck. There’s a moment of pressure, a satisfying pull as their vaginal muscles draw him in, and then Max is inside of them. The pair both quietly gasp and look into each other’s eyes.
“Show me what you’ve got, young squire.” Eshe takes their thumb out of his mouth and strokes his cheek, enjoying the scratching of his light stubble against their hand.
“Yes, Ser!” Apparently, ‘what he’s got’ is not particularly impressive; the young man can’t quite manage to find a good angle from his seat and grows tired relatively quickly. They humor his attempts for a while—long enough to satisfy his ego—before taking control of the pace, pulling his legs apart so he can reach deeper inside them.
“Aha!” They growl triumphantly, gyrating on top of him to grind their clit against his pelvis. Water sloshes around them as they fuck faster and harder, riding the servant’s cock and grabbing his hips to push him into them. Max is soon gasping and moaning loudly, his hands running over Eshe’s sizable breasts in sheer giddy excitement. Suddenly, they find the perfect angle—one that fills them to a satisfying degree and makes them grunt with pleasure. Sounds of smacking flesh and splashing water fill the bathhouse, and other nearby servants look on with naked jealousy. “SUCK.” The knight forces Max’s head between their tits, and he eagerly latches onto their closest nipple. That sharp sensation, in addition to Eshe’s free hand rapidly flicking across their clit, is enough to push them over the edge. They roar in satisfaction, tightly gripping Max’s hair as they clench and grind their cunt around and against him.
“Aah, Ser knight, yesyesyes!”
Warmth from their orgasm blends with warmth from the bath, rapidly calming Eshe and leaving them more than content. The pair sit still for a moment, not ready to cease touching, until they finally pull themself off of Max to sit beside him.
“Thank you, Ser.”
“It was my pleasure.” They idly run their fingers through the servant’s hair. “You are a capable lover, Max.” The word ‘capable’ was chosen carefully—the First Executor prohibited lying, and all sun-knights were experts at softening their true beliefs with proper wordplay. Max wasn’t bad, he was just…swept away, in a sense. Capable, if unremarkable.
They leave the bath soon after, allowing the servants to quickly dry them off with a voluminous towel and rub various oils into their skin. Then, freshly dressed in a scarlet tunic and black ankle-banded pants, they are led to their temporary quarters for a brief meal. Orange late afternoon sun casts across the room’s sizable bed and small card table, where a collection of local delicacies—poached duck egg, salmon roe, some kind of spicy stew of hearty tubers—lie beside an opened bottle of wine. Eshe’s stomach growls at the assortment of smells, and they are about to pounce upon the meal when they notice they are not alone.
“Good to meet you, Ser knight.” The woman in the corner doesn’t look like a servant; instead of simple black and white garb, she wears only a loincloth and a band of fabric around her breasts. More noticeably, though, she lacks a servant’s poise and polite demeanor. Her wavy brown hair is mussed, her eyes curious and critical, and her petite body positioned in a defensive crouch. Eshe studies the woman warily as a half-dozen different emotions cross her face in a few seconds.
“...who are you?”
She shakes her head, then laughs bitterly. “Your new best friend.”