Princess Juliet was irritated. She fussed with a new gown that did not quite fit, and so she was in a bad mood. Her ladies-in-waiting walked on eggshells when she was in such a state. The princess in this frame of mind was someone to be avoided.
“It’s too tight,” she complained as her maids helped her into the gown. The gown had been designed to show off the princess’s curvy figure, and by the reaction of her ladies, it had done just that. No one could deny that Juliet Greystone was a rare beauty. The long red hair that fell well below her shoulders framed large green eyes, a dainty nose, spotted with a freckle or two, and a ripe mouth. An ample but not overly large bust was barely contained by the upper bodice of the gown, which was the source of Juliet’s displeasure. The gown tapered to a narrow waist, which made her breasts appear larger, before flaring to drape over her shapely hips and nicely rounded derriere. Her maids knew the legs hidden under the gown were lean and well formed. She was by any measure a beautiful girl on the cusp of young womanhood. Her nineteenth birthday had passed that winter, some five years after her mother’s untimely death from an illness of unknown origin.
That had left no one to raise the young princess, and as a result she was as spoiled as young royalty could be. Her father, King Robert Greystone, had been too busy with affairs of state of the kingdom of Westvale to tend to her upbringing properly. So she had had her way with servants, courtiers, tutors, and her ladies-in-waiting, alternately a holy terror and a demanding brat. She had free run of Greystone Castle and ordered servants about according to her whims. Her father was the king and he doted on her. As a result no one dared refuse even the most outrageous of demands.
Juliet stamped her foot and said to no one in particular, “I want this dress to fit me properly. Send for the royal seamstress immediately.”
“But princess, she left after delivering the dress to attend her children in the countryside. She has been working tirelessly for several days, neglecting them so she could get this dress made to your satisfaction.”
The speaker was Maeve, the only maid who ever dared to voice an objection to Juliet’s demands. The other attending maids looked at Maeve as if shocked that she would dare say something like that to Juliet. It was not beyond Juliet to have servants birched for insolence.
“Do I have to do everything myself?” said Juliet.
Everyone shrank back.
“Fine. I’ll fetch her myself. Tell the groom to saddle my horse.”
A page was called in to inform the groom that Juliet had need of her horse. This was another of Juliet’s traits. She was headstrong and stubborn and went riding alone whenever she pleased. Although instructed by her father never to stray from the keep without an escort, she did it all the time, sneaking out when her father was around, and brazenly riding off when he wasn’t. And woe betide anyone who told on her. As Juliet went riding off, departing the keep through a back gate, servants shook their heads in dismay. They all knew that someday misfortune would surely befall the princess for her impulsive behavior.
Castle Bathen, an earldom of Westvale
“Which of you broke the glass?” Lady Morgaine Bathen demanded. The woman known to many as ‘the red countess,’ lounged sideways on her feather bed, idly twirling a short whip. The aristocratic beauty wore silk bedclothes through which generous amounts of creamy flesh were visible. The nervous girls seemed to be having difficulty taking their eyes off either their mistress or the whip. They clearly knew they were in trouble.
Nell and Freya looked at each other as if trying to decide who would take the blame. They’d both been careless and now the valuable blown glass piece of art from the countess’s collection was smashed into pieces.
“We don’t know, your grace,” offered Freya. “We were moving it and it slipped. We didn’t mean to break it. It was an accident, truly.” Nell nodded as she spoke.
“Perhaps you should both be punished then,” said Morgaine.
“No, no, please, your grace. It was an accident.” They pleaded and wrung their hands, terrified now.
Morgaine rose from the bed and paced about the two girls in a circle. Several other of her ladies-in-waiting stood beside her bed watching the two unfortunate maids. Morgaine turned to them and said, with an expansive wave of her hand, “See? No one is at fault. A valuable piece of sculpture is smashed to pieces and it’s no one’s fault.” She stopped pacing in front of the two and fixed them with a withering gaze.
“But it is the fault of both of you, then. You will both be punished.”
This pronouncement led to more pleading and supplications as Nell and Freya fell to their knees and begged for mercy. Punishment at the hands of the countess was to be feared. Lady Morgaine was said to conduct dark rituals at which maids just like them were made to scream in pain from the application of cruel rods and whips. Many whispered that the countess was a witch and that the torture was her method used to summon spirits to do her bidding. Afterwards, it was rumored, the punished girls would be led to her bed, there to be required to perform unspeakable acts.
“A sound whipping will remind you to be more careful,” said Morgaine. She turned toward the door. “Daric,” she shouted, “Come here and bring two guardsmen with you.”
Morgaine’s chamberlain, Daric, appeared in the doorway with a pair of Morgaine’s castle guards.
“Bring a pair of whipping stools. I mean to dispense some discipline to a pair of clumsy maids.”
The girls began to cry as footmen brought in sturdy wooden frames with bindings at the four legs. They rendered one immobile, placing the unfortunate object of Morgaine’s displeasure in a position that made her buttocks jut out rudely, practically begging for the whip. When the stools had been placed in the center of the room, she said to her attending guardsmen, “Prepare them. These two are going to feel the lash on their chubby posteriors tonight. Perhaps three dozen strokes each will teach them to be more careful.”
The girls broke down sobbing at this pronouncement, but Morgaine barked, “Silence. Now strip. Take off all your clothes and be quick about it.”
Freya and Nell had no choice. To disobey was to risk a worse punishment, perhaps a public lashing in the courtyard. They started to undress.
Morgaine was interrupted by the arrival of a footman. Daric permitted him entry and he bowed.
“Countess, Lord Tomas Cramden, high minister to King Robert, has arrived. He has been shown to your private library and seeks an audience.”
Tomas, her cousin, had arrived at Bathen Castle. She had been expecting him for weeks and now, finally, he was here. The punishment of these two would have to wait. She glared at the two unfortunate maids, and addressed her chamberlain. “Take these two away for now. I will deal with them later.” Glaring sharply at the cowering maids, she added, “They can contemplate their fate overnight.”
“Bring me a robe,” she snapped to her lady’s maid. She turned to Daric. “Tell my cousin I will receive him without delay.”
The king’s high minister, Lord Tomas Cramden waited in the library, pacing. As high minister, he was King Robert’s chief executive official. Not being of noble birth, his elevated status had come through luck, hard work, and no small degree of cunning. But he had risen through the ranks by displaying a rare talent for management, and as long as the rents and taxes were collected, King Robert was happy.
The official reason for his trip was to inquire of Lady Bathen about movements of Ieryn raiders on Westvale’s borders and what she planned to do about it. As he well knew, she planned to do absolutely nothing. Morgaine was the illegitimate daughter of an Ieryn prince and it was her aim to make a pact with the Ieryn in an attempt to secure her birthright. The Ieryn were both ambitious and savage, and the price of the pact was to be the murder of Robert Greystone, an old enemy. Tomas was here to put the plot into motion. He stood to gain no less than the throne of Westvale if things worked out right, and along with it, King Robert’s daughter, Princess Juliet.
“Cousin,” said Lady Morgaine as she entered the library and embraced him. “I trust your journey was without incident.”
“It was, although we had to take a longer route to avoid Darkwood Forest and the outlaw LaFlors.”
Morgaine cursed and spat. “Fah! That man is a thorn in my side, but soon enough he’ll be hanging from the battlements of this castle. But enough of that bandit,” she said. “I’ll deal with him soon enough.”
Morgaine swept across the room, her long robe trailing, and retrieved a vial from a hidden compartment behind some books. “Now to the task at hand, Tomas. I have the potion,” she said, holding up the vial.
“You are sure this will work?” said Cramden, regarding the vial.
“Yes. I prepared it myself.” She smiled. “It’s infused with Ieryn magic. King Robert will wither away slowly. It will look like an illness, but in a few weeks he will be dead. And then you will be appointed regent and you may claim your pretty little princess.”