War: Chapter 3

Michaels sighed, then relented and let Matthias dial the phone.  Despite everything, he really hadn’t liked Laura going off with Magda.  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them, it was just Laura was his crazy-ass hobo demon girl and well…  He didn’t trust them.  Matthias blinked.  “Laura, why are you answering Mom’s pho…”  Matthias listened for a moment, his eyes growing steadily wider.  “What the fuck do you mean she’s stoned?”  Matthias shook his head.  “Brownies with—”  He blinked.  “My father never stuck his dick in a musket.”

The beer nearly fell out of his hand as Michaels tried not to start laughing.  Matthias glared at him.  “Laura.  Laur—”  Matthias growled.  “I absolutely did not —”  He was starting to turn red and then raised his voice.  “The mission, Laura.  Shut about about —”  He listened for a minute.  “So he’s in.  Alri—”  He shook his head again.  “Breath a word of that and I will shave Michaels’ head.”

“Hey.”  Michaels narrowed his eyes.

“And tattoo a toilet bowl on his fore —”  Matthias made a groaning sound.  “Then I’ll wait until Gabriel is —”  He winced.  “Oh just…”  Matthias stabbed the end button on the call and tossed the phone on the table.  Then he raised his voice again.  “Erilon, make them —”

“Michaels, did you know when Matthias was little it was still traditional for young boys to wear dresses?”

“I did not.”  Michaels grinned.

Pink ones.

“Fucking demons.”  Matthias turned and strode out of the room.

(more…)

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Primitive: Chapter 9

The cot Lykos had set up for him was surprisingly comfortable.  Lykos had purchased a pad, and folded a couple blankets atop that.  Despite the fact that his hands had been shackled behind his back and his ankles secured together, he’d have passed a pleasant night if he hadn’t been dreading the events to come with the dawn.  Lykos had gone deeper into the cave before sunrise.  Christophe’s leash was fastened to the old track, meaning he couldn’t have followed even if his hands and legs had been freed.

He heard a sound and his stomach sank a little.  Lifting his head meant he could see the shine of Lykos’s eyes as the man returned.  Lykos had taken no light source with him into the dark.  He didn’t appear to need one, though he left a lantern in the cave that sheltered them for Christophe’s benefit.  He’d also left a flashlight next to the cot.

Lykos had brought with him what looked to be two pieces of metal railroad track.  He also brought several other pieces of metal back with him.  As Christophe watched, Lykos set to work.  The dwarf used his finger to slice one of the track pieces in half, moving through hardened steel as easily as a hot knife moved through butter.  Christophe half expected to see the metal glowing, but however Lykos worked the material didn’t seem to involve heat.  He swallowed.  “How do you do that?”

“How do you move your hand through water?”  Lykos glanced over his shoulder at him.

“Water is a liquid.  Not a solid.”  Christophe sat up.  “The basic state properties are different.  I couldn’t move my hand through ice.”

“Ah.  Science.”  Lykos nodded.  Then he shrugged.  “Don’t think this is science.”  He set one of the bars atop the longer one to make a cross-shape, then used his fingers to smooth the metal and join the pieces.  He then added small circles of metal to each of the ends of the arms of the…

Christophe’s eyes widened.  The arms of the cross.  Lykos was making a steel cross.  “Lykos —”

“It not yet dawn.”  Lykos glanced over his shoulder.  “You beg already?”

“You intend to kill me.”  Christophe shook his head.

“Kill?”  Lykos shook his head.  “No.  Young, healthy.  Can live days on cross.  Perhaps a week or more, if give you water.”

His body was started to shake a little.  He clenched his fists to try to make the shaking stop.  “I need a word.”

“Word?”  Lykos blinked, then turned back to him.  “What word?”

“So, you know the begging is real and not just reflex.  Give me a word.  I won’t mean anything I say except that word.”  He dragged his eyes from the cross to meet Lykos’s.  “Please, master.”

The nod Lykos gave him was one of approval.  “Two words.  Give you pause to think.  Snow White.”

“Okay.”  He drew in on himself, and took several deep breaths before watching Lykos finish his work.

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 12

Durante couldn’t help but stare at the man pacing the cell.  He’d heard legends of the Stone Dragon, and had to admit that some of them may well be true.  The man was taller and even more muscular than Ruarc.  The second man was smaller, though of similar age.  He too, was a handsome man, with short blond hair and a warrior’s build.  According to the jailer, Ruarc had kept Jurgen Draak in line by threatening that they’d shoot the other man first.

“You want to play.”  Vitalia’s voice purred in his ear.

“Some games are too dangerous even for me…”  Durante turned to smile at her.  “Though I do admit to a certain temptation.”

“He’s unarmed and unarmored.”  Vitalia shrugged.  “How dangerous could he be?”

“He once torn a troll’s arm off and used said arm to beat another troll to death.”  Durante chuckled.  “Looking at him, I can believe it.”  He hesitated a moment.

“The Dragon Queen may pay well for the return of her heir.”  Madzia’s voice was quiet.

“More likely she’d send a horde down on us.”  Vitalia shook her head.  “We are too near their border.”

“They say she once spent a year torturing one of her husbands to death.”  Durante glanced at Vitalia.

“I like her already.”  Vitalia smiled, then returned her gaze to the pacing man.  “We can always tell the king we were simply interrogating him to learn if there were others near.”  She flicked her eyes to the blond man.  “And tell our draconic guest that any failure on his part to cooperate will result in his friend bearing the brunt of said interrogation.”

“An interesting notion.”  Durante’s smile widened.

“Let us sleep on it.”  She shrugged.  “Ruarc is occupied.  I’ll send for Gian to entertain us.”  She headed up the stairs.

He followed.

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 11

Vitalia accepted a glass of wine from a tray brought by a servant, and smiled.  Madzia had found her early in the visit and whispered to her that Lord Liam of Bohm was in attendance.  It seemed as good an opportunity as any to dispense with agents and make the purchase.  Things weren’t going exactly as she planned, but she found herself enjoying the company anyway.  She’d expected Lord Liam to be a Solsthriem lordling, all prim and proper.  The man in front of her was of Jolusth, tall and handsome in a tunic that covered only one shoulder.  His other shoulder was bare, the better to show off the tattoo that decorated it.  The servant who accompanied him was a tiny, golden skinned exotic with unusually shaped eyes.  She’d never quite seen the like before.

“How is it you’ve acquired lands in both Solsthriem and Thatela?”  She raised an eyebrow.

“It behooves one to range far.”  His accent was a soft drawl.  Despite her lands bordering theirs, she’d rarely had the chance to talk with one.  Lord Liam was delightfully tall, though slenderer than her husband.  “I have interests spanning the world.”

“Your people aren’t known to be merchants.”  She sipped at her wine.

“My people are often underestimated.”  He took a sip from his own glass.  “But pray tell, what interest do you hold…”  He frowned as his servant stumbled a little, spilling from the tray he carried.  Liam barked something in another language.  The servant bowed his head low and hurried off to replace the spilled items.  “Manisar’s training routines seem problematic.”  He glanced at her, then inclined his head.  “Forgive me, duchess.  I know the purchase of slaves is not legal in your lands.”

“Tis a shame.  Servants are well and good but so difficult to train properly.”  She raised her glass in his direction before sending another look in the direction of the servant.  She’d really never seen anything quite like him before.  “I admire your taste.”

“Is that why you wish to acquire my property?”  He smiled at her.

“I think…”  She gave Lord Liam a contemplative smile.  He was a handsome man, and clearly someone not adverse to more unconventional pursuits.  “I have acquired a member of the family that used to hold it.  I wish to acquire the property as well, to ensure there are no…”  She shrugged.  “Behavioral issues.”

Lord Liam laughed.  “Duchess, you have expensive tastes.  I am curious if this acquisition of yours is worth such a grand price?”

“To be fair, there are also the vineyards.”  She took a sip of the wine, peering at him from the rim of the glass.  “Wine and sex do seem natural bedfellows.”

“Perhaps you intend to arouse my curiosity?”  He raised an eyebrow.  “I would be interested in seeing this…”  He chuckled.  “Acquisition of yours.  Perhaps an arrangement can be made?”

She smiled, imagining the look on Ruarc’s face when she ordered him to service a barbarian lord.  “You could accompany me back to my estate, judge for yourself?”  She allowed his servant to refill her glass.  “Then we could come to our bargain.  I’m sure, after experiencing my hospitality, you’d be willing to bargain.”

“You offer an interesting enticement.”  Lord Liam nodded.  “I think there may be business at your estate that could draw my interest.”  He rolled his eyes.  “And one is often led to wonder why one leaves important work to their agents.  Especially when it seems they oft have trouble listening to the simplest of instructions.”

“It does give one an excuse to use a flogger.”  She batted her eyes at him.

“You require an excuse?”  His grin became mischievous.

“Lord Liam, I think you and I could become friends.”  Vitalia laughed.

“The future does tend to play out in the oddest of ways.”

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 10

She ran her hand down Ruarc’s cheek, and was pleased to feel no stubble.  The fact that he kept himself well-groomed pleased her.  Gian had taken to tying Ruarc’s hair back for him, and she found she liked the way it looked.  He knelt before her obediently, awaiting her command.  She’d ridden him for nearly an hour that morning, and his body showed some of the effects.  The saddle tended to leave abrasions, and there were light scratches along his legs and torso from stray branches.  “When I return, I am going to have the craftsman rethink some of the straps.”  She frowned as she examined the small blisters that had formed were the straps went over his shoulders.

“Thank you, my lady.”  Ruarc hesitated a moment, then gave a small twitch of his shoulder.  “It would help my balance, I think, if the saddle sat either a little higher or a little lower.  It tends to slide a bit where it is.”

“I see.”  She smiled.  “I would prefer a steady, longer ride.”  She caressed his face with the back of her knuckles.  “Something to consider when I return.”

A shadow crossed his face, gone almost before she noticed it.  “Will I be accompanying you?”

Vitalia narrowed her eyes.  He’d been complicit in Gian’s recent poor behavior.  She was reasonably confident that Gian hadn’t smuggled any letters out for him, but the fact that he had accessed information without her permission made her wary of taking him anywhere he may be able to make contact.  “I think not.”  She tilted her head at him, then caught his chin.  “You’ll not be permitted to write this month.”  His face darkened slightly.  “Nor will you be permitted to write again until I say otherwise.  You attempted to subvert my authority, husband.  That is not acceptable.”

“I apologize, Mistress.”

Mistress.  He’d never called her that before.  For that matter, Gian had stopped using the term as well, adopting Ruarc’s habitual address of calling her ‘my lady’.  When had that occurred?  “You’ve been a good boy for me, Ruarc.  I am willing to be merciful over this lapse.  But my forgiveness goes only so far.”

“I understand, Mistress.”  He lowered his eyes submissively.

“Good boy.”  She leaned forward to kiss his forehead.

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The Duchess: Chapter 9

Gian’s eyes were wide, and he was grinning like a small child.  Sita pranced just a little, making Gian laugh gleefully.  The sight brought a smile to Ruarc’s face as he kept a firm grip on the lead rope.  Sita trotted in a circle around him.  He’d been shocked to learn Gian had not only never ridden a horse before, but had a fear of them.  Sita’s sweet nature had taken care of the latter problem, and letting Gian ride sidesaddle ensured he was comfortable trying the former.

Sita had learned quickly that Gian was an absolute pushover for treats and pats.  Whether it was just the chance at more exercise or her own nature, she appeared to be having just as much fun as Gian.  She even kicked up her heels a little to make him squeal.  Ruarc sighed when he noted the position of the sun.  “Time to head back.”  He clicked his tongue, and Sita came to him.

“She’s wonderful.”  Gian beamed as he slid off the saddle into Ruarc’s arms. Ruarc set him on the ground, and Gian immediately turned to Sita.  “You are.  You’re the most beautiful animal in the world.”  Sita nickered in response, and Gian laughed.  “She’s talking to me.”

“I’ve always suspected she understands most of what I say.”  He led his companions back into the castle.  In the stables, he showed Gian how to rub Sita down, then smiled to himself as Gian started plaiting her mane and promising her ribbons next time.  She tossed her head proudly when he finished.  “He’s going to spoil you.”  He patted the horse.

“Yes.”  Gian rubbed her neck.  “I will bring you apples and carrots and oats and —”

“Not too many, or you can make her sick.”  Ruarc shook his head.

“Just the right amount then.”  Gian leaned in toward Sita and whispered to the horse.  “And I won’t tell Ruarc about the occasional sugar stick if you don’t.”  Sita nickered in response.

Ruarc just rolled his eyes as he headed out of the stables.

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The Duchess: Chapter 8

Vitalia ran her hand down Ruarc’s taut belly.  His wrists were still secured above his head, and his ankles were chained to the foot of the bed.  As she demanded when he slept, he was naked.  The bonds weren’t in place because she feared he’d attack her.  She just liked the way the chains looked on him.  His eyes blinked open, and she smiled before slithering atop him.  “Good morning, my darling.  Did you sleep well?”  She fiddled with the ring she’d placed in his left nipple.

The shackles on his wrists rattled a little.  “I dreamed I was trapped in a mad woman’s castle.”

She laughed.  “Darling, you’ve done nothing to make me angry with you.”  She raised herself up a little to kiss him.  Then she trailed her hand down to begin fondling him.  “You’re the most delightful pet I’ve ever purchased.”  Only the briefest shadow crossed his face at the reminder.  He’d become better at schooling his expressions.  She kissed him again, tasting his lips as she continued toying with him until he was squirming beneath her.  Then she mounted him.

His back arched as he moved for her, thrusting upward to please her.  It hadn’t taken him long to learn.  She arched her own back as she rode him, moaning softly.  The rules of their morning sessions had been explained to him carefully.  If he came before she did, Durante would be allowed to take a belt to his ass before using him.  To Durante’s disappointment, Ruarc had proved disciplined enough to avoid that fate.

When she came, she slid off him, leaving him unfulfilled.  A smirk came to her face when he responded with a glare, and she leaned forward to plant a quick kiss on his lips.  “Keep your hands off yourself, my dear.  If you wish release, you may ask Gian to service you.”  He gave a small shake of his head.  He wouldn’t, as she well knew.  Which meant he’d be having a frustrating day.

“Are you going to unchain me?”  He pulled at his wrists before raising an eyebrow.

“From the bed, yes.”  She grabbed the key, then glanced up when Gian entered in response to her ring of the bell.  Gian was limping just a little.  “Gian, bath Ruarc and then take him into the dungeon and secure him to the frame.”

“Yes, my lady.”  Gian bowed.

Ruarc rose from the bed as soon as she’d finished unfastening the shackles.  There were no clothes laid out for him, and he gave a small shake of his head when he noticed.  She smiled at him.  “And Gian?”

“My lady?”  Gian looked at her.

“Keep him hard, but do not give him release unless he asks you for it.”

Gian gave her a slightly confused look, but nodded.  Ruarc, however, clenched his fists and glared again.  “You said —”

“You need not do anything to him, Ruarc.”  She patted his shoulder.  “Unless you want to.”

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 7

She ran her fingers through Ruarc’s hair.  He was firmly secured in the pillory, partly bent over and with his legs spread apart.  She’d fixed weights and little bells to the clamps she’d attached to his more sensitive bits, and now and then she could hear them jingling.  “You’ll be pleased to know I have sent the first stipend to your sister.”

He slowly raised his head to look at her, though the pillory made him have to crane his neck to do so.  “She’ll be pleased.”

“I’ll allow you to write to her tomorrow.”  She ran a finger down his cheek.  “I will read it before I allow it to be sent.”  She walked behind the pillory, then trailed her fingernails down his side.  He twitched, making the bells jingle.

Vitalia smiled, then flicked her fingernail against his scrotum.  He made a small sound as he jumped a little at the sensation.  Then she walked all the way around to face him again.  “You wanted a warrior.”  His voice was quiet.

“I have one.”  She ran her fingers through his hair again.

“You won’t for long, if this continues.”  He exhaled.  “Men are weakened in captivity, especially held like this.  If you want me to be able to fight for you…”  He raised his head again.  “You’ll have to allow me to —”

“Exercise, yes.”  She nodded.  “Tomorrow I will allow you a few hours to train.”  She crouched to look him in the eye.  “Tonight though, I want to see you squirm.”

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 6

She hadn’t been lying.  Having them removed was indeed more painful than having them placed.  Ruarc bit back the cry of pain every time, and did not indulge in any groaning.  The look of disappointment on her face almost make the suffering worthwhile.  She must have caught a glimpse of that in his face, because she knew exactly how to retaliate.

“Making me into your whore isn’t enough for you?”  He fought to keep his hands from clinching into fists.

“Are you denying having second thoughts about our arrangement?”  She arched an eyebrow as a smug expression danced on her lips.

“Durante holds my brother’s marker.”

“And you cannot call in markers on your lands to pay it off.  You owe more than the lands are worth, and those markers will belong to me.”  She sat languidly in her chair, as though it was a throne.  It might well have been.

“Do as you demand and my family does well.  Walk away and…”  He swallowed.  “My brother dies in debtor’s prison.”

“Let’s be fair, my darling.  I’ll also see to your personal destruction.  You can be a whore or an outlaw.  One of the two will see your family secure.”  She stretched her leg out onto the footstool.  “Kneel.”

Ruarc bowed his head before dropping to his knees.  A small, bitter laugh escaped him.  “How may I serve, mistress?”

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 5

He rubbed at his wrists, then exhaled before letting Gian take one to sooth the ointment into it.  His ankles had been left shackled together and secured to the chain on the floor.  Gian gave him a concerned look.  “The ropes are nicer if you don’t fight them, my lord.”

Simply fleeing would do him no good.  He might have gotten away with killing Durante, but there was the duchess to consider.  The king’s niece.  Killing her would make him an outlaw if he wasn’t simply executed, and alive her word was worth far more than his own.  She’d laid the trap clearly, and he’d still stepped inside.  “Fighting them seems to amuse her.”

“Oh, yes, my lord.”  Gian nodded.  “She was praising you at breakfast, telling all who would listen how she had to put you in irons.  She feared you’d break the ropes.”  Gian soothed the ointment into his other wrist.  “She’s instructed special restraints be made for you my lord.  Something that can hold her magnificent beast.”  He gave Ruarc a shy smile.  “You frightened me a little when you threw Durante off the bed.  I thought you were going to break free and I’d be punished for not tying you well enough.”

“If…”  Ruarc took a deep breath.  “You’d be punished if I broke free?”

“Of course, my lord.”  Gian gave him a confused look.  “Or if the ropes injure you.  It means I did not perform my duty adequately.”  Gian stood.  “Do you have other injuries, my lord?”

“I’m fine.”  Ruarc nodded.

Gian shifted from foot to foot.  “Are you certain, my lord?”

Ruarc looked up at him.  “I’m fine.”

“I…”  Gian hesitated.  “Are you certain, my lord?”

“Gian…”  He exhaled.  “What concerns you?”

“My lord, Durante did not prepare you before he took you.”

“Prepare…”  He caught on to what Gian was saying and felt his skin start to burn.  “I’m fine, Gian.”

“If my lord would like, I can prepare you before they wish to use you again.”

“I don’t…”  Ruarc shook his head.  “I don’t even know what you mean by that.”

“Oh.”  Gian started nodding.  “I can put oil on my fingers and —”

“Gian.”  Ruarc stared at him and then started shaking his head.  “No, I don’t want you to —”

“My lord.”  Gian put a hand on Ruarc’s shoulder, then crouched slightly so they were eye level.  “If you are not prepared, you could tear, or…”  Gian took a deep breath.  “It is a very painful injury to have, my lord.”

“I…”  Ruarc frowned.  “You know this from experience.”

“Yes, my lord.”  He nodded.  “I would have to prepare well if I were to take you, my lord.  You are bigger than Durante.”

“I won’t be taking you, Gian.”  Ruarc shook his head.  “I have no interest in either defiling you or doing you harm.”

“I…”  Gian smiled at him.  “I wouldn’t mind, my lord.  I like you.”

“Just…”  Ruarc took a deep breath.  Then another.  He had to take a third before he could speak.  “Tell me if you think I am going to need to be…”  He winced.  “Prepared, and I will consider your offer.”

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 4

He was quiet when they entered the castle.  She wasn’t certain how much was fascination and how much was nerves.  Out of the corner of her eye she watched him, noting that he was paying attention to the castle’s fortifications and defenses.  That was encouraging, considering one of his duties would be to defend her fortress should such a thing become necessary.  Ruarc caught her watching him, and gave her a small nod.  “What do you think, darling?”  She smiled as she took his arm.

“It is impressive.”  He looked up toward the heights.  “Considering the approach, I admit surprise you do not have ballistas.”

“Something for you to discuss with my steward.  Let me give you the tour.”  She kept hold of his arm as she took him through the castle.  He was impressed by her armory, and commented on the efficiency of the stables.  And it was clear he didn’t miss the looks some of her staff were giving him.  Many seemed amused, but a few of the glances bordered on pity.  With her arm locked around his, she could feel his tension.  It brought a smile to her face.  “You may not leave the castle without my permission, but once granted you can ride and hunt in the woods.  The map is in my office.”

“Leave without…”  He blinked and turned to look at her.  “Without your permission?”

Vitalia raised an eyebrow.  “What about the instruction confuses you?”

“It’s purpose.”  Ruarc frowned.

“I purchased you for a reason, darling.  Allowing you to wander freely runs the risk of subverting that.  You’ll not be permitted to leave my lands unescorted at all.”

“I will want to visit my family.”  He shook his head.

“Arrangements can be made, provided you are otherwise a good boy.”  She patted his arm.  “Now, I believe you are unhappy with the current status of your family’s stipend.”

A small, slightly bitter laugh escaped him.  “You could say that.”

“I believe, unless your sister is not as capable as you described, that a sum of 300 gold a month would be sufficient to allow them to live among the nobility again, yes?”

It amused her to see just how wary his expression became.  “I take it you have…”  He gave a small shake of his head.  “Something in mind?”

“Oh, yes.”  She rubbed his arm.

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The Duchess: Chapter 3

By Thatelan law, a marriage wasn’t fully legal until it was consummated.  The duchess had also made her intentions clear, despite being eager to return to her own lands.  Bedding her was to be expected, per their arrangement.  It should come as no surprise that they’d share a room at the inn, being newlyweds.  His eyes went once again to the item sitting on the pillow.  “You want to tie me to the bed.”

“Yes.”  Her smile was that of a lioness who’d spotted prey.

“And if I let you, you’ll double the stipend.”  He stared at the coil of rope.

“I’ve found a new stallion is often skittish at the first ride.  Offering a reward can smooth the process.”  She waved a hand.  “But our bargain was that you will submit to my will.”

“Obeying you is one matter.”  He shook his head.  “Being rendered helpless is another.”

“Hence the offer of the reward.”  The smile never left her face.

Ruarc exhaled, then glanced at the woman standing behind her.  “Your maid is still present.”

“Enjoy the small pleasures of rank, dear husband.  She’ll save you the effort of undressing yourself.”  Something of his reaction must have shown on his face, because she laughed.  “Come now.  She did quite well last time.”

“I am fully capable of undressing myself.”

“I’m sure you are.”  She shrugged.  “But I like the way you blush when she unlaces your breeches.”  Duchess Vitalia straightened.  “Stand, and let her undress you.”

He took a deep breath before rising.  The maidservant’s smile was a catlike mirror of her mistress’s as she began unfastening his doublet.  She took her time, putting on a show for the duchess.  He clenched his fists, but stayed where he was.  After he was naked, the maid went back to her position behind the duchess.

Her eyes raked over him.  “Well?”  She raised an eyebrow.

Kiera would be smart with the coin, see to their security.  This wouldn’t be forever.  Just until…  “It will be as you wish.”  He exhaled.

“Wonderful.”  She stood then, and trailed a hand across his chest.  “Relax, darling.  You may even enjoy yourself.”

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 2

He wanted to grab the key and storm from the room.  Ruarc could feel his face burning from humiliation.  And yet, if he left empty-handed, his brother was a dead man.  A whore, she’d called him.  Worst part was she was right.  He took a couple deep breaths, and then took his seat once more.

The maid who’d stripped him brought in the meal.  He started to open his mouth, then caught himself.  She hadn’t given him permission to speak yet.  Ruarc looked up to see her giving him a pleased smile.  “Now, as to terms…”  She looked down at her plate, her voice prim.  “I will first go over what is in this offer for you, and what is not.  You will not be given access to my fortune.  I will, however, purchase the markers for your family’s debts.  Your estates, and your brother’s recent mistakes.  Additionally, I will provide your family members with suitable stipends.  I will also see to the repairs on the estate itself.”

Ruarc went still, as she laid out everything he wanted and more.  He took a sip of the wine, and noted his hand was trembling just a little.  The duchess must have noticed as well, because she smiled again.  “You can, of course, refuse.  In fact, you may walk away at any time.  Your sisters are pretty, no doubt they can find work in a brothel.  You could support your mother and your youngest sibling by returning to the life of a soldier, at least as long as you escape injury.  Your brother…”  She shrugged, then waved a hand.  “You may speak.”

“You’ve made your point, Your Grace.”  He was surprised to find his voice steady.  “Perhaps you should explain what it is you want from me.”

“In public, you will play the role of my adoring and devoted husband.  You will, if necessary, defend my honor and other such matters.  Should I bear a child, you will claim the child as yours and defend the child’s honor as well.”  She speared a bit of meat on her fork.  “In public.”

A show.  A pretense, so she could avoid having a husband with sufficient power to interfere with her.  And yet if that were all she wanted, there were plenty of weak dandies about for her to choose from.  Fools who had to have six servants before they could dress themselves.  “In public.”  He slowly nodded.  “And in private?”

“You will assume no control over my standing or finances.  You will assume no power over me at all.  You will do as I tell you, and submit yourself to my will.”  Her smile became predatory.  “I have no interest in you as a husband, Ruarc.  But as a plaything?”  She looked him over.  “I think I will enjoy you thoroughly.”

It was all he could do not to flinch.  A whore was exactly what she’d make of him, if he agreed to this.  And a cuckold beside.  “My sisters will require dowries.”

“Their needs will be met, as long as you keep your end.”  She speared herself another bite of food.  “Displease me, and their stipends will be cut off until you submit to whatever punishment I deem satisfactory.”

“Not courting a husband…”  He gave a bitter shake of his head.  “You’re buying a slave.”

“Precisely.”  She bit into the meat.

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The Duchess: Chapter 1

Three separate lords had now presented invitations to her.  Duchess Vitalia sighed.  The worse part was her uncle, the king, had looked in her direction whenever the word ‘alliance’ came up.  She hadn’t disposed of one useless old man just to get stuck with another.  Any husband the king saddled her with would mean trouble, as would the sycophants after her wealth and position.  If she did marry, it would have to be on her terms, and none of those louts would agree.  Many of them seemed to think she would benefit from a ‘governing hand’.

Adding to her current frustration was the fact she dare not relieve her frustration with her lover.  Not with so many eyes about.  Durante was both base born and a bastard, and it was scandalous enough merely having him as her groom.  Marzia, her maid, was lush enough, but she was in the mood for something else.  And any husband she ended up with would likely insist both they and Gian be sent away, if he didn’t come up with a pretense to have them killed.  Her not so sadly deceased husband had killed her lovely Nico.

She picked up her drink, then noted Marzia was staring down at the tournament with a small smile.  “Someone caught your eye?”

“That count who annoyed you earlier was just unhorsed.  He is not happy.”  Marzia’s smile became an open smirk.  “Not happy at all.”

Vitalia followed her gaze to see the sputtering count.  It took her a moment to determine who had unhorsed him.  She hadn’t been paying attention to the games.  The knight was young, and his armor battered as though it had seen war rather than just tournaments.  “Who is he?”

“I believe that is Baron Orso’s second son, your grace.  I’m not sure of the name…”  Marzia tilted her head.  “Something foreign.  His mother was Ipruci or Gaebli or something.”

“I’m surprised he was allowed to compete.”  She frowned at the scene.  “Though that seems to be the count’s issue as well.”

“The boy has ridden well.  He’s in the running for…”  Marzia trailed off.  The count was clearly pleased at whatever the tourney master had decided.  The handsome young knight looked frustrated and angry as he turned and stalked away.  “He has been disqualified.”

“Pity.”  Vitalia settled back into her chair.  “I rather liked the thought of Count Servo taken out by an upstart.”

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