“How do we get through this? I’ll tell you how. Let me go. Then I can get out of this damn place, and I’ll be just fine.” He flexed against the chains, digging their edges into his skin. “You can fend for yourself.”
“Not going to happen. Letting you go is suicide for me – and the king’s soldiers will hunt you down.”
He growled. “Damnit, woman, I’m not going to bow and scrape for a year like some slave.”
It didn’t seem to bear pointing out that, technically, he was a slave. “Nobody’s asking you to.”
“Sure as blazes sounds like it.” He shifted his weight from one knee to the other.
“No.” The princess shook her head slowly. “I am asking you to agree to live in my suite for a year and to refrain from killing people – especially me – for that year.”
“While being your slave.”
“Well, that’s the part we can’t get around.” She shrugged. “But there’s nothing saying that a slave has to be slavish.”
“It’s sort of in the name.” He tilted his head at her, an expression far less daunting than any he’d shown previously. “Do you really think you could spend a year with someone like me, Princess, and not treat me like your slave?”
It was a good question. “As if my life depended on it.” She found herself smiling. “Do you think you could spend a year with someone like me, and not try to kill me?”
A heartbeat passed and then another. Had she pushed him too far? Another beat, another, and then a smile slowly grew across his face.
“As if my life depended on it.”
The princess allowed herself to relax fractionally. Her life was, of course, still in danger, but that was a fact of her existence. “Then do you think we might be able to have a deal?”
The prisoner shifted again. “I think we might be able to make a deal.”
She held up a hand. It was better to say it all before hand. “Two things you ought to know.”
He settled back against his heels, the frown growing again. “I’m listening.”
“One. There are still going to be people trying to kill me.”
“Clearly they’re not that good, since you’re still alive. I don’t think they’ll be able to hurt me. Two?”
Bravado had its place and purpose. “Two. I can say that I won’t treat you like a slave. I can’t say anything about the rest of the palace. And if you start a fight – the king’s men will get involved.”
He showed teeth in something she didn’t think was a smile. “I’m not going to start anything. But if they get involved, I know who’s going to come out on top.”
Perhaps that much bravado might be a little out of place. Then again, he’d been rational enough to make a deal with her. “Then we’ll try it. I’m going to unlock your bonds now.” She walked around behind him, placing herself directly at his back. “Please don’t wiggle.”
“Are you sure you’re a princess, Princess?”
“That…” She had a key. She had been a bit surprised that her father had given her a key. But it was easier than picking the lock. “That is the question that everyone keeps asking.”
“I guess the question is, does the King ask it?” She thought he was probably leering, but looking at his chained wrists and ankles lessened any effect his expression might have had.
“Well, even if my father wasn’t my father, the royal line came through my mother.” It wasn’t like it was the first time she’d heard the question. She pulled on the chains until he bent backwards a little bit. “Just a moment; I need slack to get these unlocked.”
He grunted. “He’d really kill you?”
She managed to get the key slotted into the first lock and turned it before she could change her mind. “He’s not the only one. But yes. He killed my sister. And my brother.” The shackle fell off of his left wrist.
“Big family?” He moved his arm tentatively, and then more certainly, pulling it in front of him. “Thinning the herd?”
“There were four of us. Now there’s two.” The second wrist was much easier to unlock, without the chain pulling and getting in the way. She moved on to the ankles. “I haven’t figured it out yet. Either he really hates us, or he wants to motivate us to be as strong as possible.”
“Could be both.” He rolled his shoulders and stretched, the movement making the bruises and cuts on his back twist and dance. “Sounds like a lovely family.”
“It’s the only one I have.” The ankles came unlocked much quicker, now that she was getting the hang of this. “There.”
“Thank you.” He waited just long enough for her to get off of his legs before rising to his feet, stretching and groaning every inch of the way. “Now, I’m going to need pants, a shirt, a belt, shoes, and a weapon of some sort.”
He was, the princess noted, rather tall as well as rather muscular. She also noted the way that he placed his feet, as if he was uncertain of his balance, and the way that he blinked when looking at her. Perhaps a head injury? With his hair in the way, she couldn’t tell if he had any obvious bruising or cuts.
She cleared her throat. “You’re also going to need a bath. Possibly two. And I’m going to need your word that you won’t leave this room without me and your assurance that you’re not going to go around stabbing the royal guards if I do give you a knife.”
His smirk darkened quickly to a frown. “I thought you said you weren’t going to treat me like a slave.”
“I’m not. But I’m not going to put up with you treating me like one, either.” She raised her chin and met his gaze steadily. “We’re going to be partners in this, or I’m going to treat you like a paroled nobleman.”
“Like a – I’m not some poncy noble!”
“Better than a slave, isn’t it?” She found herself smiling. “Look, we have an arrangement. The arrangement involves us looking as if we are getting along for long enough that nobody kills us. And that is not going to happen if you snap orders around.”
“Not gonna happen if you do, either.” He set his jaw.
The princess sighed. “Agreed. So: if you want a weapon, I need your parole. Your agreement that you aren’t going to go attacking people in the palace.”
“You’re seriously going to consider giving me a weapon?”
“I’m seriously considering giving you pants. The weapon depends a lot more on you.”
“Giving you my ‘parole.’” He sat down on the edge of her bed. “What if they stab me first?”
“Then you can feel free to stab them. But if you start a fist fight and they escalate… look, just please try not to get in a situation where the King will have a reason to kill us both, okay? Agree to that and I’ll get you a knife.”
“He’s already put us in a situation where he’s pretty much trying to make us get ourselves killed, isn’t he?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Right. You know what I mean?”
“I’m just trying to make sure I get it right. Parole is a pretty important thing for nobles and other nobby sorts, isn’t it?”
“Grounds for oath-breaking if it’s broken. Someone told me that once.”
She had a feeling that was a story of its own. “Yeah. Yes, it can be.”
“So I want to get it right. So, pretty much, you don’t want me to rock the boat. We’re already down to one board and half an oar, and you don’t want me to dump us in the drink.”
The princess found a smile crossing her lips. Where had that come from? “Yes. That sums it up nicely. Can you agree to that?”
“If it gets me pants and a blade.”
“Then it will get you pants and a blade.” If the blade ended up between her shoulders, well, then it did so.
“Then I, uh. I give you my parole.”
She felt a weight lift off her shoulders: not the heaviest of the weights, nor the most urgent, but a weight nonetheless. She pressed her palms together, fingertips nearly at her throat, and bowed deeply. “I am Arisse. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
He snorted. “Is that how you do it in the castle?”
“How do you do it where you came from?” She rose from the bow, but kept her hands pressed together.
He dropped his palms to his thighs and leaned forward, knees bending but eyes still on her. It was quick, not quite cursory, and he was smiling through the whole thing. “I’m Chress. I can’t say it’s nice to meet you, Princess, but it’s nice to find out you’re not a complete bitch.”
“I’m pleased to discover that, too.” The princess suppressed something far too much like a giggle for her tastes. “Let’s get you some pants – although that’s going to require leaving my suite.”
“I’ve been dragged in front of the entire court naked. I think I can handle walking down the hall.” He had no problem with his own smiles, it seemed, fierce tiger-grins that they were. “I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
The princess raked her eyes down his body. She might doubt some of his bravado – but he was right about this.
He was sculpted, head to toe, and while he was also bruised, bloody, and dirty, it made him look like a painting of a wild warrior.
He turned away from her. “So, am I getting pants or not, Princess?”
“Let’s get you a weapon. And something to wear.” Keeping him naked would not improve his mood, she was certain, and she’d given her word not to keep him like a slave. “This way.”
Arisse lived in comfortable exile in a far wing of the castle, one that had been abandoned for more than a decade as her father inadvertently drove away distant relatives, hangers-on, and ambassadors. The king had not complained; she assumed that nobody had told him. It wasn’t as if he was going to sneak into her room in the middle of the night and do the deed of killing her himself.
It meant that she was not generally bothered; it also meant it was a long walk to the laundry and longer to the armory. Chress bore it well, but she could tell he was limping. The closer they got, the more extreme it got.
“Here.” They’d passed only a couple people and there was nobody in the hall with them at the moment; it seemed safe enough. “You can lean on my shoulder.”
“I’m fine.” He pushed away from her.
“You’ve been injured.”
“They did a lot more than injure me. But I’m fine.”
“It’s no shame to accept a crutch for a battle-wound…”
He shoved her away. “What would you know about shame, Princess…“ His voice caught mid-word, and, much to her surprise, he dropped to his knees.
He talked over her. “I’m sorry, Princess, I didn’t mean to run into you.” He dropped his head to his knee, the way that the palace help would.
“You can’t have trained him already. Was this some joke of your father’s?”
The voice was shrill, piercing, and far too familiar. Arisse dropped her head for the two seconds required by politeness, then met Dame Sessaly’s gaze. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, madame.”
The woman was not old so much as she was a fixture in the court. “He’s behaving himself. Like a proper body-slave.”
Arisse counted to five in her head. While her eyes were on Dame Sessaly, she strained every other sense towards Chress. Was he going to pounce? How far could he be pushed?
“He was a gift from my father. You don’t think the king would give his daughter an improper gift, do you?” The princess knew she sounded vaguely amused. She had a lot of practice sounding vaguely amused or slightly bored, dealing with the court.
“He was delivered to you wrapped in chains.”
“Well, he is a warrior. It’s not common to deliver warriors wrapped in flowers, is it?”
“A warrior who is bent-knee like a slave?”
“Well, does he look like a slave to you?” Let this end soon, please. Before Chress could take no more.
“He’s on his knees at a lady’s feet.”
“He’s on his knees at a princess’ feet.” Chress’ rumble of an answer spoke of violence. “As ought be everyone.”
“He speaks!” Dame Sessaly looked down at Chress. “And you think I ought to be bowing to your princess, boy?”
“I think everyone ought to show her the respect due her position.” He was snapping off his words now.
“And what about the respect due my position?”
This was going to end poorly. This was going to end very poorly indeed.
Chress looked Dame Sessally up and down, more assessing than scorning. “You fucking the king?”
“What? How dare you!” She took a step backwards, glaring at Chress. The princess noted that, despite the outrage, she didn’t deny the question. Interesting.
“Not married to him, not unless you people mark marriage way differently than mine – stupid hairdos or something. So that makes you… not outranking the Princess. Princess?”
“You’re not wrong.” He wasn’t. Not that Dame Sessally was going to enjoy hearing that. Arisse was going to be hearing about this for months.
On the other hand, she was enjoying it.
“So, you don’t outrank her, she owns me, so I can say whatever I want to you.” Chress nodded. “Dame.”
“Your father will hear about this!” The Dame was looking more and more flustered.
“I’m sure he will. Now, if you’ll excuse me…?”
“There is absolutely no excuse for a hoyden like you!” Happily offended and having gotten in the last word, Dame Sessally flounced off.
“Thought she’d never leave.” Chress cleared his throat. “Ah, Princess, could I get a hand up?”
Written to rix_scaedu‘s commissioned continuation.
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