The gentle echo of the doors resounded in the room against the silence so characteristic of inhabitant. The prince, a reserved and quiet man, reserved these chambers against entrance by even his cleaning staff, preferring to preserve his solitude. She must think of him as a man though despite his years. Fingering the stacks of parchment strewn across the small writing desk she attempted to puzzle out the language written there. No amount of tutoring would have prepared her for the ancient script of the gnomish. Catherine sighed softly. Most men of the capitol would have been much easier to woo. Even the former king regent had favoured her among the ladies of the court. A gentle pressure and creak of the wide door behind her caused her to turn, sweeping into a graceful bow. It was an expect courtesy, but one that Darren Stoneborn would recognize the subtly of. Having called her to his study, it was unexpected for his smile to tighten at her presence. She suspected the intrusion had not really crossed his mind.
Striding to the desk, he offered her a chair that despite its inviting comfort looked unused. She took it gracefully, resting her hands in her lap in the fashion of the age, open and showing a submissive posture. If the prince took notice, he showed no sign. Seated in a chair of his own design, a machination of gentle magic and the techne of the his master, Darren Stoneborn parted his lips.
“Many consider your role in the high court to be somewhat of a seasoned lady, prone to the. . .” He struggled with the word, “intricacies of court politics.”
He fingered a small note. “Born six months my senior, but yet already a notable companion of high lord Renault. Your place as his mistress is of little surprise to many, but his wife’s illness leaves you in a bit of a predicament. Should he choose a new bride from one of the noble houses you will be seemingly unattached.”
The prince had clearly set aside the pretense of formality or the courtesy of court intrigue, but her response had to be measured. “Your majesty, your interest flatters me. Through the graces of my tongue and beauty, I have been blessed with a comfortable living and the attentions of a wonderful man.” Her mind revulsed with the compliment. “You as well, have graced me with this honor of being the first of the court permitted in these rooms.”
“You may dispense with the formalities, Catherine. In private, I’ve little use for them.”
“Are we in private, your majesty? Surely the crown carries its weight despite its promise. I would be wise to continue to flatter a man so near the throne.”
“Raised beyond the realm of the court and its intrigues, I have little skill or patience in dealing with them. Call me Darren and my favor will be yours.”
“Darren, why am I here?”
“To perform for me an exacting service.”
Catherine’s mind raced to the rumors of sexual perversion that had crossed the court at the rejection of previous suitors. Many had put his lack of interest to the influence of his kidnapper, the Gnomish artificer Milltall. Rumors circulated that he had sexual liaisons with the wild women of the northern mountain clans. She could not refuse any such request he made, and she had certainly steeled herself knowing she had been invited to his private apartments.
“And what would you wish, Darren?”
“I need a tutor. Being untrained in the ways of the court has caused divisions to develop in the kingdom. I fear that despite my claim to the throne the people do not see me as legitimate, or even human.”
Catherine leaned back, for the first time in ages releasing the tension in her back. Relief and pity mixed in her thoughts.
“I’m afraid I am not much of a teacher. The currents of the Kardalan court are difficult if not impossible to traverse without years of experience. These years you do not have if the king’s deteriorating health persists.”
“It’s not enough I’m afraid. Your presence here has already been noted as I’m sure you are aware. I cannot take you as a wife. The discontent of the noble houses would erupt into rebellion. However, if you took a place as my mistress, you would gain considerable power at court. I need more than a tutor; I need a partner.”
Blood had drained from Catherine’s face as he spoke. She caught her open mouth as he finished. It was beyond imagination. “Your majesty.” Her mind raced. He waited with a considering glance. Before she could speak he prompted her, “This is, of course, your choice. Your refusal will simply be a sign that my research has been insufficient. I would not have an unwilling partner.”
Time hung in the air. The moment twinned the final ripening of the palace orange orchard.
“I will never beat you Catherine.”
Her throat caught and sobs racked her. To have her shame known by one so oblivious as this young prince. To have broken down in his private quarters. The shame and humiliation burned deep.
Darren stood, moving quickly to her chair. Grasping her hands so familiarly, he tried to comfort her.
“No one of the high court knows of his treatment of you. Lord Renault’s perversions are known to no living being besides myself and his confidants.”
How. How could he have known if the court hadn’t already been aware long before?
“How? You admit you know so little of the court. How could know know and they not?”
He twisted his head sharply and called out in the ancient language of the gnomes: “Bysen.” From a small niche in the room came the small clattering of near a hundred spined crawlers, sharp and a dull bone white.
“These are Ilden, devices of gnomish magic, and lost to the world beyond my knowledge. They are imbued with the a simple scrying magic that allows them to be my eyes and ears beyond the court. I’ve been watching Lord Renault intensely this past month. I have folder if you would like to see it.”
Her sobs weakened. “How are you so powerless with so much knowledge?”
Still kneeling beside her, he recited to the world. “Not even magic can control the hearts of men.”