King Dent turned away from his chancellor, rubbing his gray beard and narrowing his faded green eyes in thought. He rose from his comfortable library chair, having weighed his options judiciously. The writing desk wasn’t far, and he seated himself behind it, taking up quill and parchment. His chancellor waited patiently nearby. As he wrote the proper address to his friend’s son, he carefully considered what to put in the letter.
To Prince Gammon of Carlisle from King Dent of the Isle of Ring, my most cordial salutations. I have a proposal for you that could be quite beneficial to both of our beloved kingdoms. I make no jest herein, but wish you to give this proposition serious thought…
The king wrote for a while, crossing out lines occasionally as he went. Finally, pleased with his letter, he pushed it toward his chancellor. “Send in the scribe and have him do his work. We want this letter to be beautifully wrought as well as carefully written,” he commanded in the imperial plural.
“Oh, and Bees, this must go with the swiftest horseman and the steadiest boat.”
Bees nodded and hurried out.
King Dent looked over his letter once again, knowing that the scribe would transmute it to the finest calligraphy and give it the polish it needed to make the perfect impression on the young prince. “Verily,” he said to himself. “This is the proper course.”
* * *
“I refuse! You cannot make me, Father! I shall die first!” Anger made her voice shrill, but Princess Brandywyn had no cure for it. She had tried to be patient, but her father’s insistence on her marriage was too much to bear. She wanted nothing in her life so much as to be alone. Safe. Unfettered by love and all it entailed.
King Dent looked upon his daughter, frustration written in the redness of his face and the set of his jaw. “You must marry, Brandywyn. We shall not live forever.”
She stomped her foot on the red carpet before the throne, unconcerned that the young man she was faced with was listening to her rejection. “I tell you, I shall not do it!”
Pointing a manicured finger at her father, she yelled, “You promised! You promised that I would not be forced to marry. You promised that I would have my choice!”
“Aye, that is true enough. But you have had a dozen men to choose from, all from the best families, and all well-prepared to take care of you. Why can you not choose?”
Brandywyn’s temper abated a bit. “I do not love them, Father.” She gave him a steady look. “I might never love again. I could not bear to lose someone I love again.”
“Now, my girl…” Dent held out his arms and Brandywyn ran to him, happy to be locked in his ermine-clad embrace. “Your mother, gods safely keep her, would not be pleased that you do not marry. ‘Tis a woman’s place to cleave to a man and bear children. Do you not want children to love?”
“No, I do not. I never want to love again. ‘Tis enough that I love you, Father.”
“And we love you, daughter. Very well…” He let her loose and she took a step back, wiping the tears off her face. “We shall not force you. Please consider how lonely you will be with no one beside you, and do not tarry long in making your decision.”
Sniffling, Brandywyn nodded. Her intention, however, was to make no decision at all.
Her father turned to the young man, standing uncomfortably to one side. “You have heard her decision. We apologize for your disappointment.”
“My father forced the hand of my younger sister, sire, and she is unhappy and shrewish. I would not wish that on Princess Brandywyn, or myself, for that matter. May I take my leave?”
The older man nodded. “Aye. Gods preserve you and keep you safe.”
The young prince nodded, strutting proudly from the room. If he was disappointed, he hid it well, and Brandywyn respected him for it. Nonetheless, she had no room in her heart for suitors. Love was too dangerous. She had been devastated by the loss of her mother just four years previous. Brandywyn couldn’t get over it. If that made her shrewish and difficult, then so be it. If she tried hard enough, she could remain unresponsive to others’ fretting.
The problem was that her father was becoming impatient. Soon, he would hear no more of her excuses and break his promise to give her a choice. Perhaps she could join a house of worship, become a holy sister, or the like. But she felt no calling to the gods—the cruel gods who had taken her mother before her time. Brandywyn felt as little as possible.
“May I go now, Father?”
“Aye, sweet daughter. Know that I am disappointed, however. Pray give that some thought, do you love me as well as you say.”
Guilt washed over her, but it did not change her mind. In fact, the emotion made her angry with herself. She had every right to refuse to marry. Someday, she would be queen and no one would try to force her to do anything ever again. If she was lonely, why… she would take lovers! Or maybe not. She had her books and her music. They’d have to be enough. The rest of her life would be loveless, for she had no wish to lose another loved one. Not ever again. ‘Twould be heartrending enough to lose her father someday, but she did not want to think about that. ‘Twas too painful and sunk her deeper into fear and anger.
Instead of answering him, Brandywyn turned and left the audience chamber. A servant hurried over to lift the train of her gown, lest it be spoiled by the rushes on the floor, but Brandywyn had no patience for the servants and pulled away her gown, giving the page a surly look. Why did no one leave her alone? Could they not see she was seeking the peace of solitude?
As she walked along the marble-walled corridors, she was approached by a pair of giggling ladies-in-waiting. Carmen and Lir were two of her younger ones, and prone to blushes and giggles often. Brandywyn generally avoided their company when she could.
They approached and curtsied low. “Your Highness! Your Highness! We have a secret! A secret we would share with you,” gushed Lir, the younger one. She was pretty in a fragile way, but rather silly and immature.
“‘Tis not much of a secret, Lir, do you spread it around so.”
“Oh,” said Carmen, “but, Princess, this is a secret that we cannot keep from you. You will like it. Oh, aye, Your Highness will like it.”
Brandywyn arched a blond eyebrow. “I will, hm? Well then, do tell it and get on with it.”
They each took one of her arms and hurried her away to one of the spare bedchambers in the large palace. It was in the west wing, the one reserved for guests. “Come, quick, or you will miss it!”
Skeptical, but with rising curiosity, Brandywyn allowed herself to be spirited away, and into a guest room. It was an opulent room, one prepared for high dignitaries. It had many tapestries on the walls and a few framed portraits of important family members and hunting dogs. It was to one of these dog paintings that the two giggling women drew her.
Lir moved the painting aside and there was a hole in the wall. The walls were thick, but not so thick that she couldn’t see clearly into the next room. There was a man standing there. He was stark naked, but being attended to by his valet, who was brushing and folding his clothes.
The man was tall, of regal bearing, broad-shouldered and dark haired. She couldn’t see the color of his eyes, but they seemed dark. He wore a small beard, which was very stylish for the day, and proved that he was a man of wealth. His hair was long, the upper half drawn back in a tail, the lower half left to swing free and lie upon his shoulders. The man was impossibly handsome. Brandywyn wished she could see him more clearly.
It was just like her father to bring in two suitors where one had been rejected before. Would this one be brought to the audience chamber for her to abuse, too? At least, after surreptitiously watching him, she would know what she was dealing with.
He shooed the valet off and was left alone in the room. After a moment, he moved to open the door a bit. In walked a buxom and saucy servant with long raven hair and ripe lips.
Brandywyn gasped. There was something going on here. Something quite naughty. She pulled back away from the peep hole, but was unable to stay away for more than a few seconds. Peering back into the room, she saw the man bend to kiss the young woman. It was a deep kiss. And as he kissed her, he slid his hands over her shoulders and down to cup her breasts. Now Brandywyn was sure of what was happening, sure that she shouldn’t be watching. She stepped back, biting her lip, and turned to her eagerly waiting ladies.
“How did you know of this?” She spoke softly, though she was pretty sure the man next door would not be able to hear her.
Carmen nodded toward Lir. “Lir’s sister’s waiting woman found out that one of the maids was called for by a prince to…”
“To satisfy his carnal needs,” said Lir with a deep, crimson blush.
“Aye. Upon asking a few questions, Lir’s sister was able to piece together this assignation, and she told Lir.”
“We looked through the hole she spoke of, Majesty,” Lir explained. “And we saw the prince disrobing. We came to find you immediately. This secret hole is too good not to share.”
“Hmm,” Brandywyn said, debating whether to be angry or join them in their conspiracy. She opted to do something in the middle. “You two go off and pray to goddess Fatua. Spying is a sin, I am sure.”
They looked at each other, crestfallen, but finally both nodded at her. “Aye, Your Highness, we shall do as you say, of course.”
“Hurry off,” Brandywyn admonished, shooing them away with a gesture.
They curtsied low and backed out of the room.
After the door closed, Brandywyn reached for the concealing picture, thinking to put it back, but hesitated. Unable to help herself, she looked into the adjoining room again.
Now both of the parties were naked, and the prince was touching the serving girl all over. He squeezed her ripe breasts, pulling at her hard nipples, and after a moment, slid one hand down to the private place between her legs. The woman threw her head back, and Brandywyn could almost hear her moans of pleasure.
Brandywyn didn’t even realize she was pulling her own skirt up until cool air wafted over her thighs. She pressed her eye against the hole again. As she watched the prince touch the servant, she wiggled one hand into her own tight bodice to caress her breast. Her nipples were hard, like the woman’s, and she teased them as the prince had teased the servant. Little gasps were the only sound Brandywyn made as she manipulated her breast. It felt so good! It sent a wave of pleasure from her nipples to her nethers, in tiny splashes, like drops of rain sliding down the windowpanes.
In the other room, the prince gave the maid a resounding smack on the backside and propelled her toward the bed. She skipped along, willingly enough, despite the red handprint on her behind. It was at that point that the front of him showed, and Brandywyn’s eyes opened wide. He was erect! So that’s what it looked like. She’d heard whispers and murmurs, some ribald jokes about a man’s poker, and, of course, she’d seen horses and dogs rutting, but she had never seen it on a man before. Why, it was straight, nearly touching his flat tummy, and at its base was a thatch of curly black hair. She even saw that, resting between his thighs, he had ballocks. They looked very firm, hanging in their sacks like two ripe plums on a tree.
Brandywyn’s hand slid up her thigh to her secret place, as she held her skirt up with the other hand. Gingerly, tentatively, she slid one finger over her lightly haired mound, then down, lower, to where her two fleshy sides met. She watched as the prince climbed up on the bed and once again put his hand between the girl’s legs, pressing fingers into her. Her private parts were wet, slick, and he alternated moving his fingers inside her to stroking toward the top of her slit.
Brandywyn separated the two sides of her slit and touched one finger there. A jolt of spiky pleasure was her reward. Bending a little at the knees, she moved her fingers down further between her legs. She was wet! It was slippery as melted butter on her fingers. Following the movements of the prince, Brandywyn pushed a finger inside her, and once again, that pleasure raced up her belly, leaving her hot and achy with something she had never experienced before.
The prince was mounting the woman next door. He got between her thighs and Brandywyn watched as he guided his pole into the woman until it was invisible to Brandywyn’s lascivious gaze. He began to move, and Brandywyn tried to imagine what the thick rod would feel like, pressing into her like her own fingers were doing.
He moved faster after a minute, and Brandywyn increased the pace of her frigging, occasionally touching her little, hard nubbin at the top of her slit. It made her tremble through her limbs and gasp. She gasped so loudly, in fact, that she was afraid the occupants of the next room would hear her. Brandywyn moved her hand to her mouth to stifle a cry, smelled the wetness from her quim, and licked her lips where her fingers had touched. She tasted strange and sweet. Blushes heated her face and neck, but that didn’t stop her from moving her wet hand back down to touch her nubbin again. The pleasure she felt was strong, nearly overwhelming, and her knees trembled.
Inside the room next door, the prince was moving faster on the serving girl, poking her deeply and then withdrawing, only to poke her again. The woman was thrashing around. Did it hurt? But, no, she ran her arms gently over the prince’s shoulders, and her hands eagerly down his back, pulling him in closer, tighter. It definitely didn’t hurt.
Brandywyn longed to feel that coupling. It looked like sensual fun. And in the prince’s case, it surely would never lead to marriage with a servant. It was sinful, but men were randy people. She had learned that by overhearing what was said in the great hall during supper and around the palace. Maybe she, herself, was a randy person, too, because that roiling sense in her middle was growing apace.
The prince used more force and then pulled out entirely, putting his hand on himself and pushing, pulling it, until it spurted white spatters over the woman’s belly.
Brandywyn was overcome at that point, as he found his pleasure; she was shocked and so excited that her fingers raced over her slit. Pressure exploded into something so good, so delicious, that she moaned with pleasure.
The prince collapsed on his lover’s body, and after a moment, he rolled off, lying on the big bed with an arm over his eyes, breathing hard. The woman in the bed looked tired, and not particularly happy. Maybe her body hadn’t reached that climax that Brandywyn had.
Brandywyn, her breath calming, dropped her skirt back in place and watched for another minute. Nothing much happened, so she pulled back away from the peep hole.
As she placed the picture back over the hole, hiding it carefully, she thought about what she had seen, what impact it might have upon her decision to accept a prince as her mate. Maybe this prince… but no, he had left the serving woman unfulfilled. That did not seem fair, and did not appeal to her at all. Maybe all men did that, in which case, Brandywyn would be better off with her own fingers.
Once again, Brandywyn hardened her heart against marriage. She would rely upon her own resources and not become dependent upon another, especially someone who could hurt her so deeply should she fall in love with him.
* * *
Later, in her well-appointed music room, Brandywyn looked around for her harp. Spying it back in its place, not where she had left it, she frowned. The servants again. They were wont to organize her life in the most infuriating ways. Could they leave nothing alone?
A door opened, and gently closed, as Brandywyn’s old nurse entered the room. “Aye, Princess?”
“Why is my harp moved? Have I not told the servants to leave my things alone?”
Tarntra nodded sagely. “Aye, you have. I told them otherwise.”
Rounding on her one true friend in anger, Brandywyn prepared to take her to task, but her fury was lost when she saw the concern and love on Tarntra’s lined face. Ever kind, despite Brandywyn’s rages, ever gentle with her, and yet implacable when Brandywyn felt most out of control, her Tarntra was like the mother she had lost. Faced with that unconditional love, Brandywyn broke down in tears.
“Oh, Tarntra, oh, I am so unhappy.”
Tarntra took her in her arms and held her tightly. “I know, precious girl. I know. Time will heal it, but you must cooperate.”
“I do not want to cooperate. I want to be left alone.”
“To wallow in your misery and bitterness? Will that bring your mother back?”
Head resting on her nurse’s plump shoulder, Brandywyn shook her head. A spill of light yellow curls bounced against Tarntra’s breast. Brandywyn hated her curls, despite the fact that so many complimented her on her looks. She hated everything about herself. The gods had deserted her, left her motherless. She knew she was unpleasant to be around. Yet, she could not stop her bad behavior. She needed it to keep people away.
“Shh. Shh, love,” Tarntra soothed, seeming to know her thoughts. “Take yourself in hand and give yourself a stern talking to. Leave all that anger behind and start a new day.”
It was the same thing Tarntra had told her from the time the queen had died. Brandywyn had tried, she truly had, but she was so resentful about losing her mother so early in her life. Why had that happened to her? How could the gods be so cruel? She could not cope with the loss, and slowly, her behavior had changed into what it was now.
Brandywyn felt doomed and alone in the prison she made for herself, a prison of tears and anger. It seemed hopeless.
* * *
Three mornings later, Brandywyn was called from her voice lesson to attend the king in his audience chamber. And so it began again. She knew it had to be a new suitor, some rich young man with a smiling face and nothing but an interest in her inheritance and the future throne of the Isle of Ring. Her father was persistent, if nothing else. Brandywyn pressed a hand to her flattened bodice and smoothed down the finely embroidered fabric of her gown. Mentally, she girded herself for another fight.
Fully prepared to throw a tantrum, she pushed herself past her father’s guards and stalked into the room. A fellow stood on the red carpet, watching her as she made her way toward her father’s throne. It was the man from the peep hole! There he was, smiling at her, and yet she knew what lay beneath his showy costume, and the thoughtlessness of the way he took his pleasure with the maid, giving so little in return. Brandywyn’s anger and resentment was nearly overwhelming.
She knew protocol forbade her from speaking first, but she was so tired of this game, she gave in to her inclination to stop the charade before it began. Sparing nary a further glance at this new suitor, she speared her father with her green gaze, hoping her eyes sparked as highly as her temper.
“What goes, Father? I thought this matter settled!”
Immediately, King Dent’s gray eyebrows drew together. “Castigate me not in my own house, Daughter. ‘Tis not polite.”
Well, that was true enough. Brandywyn stood down, burying the rant she had prepared. Her father meant well, even if he was meddling. She turned to look at the nobleman nearby. Dark haired and broad-shouldered, he was a very handsome man. His brown eyes twinkled merrily, apparently unfazed by her temper tantrum. He gave her a slight nod, not the courtier’s bow she had expected. Who was this tall rascal?
“Prince Gammon of Carlisle, may I present Her Royal Highness, Princess Brandywyn, my daughter.”
The young man, perhaps eight or ten years older than Brandywyn, stepped to her and took her hand, kissing the back of her knuckles politely. His touch was not too intimate; she could find no fault in it, though she would have liked to. “Your Highness,” he said. His voice was a little higher in register than she had expected, but not unpleasant to the ear. “I am greatly honored to meet you.”
Where was Carlisle? Brandywyn tried mightily to recall where that country lay. As she withdrew her hand, she remembered. It was on the neighboring continent, southward, and had several sea ports where the Isle of Ring and Carlisle did business together. It was a prosperous country, and a ripe apple for picking. However, Brandywyn had no interest in apples. Especially not this one, the prince of which was too attractive by half and selfish by half again.
“Thank you. I am sorry, but I cannot say the same.”
His eyes glittered. Was that merriment or anger?
“Daughter!” chided Dent.
“I have no interest in this prince,” she told the older man. “Nor any other prince, for that matter. I care not for this game and I shall not play it.”
“Princess,” said Gammon of Carlisle. “I assure you ‘tis no game for me. I come bearing gifts and nothing but attentions worthy of your consideration.”
He was a confident one, that was certain. “I hate to disappoint you, Prince Gammon, but I have no desire for gifts or attention. Leave me alone.”
King Dent sighed. “I am sorry, Gammon. ‘Tis as I warned. She will not be moved.”
“Perhaps in time, Your Majesty,” said the prince. “May I stay a while and make my effort?”
Brandywyn’s father nodded, adding to her temper. What was he thinking, prolonging this farce! “I insist that you go!” she demanded.
“‘Tis not your place to make this decision, Brandywyn,” King Dent told her sternly. “Aye, you may stay for a while, Prince Gammon. I give you leave to attend my daughter, but do not pester her o’er much. I shall not have her forced.”
Prince Gammon’s smile was truly breathtaking, his white, white teeth twinkling in the torchlight. “Have no fear, Your Majesty. I wish to woo, not wound.”
“Father! I do not want to be wooed! Tell him to leave!” She stamped one yellow-slippered foot. “I shall not be moved!”
“Go to your room, Brandywyn, and do not fail to come to dine when ‘tis time. You will sit between Prince Gammon and me and share his wine cup. Do not embarrass me further.”
Brandywyn felt her face heat with fury. Where was her choice now? Was this the time he would insist? “You break your promise to me, Father!”
“I do not. I seek to entertain you with good company. Go now.”
“Hmph.” She glared at Gammon for a moment, then stomped out of the room. We shall just see about the feast, she thought. I shall make such a hash of it, Father will never dare to force me to be civil again.
Once more in her apartment, Brandywyn coaxed and cajoled Tarntra to go along with her plan. Although stern-faced and disapproving, Tarntra knew her place and grudgingly cooperated.
When it was time for the midday meal, Brandywyn was ready. She wore her oldest, most threadbare dress, consisting of a food-stained bodice and a fully closed chemise across her ample breasts, hiding them effectively. Her skirt had grass and mud stains on the hem and her slippers fit poorly, making swish-tap noises as she walked. Her golden hair was disarranged and curls went this way and that, and she had colored her normally pink lips with blueberry juice, giving her fair complexion a corpse-like pallor. She hoped she looked truly frightful. Looking in the mirror, she saw such an unappealing woman, she almost relented and gave up the costume. The pang of conscience came and passed, however, and she squared her slender shoulders and flounced out of the room.
Brandywyn was escorted to the dais by the appropriate nobleman, and seated between Prince Gammon and her father. If Prince Gammon saw anything amiss, he kept it to himself. King Dent, on the other hand, frowned mightily and bent to whisper in her ear.
“Marry, I should take you over my knee for such despicable behavior, Daughter. You embarrass me before this company.”
Dent had never spanked Brandywyn for any reason, so she knew the threat was hollow. She snapped back, “‘Tis what you earned for forcing me to this mockery.”
He grumbled, but the food was served at that moment, and he set to it.
Brandywyn was expected to share a large trencher with Gammon, as well as a ceremonial wine goblet. Normally, he would cut her food for her and offer her the choicest morsels. In this case, however, he completely eschewed good manners and left her to her own devices. At one point, they had each stuck their eating knife in a partridge breast and actually fought over who would get the meat. Brandywyn was appalled at being treated in such a cavalier manner.
“You are a pig,” she told him, with a smile on her face, as though she was complimenting his soft, velvet doublet. “I shall never marry you.”
“If I am a pig, you are a stubborn mule.” His smile was equally false.
“Oh! How dare you!” She turned to her father, who was drinking his wine. “Did you hear that, Father? He called me a mule!”
“Did he? No, I did not hear it.”
“He did!” She put down her knife and reached for the wine goblet, intending to throw the claret into the prince’s face. However, the goblet was empty. He had drunk it all! Growling, she threw the goblet at him and rose from the table, angered beyond belief. The two men exchanged words, but Brandywyn could neither hear them well nor did she care to know what they said. They were both horrible!
As she stalked back to her room, she tried to think of what else she might do to thwart her father’s plans. An unattractive appearance did not do it. Insults only begot return insults. Refusal was met with false smiles and pretty sentiments. So what to do?
Brandywyn had always enjoyed riding. It was a usual afternoon pastime for her, and sometimes she found peace at the seashore, not far from the palace grounds. Riding there might give her a chance to think and plan her next sally. She sent word to the stables to prepare her horse, Pontiffany, for riding.
The gentlewomen who normally attended her, helped her change into her riding habit and tidy her appearance. Annoyingly, they had nothing but gossip and praise for the looks and manners of Prince Gammon. It made Brandywyn snap at them more than usual. They exchanged looks, and blessed silence was the result.
It took a few minutes to get to the mounting block, but soon she was astride her gelding and riding. Brandywyn was followed at a short distance by two grooms, but that was something she could remedy, and had many times before. She spurred Pontiffany to a strong gallop and raced away from the pair, straight into the forest, and down a narrow pathway. Circling several times, she was sure they had no idea where she would go, so she made for her special, hidden spot on the far side of the sand dunes to the west of the forest. So far, they had never found her there, so she felt safe.
At the beach, Brandywyn rode Pontiffany in the shallow surf for a while, enjoying the spray on her face. She let the wind blow her hair down and behind her like a long, golden flag, and smiled into the sun. The smell of the sea, so fresh and salty, tickled her nose and relaxed her shoulders. Anger melted away as though it had never been.
Dismounting, Brandywyn walked Pontiffany a short way, stopping to pick up a starfish along the way. She looked at the little creature and smiled. It was a gentle animal and gentled her spirit in turn. Carefully, she put it in the surf, where, presumably, it would make it back into the sea safely. Shore birds peeped and pecked for sand crabs and Brandywyn stilled so as not to scare them away. She whistled a bird call and got answers in return. Seagulls cried in approval, searching for their next meal and hoping Brandywyn would provide it. Alas, she had nothing to feed to them, but that did not stop her from watching them wheel and circle, enjoying their presence.
After a time, she went to the sheltered area between the dunes and sat in the sand. Brandywyn watched the waves come and go, come and go, like an endless, peaceful rhythm, soothing her soul.
* * *
Unknown to Brandywyn, a stranger sheltered behind her favorite sand dune, watching her stealthily. He had followed her through the forest, never losing his way. His horse was tethered a goodly distance away, and he made not a sound. All he did was watch her, admiring her loose golden hair and the way the sun sparkled in her green eyes, eyes now reflecting the green-blue sea. She was beautiful.
He watched as she removed her shoes and stockings and lifted her riding skirts carefully. She laughed as she frolicked in the wavelets that spun upon the shore, making footprints in the sand. Her feet were dainty, her ankles trim, like the rest of her. Slender, but rounded in all the right places.
The man wondered what she would do if he made himself known, but knew it would not be the right thing to do. It would frighten the maid and do harm to his cause. Instead he watched. He watched and dreamed about a time when he might share her joy with her. Although she had quite the reputation for being a termagant, he knew that he could soften her. He understood her reluctance to take a suitor. Perhaps she would be more inclined to take a lover. In some ways, this appealed to him; in others, it was abhorrent. ‘Twas best if Brandywyn remained chaste until she was betrothed… although with the right man…
After a while of watching her, smiling at her smiles and breathing the fresh breath of the sea with her, he carefully made his way back to his horse and left her alone. Time and tenderness would heal her broken heart.