All he had to do was ask her to consent and she would be his . . . and she hated herself for it. Passion, affection—she shouldn't crave such things. But yet, on her hands and knees, fingers raw from vigorous scrubbing, her body ached to be touched. She was aware of every movement he made, every breath he took, his eyes on her as she worked.
Her heart stuttered at the sound of her name, harsh, like a curse on the King's lips. She minded her eyes, looking to the floor and not him when she stood.
"I'd like to bathe before my journey."
She curtsied and hurried from the room, her feet padding softly through the northern corridor to the main foyer. Here, the grand height of the palace was seen in its full glory: massive and towering. The imposing entry was striped with stairs so numerous it had taken her weeks to learn them all.
Frigid wind cut through the coarse fabric of her shawl. Winters back home in Dwyer were never so harsh; they had more pleasant conditions south of the End Sea. But that was all in the past.
Though she had mastered the ability to shove painful emotions and memories aside, the ability to govern her thoughts only carried her so far. Like a scar, she wore her Dwyer origins in the arch of her brow, the tan of her skin, and the delicate shell of her ears. Her past was with her, always. Her reflection in the icy water reminded her of such.
Journeying between the stream and the bathhouse to fill the King's copper basin, she spiraled deeper into her thoughts.
Why, after all the things her Liege had done, did she crave his affection? He only slaughtered her lineage, destroyed her life, yet she felt drawn to him. Moth to his flame. Was it because, as she saw it, he held the power to set her free from her bonds? Because he cut her down to such a lowly state and therefor he alone could raise her up?
Why did she want him to need her for more than scrubbing the floors and tending to his robes and tresses?
The fire lit underneath the belly of the basin slowly heated the water and the room. It took well over an hour's time, by then all buckets had been emptied. She tried not to think of what would come next.
Or rather, what she wished would come next. All of her misery, she imagined, would go away if only he would touch her once, kiss her once. A shred of affection, a crumb of attention. She might have been his war bounty and his servant, but still a woman. Yet, it was so vastly wrong. She was not supposed to want any of such things. Her father would have been ashamed.
Footsteps in the hall reminded her of how much her feelings did not matter. Putting aside doleful fantasies, she turned her attention to the task of gathering the gilded robe, clothes, and other items for the King.
When he entered the room, Isa curtsied, eyes on the floor, and then left. Her heart gripped and pulsed with a blinding staccato, the familiar pain of loneliness leaving a trail behind her that twisted, plucked, and pulled.
Though her eyes stung, she wouldn't shed tears. Not for herself, not for anyone.
The servant's quarters sat on the other side of the mountain's crest, down the slope a ways. A multi story building which took only a few steps to cross from front to back, but it took a good minute or two to traverse from one end to the other. The ceilings were low, halls narrow.
The main entry, square shaped extending from ground to eaves, contained nothing but a staircase that climbed along the walls with a fireplace on each landing.
Angel, a young thing born and raised in the Western region of Masen, lounged at the top of their pitiable stairs. A knowing smirk on her face, a thieved apple in her hand. She flicked an apple seed into the fire.
"Did you take him?" she asked.
Isa brushed off her joke with a roll of her eyes and walked passed her, down the hall to her room. She didn't want to engage Angel in conversation, speaking of her passion for the King would lead to no where safe. One time before, Isa made the mistake of letting Angel know that she had found him appealing when she was ill and not in her right mind. She regretted it soon after.
"Why not?" Angel bounced behind her, light on her toes and full of spirit.
"I'm not about to take anyone, least of all the King."
Isa shoved open her chamber door and took a broom from the corner. It was a small room and she only had a few belongings, but it was hers and she favored cleanliness over cobwebs and trails of ungodly insects.
It was disheartening to Isa that Angel was so full of pleasantness and she was not. Nothing seemed to weigh her down.
"Why are you so lively?"
"Why are you so sullen?" Angel retorted before sinking her teeth into the crisp fruit. An apple pip tinked to the floor, flicked from Angel's quick little fingers. "He would take you if you offered yourself. Give him a coy glance. He'll never have you if you keep your eyes down."
Glaring over her shoulder, Isa struck the broom through the cleaned corner again. "I'm not going to thrust my bosom in the King's face like a common tramp, now hush before someone hears you."
"Who?" With a laugh Angel plopped onto the bed—a scant mattress covered with layers of tattered wool and cotton. "Wren? The King's concubine? Imagine! Every night she gets what you want. Determined stamina driving into her nethers."
Irritated, Isa stabbed at her with the dirty end of the broom. "Off my bed. You need to see to lunch preparations, anyhow."
The smooth vee between Angel's eyebrows knitted up with spite, but she slid off the bed and bounced out of the room as spritely as she came in.
Once the room was swept Isa took to the back stairs to make her way to the bathhouse, towel in hand for her Liege. It would take only minutes to warm the towel by the fire. She tried not to think about certain things: the dip in his hips, the way his biceps tensed when he raised his arms.
Before she stepped through the door she stopped at a hallway mirror and adjusted her clothing, situating her bodice, ensuring the lines of her apron and shift were in unison. Memories of cord and precious stones were long in the past. Her skin was fair and smooth then. All the many chores she tended to these days had given her a natural but more firm appearance. She found it rather unsightly, the stature of a workhorse, not a woman.
With an irritated sigh she crossed the last few feet and stepped through the door. Eyes on the floor, she couldn't see what she knew was there. Him, reclined and denuded, immersed under the gentle foam of the water's surface. Barely concealed.
She hanged the towel near the fire pit and retrieved the brush from an ornate table. He shifted in the water. She almost looked to see but stopped her head from turning. To keep her mind focused she began to count. First, her steps. Then, the strokes of the brush through his now damp hair. One . . . three . . . five . . . seven.
Yet no matter how loud she counted in her head she still sensed the smoothness of his wavy locks as they skimmed her fingers; his breathing, steady and deep; the pulse of his heartbeat when her fingers brushed against his skin.
And as she had done so many times in moments like this, she fancied the unthinkable act of taking his long strands and gathering them, wrapping them neatly around his neck, and pulling hard. Robbing his lungs of breath. Ending everything. Retribution.
But she didn't.
Her heart was split down the center like the banner in her father's Grand Hall.
"Are you content, Isa?"
The question was strange from his mouth, with his stern voice having turned soft. Yet it wasn't the first time he had asked such a question.
"Of course, m'Lord." Her lie sounded false, like an abbot selling Saint John's Pinkies in quantity.
The brush slipped from her fingers when he stood unexpectedly, sending a spray of water over the rim of the tub. Isa stepped away to gather his towel, but he grabbed her arm, almost too tight, and held her still.
"The road west is a danger. I might not return."
It's not as if she hadn't seen him in his unclothed state before, but still. "I'm sure m'Lord will return whole and healthy, successful with your effort to seal the trade agreement."
She kept her eyes turned to a far corner of the room, yet out of the edge of her sight she took note of his form. Soft shadows played over his skin, water dripped from the curls of hair thrown over his shoulder.
"Why won't you look at me?" he asked, angling his face in front of hers.
Unpermitted, her brow furrowed, and she scowled at the fluttering drapes that concealed them from the outside world. Her eyes flashed to his and her stomached balled up tightly—gray eyes, a full mouth, narrow nose, bold cheeks. And in her mind she saw those same sharp eyes but glinting with the orange-red of raging fire, eyelids dirtied with Dwyer soil. A sharp pain stabbed through her temples, pulsing to her heart. She looked away before the sensation deepened.
He reached for her hand and clutched it tightly.
The hollow pull in her heart was from loneliness, desperation, angst . . . nothing more. She tried, desperately, to convince herself of such.
"You're trembling," he said, as if she were unware of her body's traitorous shaking. "Do you fear me?"
Again, her eyes flashed to his—gray—and a pain quickly followed. She couldn't lie this time. The truth felt safe. "Yes."
He lifted her hand to his chest, prying open her clenched fingers. His heart beat heavy under his warm, damp skin.
"Is there anything to fear?" he asked, the rumble of his voice surging through her fingers. "I've never caused you harm. You're of noble blood, same as I."
The terse set of her face deepened. She wanted to touch more, to move her fingers lower. "Not of Masen blood." She yanked her hand away, a slight act of insolence which crossed the line from what is permissible to what is not. But she couldn't help the sense that he was toying with her.
"Yes." He stepped from the bath, water dripping to the shale tiles. "Not that."
Quickly, she turned and retrieved his towel.
He kept his eyes on her as he wrapped the towel about himself. "Were you to be married?"
She had to bite the inside of her cheeks to hold her voice in check. "No."
Isa never married, the idea of binding her to another was not in her father's plan. The Regents of Dwyer saw her as a symbol, much akin to a Christ Bride as people of Masen would say. Her body, however, wasn't minding the specifics of morality. In the many months since being brought to Masen against her will she had given little heed to the beliefs and ways of her people. The distance, the constant state of lowliness her mind maintained, stripped away her focus and self-containment. Often, she felt as if she were a shell, hollow inside.
Remembering her life before he destroyed it staved any desire she felt.
With her mind on other things, she gathered another towel and set to drying his hair.
"That you know of, at least." His voice had a slight optimistic lilt to it.
"No." She shook her head, though he couldn't see. "My Great Father never intended for me to marry."
The King crossed the room to sit at the boudoir. Reflected in the mirror, she was unable to hide from his line of sight. His eyes met hers in the reflection. Here, though, the sharp pain did not come.
"Did he tell you as much?"
"It was discussed many times," she said as she rumpled his hair. "No marriage. I was to be what my people called the Fianta. A deity's bride. Something of a nun."
She didn't tell him about her commitment to being a religious sacrifice in her later years—that would have acted as a reminder of her barbaric heritage. Yet, even considering that, she at least felt a measure of pride for her place in her society. Being a Fianta came with great honor, a place in her people's hearts. Once she was taken from her homeland she lost all awareness of what had transpired after that fateful night. Her darkest fear was that she was the last drop of Dwyer blood that still lived and that the ways of the Dwyer people were gone.
"Then," he asked, "you've never been intimate with a man?"
"No." Was it meant to be an embarrassment that she had not?
"It came with high honor and great respect."
Silence fell. She continued to towel the water from his hair.
"Is that how you felt?" he asked. "Respected? Honored?"
She retrieved the brush and began to work it through his damp length. "Is that not how you feel? People worship you and honor you. Is that not satisfying?" When water collected at the dark tips she clenched the towel to it.
He said nothing for a while.
"What would you have done—" He shifted in his seat. "—with your life without being joined with a husband? Without children?"
Served as a stronghold for my people before battle. That's what she would have done. Her image would have graced the battle flag as the Dwyer army tore this King's realm asunder. That's what she had entertained as of late—pure fantasy. To Dwyer, Masen was a mere distant country to the north. Not an enemy, not an ally. My how the tables turned in the course of one night.
She diverted the subject. "Is that how you want to spend the last hours before your journey? Discussing the wasted past life of a mere servant?"
His hand darted to hers, stilling the brush, and he gripped her tightly, but said nothing. A strange show of affection?
"While I'm gone—" He paused for a long moment and made a sound, as if to speak, but no words came.
The thought of being without him for so long while he traveled afar, and the way he held her hand in his, drove her to cross another line. She was no prostitute giving away herself for meager compensation, she didn't lower herself to such an extreme, but she dared to lean forward and rest her cheek against the back of his head. A small measure of fondness . . . minute . . . sinful, touching the King unpermitted.
His fingers curled around hers.
Eventually, he let go. As she continued with the brush, the silence wrapped around her like an oppressing blanket, making it hard to think, hard to breath. She wanted fresh air, to be away. She had already stepped out of line by turning away from him and for touching him unbidden, yet the only thing keeping her from walking out of the room was the confusing pull she felt toward him. That occasional bit of small contact—knuckles against his neck, fingertips along his collar—was better than none.
Isa paused her movements, realizing how odd it was that prostitutes were paid for what they did and yet she worked for free.
With relief, the King was soon dried and dressed. After he departed to see to other things the next hours passed quickly. Preparations for his departure were underway with significant fuss and speed. Stable boys tended to the horses. The traupie saw to the food supplies. Isa packed the remaining items of the King's wardrobe, carefully selecting all the necessary garments, wrapping them in muslin for clean transport.
In the King's chambers everything smelled of his rich, heavy lavender spice. It clung to her skin, her clothes, her hair. In the night hours when she was away from him it was a torturous treasure.
She glanced around the room to see if she were truly alone, feeling ridiculous, and pressed her face to the soft white of an undershirt.
He would be gone, and she would be alone, waiting like some fair maiden for her evil overlord to return to her, only to give her the cold shoulder again. What troubled her most was that her overlord didn't seem quite so evil when he was not carrying a lance or wielding a blade. The memories she had of his kind slitting throats and setting fire to tree and lumber were hard to reconcile. Though Isa had not seen him raise a knife directly, when he came upon her, the sounds of carnage and terror surrounding them, blood was evident on his blade.
She snapped out of her daze and angrily folded his shirt and stuffed it into the wardrobe case. Hurriedly, with much more disdain than care, she packed the rest of his items and clicked the lid closed.
When she hoisted the heavy wooden trunk from the table and lowered it to the floor a square of paper fell from underneath. Her cheeks heated, she glanced around to be sure no one had seen her toss the King's personal belongings about. Stooping, she picked up the paper: a letter, folded, sealed, and addressed simply to Isa.
Hastily, she flipped it up side down on the table. Why had he written her? Such a strange thing for him to do.
"I intended to leave it for you to find while I was away, but perhaps you should read it now."
The King's voice sent a lance of fear through her; she hadn't heard him enter the room. Surprised, she held still, one hand on the rim of the wooden desk, her fingertip to the edge of the envelope.