MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
NAVEEN RAVEVE, CHAMBERLAIN to King Hablet of Fardohnya, examined the marriage proposal from Frederak Branador, Lord of Highcastle, who controlled one of only two navigable passes between Hythria and Fardohnya, and then looked up to meet the gaze of his visitor, who was finding his silence unsettling.
“Well?” she asked. “Will you do it?”
Naveen bit back a smile. He was a slave, after all, and yet here he was, with a princess of the realm standing before him, begging him for a favor.
Not just begging. He suspected she was willing to pay handsomely for it.
The women of the royal harem had so much to learn about how different he was from his predecessor.
“You ask this favor as if you expect to be able to purchase it, your highness. I am not Lecter Turon. I am not for sale.”
“Lecter made himself a wealthy man being for sale.”
“He used coin to compensate for the fact he wasn’t a full man, your highness. That is quite a different thing.” The old eunuch used to sweat like a pig, too, something Naveen was much better at controlling. The humidity in Talabar was dire at this time of year, and Lecter’s rich robes—while impressive—just made the problem worse. Naveen had no need to dress in brocade to impress others. He was tall and handsome and a loronged court’esa. He had years of specialized training behind him. He had survived being poisoned with the foul sterilizer, loronge,and survived more than a decade as a harem court’esa. He had presence and knew how to use it to his advantage. He’d entertained half the women in the Fardohnyan royal harem before managing to convince Lecter his talents lay elsewhere.
The old fool wouldn’t have taken him on as his protégé, Naveen supposed, if the old eunuch had known the first thing his apprentice would do, once Lecter considered him trained, was kill him and take his place as the king’s most trusted aide.
“Even if I were prepared to do this for you, my lady, what you ask will be difficult to arrange.” He leaned back in his seat, savoring her discomfort. He’d never lain with Sophany, something that left him at a disadvantage. He knew the quirks and peculiarities of many of the royal wives, but not this one. She didn’t know that, though. “Your daughter is neither the only nor the most worthy contender.”
“Who else is my husband considering?”
Princess Sophany was trying too hard to sound commanding, but there was an edge of desperation to her words that intrigued Naveen. Sophany of Lanipoor was usually much more circumspect. In fact, she’d gone out of her way to keep her head down in all the years Naveen had been in the king’s harem. Carrying the double stain of giving him yet another daughter, and being the younger half-sister of Hablet’s first wife, who’d been beheaded for attempting to murder a rival, she’d done all she could not to draw attention to herself for more than twenty years.
And yet here she was, willing to sell her soul for a boon that would surely bring her to the king’s attention.
There was a mystery here. Naveen knew it would niggle at him until he solved it.
“I am not at liberty to say, your highness. But you can be sure there are several other wives in the harem just as anxious as you to see their daughters elevated.” And then he added with a hint of malice: “Youngerdaughters.”
“My daughter is barely twenty-one.”
“That is quite old in some circles.”
“Has this Hythrun warlord demanded a child bride to seal the deal?”
Naveen shook his head. “He has requested a royal bride of childbearing age. And the king is determined to see he is accommodated. Highcastle is strategically the second most important place on the border, and once this deal is struck it could well become the most important. He will not risk offending Lord Branador by offering him anything less than the best. At twenty-one, her serene highness barely qualifies as being of childbearing age.”
“That is ludicrous, Naveen, and you know it. Adrina married at twenty-eight. She’s given Damin Wolfblade four healthy children.”
“And incurred the king’s eternal suspicion and enmity in the process,” he reminded her. “Is that what you want for your daughter, your highness?”
Sophany shook her head. “Any suspicion or enmity Hablet holds toward his eldest daughter is a direct result of her running away from the husband he chose for her and marrying the Hythrun high prince without his permission. It has nothing to do with any children she’s produced since then.”
Sophany was desperate, but she wasn’t stupid. Another reason to be suspicious. She was too clever to take a risk like this for no good reason.
“Lord Frederak is eighty-one years old, and he doesn’t carry his age well. How does your barely twenty-one-year-old daughter feel about being given to a scabby old man? And a foreign one at that?”
“Probably the same way I felt when I was given to King Hablet at seventeen and he was already over forty. I was not consulted about my feelings on the matter then. I don’t expect my daughter to be treated any differently now.”
Ah, Naveen thought. She hates the king. He wasn’t surprised. Hablet would be hard pressed to find a single wife in his vast harem who actually loved him. Still, her resentment was not usually so palpable. And it didn’t explain why she was so anxious to remove her daughter from the harem.
“I will consider your request, your highness,” he said, deciding he needed time to investigate this. It was puzzling. It reeked of something going on that he knew nothing about. Lecter Turon had kept his position at the king’s side all these years by knowing everything that was going on in the harem. Naveen would only survive his new position if he did the same.
He needed time to look her daughter over, too. He remembered little about the girl, other than she was pretty—nothing special there. All of Hablet’s wives were stunning beauties, so it was no surprise his scores of offspring were universally attractive. There was some nonsense a few years ago, he recalled, involving the child. It was hard to recall the details. He’d been working in the harem as a court’esa back then and had his own problems with Hablet’s wives and older daughters to worry about. Still, he needed to find out what he could about the girl from his harem spies. And he needed to find out why Sophany was so anxious to foist her daughter onto someone as unpleasant as Lord Branador of Highcastle.
“What do you want, Naveen?”
“What is your currency? What bribe do I have to offer you? What is your price to ensure my daughter is the next baroness of Highcastle?”
Naveen was rather taken aback by her bluntness. “The decision is the king’s, your highness, not mine.”
“Hablet doesn’t belch without consulting his chamberlain first,” she said. “He never did with Lecter Turon when he held the post and I don’t imagine you’re any different. If I know my husband, he will hand over whichever of his daughters you recommend, and probably not even ask the reason. I want your recommendation to be my daughter, and I am far more desperate than any other mother in the harem. So let us not play games, Naveen. Tell me your price.”
“Tell me your reason.”
Sophany didn’t hesitate, which meant she was telling the truth or had practiced her story enough to conceal her lie. “I don’t want my daughter in the harem when Alaric takes the throne.”
“Alaric is not even twelve years old, your highness, and the king is alive and well.”
“Alaric is a spoiled and indulged little monster and Hablet is over seventy. I know what happens when a new king takes the throne in Fardohnya, Naveen, and I don’t intend that fate to be my daughter’s.” She stared him down defiantly, and then added, “I would not be surprised if you have not considered your own fate, should our beloved king join the gods before you have ingratiated yourself with his heir.”
For the first time since Sophany requested this meeting, Naveen felt he might be in danger of losing control. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Really? You were a slave in this harem not so long ago, Naveen, waiting on the whim of every woman there. You know things about many of them they would prefer you didn’t, and they mightily resent the way you managed to get yourself promoted out of the harem and into a position of such trust at the king’s right hand. Every wife and daughter in the harem with a grudge against you is already whispering in Alaric’s ear about how the first thing he should do when his father dies is get rid of you.”
Naveen truly hadn’t thought about it, but now that he did, the scenario was frighteningly plausible. He’d spent the past twenty years playing with the wives of his king, often for his own entertainment rather than theirs. The idea that rather than retaliate directly the women he had been toying with were poisoning the mind of the king’s only son to get their revenge was something he had never contemplated. Worse, Alaric would not leave the harem and the care of his mother, Sybill of Tarkent, until he was fourteen years old. That was still years away. More than enough time to seal his fate.
And the crown prince was a spoiled little monster. Right now, one of his father’s most trusted generals was languishing in a cell, being tortured on a daily basis, because he’d had the temerity to scold the heir to the throne about not keeping his heels down as he rode. That wasn’t the official reason the general was arrested, of course. Alaric had concocted some ridiculous story about overhearing the man plotting against the king, but everyone knew the true reason Meyrick Kabar currently resided in a dungeon was because he would tolerate no nonsense from the young crown prince of Fardohnya.
What will he do, Naveen wondered, if the little horror ever decides he doesn’t like me?
“What are you offering?” he inquired, feigning disinterest.
“A safe haven,” Sophany said, sounding much more certain of herself now she had managed to rattle him a little. “I can arrange my brother, Liance, the Prince of Lanipoor, to provide an estate where you can retire after the king dies. Somewhere safe in our province. And I can arrange for you to get there in one piece. BeforeAlaric decides to put you to the sword along with the rest of the harem.”
Naveen didn’t answer immediately, although he should have. He should have scoffed at her offer and sent her packing, lest he betray how much her prediction of his fate once Hablet died had affected him.
“I will give the matter my serious consideration, your highness.”
“Then I will return to the harem,” Sophany said, “where I shall approach my sister-wife, Princess Sybill, the mother of our heir, and volunteer to aid in the care of our most precious Prince Alaric, only son to our beloved husband. It will be an honor to be in a position to influence his … opinions.”
If threats were a substance that could be bottled and sold, Naveen could have gotten rich just off what was dripping from Sophany’s words. He didn’t resent her for it. Naveen admired a worthy adversary, particularly one who might be in a position to save his life someday.
How many more politically savvy vipers like Sophany are there, lurking unseen and unsuspected in Hablet’s harem?
“The king will announce his decision at the banquet in honor of our Hythrun guest tomorrow evening, your highness.”
“I will expect to be invited,” she said. “Along with my daughter.”
“I’ll do what I can,” he promised. “For both of us.”
She studied him for a moment, as if trying to determine his sincerity, and then she nodded. “Very well. I will await your … I mean, my king’s decision, before I write my brother about any arrangements he may need to make for your future.”
He rose and treated her to a respectful bow. “Good morning, your highness.”
Sophany didn’t respond. She simply turned on her heel and strode toward the door, leaving Naveen watching after her, wondering if she would return to the harem to praise him to the future king of Fardohnya or condemn him to an unfair and undoubtedly painful death.
Probably the latter. She was right about that much. Alaric was a spoiled little monster.
Naveen sighed and picked up his quill. There really wasn’t any decision to make. Princess Lani had offered him gold to promote her daughter, but money didn’t interest him. He’d spent a lifetime as a court’esa, so no offer of women or any other sexual perversion could entice him, as Princess Palina had found out when she suggested he put forward her daughter.
No, none of the offers he’d received, until Sophany walked into his office, held any real attraction for him.
Alarmingly, she had known his currency. That bothered him almost as much as her reasons for doing this. Her story about protecting her daughter from the bloodbath that would inevitably follow Hablet’s death was reasonable enough, but there had to be something more.
He would not rest until he discovered what it was.
Then, when the time came and Sophany betrayed him—as he was sure she was planning to do—he would have his own currency to use against her.
Naveen picked up his pen, dipped the quill into the ink pot, tapped it on the side to shed the excess drops, and then carefully wrote the name Her Serene Highness, Rakaia of Fardohnya, into the blank space reserved for the name of the daughter Hablet was trading for unfettered access to the mountain pass at Highcastle.
He sighed again when he realized that not only did he have to sort out a bride for Lord Branador, but, thanks to Alaric’s tantrum, he needed to find a new general somewhere, too. He’d have to put some feelers out. There were plenty of men who had the coin to buy the position. After years of dealing with Lecter Turon, word had got about that everything the king owned was for sale, one way or another.
It was time Fardohnya learned that Naveen Raveve was in charge now.
Things were going to change.
Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Fallon