Ezar had promised her protection, but only once she carried the heir to the Imperium inside her fragile body. Until then, Kareen must do her duty as a high Vor woman and submit to her husband and lord.
Until then, Kareen had trod carefully, complying with Serg’s every request, no matter how distasteful she found it. She had forced herself to smile when he touched her, to feign desire she did not feel, to not cower in fear when he satisfied his milder desires – to restrain her, to force her, to humiliate her. Kareen was grateful that his position and hers had restrained him from going any further, although she pitied the women who had not been so lucky.
Ezar had kept his word. As soon as the Imperial physician had confirmed that Kareen was pregnant, he had moved her to separate quarters from the Crown Prince. She had still had to see him at formal events, and he took joy in inflicting petty torments on her. She had lived in fear that something would happen – that she might have to go back to Serg. When Gregor was born, Kareen had cried tears of pure joy – not just because she had a beautiful son, but because she would be safe from Serg always.
Yet, even with that knowledge, Kareen still suffered from nightmares. Ezar protected her – but Ezar would not live forever. What would happen if Serg outlived his father? Would she have to stand by his side as his Empress, and go to his bed? Would she have to watch him turn their son into a monster?
Aside from that, she worried that her quarters weren’t as secure as Ezar had promised. She trusted him to keep his word, but Kareen found it impossible to truly relax. Barrayaran custom and social mores prevented the men who guarded her from staying too close to her, lest someone be perceived as committing improprieties. The maids and ladies she was permitted to have were no protection against what she feared, and might even be liabilities.
She trusted Captain Negri would keep her safe, as long as it benefited the Imperium for her to continue breathing. Kareen held no illusions about where his loyalties lay – with the Imperium, with Ezar, and with Gregor. If Kareen became a problem, Negri would find a solution. Until she became a problem, he was not indifferent to her concerns.
The problem was that she needed a female guard, and finding one on Barrayar was easier said than done. Negri refused to bring in an off-worlder, and finding the proper skillset among Barrayaran women seemed next to impossible. Finally, one of Negri’s staffers had seen Ludmilla Droushnakovi competing in a judo competition.
Drou had been the answer to Kareen’s prayers. The knowledge that she was sleeping in the same room let Kareen sleep through the night for the first time in months.
Kareen stood in front of her vanity, smiling at Drou in the mirror as the younger woman undid the fasteners along the back of her evening gown. “Thank you, Drou.” She inhaled deeply, enjoying the freedom after the restrictive gown and its underpinnings.
“I’ll fetch your dressing gown,” Drou said, moving to the closet. Kareen had not intended for Drou to take on the duties of a ladies’ maid, but on some occasions, it was nice to relax in privacy, with company she trusted with her life. Drou had not been in her service for more than a few months, but Kareen could hardly imagine her life without her.
Once Kareen was wrapped her in her luxurious dark red velvet robe, she seated herself on the delicate padded chair in front of her vanity. Drou began unpinning Kareen’s elaborate coiffure, then began to brush the long dark hair. Kareen leaned back, closing her eyes in pleasure as the tangles yielded to the strokes of the brush, until her long dark hair fell in a shining curtain. Drou drew it together into the heavy braid Kareen slept with, her hands quick and sure and gentle. It was one of the few physical pleasures Kareen allowed herself.
And yet, Kareen found herself wondering what other physical pleasures those hands could bring her. She was not indifferent to the need to touch and be touched. Serg had not destroyed that for her, at least.
Drou finished the braid and draped it over one shoulder. “You seem tense tonight. Do you think a shoulder rub would help?”
“That would be nice,” Kareen agreed, loosening her robe to expose her shoulders. Drou’s hands squeezing and stroking her tight muscles made her moan slightly as the knots loosened, and one hand slid along the back of her neck. It was almost a caress, Kareen thought, and wondered if it was deliberate or if she was imagining that it had a deeper meaning.
If there was to be a first move, Kareen knew she would have to make it. Whatever Drou felt, she could hardly risk offending her mistress by presuming too much. At the same time, Kareen did not want to pressure Drou into accepting an advance if she did not desire it. Kareen was no innocent – Serg had first mocked her for what he saw as prudery and set about exposing her to all manner of things – and although many in the court would deny it, men’s beds were not the only place women found pleasure. She had no idea, however, if Drou had ever been exposed to this concept – things were different among other classes.
Finally, she decided that she had to trust her instincts. If she was wrong, Kareen hoped she could find a way to make things right with Drou. But she hoped with all her heart that she was not wrong.
Kareen drew herself up straight on the chair, and locked eyes with Drou in the mirror. She knew that the current styles made her guardian’s statuesque figure look heavy, but Ludmilla Droushnakovi was beautiful in her eyes, like a warrior goddess. Kareen wanted very much to touch her, to be touched by her, to share pleasure with her.
Kareen allowed her robe to fall to her waist, and watched Drou in the mirror, saw the surprise in her eyes. Not only surprise, but longing.
“May I?” Drou’s whispered question made Kareen smile, and she nodded.
Drou knelt behind her, the better to press her lips against Kareen’s neck, to slide her hands over Kareen’s shoulders and lower. Kareen sighed, turning her head slightly, enjoying the moment when Drou’s lips met hers.
Perhaps she would not get much sleep tonight, Kareen thought dreamily, but it would not be because she felt unsafe.
Quite the opposite.
She had never felt safer.