Years ago, while lowly kitchen maid Notsah was fleeing the king’s guard, she burst into the private chambers of the very man she was stealing from: Prince Jarron Bydelay. But he showed her mercy and dismissed her pursuer, Erekon, Captain of the King’s Guard. Ten years later, Notsah has returned as Handmaiden to the new king. He might not remember her past, but Erekon does-and is determined to use her to get what he wants from his new king. Now, if Jarron learns her secret, she’ll lose the only man she’s ever loved-and if she doesn’t tell him, he’ll never truly love her back…
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It was the only word in Notsah Mevoot’s brain. Her feet moved, one in front of the other, bare flesh slapping on polished marble. She ignored the pain in her ankle from where she’d twisted it leaping the stairs and the different sting across her shoulder blades from the cook’s switch. She clutched the loaf of bread to her chest beneath the fluttering tatters of her blouse.
Her father, Invisible Mother watch over him, had always said if you’re going to do somewhat, do it well. It was clear Notsah lacked her father’s evasive skills, her mother’s light-fingered talents, else she’d not be running this way with the Shomer Melek as hot on her heels as hounds after a hare. Apparently, she couldn’t thieve worth a damn, but she could run faster than the king’s guard, at least for the moment. Favoring her wounded ankle, she dodged a few pillars and took a sharp turn down a small hallway half-hidden by a tapestry. She leaped the faded carpet that threatened to trip her and stumbled on the other side. She skidded on the marble, not quite as polished in this corridor, and rolled.
Hands and knees, skinned. Bread, squashed. Head, spinning. Notsah got to her feet. Her heart pounded but she paused, breathing hard, listening for the sound of boots on marble. Shouts. Maybe they’d passed by this hallway, gone another way.
“Down here! The chit’s gone this way!”
A waft of air pushed ahead of them warned her of the soldiers’ approach. Notsah gulped at the air, trying to fill her lungs but only giving herself a dizzy head. She had to run. Harder, faster, longer, dodge and weave or stay still and silent as a statue in the shadows until they passed. Whatever she had to do, she needed to it well.
“She won’t get away.” She recognized that voice.
Erekon Kosem, the Aryon Melek. The King’s Lion, leader of the Shomer Melek.
She knew him overwell. The smell of him. The taste, too. A man who’d taken her up against a wall without even bothering to kiss her first couldn’t be expected to show her any sympathy now. Notsah tested her hurt ankle, which after a few moments rest had stiffened and ached even more.
Run, she thought, and pushed herself as the bang and thump of boots came closer. The shouts. They had weapons, those soldiers, but they needed no spears, no swords to wound her. They had their laughter and anger, and most of all, they had their righteousness.
Ahead of her, tucked into an alcove, was another floor-to-ceiling tapestry. Notsah knew what that meant – you couldn’t be a kitchen slag or a thief without recognizing that here in House Bydelay such hangings disguised doors not meant to be opened. Not secret, exactly, just unused rooms or back passages between state rooms for the purpose of smuggling lovers in and out.
The soldiers would know it too, of course, and look inside, but if the Invisible Mother were smiling on Notsah she’d find a place to hide. Maybe even another door to another corridor. Make her escape, thought the possibility of this seemed less and less likely the closer the Shomer Melek came.
“All of this for the sake of a pie,” she muttered, rolling the shoulders the Cook had switched upon discovery Notsah’d had a taste of what she wasn’t meant to savor.
The theft of the bread had been an afterthought, somewhat to nourish her on the road as she ran away from this place, the only home she’d known for the past five seasons since both her parents had been imprisoned and she’d been sold at auction to serve here. Now she was likely to join them and for what? A half-burned crust and a fingerful of fruit pie.
The thought of facing her pursuers, of begging for mercy, passed through her mind swifter than a flash of silver in the sky. There’d be no mercy for the likes of her. The thought of taking her own life came next, but she had no knife even to stab herself and the windows here were all barred. She couldn’t even jump.
“She’s this way!”
“After her, lads, the first to catch her shall have a ten-arro coin from my own purse!”
Her ankle hurt too much to run for long, but she put on a burst of speed and headed for the door behind the tapestry. For one awful moment Notsah thought it was locked, but then the wood creaked and gave as she yanked, and she hurtled herself through it, closing it behind her without a slam to alert the soldiers. It was a small room, a closet almost, set up with a wee fireplace burning scented logs. A chair, a footstool, a pair of bookshelves. A ewer and basin. This was a sanctuary, somewhat like a chapel. A refuge.
But she wasn’t the only one in it.
The young man sprawled on the chair, thighs spread, trousers open, startled when she flew through the door. His feet pushed at the floor, tipping the chair but not sending it over backwards. He let out a hoarse cry of alarm.
Her mind whirling, Notsah took in the scene and wanted to laugh. Some young lord had snuck in here to indulge in what was known in the kitchens as the cleric’s vice, though Notsah had always wondered how anyone could ever consider celibacy a virtue and self-pleasure a vice. Here she was, interrupting. His fist was still closed around his prick, though he was no longer pumping it, and his eyes glittered with bright passion.
“What the – who by the Void are you?” His face had flushed crimson, a color that did not suit him, as his face was marred by a series of small, blistery pustules that now stood out all the more against his cheeks and forehead.
Notsah knew this man too, not by the cut of his waistcoat or color of his hair, but by that face. Only one man in House Bydelay suffered so blatantly from Trystan’s Pox.
Jarron Bydelay, prince and heir to the throne of the Second Province.
“I plead your mercy,” Notsah said.
From the corridor, the shouts grew louder. She stared straight into the prince’s eyes. In all her dreams of him, and she’d had many, Notsah had imagined herself in this place many times, though never in this situation. Without thinking twice, she dropped to her knees in front of him.
He didn’t resist when she replaced his hand with hers, but when she covered him with her mouth, he cried out again. Low and hoarse. Surprised. His hand came down to grip at her hair. He was very hard, thick and throbbing on her tongue, and Notsah closed her eyes as she sent up another prayer to the Invisible Mother that she might be granted mercy.
Let the soldiers come and see only the prince and his whore, let them be shamed of their intrusion. Let them go away without bothering overmuch to check. Please.
He groaned, a familiar noise of male pleasure she knew would soon culminate in his climax. He’d been almost there before she even began, and though it was far from the first time Notsah’d ever had a cock in her mouth, and nor was it the first time her skills had brought the act to a swift conclusion, she needed him to hold off a while longer. Just a little. She slowed the pace, adding a hand to the base of his cock, the other cupping his sac. She sucked gently, but not fast.
His fingers in her hair twisted, tangled. Pulled. Not hard enough to force her to release him, and she couldn’t tell if that were his intent or, if like so many men, he was simply so lost in his own pleasure he had no idea he might be causing her pain. She didn’t really care. She was not his lover. Not even a mistress. She was simply a thief, stealing even this act for her own purposes and reasons.
Jarron cried out again in the same low, hoarse voice. His cock throbbed and in the next moment he released inside her mouth. Notsah shook, not with her own climax though he might’ve thought so – men often did—but with resignation. He was finished. So was she.
She swallowed and took her mouth from his cock. She sat back on her heel, careful to keep the pressure off her injured ankle. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and looked up at the man from whose kitchen she had so recently fled. He’d never missed a meal in his life, that one. He dressed himself in silks and satins and wiped his ass with lace.
His eyes fluttered as he looked down at her, then opened wide. She’d never been this close to him before, though she’d mooned over his portrait often enough from the shadows. Erekon had hated it when he saw her staring with wide eyes at the pictures of the prince, whose formal portraits never showed the blisters. Jarron Bydelay had blue eyes beneath the shock of thick, dark hair tumbled over his forehead. The blisters, some clear, some white, stood out against the blush on his cheeks.
“Who are you?” he breathed.
The door flew open hard enough to slam into the wall and rattle the books on the shelf. Two of the Shomer Melek burst in, tangling the tapestry as they came and pulling it from its hooks. Erekon came just after them, his dark eyes flat and assessing as he looked around the room.
Too late. If her face had still been buried in Prince Jarron’s crotch, Notsah might’ve had a chance, but as it was, Erekon was already crossing the room to snatch her up by the back of her collar. Notsah dangled in his grip, her breath catching as the shredded throat of her blouse cut into her skin. Her wounded ankle connected with Erekon’s shin and hurt her worse than it ever could’ve hurt him.
“Steady, little kalbah,” Erekon said, lip curled, the pet name cruel but murmured in a voice like a caress. “Watch yourself, else I feel forced to punish you further.”
“What…what is…?” The prince hastily arranged his clothes to cover himself and got to his feet. He wasn’t nearly as tall as Erekon, but then he was hardly a man grown. He lifted his chin, looking at the King’s Lion and ignoring Notsah, who hung like a puppet between them. “What is the meaning of this?”
“This,” Erekon shook Notsah, “is a thief, my lord. She thieved a pie from the kitchen and when she was caught and punished for it, she attacked the cook, stole some bread, and fled.”
The world was graying, lack of air sending Notsah into the dreamworld. Maybe the Void, she thought with a hint of gratitude. Maybe Erekon would simply choke her into death right now and spare her the rest.
“Put her down,” she heard the prince say. “Can’t you see she can’t breathe?”
Sweet air whistled into her lungs on a gasp, though when she hit the floor at Erekon’s feet, every bone in her body seemed to break at once. Notsah whimpered and curled into a ball next to Erekon’s polished black boots. No more running. No use.
“My lord prince, she is a thief. Stole right from your kitchen, it’s the same as if she’d pranced into your bedchamber and lifted one of your jewels.”
Notsah gripped the floor, cold under her fingers. “I was hungry.”
Erekon nudged her overhard with his boot, right in the tender spot near her ribs. “Shut up.”
“Hunger can move even the most righteous to unnoble acts,” the prince said.
Was he…defending her? Notsah lifted her head to look up at him, but Erekon pushed it back down. Weary, bruised, nevertheless she drew in a breath of hope.
“My lord, she comes from a long line of thieves and vagabonds. The girl needs no reason to steal, it’s in her nature. She can scarce help it.”
“And yet she was employed in my kitchens?”
Erekon hesitated before answering. He turned to his two companions. “You two. Out.”
He waited until they’d gone before saying, “I had naught to do with such a decision, but aye, she was so employed.”
“And it was common knowledge she was inclined to thievery, aye?”
Notsah pressed her forehead to her palms, the backs of her hands flat on the floor. She bit back a smile, though Erekon couldn’t possibly see her face. He’d only have to suspect, and he’d kick her again.
“Her service was purchased at auction, so…aye, I suppose it was well-known.” Erekon shifted, his boot coming dangerously close to Notsah’s fingers but not crushing them.