A sun the hue of molten gold sank below the horizon, leaving a coronet of blood-red clouds to mark its passing. Standing at the window of her chamber--an aperture set high in the massive wall of the ancient castle forming the ancestral home of the House of Sarvignan, rulers of the Principality of Fernoye--a slender girl exquisitely conscious of her acute vulnerability sought to dominate the mounting fear contending with hot anger.
Riveting her eyes to the plain beyond the fortification wall, Princess Rohais shivered as she watched the ranked array of enemy foot soldiers come to a halt just short of the range at which the cannons mounted on the walls could hurl a ball. The cavalry flanking that formidable army she saw to be an ominously large force. Six cannons, swiftly emplaced by superbly efficient squads of artillerymen and aimed at the wall from which she watched, seemed enormous to her, even at this distance.
They've defeated our army! she silently raged. Broken their ranks, and plunged those who survived the onslaught into a disorganized retreat. They'll breach the castle, she concluded, as swiftly escalating horror gripped her. They'll batter down the outer defenses, and swarm through the inner gates, led by that upstart barbarian who claims the title of prince. They'll kill, maim, rape, and plunder! I've hidden Cousin Charmaine and our ladies where they won't be found, and I'll shortly join them in the secret stair that leads to a passage under the wall. We can escape into the forest, but where will we go, then? How will we live? Oh, Holy Mother of God, what will become of us?
Two floors below, Prince Matthew cursed fluently but silently as he unerringly gauged the strength of the foe. Fear even greater than that afflicting his niece convulsed his gut. No warrior, the tall, graceful, still-handsome reigning Prince of Fernoye snapped orders to the minions surrounding him, desperately hoping that his uncle, Arnold Norchand, the aged Duke of Stralsonne, could inspire a force of demoralized survivors of an unequal battle and men who had never engaged in combat to maintain a defense sufficient to repulse the attack Prince Matthew believed to be imminent.
Low exclamations of surprise rose from those surrounding the Prince, as the watchers beheld three riders advance towards the Castle. In front rode two heralds. One bore a flag signifying a desire for a parley. The other flaunted the red banner emblazoned with the personal arms of Rupert Harzav, Prince of Estravia: a Bear Rampant, encircled by a ribbon bearing letters of gold spelling out the motto, "Beware of the Bear, and forbear." Behind the twain rode the leader of the force of besiegers: that same prince, boldly advancing in person, rather than sending a nobleman charged with delivering whatever ultimatum he proposed issuing.
Stopping within shouting distance of the gate, the Conqueror of Sarvandy sat his restive warhorse with easy grace, as one of the heralds hailed the men manning the wall. In a stentorian voice, he informed them that Prince Rupert of Estravia demanded a meeting with Prince Matthew of Fernoye, at once, at this spot.
Fifteen minutes later, the besieged ruler, flanked by two heralds, one of whom bore the banner displaying the Lion Couchant of the House of Sarvignan, rode out to meet the foe who he knew possessed military might sufficient to destroy him. Prince Matthew wore a military uniform heavily encrusted with gold braid, beneath a cape of ermine. That badge of illustrious lineage and princely wealth he hoped would overawe a man he disdainfully regarded as inferior in nobility to himself. His tone, nonetheless, oozed conciliation. "What's your purpose in asking for a parley, cousin?" he inquired guardedly, after offering a formal greeting.
The besieger, no blood relation to the ruler of Fernoye, savored the sound of the term employed--one used by a ruling nobleman only when he addressed an equal in rank. No whit overawed either by the ermine or his consciousness of this ruler's exalted lineage, the conqueror coming straight from his latest military victory, still wearing the dust-begrimed uniform in which he had fought, ordered his heralds to withdraw far enough to insure that the conversation could not be overheard.
Warily, Prince Matthew did likewise. Fixing baleful eyes on his enemy, he awaited a curtly issued order to open the gates of the castle and the town called Rocquard to a conqueror.
"My purpose, cousin," his adversary drawled, driving home his assertion that his rank did indeed equal that of the ruler of Fernoye, "is to offer terms that will allow you to avoid an assault on the castle, and a sack of the town. I have no intention of negotiating. You'll either accept my offer, or suffer that fate."
Suddenly aware that he faced demands that he might be able to finesse, Prince Matthew replied evenly, "I'll hear you out."
"My offer is this: you'll give me the hand of Princess Rohais in marriage, and confer upon your niece a dowry of five hundred thousand golden crowns, which you'll collect immediately, pack into chests, and deliver to me to be counted, at dawn tomorrow. The marriage will be celebrated by the Bishop of Rocquard at the hour of ten in the morning. It will be witnessed by you, Prince, and by fifty nobles of your court. The ceremony will be held in a cloth pavilion erected by my soldiers, on the plain, between the gates of the castle, and the front lines of my troops.
"Immediately thereafter, my bride and my own self will greet each guest individually, thus giving your cooks time to lay out a feast that you'll provide, in a second such pavilion erected by us. When that celebratory meal ends, I'll issue the order to my army to start withdrawing. My men will load all the belongings of the Princess--her clothing, jewels, personal possessions, and such--onto pack mules. My bride will then change her garments, in a small pavilion erected solely for that purpose. When we depart, she'll either ride one of her horses or one of mine. Make certain that she dresses accordingly. We'll consummate our marriage across the border, in Sarvandy, where we'll spend the night. By that time, no soldier of mine will remain on Fernoyan soil.
"If you abide by these terms, I'll sign an agreement stating that I'll open the border separating Sarvandy from Fernoye, for trade with merchants of Sarvandy, Estravia, and even of Gorvakia, should any hardy trader from that sovereign state wish to travel so long a distance. I'll pledge that I'll refrain from laying siege to any town in Fernoye, including this one, unless at some future point, you violate our agreement, and take up arms against me. I'll respect your sovereignty, despite your having allied yourself so closely with my enemy, Prince Gabriel of Sarvandy. I'll maintain the normal security on the border--enough to guarantee that trade will flourish."
Jolted to his core, Prince Matthew managed to refrain from exclaiming "Five hundred thousand golden crowns!" aloud. Relief engendered by the knowledge that he could avoid the storming of the castle and a sack of the town contended fiercely with a poisonous mix of outrage, anger, avarice, and scalded pride.
"The Princess Rohais is betrothed to Prince Sigismund of Lansenau!" he rasped hoarsely. "Why not wed my illustrious daughter, Princess Charmaine?"
"A betrothal does not bind, as does a marriage," the Bear of Estravia rasped, frowning blackly. "Did you not hear me state that I refuse to negotiate? Do you wish your castle razed, and your reign ended?" Blue-gray eyes cold as swordsteel glittered with incipient wrath.
"Very well ... I accept your terms." That unwilling capitulation emerged in a strangled tone.
"I expected that you would," Prince Rupert countered levelly. "I'll await your delivery of the dowry at dawn, right here. Ho! Heralds! Conduct the Prince of Fernoye to the gate of his stronghold! Johann ... Herman ... attend me!"
Stung by the subtle insult conveyed by Prince Rupert's using that term to denote the woefully undermanned castle, Prince Matthew glared wrathfully at his enemy before wheeling his warhorse--one borrowed from the Duke of Stralsonne--and proceeding at a stately pace to the gate.
An hour later, Princess Rohais entered the chamber her uncle used for private audiences, her heart pounding, her chest heaving, and her mouth as dry as the dust kicked up by the conqueror's warhorse. From that window high in the wall, she had watched the encounter. Strongly suspecting that the barbarian at the gates must have issued a dreadful ultimatum, she wondered distractedly just how she would protect her ladies and her frail, sickly cousin Charmaine, if her uncle issued the order to open the gates to the conqueror.
We can stay hidden until the worst of the rapine is over, she judged despairingly, but we can't escape. Eventually we'll be found ... or we'll be forced by hunger and thirst to emerge voluntarily, to throw ourselves on the mercy of this sacker of cities. Might he ... Holy Mother, protect us!
"Yes, Your Highness."
"I've just agreed to give you in marriage to Prince Rupert of Estravia."
Shock not only rendered the Princess speechless, it stole the breath from her lungs. For thirty seconds, she stood petrified, her eyes dilated, her hands clutched to her breast. "You ... did ... what?" she finally articulated, her voice unnaturally shrill.
"By God, girl, what else could I do? Would you prefer that I refused to let him wed you in a rite sanctioned by the Church, thereby insuring that he'd storm the castle and sack the town, before forcing you to serve as his concubine? Would you prefer to see unimaginable suffering wreaked on all who serve us, because you shirked the destiny for which you were raised--to be consort to a prince?"
"To a prince: yes! This man is a barbarian ... a conqueror who sacks cities!"
"You think your great-uncle, the Iron Duke, never sacked a city?"
"His race was royal! This so-called Prince you know to be an upstart of questionable ancestry, who employs a title not his by right of birth!"
Anger suffused the ruler stung by the contempt showing nakedly upon the comely face of the girl: a face uncannily like that of his dead brother, her father.
"This Prince is the grandson of Casimir Harzav: the man who held the unchallenged title of Grand Duke of Ardansk before laying claim to the title of Prince of Estravia! Casimir assumed that latter title when he united the Grand Duchy of Kaznan with that of Ardansk, and ruled a new principality--one recognized by the Holy Roman Emperor--with an iron hand!" he hurled at her. "True, after Casimir died, his princedom fractured, and his grandson barely escaped with his life, when Gerik, Duke of Kaznan, caused the assassination of his cousin, Artur, Prince of Estravia. Gerik marched his army into Ardansk, and declared himself the ruler of both duchies.
"Well, all the treacherous power-seeker gained by that usurpation was an implacable enemy: a wily, tough survivor who took service at the age of fifteen with the militant if aged Grand Duke of Gorvakia! An enemy the so-called 'Red Duke' trained to be the superb military commander he now is! A canny foe who bided his time, until he could appear before the gates of Kaznan with an unbeatable army, just as he did here tonight! A foe so imbued with a sense of having been direly wronged, that he disdained to offer terms to the man who slew his father! No! Rupert stormed Gerik's stronghold, slaughtered his guard, captured him even as he sought to escape, and sent him to the scaffold!"
"So I serve as tribute extorted by a vengeful barbarian! What else did he demand?"
"He asked only for your hand ... and for a dowry he considered suitable."
"How much?" the girl demanded, her eyes glittering with outrage.
"Five hundred thousand golden crowns ... to be delivered at dawn."
"Five hundred thousand ... He dared call that exaction of tribute a dowry?"
"That's what we'll call it, niece. Your dowry. He agreed to withdraw his army, just as soon as we deliver it, and you wed him. He levied no other demands."
Before the irate Princess could voice a shrill, defiant refusal, the head of her House barked angrily, "You will wed him! Your wedding him will insure that Fernoye retains its independence--that it remains a power among the six mountain principalities! Would you rather become Rupert's concubine--a prize he forces into his bed--a chattel upon whom he wreaks vengeance for thwarted hopes?"
Realizing that so dreadful a fate could in truth overtake her if she refused, Rohais shivered, and said nothing.
"Think, girl! Rupert's not only willing, but anxious to marry you--to form an all but indissoluble bond with our House. He undoubtedly sees such a move as bettering the lineage he hands down to his sons. You'll be the consort of the ruler of an expanded state that combines the two duchies collectively known as Estravia with the princedom of Sarvandy. You can rest assured that Rupert will make that nascent state into a formidable power in this region! You can rule with him, or be destroyed by him! For God's sake, girl, let go of that anger, and make of this union all that you can! For your own sake, and for that of Fernoye!"
Sensing the desperation driving that impassioned plea by this man normally so coldly calculating--so well able to conceal any emotion stirring within him--Rohais bit back the acid rejoinder burning her tongue. Forcing her mind to function, she weighed that appeal. Conditioned to believe that a princess of her House must perform the duty of marrying purely for political gain, she bitterly, if silently, acknowledged that only two choices lay open to her, and to her uncle the Prince.
"And what of my betrothed, Prince Sigismund?" she queried hoarsely. "Can you afford to offer so powerful a ruler so huge an affront?"
"Sigismund will know right well that I had no choice!" the Prince thundered, as fresh anger gripped him. "You don't really suppose that our hold on him owed to deathless love inspired by your charms, do you? He wanted you for your dowry--the fifty thousand gold crowns I finally agreed to pay him!"
Her lip curling, Rohais replied sardonically, "I doubt that Prince Sigismund could ever generate deathless love for any woman. But at least the fifty thousand crowns represented a true dowry paid to a royal suitor offering an honorable match!"
"And what do you see as dishonorable in a Church-sanctioned wedding with this man so well able to hold what he just conquered?" Prince Matthew countered wrathfully. "Take pride in being valued at ten times what Sigismund agreed to accept as your dowry! Conceal--no, abolish your anger! Resolve to make this man glad that he married you! Conduct yourself with the noble grace bred into you, and make him proud of his consort! Gain his trust--and don't betray it! Your son will one day rule a principality wealthier and more powerful than Fernoye!"
Seeing no way to avoid this marriage she so direly feared, other than by precipitating a storming and a sack guaranteed to cost the lives and the honor of all those she loved, Rohais bowed to bitter necessity. "I'll wed the barbarian," she stated tonelessly. "But you'll provide me with ample gold, which I'll spread among my bags, and conceal. You'll give me my mother's jewels in addition to mine. You'll let me take my mare, Silver Belle, and you'll bestow on me a carriage to carry my ladies in waiting, and a wagon to haul their possessions."
Feeling buffeted by Fate, Prince Matthew dispensed with haggling with this girl in whose stormy eyes he saw finality, just as he had in those of Prince Rupert. "So be it," he stated curtly. "But your ladies must agree to go. I won't force them to accompany you."
"How dare you think that I'd demand that you force them to go?" the girl retorted scathingly. "You know me better that that!"
Nodding, the Prince had the grace to redden with visible shame. "I do," he acknowledged. "Now go, and gain their consent. Set them packing your possessions. I'll send men to lift and carry the baggage. May God keep you in His care, Rohais."
"And you," the Princess replied in a softer tone. "I'm relieved that you'll suffer no dire harm, Your Highness."
Relief on that score suffused the Prince only too well aware of what might have befallen him.
Long afterwards, the night that ensued remained clouded in the memory of the Princess, four of whose ladies tearfully, fearfully, but stoutly agreed to accompany her into the household of a barbaric enemy. She dimly recalled struggling to maintain an outward appearance of calm as she oversaw the packing not only of her clothing and valuables, but also those of her women. Calm demeanor notwithstanding, she remembered picturing in lurid detail every unsettling rumor circulated in the court about the habits, person, exploits, and faults of Rupert of Estravia.
At least no one accuses him of lusting after boys, she kept reminding herself, desperate to dwell on some redeeming quality in the man universally castigated as a ruthless, cruel barbarian possessing low tastes. When, at two in the morning, she lay down on her bed to stare sleepless into the dim glow of the candle, she sought desperately to drive out all thought of her impending fate. At length, she fell into a fitful sleep that nowise refreshed her.
Rising at six, she wept in the arms of Lady Clotilde, the oldest of her women: a widowed dame who had formerly waited upon her mother.
"Take heart, child," that kindly lady urged forcefully. "You're eighteen: mature enough to handle a most distressing change. This Prince is but a man, like any other--regal, lordly, demanding, and lusty, if all that's told of him be true. Wrap yourself in serene grace, and overawe him with your high breeding. You've spent all your life training to fit the role you'll fill. Take care not to oppose his demands. Bow graciously to his wishes. Smile on him: your smile would melt the heart of the infidel Sultan himself. Make Rupert proud of you. And, my dearest--give him your full loyalty. He's your Prince now--your liege lord, whom you'll vow to honor and obey, on this day."
Hearing echoes in that homily of the adjurations of her uncle, Rohais formed a firm resolve to follow what she knew to be valuable advice, even as direly unsettling rumors continued to rear their ugly heads in the back of her mind.
At a quarter before the hour of ten, Princess Rohais gave her hand to Prince Rupert, who stepped forward to assist her as she descended from the ornate royal carriage bearing the arms of Prince Matthew on the doors. When she stood facing him in front of the pavilion erected by his soldiers, she sank into a supremely graceful curtsey, only to have him take her hand, and raise her. Standing erect, she looked straight at him, and raked his person with a searching glance.
For a few seconds, each prospective mate silently appraised the other. Rohais beheld a man some ten years older than herself--a warrior who lacked a hand's breadth of her uncle's height. She saw that he bore a faint resemblance to the bear pictured in his arms, being notable for broad shoulders, a wide, muscular chest, and a stocky build that radiated strength, both of physique and personality. She observed that his face, more striking than handsome, and marred by a sword-cut scar down one cheek, sported neither beard nor mustache. Light brown hair displaying a tendency to curl she saw to be cropped unfashionably short. He wore a spotless military uniform: one tailored of rich material, but severe in its lack of ornamentation--a dark blue coat, white waistcoat, red sash, gray trousers that flared outward and appeared in her eyes baggier than those of Prince Matthew's guard, and highly polished, knee-high leather boots. On his head he wore a slim, unostentatious crown fashioned of gold: a crown exquisitely wrought, but devoid of any large, eye-catching jewels. A wide slash of a mouth, a broad brow, and high, flat cheekbones emphasized his foreign origin, in her view.
Piercing blue-gray eyes looked out from under thick brows, and impaled her. Cocking his head, the Prince remarked ruminatively, "By God, you're a pretty lass, Princess."
Concealing the shock engendered by his bluntness, Rohais reflected censoriously on his lack of polish, until she recalled the flowery, trite, and obviously insincere praises voiced in rote fashion by her erstwhile suitor, Prince Sigismund. Mustering a smile that reflected wry amusement, but no perceptible disdain, she replied evenly, "I rejoice that Your Highness thinks so."
Having said exactly what thought the sight of her comely person produced, Rupert studied her intently. In his eyes, she seemed delicate as a porcelain doll. Elaborately coiffed hair--a marvelously intricate arrangement of coils and curls interspersed with diamond-encrusted ornaments, and covered with a transparent veil--framed an attractive, heart-shaped face. Blue-green eyes shaded by dark lashes and arching brows thick, if slightly mismatched, rested warily on him. Creamy white skin habitually protected from exposure to the sun bore a slight flush on the cheeks. Rosy, pleasingly bowed lips parted to reveal perfect white teeth, as the Princess forced herself to smile.
An elaborately ornamented gown of cloth of gold sheathed a waist of marvelous slimness. Breasts uplifted by the artfully designed bodice displayed a most enticing fullness. A collar formed of stiff, intricately worked lace rose along the rather low-cut neck of the gown. High in the back, but tapering to the span of a finger at the center of the front, the ornate collar conferred an illusion of modesty that the neckline, cut too low for a wedding gown, might otherwise have lacked.
I could almost span her waist with the fingers of two hands, the Prince mused glumly. Can this pampered pet encased in such costly frippery truly be a competent horsewoman, as my informants assured me she is? I damned well hope so! Trouble enough she'll deal me, without my having to cope with her falling from her horse as soon as he breaks into a trot, or fainting from the unaccustomed exertion of riding a long distance.
Standing in front of the bishop garbed in a gold-embroidered chasuble and stole and crowned with a gleaming white miter, Princess Rohais exchanged vows with the militant Prince, her clear voice and composed face giving the lie to any supposition that she might be awash in dread, as she nonetheless was. When the solemn ceremony ended, she stood beside the Prince, and greeted with polished courtesy the noble lords and ladies of Prince Matthew's court, and those Estravian nobles serving as officers in Prince Rupert's army and personal guard. Smoothly, she aided the Prince unacquainted with the vast majority of her uncle's courtiers to avoid any embarrassing error arising from his not knowing their titles.
When at last the newly wedded couple took their places at the head of a T-shaped table, between Prince Matthew and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Princess Charmaine, whose pale, pinched cheeks and thin body attested not to delicate nurture, but to poor health, Rohais engaged both her uncle and her new husband in polite conversation, turning occasionally so as to include her shy cousin in the discourse. Holding her head high, she conveyed to those dining at the main table a regal acceptance of her new role as consort of a reigning Prince, in this year of 1801.
The Flower of Fernoye, as the bards called her, noted with considerable surprise the deft, delicate manner in which Rupert handled the business of eating in such state. Expecting gross manners, she wondered bleakly if he might display equal delicacy in the bedroom, at the close of this endless day. Once again, disturbing rumors relayed to her by her women rose to mind, causing her to glance at the strong, tanned hands, the broad, muscular body, and the imperious face of her new husband. A cascade of shivers coursed down her spine, as she contemplated watching this militant spouse approach her bed.
At the close of the ceremonial meal, Rohais retired to the small pavilion erected for her use, followed by her six ladies-in-waiting. Standing, she waited while they unbuttoned the opening at her back, and lifted the costly gown over her head without disarranging her hair. Having forbidden Lady Clotilde to tighten the lacing of her stays, she ordered them to dress her in the high-necked gown of blue velvet intended for wear while riding sidesaddle. Once buttoned into that marvel of tailoring, she seated herself, and let Lady Jehane remove the ornaments from her hair, and secure the hat--a sartorial marvel fashioned of glossy black beaver felt, which featured a wide brim that swept down in front, so as to protect her face from the sun--by thrusting a long pin through both hat and hair. Three gray and white feathers curled upwards from the heavy silver medallion ornamenting the right side of the fashionable headgear.
The ladies then swiftly and efficiently changed their attire, each aiding another, who then returned the favor. Turning, they packed the elegant gowns into bags designed for traveling, and followed the Princess outside.
On seeing her groom holding the reins of her favorite mount, a handsome but gentle gray mare the Princess called Silver Belle, she advanced, stepped into the clasped hands of a second groom, and settled herself into the sidesaddle. A short distance away, a carriage approached: the conveyance that would carry four of the six ladies.
Prince Rupert, who had exchanged his crown for a black, bicorne beaver felt hat, but wore the same uniform in which he had been married, the bride saw to be already mounted. Frowning, he rode to the side of his consort. "How far do those women expect to accompany us?" he asked. "Surely they can part with you here?"
Shocked to her depths, Rohais bit back the retort tingling on the tip of her tongue, and explained in an assured tone, "They're coming with me, Your Highness. They wait on me. I need the services they so kindly render me."
The frown deepened, as the Prince stated flatly, "I'll provide you women to wait upon you. There's no need for them to come. I won't countenance the delays and trouble that carriage will cause. Your baggage has been packed on mules. I expect that theirs occupies that cumbersome wagon. So. I'll have the Commander of the Guard inform them of my decision."
Fighting to maintain perfect control of her face, Rohais stared silently at the autocrat issuing that coldly uttered ultimatum. She saw that he watched her expectantly, and surmised that he awaited an outburst of anger, and rested prepared to deal harshly with it. Clotilde's shrewd admonitions echoed in her mind. When at last she responded, she nodded, her face a mask of calm. "As you wish, Your Highness. May I dismount, and bid them farewell?"
Concealing profound shock, Rupert grated, "You may. But do it swiftly."
Having summoned her groom, who aided her to dismount, the Princess walked with head high towards the women preparing to enter the carriage. After hailing them, she informed them in a low tone of the Prince's decision. "Make no fuss," she warned them in an undertone. As the shocked women obeyed, she embraced each, and bid each farewell. Detaching herself from Lady Clotilde's firm embrace, she dominated an overwhelming urge to give way to tears, turned, walked with regal grace to her horse, and mounted, aided by her groom.
Prince Matthew, who had been engaged in speaking to the officer in charge of the pack mules carrying the weighty "dowry," guessed what just transpired. Fear mingled with the anger he, too, concealed as he rode to his niece's side, and took formal farewell of his brother's daughter, and the enemy who, he surmised gloomily, did indeed consider her a prize of war.
Looking straight into the eyes of the Prince betraying no iota of the severe shock she just dealt him, Rohais stated calmly, "I'm ready, Your Highness."
Having taken her place at her husband's side, the Princess rode away without once looking back, the fear gripping her so great that it clouded her perceptions, but nonetheless failed to breach the armor of her resolve to behave as royalty ought.
Ahead of the newly married couple rode half of the Prince's personal guard: a body of crack cavalrymen, most of whom enjoyed the rank of nobleman. Behind them rode the other half. In front, the red banner emblazoned with the arms of the Prince tossed in a freshening breeze. Staring about her, the Princess noted with vast relief the absence of the cannons that last night had pointed so threateningly at the castle. A huge cloud of dust hung over the road stretching away to the border with Sarvandy: dust raised by the passage of that weighty ordinance, and the main body of the cavalry. The infantry she saw to be drawn up into marching order, and awaiting the passage of the Prince.
The Conqueror kept his word to withdraw, she acknowledged morosely, even as fear racked her. But I knew he would. Why go to all the trouble to extort that huge sum, and marry me in a cloth pavilion, if he intended to break his agreement? No. He got what he wanted: a vast, portable fortune in gold coins gained with no loss of men, and a bride boasting illustrious ancestry. The humbling of our House ... our Prince. Vengeance upon an ally of Prince Gabriel. May the Devil plague that thrice-damned coward--wherever he may be hiding!
Sitting erect, tautly alert, the Princess rode at a fast walk, beside her husband, who said little as the journey progressed. On seeing him to be frowningly preoccupied, she refrained from initiating any conversation. Gripped by ever deepening fear, she sought to banish from mind the thorny problem of allowing a strange woman to aid her to disrobe ... a woman charged with the task of bedding a virginal bride filled with fear of the unknown.
Two hours later, the riders arrived at the border of Sarvandy: a site well guarded by a contingent of soldiers wearing Estravian uniforms. Given that the hot June sun beat down mercilessly, the Princess fervently hoped that the town in which they would spend the night lay not too far off. Sweating beneath the costly velvet traveling gown, chafed by her stays, she yet gave no sign that she endured the slightest discomfort.
Father showed me maps of this land, she recalled, sighing as sorrow at losing her sire rose to assault her. This road runs uphill to the town of Aslat. Surely we'll stop there.
Fifteen minutes after she arrived at that conclusion, the column of guards riding two abreast turned off what the Princess could see to be the main thoroughfare, and headed up a steep hill, on a rough road obviously not nearly as well traveled as was the one they left.
Silver Belle, no more used to rough traveling than was her mistress, stumbled as she sought to negotiate a rocky stretch of the road. Jolted, the Princess felt her stays dig deeper into her flesh. Soothing the horse with voice and hand, she made no complaint to the man she saw to be watching her intently. Jutting her chin, she bore with the heat, the flies, the dust, the roughness of the road, and the acute discomfort occasioned by the steepness of the ascent.
At length, the Prince and his consort arrived at the top of the incline. Stopping, the royal leader of the army that the Princess now saw to be moving along a wider and more level road below them, observed the progress of the cannons mounted on heavy carriages, each drawn by eight mules. Ahead of the cannons rode a contingent of cavalry. Behind them came another. Behind that force marched the infantry.
Although unfamiliar with the road to Sarvandy, and totally ignorant of what sort of terrain Estravia might feature, Rohais knew that the sun rose in the east, and set in the west. She also knew that Fernoye bordered Sarvandy on the west, while Estravia did so on the east. She likewise knew that Lansenau lay to the north of Fernoye, Sarvandy and Estravia. Frowning, she recalled that no Sarvan towns could be found along the northern border, given the mountainous nature of that land. Finding herself riding in a northeasterly direction, she concluded that the Prince harbored no intention of traveling straight back through Sarvandy to his capital in Ardansk, which she knew to lie directly east of the capital of Fernoye.
Her brow puckered in thought, she eyed the man regarding the progress of his army with patent satisfaction, and arrived at a most unsettling conclusion.
At length, her husband turned an ironic glance on her. Deciding that he expected to hear a querulous complaint, she remarked coolly, "Your Highness's troops move with amazing rapidity. Transporting such heavy ordinance on such a steep road must pose a problem. Those artillerymen will switch to fresh mules, at some point, to avoid having these poor straining animals drop from fatigue, will they not?"
"Within the hour," her husband replied, concealing profound shock.
"Your Highness's army heads for the border that separates Sarvandy from Lansenau, does it not?"
"So you can tell direction from the position of the sun, eh, lass?"
Stiffening a trifle on hearing herself addressed as if she were a commoner, Rohais swiftly controlled incipient ire. "I can tell north from south, and east from west," she stated calmly. "By the sun. But of course, I've no experience at telling direction by the stars."
Amazed that a princess of an ancient, decadent House would even know that such a feat could be managed, the Prince chuckled: a pleasant sound, nowise conveying scorn. "You won't ever need to do so," he assured her. "Well. The road dips and then climbs, from here on, and grows narrower, and far rougher. If your horse stumbles, pull her head up."
The three hours that followed put Rohais' self-control to a rigorous test. The road did indeed drop downward steeply, and then climb just as steeply. As the afternoon wore on, and the altitude increased, the temperature dropped, and her body, damp with sweat, suddenly generated a chill. Her mare, wholly unused to such terrain, stumbled often, but never fell.
Continually gouged by her stays, conscious that the skin of her left knee abraded as she sought to balance herself properly on the uncomfortable sidesaddle during those steep ascents and descents, Rohais gritted her teeth, and endured the steadily worsening pain. Reflecting that she would prefer to fall in a dead faint onto the sharp rocks littering the track rather than complain to this barbarian who had to be aware of how painful she found this journey, she refrained from looking in his direction, lest he see the wrath she suspected to be visible in her eyes.
Having rounded a sharp turn in the track, Rohais beheld a crude, square tower built of rock--a structure rising from bedrock to a height of two stories, with a watchtower rising another story above the flat roof surrounded by a low, crenellated wall. Appalled by the utilitarian aspect of the place, she yet fervently hoped that the column would stop here for the night.
When she rode through the gate of a one-story-high fortification wall, into a cramped courtyard between that wall and the tower, she wondered distractedly whether or not she could dismount without falling ignominiously on her face on the stony ground. As she sat pondering that problem, strong hands reached for her, and hauled her bodily off the horse. Finding those to belong to the barbarian perfectly willing, evidently, to consummate his marriage in this dismal military outpost, she swayed as she sought to stand on her own.
Taking her arm in his, as soldiers led away the mare and his warhorse, Prince Rupert half led, and half propelled his bride through the gate of the tower, across the wide, unobstructed ground floor, up a crude stone stairway, and down a narrow, gloomy hallway. Stopping before a massive door--one of four opening onto the passageway--he waited while an attendant threw open the door, and stood back.
"Kaus will bring Your Highness's meal at once," the man announced.
"Good. I see that you've performed with your usual efficiency, Hoffman."
"I thank Your Highness." The uniformed retainer manifestly gratified by hearing that commendation saluted smartly, and closed the door behind the Prince and his bride.
Finding her sore, tired self alone in this crude chamber with the husband she mentally castigated as uncouth, Rohais yet noted with relief that a hot fire burned on the hearth, dispelling both the gloom and any dampness that might otherwise have impinged on her notice. A buoyant, cream-colored quilt covered a double bed she suspected of being formed of two single beds thrust together. Two fluffy pillows sheathed in cream-colored slips rested at the head. On the table to one side of the hearth reposed two bottles of wine, and a basket full of fruit: apples and plums, she noted distractedly, even as dread of what would transpire later all but overwhelmed her.
The door to the hallway opened, and the man she now knew to be named Hoffman, assisted by a second man, carried in luggage: her bag--the one she had marked in a distinctive way, as containing the clothing she would need while making the journey--and a pair of leather saddlebags she recalled having seen fastened behind Rupert's saddle. Employing a sliver of wood that he ignited in the fire blazing on the hearth, Hoffman lit the three fat candles set into the brass candelabra on the table. Each man having bowed to the Prince, the twain departed.
That delivery of the baggage (the saddlebags did not count as such in her thinking) struck the Princess as meaning that this chamber would be hers, for the night. Wondering why the Prince did not retire to the one he would occupy, she suppressed mounting annoyance, being wishful of bathing her dusty face and hands, and laying out the loose robe she wore over her nightdress. Fighting the acute anxiety arising from her consciousness that she had no trustworthy lady to help her undress on this night, to tuck her into her bridal bed, and to offer her comfort if she needed it after the Prince left, as she strongly suspected she would, she mastered her fear, and stared in askance at her new husband.
Supremely at ease, Prince Rupert strolled over to the low table on which reposed a basin and a pitcher. Having poured water into that receptacle, he bade his bride wash the dust from her face.
Severely jolted, Rohais silently obeyed. Having dried her face on a rough towel, she turned, and eyed her companion warily.
"Sit down here," he commanded. Pulling a chair from under the table, he seated his wife. Finding to his satisfaction that the cork had been pulled from the bottle of wine, he poured a generous portion into a silver tankard, and set it before the Princess. "Sip on that, while I wash," he ordered.
Badly disconcerted by her suspicion that her wholly unconventional husband did not intend to withdraw to his own chamber until after he exercised his conjugal right, Rohais consciously composed her face. Reaching for the tankard, she sampled the wine, which, to her surprise, she found to be a pleasant vintage. Willing her hand not to shake, she continued to sip, until the Prince seated himself opposite her, and poured himself a measure of wine. At that moment, the door opened, and a lad entered, bearing a tray of food that gave out a most delectable odor.
With admirable deftness, the youthful attendant served his Prince and his Princess, seemingly no whit awed by the exalted rank of the twain. When he finished, he stood straight as a lance against the wall, effacing himself while his noble patrons dined on fresh bread, cheese, a hot dish of slices of beef served in thick, sweet-sour gravy containing vinegar, raisins and onions, and a salad of lettuce sprinkled with oil and spiced with basil.
"I'll wager your uncle feels heady relief, tonight," Rupert remarked blandly. "No warrior, your Prince. And much as I admire that venerable fighting man, the Duke of Stralsonne, for his willingness to throw himself into the breach, he's long past his prime as a warrior."
"Prince Matthew no doubt feels freed of a heavy burden," Rohais replied composedly.
"I deem it thoughtful of you, to have packed in such a way that the men need only bring you one piece of baggage at night."
"That seemed the most efficient way to pack." As Clotilde well knew, Rohais conceded.
Given that he engaged in allaying sharp pangs of hunger, the Prince let the conversation lag a bit.
Assailed by rapidly escalating fear, Rohais picked at the food she distractedly acknowledged to be delicious. When the meal ended, and the lone attendant vanished out the door, bearing the tray loaded with soiled plates and utensils, she noted that he left the iron pot containing what remained of the meat on the hearth, and failed to remove the basket of fruit, the bread he had wrapped in an oiled cloth, the cheese also wrapped thus, and the wine. Even as she decided that he intended to return, she saw Rupert stride to the door, and slide the bar across the supports.
Convulsed by fear now verging on terror, the woman feeling direly vulnerable asked in a voice she managed to keep admirably level, "When will the woman assigned to wait on me arrive, Your Highness?"
Frowning in surprise, Rupert shook his head. "This is a military outpost, Princess. There are no women here. When we arrive in my capital, I'll find you someone to wait on you, as I said I would. Meanwhile, you'll have to do without such pampering."
Pampering! the Princess shrieked in her mind. Controlling hot wrath, she stated in a voice she valiantly prevented from cracking, "I can't dress myself, or undress myself, Your Highness. I can't reach the buttons hard to free of the loops, all down my back. I can't arrange my hair myself, or lace my stays. All of my clothing requires that someone aid me to don it. Is there no one--not even a kitchen maid--who could assist me?"
Patently incredulous, the Prince rose, and commanded, "Stand up." When the woman whose knees shook with fright obeyed, he strode to her rear, and inspected the round, cloth-covered buttons set close together, which protruded from loops of cloth. Recognizing that the wearer of the gown would indeed find it all but impossible to undo them, he regrouped. "I concede your point," he informed her. "I'll wait on you. Sit here, while I unbind your hair."
Dropping into the lone chair, the badly flustered noblewoman felt strong fingers pull the pins and combs from her intricately arranged hair, which uncoiled down her back like a live thing. The hands then lifted the heavy, dark tresses, straightened them, and then stroked them, as if their owner were a lapdog.
Desisting, Rupert unlaced and removed her boots. "Stand up," he ordered in a tone no different than that he would have used to an officer in his army.
Convulsively lurching to her feet, Rohais stood trembling, as the Prince set about freeing the array of buttons from the tight, confining loops. Scandalized, she yet made no demur. Despair overrode incipient terror. What in God's name sort of life does this man live in what he terms his court? she wailed to her alter ego.
"There," her spouse exclaimed in a tone of satisfaction as the last button popped out of its loop. "Now, then. Raise your arms." As his direly disconcerted bride obeyed, he lifted the gown over her head, folded it, and laid it on a bench. He then plucked at the drawstring of the petticoat, causing it to fall to the floor. After sweeping it up, and folding it, he turned to stare at the lacings of the stays, his brow creasing into two deep furrows.
"Now what in hell is this obscenity?" he barked as he undid the tie, and began the tedious job of loosening the thin but strong lacings enough to allow the garment to fit down over the wearer's hips.
"Stays, Your Highness," the recipient of his aid explained faintly.
When the offending object finally joined the gown on the bench, Rupert stared in disbelief at the circles of dried blood staining both the lacy chemise and the lacy long drawers woefully frayed at the left knee. Frowning blackly, he saw that other red spots occurred in all of the places where the ends of the thin strips of whalebone forming the stiffening for the stays had stabbed though the confining cloth during that endless ride up and down steep hills, to gouge the wearer cruelly. Cursing softly, he drew the chemise over his bride's head, with absolutely no regard for offended modesty. With a few energetic motions, he divested her of the stiffly reinforced support for her breasts, and pulled down the frayed, blood-stained drawers.
Standing naked in his sight, the flustered bride stood rock-still, striving to dominate wobbly knees. The pain of the galled flesh intensified, given that her wounds reopened when the cloth welded to her hurts by a crust of dried blood pulled free.
Snorting in outrage, the Prince stalked over to where Hoffman had set his saddlebags. Having unbuckled the strap holding the flap over one bag closed, he removed a wide-mouthed, corked stone jar, which he opened, releasing a pungent odor. Into that, he inserted two fingers, which emerged coated with a greasy, yellowish ointment. That he rubbed briskly into all of the abrasions on the trembling body of the woman striving not to faint from a combination of terror, shame, the stinging pain produced by the remedy, and ballooning dread.
"Don't flinch! There. That'll heal your hurts. It works as well on people as on horses. Stings, eh? It won't, for long. So. Shapely, your body," the keen observer declared judiciously. Having drawn back the down-stuffed quilt covering the bed, he spread a large towel thereon. Turning, he lifted his nude bride bodily, and laid her so that her rump pressed on the towel. Exhibiting no feverish haste, he proceeded to undress himself, full in the view of the woman staring in shock at the muscular body emerging from the uniform.
Having reclined next to his bride, Rupert gathered her into his arms. To his astonishment, she flinched far more noticeably now than she had when he applied the salve. Feeling her body go rigid, he leaned on a bent arm, and studied her face, by the pale light of the candelabra, and the fire still burning brightly.
What he saw precipitated a black frown. "You're terrified!" he stated accusingly. "Stiff with fear!" His face hardening, he hissed angrily, "Only one circumstance could cause terror that great. At some time prior to now, you took a lover, and lost your virginity. Given that your uncle assured me that you'd come to me virgin, you're overcome by dread of my discovering your reprehensible lapse from grace!"
Outrage so intense that it extinguished near-terror now possessed the woman staring at her husband through a red haze of wrath. "How dare you say such a thing!" she shrilled. "How dare you! I'm a princess of the House of Sarvignan! A woman raised and trained to fulfill one sacred duty: to be a worthy consort to a reigning prince! You just wronged me grievously!"
That impassioned outburst produced a snort of disbelief. "I doubt that," Rupert countered sardonically. "But we'll see." Rearing up, he exited the bed, strode to the table, and grasped the candelabra. Just as swiftly, he returned. Pulling Rohais' leg--the one nearest him--towards him, he sat on it. Holding the light in one hand, he thrust her other leg aside, barking, "Don't move!" With his free hand, he parted her vaginal lips, and examined the orifice they guarded, by the ample illumination cast by the three candles. Consternation gripped him as he riveted his glance to what he instantly recognized as an intact hymen.
Having risen abruptly, he turned, and stared at his sorely tried bride. As he watched, tears welled up, and rolled down cheeks gone white as salt: tears he unerringly judged to be evidence of hot wrath, rather than shame.
"Barbarian!" Rohais shrieked, visibly shaking.
Dropping to the bed, Rupert enfolded her in his arms, shamed by seeing that when she realized his intent, she threw up her arms as if to ward off a blow. Holding her feebly struggling body against his chest, he spoke, directly into her ear.
"You're right," he admitted hoarsely. "I did wrong you. I regret having made so poor a judgment. There, now. Lie still, and listen. I beg pardon for my grievous offense. I don't deserve to be pardoned, but I nonetheless crave your pardon. There, now. Don't weep. You're stiff as a pike, lass. There ... that's a bit better." As he sought desperately to soothe her, to comfort her, he stroked her hair, and kissed a cheek wet with silent tears.
Held immobile against the hard, muscular body possessed of such iron strength, Rohais ceased struggling. As Rupert's apology registered, astonishment displaced outrage. Scarcely believing that she had heard aright, she felt his hand move down over her back, gentling her as if she were a nervous horse. "So. That's better. Can you forgive me, my Princess? Prove yourself as generous as you are virtuous?" That appeal, couched in a gentle, coaxing tone, fell on her ears with soothing force, even as she seethed.
"You believe me virgin, now?" That query, freighted with disbelief, betrayed Rohais' momentary inability to comprehend just what hard evidence produced that amazing about-face.
"I know you to be virgin, now."
Bemusedly, the deeply wronged woman weighed her options, as Rupert went on moving his hand over her bare flesh, and brushing her cheek with astonishingly soft lips. Resolving to avoid angering him further, she nodded. "I pardon you, Your Highness," she stated levelly. "Even though you did do me a grievous wrong!"
"You're as generous as I hoped a virginal princess would be," her husband commended her, his relief manifest to her. Turning so as to stare directly into her eyes, he demanded, "Now tell me: what caused that terror I saw so plainly?"
Having lost a good portion of the fear that had tormented her since yesterday, Rohais felt her heart lurch, and her cheeks burn. "If I tell you, you'll grow angry again," she blurted, too agitated to weigh her words carefully, and to couch them in terms of courtly politeness. "Please ... I don't want to anger you."
His brows knitting, Rupert retorted sternly, "I command you to tell me. You needn't worry--the only way you'll rouse me to anger is if you refuse to obey me."
On hearing that direct order, Rohais dropped her eyes. "You wouldn't allow my women to accompany me. So l knew ... I'd be alone ... once you took my virginity ... and left my bed. I knew ... I'd have no one to help me ... if I suffered an injury."
Comprehension crashed into the Prince's consciousness with the all the force of a cannonball striking a stone rampart. "You thought me capable of taking you so brutally that I'd injure you?" he all but shouted. "How dare you harbor so vile an assumption!" On seeing the recipient of that irate outburst shrink away, and terror again stare nakedly from her eyes, he dominated hot rage, and lowered his voice. "Why did you think that?" he asked in a demanding but less accusatory tone.
"You're a soldier!" Rohais expostulated. "A conqueror! You've sacked cities! You exacted tribute from my uncle, who paid it, so as to prevent a sack of the castle! I'm a prize of war--a piece of booty! So I naturally assumed that you'd treat me as you would a woman captured during a sack!"
Hot rage showed briefly on the striking face of the man jolted by that tirade, but that fleeting anger swiftly died. "How long has this fear clawed at your vitals?" he inquired solicitously.
"Ever since Prince Matthew told me I must wed you!"
Heaving a gusty sigh, Rupert drew his distraught bride against a powerful chest thatched with light brown hair. "Princess, you know, do you not, that the Grand Duke of Gorvakia knighted me, when I was sixteen?"
"Yes," Rohais breathed, wondering what that had to do with it.
"If I swear an oath on my knightly honor, will you believe that I'll keep it?"
"Yes." No hesitation accompanied that straightforward reply.
"I swear on my knightly honor, and on the knightly honor of my father, Artur, Prince of Estravia, that I'll deflower you as gently and pleasurably as ever a noble husband took a virginal bride of illustrious birth. Do you believe me?"
Conviction flooded into the mind of the girl well aware that Prince Rupert of Estravia lived by a stern code of knightly honor, the more readily for needing to prove himself worthy of the title of Prince: one to which his grandfather Casimir had not been born, but had boldly assumed, with the blessing of the Holy Roman Emperor, but not of four out of the five rulers of the small mountain states surrounding Estravia.
"I believe you," she assured him softly. "I wronged you, Your Highness."
Nodding, Rupert sighed again, and declared wonderingly, "You're the complete opposite of what I expected."
Suddenly consumed by curiosity, Rohais asked, "What did you expect?"
"A cold, proud aristocrat--a haughty dame full of contempt for a husband whose lineage she considered inferior to her own--a woman who'd intrigue against me behind my back, and cuckold me, if I gave her the slightest chance. A scornful, spiteful witch who'd be frigid in my bed, but hot in any other man's. A practiced coquette, who more likely than not would come to me already deflowered by some lascivious noble of Matthew's court."
Shocked to her bones, Rohais gasped, "If that's what you expected, why, by all that's sacred, would you wish to marry such a brazen hussy?"
"Because a prince marries for political gain. Because I intend to found a dynasty--a line springing from a son whose lineage exceeds mine in legitimacy. Because I intend to rule a united state encompassing the duchies of Ardansk and Kaznan, and the small princedom of Sarvandy--a state that will be known as Estravia-Sarvandy. Because I wished to pull the fangs of Fernoye ... cause Prince Matthew to think well on the consequences, before allying himself with any other enemy of mine, in the future. Because I wished to drive a wedge between Prince Matthew and Prince Sigismund, and demonstrate for the latter--and to that whelp of the Devil who'll one day rule Berencia, to the south of my domain--what happens to those who aid my enemies. I stood willing to bear with a consort such as I described, to gain those ends."
As the bemused girl frowningly digested that bald summary, Rupert tipped up her chin, and cocked his head. "I erred, in listening to rumors about Matthew's court," he admitted candidly. "I painted a wholly false picture in my thoughts of the woman I nonetheless determined to marry. You did likewise, Princess--listened to the gossip circulating among the nobles of your court, and believed it must all be true. So. Tell me what rumors reached your ears. I promise to tell you the truth, so as to allay the fear that still grips you."
"Ohhh ... please ... what I heard must be a sack of lies!"
"Rumors usually contain a kernel of truth at their core," Rupert observed dryly. "So obey me. Tell me frankly what you heard, and I'll tell you what truth lies behind the rumors."
Again facing an ultimatum, Rohais braced herself, and complied with the order. "They say you're ruthless ... cruel ... vengeful ... unforgiving." That admission seemed torn out of her.
Having weighed her words, Rupert declared evenly, "I don't waste pity on an enemy himself incapable of pity. Nor do I forgive an offender who shows no remorse. When I go to war, I fight to win. I can respect a worthy foe, but I despise a coward. I can send a traitor to the scaffold, but I don't take pleasure in watching him hang. I wanted vengeance on the man who treacherously slew my father, and I got it. But I don't wage war on women, or cause innocent subjects of a conniving Prince to suffer for his offenses. A goodly portion of the nobility of Sarvandy can attest to that. I suffer no pangs of conscience before falling asleep, my Princess."
Having weighed those vehement assertions, Rohais nodded. "I believe you," she assured him.
"What else did you hear?"
Bracing herself, the Princess of Fernoye voiced the bit of gossip that most deeply troubled her. "I heard ... that you never took a mistress from among the noble ladies of your court ... but bedded peasant girls ... camp followers. That you sired bastard children on those harlots."
Hot anger blazed from the agate eyes raking the bride, for the few seconds sufficient to make her regret having spoken so roundly. Even as she stiffened, she saw the ire die away.
When the Prince finally spoke, his voice carried no overtone of wrath. "Estravian custom differs from that of Fernoye," he informed her calmly. "In Matthew's court, both men and women actively seek illicit partners ... openly play the seducer, or the coquette. The nobles of my court consider fornication and adultery shameful. Such offenses do occur. I won't claim that they don't. But they occur in secret, and those who indulge in them risk disgrace, if they get caught. Most noblemen therefore marry young. Fathers take the feelings of their sons and daughters into consideration, being wishful to achieve a stable union. A prince, however, marries for political advantage, and he often delays taking that step.
"Everyone knows that a lusty young prince needs to satisfy his carnal need, so they condone an old custom. When he spies some pretty wench--a commoner--he goes to her father, and offers to form a temporary union with her. He promises that when he tires of her, or goes off to war, or marries for political gain, he'll wed her to a decent man--one of his soldiers, or retainers. That man, as the girl's father well knows, will feel honored to be entrusted with raising any children the Prince sires. The man offered the girl knows he'll receive promotion in consequence of his assuming that responsibility. The girl knows that she'll marry far above her station, and the father knows that he'll receive a sizeable dowry. Such a girl in no way qualifies as a harlot, or a camp follower, my virtuous innocent."
"You ... sired children ... in this way?" Rohais asked, as curiosity vanquished fear of arousing that mercurial anger.
"Three. Two girls and a boy. They know, and their mothers know, and their foster fathers know, and the entire body of the nobility knows, that a son sired in such a manner cannot inherit the throne."
"I see." That rote reply emerged without conscious volition. Rohais neither understood nor approved, but she accepted the fact that customs differ, and what was done could not be undone.
Seeing her eyes go bleak, Rupert remarked gently, "You fear that I'll form such a union while married to you, don't you?"
"Most rulers ... take mistresses..."
That admission, barely audible, prompted the Prince to draw his bride close to his chest. "Rohais, I'm as lusty as any ruling prince," he admitted candidly. "I expected that I'd need to do so, if my bride fulfilled my worst expectations. But you aren't what I expected. You're a paragon of courage and fortitude, who bore herself all day today with regal grace, even as fear clawed at her vitals, and pain she bravely concealed rendered her journey direly difficult. You're a virginal lass steeped in the idea that she owes a duty to her House and to her husband. If you'll strive to please me in bed, I'll see no need to look elsewhere for pleasure. So whether or not I take a mistress will depend entirely on you."
"Ohhh ... I'll gladly try to please you in bed!" Rohais exclaimed, shocked and then thrilled by that astoundingly candid statement. "But ... I don't know how..." Dismay freighted that embarrassing admission.
Laughing softly, not in derision, but in amusement, Rupert closed his mouth over that of his bride, and explored its interior with a teasing, questing tongue. Caught off guard, the Princess first stiffened, and then melted against the hard-muscled body of her husband. When he sucked on her tongue, she felt unaccustomed shivers radiate through her loins. The fear that had haunted her since the prior day vanished in a sudden upwelling of hot, carnal need.
Grown deeply aroused in his turn, Rupert freed her mouth, and kissed her throat. Sliding downwards, he cupped her breasts in strong hands, and tongued the nipples gone hard as tiny rocks. Letting go, he thrust his hands beneath the girl whose breath came now in hard gasps, and forced her back to arch. His lips closed over one engorged nipple, and sucked, provoking a soft moan. Desisting, he repeated that caress on the other rock-hard nubbin.
Recalling her fear that this sacker of cities would throw her on her back, and force his stiff member with brutal force into her virginal orifice, Rohais chided her alter self for making so unwarranted an assumption. When her experienced husband slid lower, to part her thighs and lick her tiny focus of delight, she moaned again, wholly without volition. Delicious waves of pleasure wholly new to her ken coursed outwards from that small organ, which swiftly swelled and stiffened. Feeling soft lips engulf it, and a moist mouth suck on it as if to swallow it whole, she cried out, half in astonishment at the intensity of her sensations, and half in ecstatic joy.
Judging his virginal partner fully aroused, Rupert pressed the head of his cock against the fragile membrane forming indisputable evidence of virginity, and thrust firmly but gently. When he achieved penetration, he slid his massive member slowly, gently, into the now deflowered virgin's love-grotto, until its head pressed against the opening of her womb. Encountering a gush of wetness, he smiled to himself as he raised his upper body by pressing his hands against the bed, and stiffening muscular arms. Just as slowly, he withdrew his rigid member, rightly guessing that no pain marred his partner's first experience of yielding her body to a lover. Again, he thrust into her, faster this time, but not harder. Hearing soft cries, he exclaimed, "Ahhh ... you like that, don't you, little innocent?"
"Oh ... yes ... yes!" the bemused girl cried, willing him to go on offering that unutterably satisfying stimulation.
Consumed by raw lust, Rupert yet maintained rigorous control over his passion. Flayed by the memory of the egregious mistake made earlier, he resolved to prolong his bride's pleasure. He thrust faster, now, and a trifle harder. Feeling little isolated contractions tighten her passage, he withdrew, causing her to gasp in dismay.
Backing away, he pulled her legs around so that they extended over the side of the bed, with her heels resting on the wooden side rail. Rising, he stood between her outspread thighs, and thrust once again into her now lavishly lubricated passage. Having shoved his hands under her buttocks, he raised her delectably round rear, and changed the angle of penetration.
Aroused on a level she had not believed possible, Rohais abdicated all control over her body. She felt the walls of her inner space loosen, as Rupert's rigid cock drove into her again, and again, and again. Wave after wave of intensely pleasurable shivers radiated outwards from her loins, until at last, she felt lifted on the crest of a giant wave. Her awareness narrowed, focusing solely on the ever-more-intense pleasure. A gasping cry tore from her lips as the wave broke, and she experienced the white heat of culmination. Her body as limp now as wet silk, she failed to realize that the author of her ecstasy now shot pulse after pulse of hot jism into her loosened, still-vibrating passage.
Suffused with a heady mix of intense pleasure and satisfied male pride, Rupert groaned aloud as he achieved climax while thrusting deeply into his bride's shapely body. For a few precious moments, he stood savoring his accomplishment, and the slow ebbing of passion. When he withdrew his rapidly softening rod, he swayed alarmingly, before seizing his wife's legs, and turning her body. He then dropped like a stone into the bed, folded her into his arms, and drifted into an ethereal realm full of light, warmth, and the commingled scents of his bride's feminine essence, and his own masculine emission.
A score of years later, Rohais ceased to float on a sunlit sea. Grown aware of being clasped against an iron-hard body by muscular arms that enveloped her in warmth, she assessed her sensations, and found them exceedingly pleasurable. He'll leave, now, she told herself, and at once developed regret stemming from that circumstance. When he made no move to rise, she wondered if he slept, but he turned, and smiled into eyes soft with the memory of pleasure.
"Did I keep my knightly vow?" he demanded.
"You surely did, Your Highness."
"When you lie in my arms, call me Rupert. So. Go to sleep. This day proved difficult for you, and you face a long ride tomorrow." Having again drawn her close, he closed his eyes, and fell silent.
The realization dawned on Rohais that he had harbored no intention of leaving: that she occupied his bed, not the reverse. Inexplicably, that evidence that could easily be interpreted to mean that he considered her a possession nowise entitled to a chamber of her own produced relief, rather than consternation.
He's not in the least what I expected, she reflected bemusedly.
The thought belatedly struck her that for most of his adult years, Rupert had lived the life of a military leader, not that of a prince governing a stable country from a luxurious capital boasting a glittering court.
He never learned courtly manners, she concluded. Nor, she admitted in wonder, did he learn to ooze suavity and graciousness while delivering a lethal if symbolic drubbing to some ambassador or potential ally like Prince Sigismund, during a verbal exchange as fraught with danger to our House as a skirmish in the field. Prince Matthew excels at such verbal dueling, but he caved in immediately when this soldier backed by an unbeatable army levied his demands.
Admit the truth, she castigated herself scathingly. Now that you compare the two, you find this man's bluntness a refreshing change from Prince Matthew's habitual deviousness!
Worn out by the strains of the day, the satiated bride drifted into oblivion, soothed by the pressure of those strong arms enfolding her.