Ahearn sat at a table in the back of the king’s stable eating porridge with his fellow stable grooms, Gille and Jowan. The three of them had grown up together, first as stable boys, now as grooms. The king’s stable was huge, housing more than a hundred horses. A cool morning breeze was blowing in through the open door, so it wasn’t as unbearably hot as it would be at midday. He struggled not to smile. Today it was his turn to accompany the queen on her ride. He couldn’t let his friends suspect that he no longer dreaded his turn as they did theirs.
“I’m glad I got two more days until I have to do it again,” Gille said, scratching at his sorry excuse for a beard. “You better pray she’s in a better mood than she was yesterday, and make sure you clean her saddle, her horse, everything until they sparkle, and I mean shiny. You know how prissy she is. Yesterday she found a speck of dirt on her saddle and yelled about me to Eamon for nearly fifteen minutes. I thought she was going to order me flogged.”
Ahearn rubbed his much fuller beard, which Fenella said made him look manly. She also said its auburn color enhanced his masculinity further. Ahearn wasn’t sure why, but who was he to question the queen?
The Master of the Horse came up behind them. “See that you do, Ahearn,” Eamon said. “I do not want to get another earful today. If it’d been you that left the speck, I have no doubt she would have ordered at least ten lashes. Not that she likes any of us, but she especially seems to have it in for you.”
“Yes, sir,” Ahearn answered, struggling to keep his smile suppressed. Their plan was working. No one seemed to have the slightest suspicion of what they were up to.
“Can’t you talk to the king, sir?” Jowan asked. “Get her bodyguards back on her at least. Then there’d be witnesses if she said we did anything wrong. I don’t want to hang because she got her monthlies or something.”
“I tried, boys, but His Majesty says the queen is insistent in not wanting bodyguards following her around, and he still won’t allow her to ride unaccompanied. Someone needs to be near in case of an accident.” Ahearn couldn’t tell them about the tantrum Fenella had had to throw to get His Majesty to dismiss her bodyguards or her reason for wanting them gone. “Just keep at a respectful distance, and you needn’t worry overly much. The king knows what she’s like, and he’d never order you hanged on her word alone. A thorough flogging is probably the worse you have to fear.”
“A flogging’s the worst?” Gille said. “I saw Calder’s back after he was flogged. I might rather hang.”
Eamon put his hands on Ahearn’s shoulders and squeezed them in a manner that reminded Ahearn of his dead uncle, who had been Eamon’s best friend. “You know I’ll always do my best for you boys, and it might well be that your fear of the queen is exaggerated. She’s only a girl, after all.” Jowan and Gille both scoffed loudly. Eamon patted Ahearn’s shoulder. “All the same, do make sure everything is perfect. You better get a move on it, so you have plenty of time.”
“Yes, sir.” Ahearn jumped to his feet.
Ahearn grabbed an apple from the barrel and headed for Alita’s stall near the front of the stables, next to the king’s own gelding. The queen’s white mare nickered at the sight of him. He held out the apple and scratched her neck in the way she liked. “You like me almost as much as your mistress does, don’t you?” he whispered, as he began brushing the coat she always managed to dirty. “She could have had almost anybody, but she chose me. For a bastard son of a whore, I don’t think I’ve done too badly for myself.” The truth was he never would have gotten this job if it hadn’t been for his uncle. He almost started whistling, but he heard someone coming and stopped himself. He shouldn’t seem happy.
Gille stopped in front of Alita’s stall. “I have just the thing to cheer you up. Jowan just found out from Dewin who found out from Laoch that there’s going to be a dance tonight at the weaver’s guild hall. You remember how fine the girls were last time.”
A few months ago Ahearn wouldn’t have hesitated, but Fenella would throw a fit if he danced with another girl. “I’m a little worn out. Go without me.”
“Not that excuse again!” Jowan joined them. “You need a new girl. Stop moaning over Sorcha. You know she’s doing it with Gradh now.”
“As if I care who that kitchen slut fucks,” Ahearn scowled. A few months ago he’d cared a great deal. He’d lost his virginity to Sorcha, but it hadn’t taken her long to decide she preferred the uniform of the Royal Guard to the stink of the stables. Gille and Jowan looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Gille shook his head, and Jowan shrugged. If they thought he wasn’t over Sorcha, they’d never guess what he was really up to.
“I’ll go get Hellfire ready for you,” Jowan said, as Ahearn got down Alita’s saddle. Hellfire was a jet-black gelding with a personality that matched his name. The queen always insisted whoever accompanied her ride him because he provided the perfect contrast for her mare.
When the horses were groomed and saddled, Ahearn and Jowan led them toward the stable door. Eamon stopped them and looked the horses over. “Just want to be sure the queen has nothing to complain about.”
When Eamon was satisfied, they led the horses out to the mounting blocks. Ahearn handed Alita’s reins to Gille, so he could be ready to assist the queen in mounting.
The side palace door opened, and a woman emerged. Ahearn couldn’t see her well from this distance, but he had no doubt it was the queen. Jowan let out a whistle as she got close enough for them to see the way her riding dress clung to her curves. Her long blond hair was tied back in a braid. “Her Majesty is certainly easy on the eyes,” Gille said. “If she weren’t such a bitch, I’d almost pity her for being married to a man old enough to be her grandfather.”
“Try great-grandfather,” Jowan said. “His Majesty is over seventy, and the queen just turned fifteen.”
“Maybe that’s why she acts the way she does,” Ahearn said, before he could stop himself. They didn’t understand how awful it had been for her when her father sold her to the king.
Gille nodded. “You have a point. But I hear His Majesty’s tiring of her. He spends far more time with his mistress.”
The queen was getting close enough she might overhear, so they stopped talking and waited at respectful attention. They all bowed when she reached the mounting blocks.
“You again?” The queen looked at Ahearn like he was a piece of horse shit.
“If you’d prefer, Your Majesty, someone else could accompany you.”
“What I prefer is to ride alone.” She accepted Ahearn’s assistance in mounting. It was hard to make his body behave when she was close.
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but His Majesty’s orders are that you are to be accompanied.”
“Just keep your distance,” she said, and took off.
As he hurriedly mounted Hellfire, Ahearn rolled his eyes, and his friends gave him sympathetic looks.
From behind, he watched the queen riding sidesaddle and couldn’t believe he’d soon hold those buttocks in his hands. As soon as they were out of sight of the stables, he caught up with her. She gave him her most radiant smile. “They still don’t suspect anything, do they?”
“No, Your Majesty, but could you maybe be a little nicer to them? I don’t like the things they say about you.”
“I told you not to call me ‘Your Majesty’ when no one’s around. You know why I have to act like I do. We can’t afford anyone getting the slightest suspicion about us. I couldn’t bear it if His Sulis-cursed Majesty hurt you in any way.”
Ahearn grinned at her continued demonstration of how much she cared about him.
“I promise I’ll make up for my rudeness,” she said in that throaty voice that drove him wild. “Race you to the stream!” She touched her heels to her horse, leaving him behind.
As Ahearn took off after her, he felt a tightening in his groin. Holy Sulis, how did I get so lucky that a woman like her wants a nobody like me? Even though Hellfire could easily outdistance her mare, he stayed behind her, enjoying the view. Besides, she got huffy when she lost, and he definitely didn’t want that.
Fenella laughed as her horse’s feet splashed into the edge of the stream. Ahearn had never heard anything quite so musical. He jumped off Hellfire, looped the reins around a branch, took a blanket off the saddle, and laid it on the ground. He hurried to help Fenella dismount. She slid down the full length of his body as he lowered her into the stream. She turned her face up to his, and he kissed her deeply. Without warning, she wrapped her leg around his and jerked him off balance, falling on top of him into the stream. They came up together, laughing and dripping wet. Her dress clung to her body, leaving little to the imagination. He grabbed the dress around her waist and pulled it up over her head; she wore nothing underneath. He cupped her ivory breasts and found her lips again. He moved his hands down her body until they found the smooth firmness of her buttocks. She was so small he had no difficulty boosting her against him and carrying her to the shore. He lay her on the blanket, quickly tore off his own clothes, and lay down beside her.
“Oh, Hearn,” she whispered. “Make love to me.”
He readied her as quickly as he could and slipped himself slowly inside her. He hadn’t gotten deep yet when he heard the crunch of a footstep behind him and felt the cold sharp point of a sword on his back.
“I think you’ve done enough, you rutting swine,” a harsh voice commanded. “Stand up and turn around. Slowly.” Certain he was about to die, Ahearn eased himself out of the queen and stood.
He turned to find Lord Caedmon holding the sword on him. Behind Caedmon, Duke Connor, the king’s chancellor, approached, accompanied by two vicious dogs. “You should have let him finish, son,” Duke Connor said. “It isn’t good for a man’s health to be left in that condition.”
“His health is of little concern now that he’s completed his service to his country,” Caedmon grunted.
Ahearn didn’t understand what they were talking about. He wanted to fall to his knees and beg for mercy. But why humiliate himself when he had no hope for leniency? He licked his lips and looked at Fenella, who’d wrapped the blanket around herself. She looked far more angry than frightened. Maybe she didn’t understand the consequences of what they’d just been caught doing. “Don’t hurt her, please,” he whispered.
Duke Connor laughed. “Hurt Her Majesty? I wouldn’t think of it. She is carrying Korthlundia’s future—His Majesty’s long-awaited heir.”
“Like hell I am.” Fenella jumped to her feet. “Solar is a wrinkled old man. He hasn’t been able to do it in months. This baby,”—she touched her stomach, still smooth and flat—“isn’t his.”
Ahearn stared at the queen. “You’re pregnant, Fen?”
Duke Connor smiled nastily. “The continued stability of the joined kingdoms requires that Solar have an heir. Since he’s unable to beget his own, he needed someone to do it for him. I’ve informed His Majesty of your vigorous efforts on his behalf.” Ahearn stared at the duke, mortified at the thought of the fifty-year-old pervert looking on and evaluating his performance. “Now that you’ve done your part, I’ve been ordered to ‘take care’ of you.”
Ahearn dropped to his knees, afraid he was either going to faint or vomit. His Majesty set me up! Holy Sulis, how could I have been so stupid to think no one knew?
“No!” Fenella screamed, seeming to understand for the first time how bad the situation was. “Don’t hurt him! It’s all my fault! I just wanted . . . I just wanted . . .”
“Wanted what, Your Majesty?” Duke Connor asked, as if what she wanted was of no concern.
Fenella’s words cut like the sharpest sword. “You smug bastard! No one knows better than you what I wanted! I told you I wouldn’t be given to an old man to be used as a brood mare! But nobody listened! Not you! Not my father! And not His Sulis-damned Majesty! But I’ve had my revenge! I got a stable groom with shit on his boots to do what the great Solar couldn’t!”
Ahearn felt like he’d been kicked in the gut. “Fen, you can’t mean that. I thought . . .”
“I’m afraid thinking played little part in your activities,” the duke sneered. He nodded, and Ahearn felt something smash into the back of his head. He fell to the ground, his skull erupting in pain. He tried to move, but was struck again. As if from a great distance, he heard the noblemen talking.
“This is a waste of effort and money,” Caedmon complained. “We should just kill him here and dump him in the harbor. The rutting swine’s only a stable groom, and he’ll be a liability as long as he’s alive. We both know what His Majesty meant by taking care of him.”
“Enough!” the duke snapped. “We’ve been over this. He’s just a lad. I’m chancellor, and you’d do well to remember that. Now, take him as we’ve arranged.”
“Fine,” Caedmon snapped, and Ahearn was kicked in the head.
* * *
When Ahearn woke, he found himself, still naked, in a small, dark place, lying on bare boards. From the way the floor moved under him, he knew he was on a ship. His head pounded abominably. He curled up into a ball, shaking with cold and fear. Holy Sulis, Mother of us all, what are they going to do to me? He thought he knew the answer. They couldn’t hang him if they wanted the affair to remain a secret, so they were going to take him out to sea and throw him overboard. He couldn’t swim, and the thought of drowning terrified him more than the thought of a noose. Maybe he could fight them and make them kill him before they threw him over.
For a long time, no one came, and over and over again he replayed the scene by the river and heard Fenella’s mocking voice. It isn’t true. She couldn’t have just been using me. She told me she loved me. He remembered the first time they’d made love. It had been just after her bodyguards had been dismissed, and it had been his turn to accompany her riding. She stopped at the edge of the stream. She’d said she wanted to watch the fish for a while, so he’d helped her dismount. She sat at the edge of the stream while he stood at a respectful distance.
After a few minutes, he noticed her shoulders shaking and heard her sobbing, her head buried in her arms. At first this surprised him. He’d never consider royalty to be like real people with real emotions. Still, as a servant, he knew he should pretend not to notice. But she sounded so sad he couldn’t just stand there. He’d knelt near her. “Can I fetch someone for you, Your Majesty?”
She shook her head without looking up. “Nobody here cares about me. They all think I’m just a foolish girl.”
“I’m sure that’s not true, Your Majesty,” he said, even though he knew it was. Most of the nobility never seemed to see stable hands, so they talked freely in front of them. “Foolish” was one of the nicer words they used to describe her.
“Of course it is,” she sobbed. “They see me as nothing but the great Solar’s brood mare. I hate him. I wish he’d just die.”
Ahearn froze. He couldn’t begin to count the number of things wrong with her talking to him like this. Queens didn’t talk to servants, except to give orders, and what she was saying was close to treason. He tried to tell himself to just walk back to the horses and remain properly oblivious to the actions of his betters. But her sorrow tugged at him, and instead, he found himself asking, “Can I do anything for you, Your Majesty?”
“I feel so alone, Ahearn.” The queen met his eyes, her face streaked with tears. He was surprised she knew his name; she’d never used it before. He couldn’t remember any of the nobility ever doing so. “Could you . . . could you hold me? Just for a little while?” The sane part of his brain told him to run away as fast as possible. This was the queen! If anyone saw, he’d hang. She noticed his hesitation, and her eyes welled up with tears. She looked so young and vulnerable. “Please. Nobody will ever know, and I need someone.”
He swallowed the lump in his throat and sat next to her. “If you want me to, Your Majesty.” She threw herself against his chest. He put his arms around her, his heart pounding in terror. She clung to him and sobbed on his shoulder. Her hands started wandering, and she nibbled slowly up his neck, searching for his lips. Before he could think about it, he was kissing her. It felt so right, so natural that it wasn’t long before kissing wasn’t all they were doing.
“I love you,” she’d whispered, as they lay together afterward. “You’re always so kind, so gentle with the horses despite how strong you are.” She caressed the muscles in his arms. He’d believed her love then, and the hundred other times she’d told him since. Because of that love, he’d been willing to risk his life to comfort her.
But as he heard her voice again, shouting at the nobleman about the shit on his boots, he knew it had all been a lie. She’d chosen him because his place at the bottom of the social ladder would amplify the insult to the king. He also realized her revenge would be meaningless if the king was ignorant of the affair. Holy Sulis, she’d wanted us caught. She threw my life away. How could I have been so stupid?
Now, he sat in the darkness, waiting to die. At last he heard footsteps. Two men opened the door. One of them held a sword while the other brought in food, water, and a bucket. They said nothing to him, met all of his questions with silence, and left him in darkness again.
* * *
The darkness allowed Ahearn no way to keep track of the days and nights. Food and water were brought at regular intervals, and the contents of his bucket emptied. But no one explained what was being done to him. If they were going to kill him, he could see no reason for them to wait this long. His best guess now was that he was to be sold as a slave.
After what seemed like months, Ahearn felt the ship stop moving and heard the bustle of noise that told him they’d made port. Still, it was hours before anyone came for him. When they did, it was the same two men he’d always seen. One of them threw him a pile of clothes and finally spoke, “Get dressed.”
Ahearn did as ordered. They directed him up the ladder onto the deck. Ahearn blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light after so long in darkness. He was indeed in a harbor, one nearly three times the size of Murtaghan’s. Hundreds of ships were lined up on either side of his, flying flags of all nations, some Ahearn had never seen before. A huge city crawled up from the edge of the water into the surrounding hills. It gleamed white and pink in the late afternoon sun.
The men led him to the gangway where others were unloading the cargo. “You’re free to go,” one of them said. “Don’t come back.”
Ahearn started down the gangway, not quite believing he’d be allowed to simply walk away. He expected a knife in the back at any moment. But he reached the dock without incident, and when he looked back at the ship, he couldn’t see either of the two men. No one paid any attention to him as he blended with the people that thronged the busy harbor. Where am I? As he moved away from the docks, olive-skinned, thin-nosed people filled the city’s streets. He’d seen Saloynan ambassadors and envoys at the palace, so he knew what they looked like, but he knew next to nothing about the country.
His stomach rumbled, and he stopped abruptly as he came to fully realize his predicament. He couldn’t speak the language. He had no money, no food, nothing at all but the clothes he was wearing. Holy Sulis, what in the seven hells am I supposed to do now?