King Henry sighed, rapping his fingers on the arm of his throne, the rings on his left hand clinking with each tap. He leaned on his other arm, using it to support his head as the shadows grew longer and the candles shorter. He thought against fiddling with the broach keeping his cloak on his shoulders, knowing that it would just wrinkle the brocade tunic underneath. Tiffania had always warned him against it, knowing he would do it anyway. He missed them. Especially at times like these.
His wife had always taken her role as hostess head-on, relieving Hank of so much of the social duties he loathed, freeing him to lead without being weighed down by social niceties. Since her passing those duties had fallen back on his shoulders, leaving him feeling like he was treading water. And on days like these, he felt like he wasn’t even holding his head above the surface.
With the sound of the great wooden doors to the throne room creaking open, Hank sat up straighter, stifling a yawn. The royal guards, dressed in the same midnight blue as his own cloak, stood to attention as Viscount Perkins and his envoy from Warren finally arrived, the man sauntering into the room as if the castle were his own. The viscount’s blood-red cloak swept the floor as he bowed before the throne, his unpleasant face twisted into what he passed as a smile. The three people accompanying him stood back at a respectful distance from the king, the two knights bowing, the woman curtseying, her rust-red dress sweeping the floor.
“About time,” Hank said, standing. He’d been waiting all afternoon and most of the morning for the party to arrive. The king had planned for a hunt that morning, but the viscount had sent word ahead that he wouldn’t make the hunt just as Hank was mounting for the excursion. Hank had gone anyway, of course. He and his men never turned down a hunt, Sirs Fowler, Reed, Miller, and Collins accompanying him on the hunt that particular morning. Though Ravendale had its own list of nobility— most of his own knights being from prominent families— Hank much preferred the company of soldiers like himself. Not that he truly preferred anyone’s company these days. Most of the men only put up with him at this point because he was the king.
“Your Majesty,” Lord Perkins said, showing none of the respect that the throne called for. “Apologies for the wait, I’m sure you know how utterly unpredictable travel by carriage is,” he said with no attempt at hiding his disdain. For carriage travel, or for Ravendale, Hank couldn’t fathom to guess.
“I’m sure,” Hank said with another sigh. “Shall we dine? I’d hoped to get all of this negotiating out of the way before we began with the pleasantries, but it seems that we will have to do both at once.” He nodded towards one of the maids, a young Northern girl, to signal that they would finally be taking dinner in the great hall. Hank stepped down from the throne, clasping Perkins’ offered arm.
They walked side by side down the torch-lit hallway until they reached the great hall, Perkins gesturing for Hank to enter first as two servants opened the doors to the warmly lit room. The smaller table in the hall had been piled high enough for a feast of kings, though, by the look of Perkins’ envoy, the two of them would be dining alone. Hank’s suspicions were confirmed when only the viscount stood behind his chair, waiting for the king to be seated first.
Hank wasn’t an invalid or a child, so he had never bothered with servants to do simple things for himself, such as cut his meat or push his chair in, so the manservant in the corner only rushed to push Perkins’ chair in as Hank reached for the wine. But, he supposed, Perkins was a lifelong courtier, always inserting himself in the right crowd, rarely getting his own hands dirty in whatever pie he was sticking his fingers in.
Though it was custom for Hank to be the first to help himself with dinner, he wasn’t about to start this particular conversation with Perkins again without a drink first, passing over the spit-roasted boar and vegetable potage— likely made by Rose, the head kitchen maid, who insisted he needed to eat more vegetables— pouring a twenty year old bottle from the cellars. When the goblet was nearly spilling over he began helping himself to the boar and sour loaf, cracking the bread between his hands. Ignoring the vegetables, he plated a few of the wine-poached pears that had been spiced with cinnamon from Cassia.
With the goblet in hand, and Perkins finally helping himself to the heapings on the table, Hank sat back to examine the three companions that Perkins had come in with. Two were knights in Perkins’ own employ, his family crest emblazoned on their tunics. The third was a young, beautiful woman, certainly not Perkins’ wife. Her head tilted towards Perkins, showing a gold binding collar on her neck. With the goblet pressed to Hank’s lips, his eyes flicked to the woman’s temple where he saw the mark of an elf, a small ring-shaped birthmark. She was a slave. Hank was far from surprised.
It wasn’t often that anyone from Warren did anything without a slave, they just usually didn’t bring them to dinner. By her meek demeanor and her deference to Perkins, Hank was sure she was a pleasure slave. The kingdom of Ravendale, despite sharing its western border with Warren, and its eastern border with the free elven kingdom of Jericho, had far fewer elven slaves among his people than either kingdoms, and even fewer freed elves, but Hank wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the race. Though he had never personally owned a slave, he knew there were one or two slaves owned by his kingdom that were scullery slaves, so he supposed he technically owned one or two.
Hank took another swig of his wine, humming noncommittally as Perkins spoke on about Warren’s high court, naming names of nobility Hank hadn’t seen or heard from in a decade by the least. His eyes fell back on the elf, her head bowed demurely, eyes averted from where she stood with her hands clasped in front of her at the door. He knew that Perkins’ entourage changed frequently, Hank having the misfortune of dealing with the man far too frequently for his liking. Queen Cristina of Warren rarely made the trip to his kingdom herself, and certainly not for something as trivial as establishing trade routes or bargaining for land usage rights— not that she was much better company than Perkins. The whole lot of them were as trustworthy as the boars on the queen’s crest.
“Lord Perkins,” Hank said, cutting into the tough meat of the boar he’d killed that morning, on what had been the hunting trip he’d planned for himself and the Warren envoy. He’d told the kitchens to prepare the boar only partially out of spite. He would have a lovely smoked venison to clear the morning fog from his head at breakfast in the peace of his own chambers. “Shall we get down to business?”
“Very well,” Perkins said between bites of the pheasant he’d piled onto his own plate, Detroit Castle’s aviary specialized in them. Lord Perkins adjusted in his chair, then gestured to the slave behind him with two fingers, “Mary,” he said. She bowed her head to offer her ear to the lord, nodding when he spoke in whispers. Hank was unable to hear what Perkins said, but he watched them closely over the rim of his goblet. The slave stood straighter, leaving the room with one of the guards in tow. Perkins turned his attention back to the king, lacing his fingers over his stomach. “Where were we?"
“I believe you were attempting to persuade me on the benefits of leasing my land to you?” Hank said, knowing he would not be persuaded, even after Perkins had traveled all this way. They’d written back and forth half a dozen times to discuss the particulars, with neither party pleased with the results before Perkins invited himself for discussions at Detroit Castle. There were others that had placed bids on the land, though Hank had little hope that any of them would have much better plans for the land.
The lord leaned back in his chair as if he owned the castle instead of Hank. “It’s not that I wish for you to lease the land to me— to Her Majesty, Queen Cristina, rather—” he waved his hand as if those two were interchangeable. The king watched him with a careful eye. Perkins had always had political ambitions far above his own position in court, as had Perkins’ father, the original Lord Perkins, who had been awarded the title from the queen’s father. Hank had often wondered if there was something more to Perkins’ relationship with the queen than was publicly admitted, with the leeway that he earned. “—but that we would be reaching a mutual agreement, with Warren lending two thousand agricultural slaves to work your land at Oakehaven for a period of ten years, with a share of the crops.”
He waved his hands as if it was a mutually beneficial trade, but Hank knew otherwise. Warren was a rocky, barren kingdom, with little farmable land— unlike Ravendale’s vast grasslands. “Perkins,” Hank said, leaning forward in his own chair. “You know how many lives were lost in Oakehaven in the Great War. On both sides.” The village surrounding the farmland had been abandoned for nearly twenty years, much of it razed to the ground with Hank’s people inside.
“Yes, precisely!” Perkins said, with a renewed vigor in his eyes. He leaned forward, sloshing his goblet on the table, reminding Hank that his own goblet was not half as full as it should be. “With my men and the hundreds of empty beds in Oakehaven we can bring prosperity to both our lands.”
Before Hank could speak again, to reject the offer once more on the basis of not wanting any men from Warren on his lands, slaves included, there was a knock on the door. Lord Perkins turned abruptly back to Hank. “Ah, Your Majesty, your gift has arrived,” Perkins said.
Hank groaned, “It’s not another Tadum, is it?” he said of the elvish hunting companions, the dog-like creatures that had far too much energy for a man of Hank’s age— much less his own hunting dogs. “That last one you gifted me with terrorized Sumo and the other hounds until it ran off into the night.” Hank wasn’t about to admit that he may have left the stable doors open in hopes that the blue-blooded beast would leave on its own.
Perkins’ coy smile left Hank with an uneasy feeling. But he nodded towards the guards, allowing them to open the doors. “Mary,” Perkins said to his slave, summoning her from the doorway with two gestured fingers. Her movements were fluid, as if she were floating across the room, her rust-red dress hiding the movements of her feet until she delicately placed herself on Perkins’ lap, not meeting either of their eyes. The guard who had left with Mary stepped aside, pulling forward another individual lead by a gold chain linked to a gold binding on his neck.
The young man in the doorway was clothed in a sheer, white silk tunic over a pair of tight trousers, cinched just below his knees. Hank swore to Raneighs. The textiles cost a pretty penny themselves, imported from Endek across the Northern sea. The slave was clearly marked as a virgin, a prize bed slave. He looked barely twenty, with doe eyes averting his gaze to the floor, only a quick glance up at Hank when he first entered the room. Hank had certainly seen younger for sale, but the last time he’d… looked at anyone that young, he too had been twenty. That was a lifetime ago.
Perkins beckoned the slave over to himself, the young man following obediently. Hank’s eyes followed the thin gold chains linking the golden collar to the matching bands on the slave’s wrists and ankles. Though the chain looked like it could snap between the slave’s delicate fingers, Hank knew it was as enchanted as the rest of the bindings. Perkins’ arm slithered around the slave’s midsection, ruffling the sheer silk fabric.
He was pale, Hank saw, ice blue veins training up the slave’s neck, and yet he seemed to have a warmth that the other elf didn’t. But of course he did, Hank thought with another sip of the wine in his hand, he was meant to warm someone’s bed. The slave’s short hair curled at the tips with each subtle movement of his head, and his chest and neck underneath the sheer shirt was flecked with moles. He seemed almost too perfect, flawless like a porcelain doll. There was no mistaking him as anything but an elf, even if Hank had not seen the ringed elf-mark on his temple.
A chuckle came from Perkins across the table, startling both him and the slave, whose eyes caught Hank’s before diverting again. “I’m glad the boy is to your liking.” Hank tore his eyes away from the slave, turning his eyes to Perkins.
“Perkins,” Hank growled, his hand curling around the goblet. “I don’t need— I don’t want—”
The lord waved his hand again, “Your bed has been empty for far too long, Your Majesty ,” Perkins said with a knowing smirk. Damn him, Hank thought. Sending him an elven bed slave after what happened to the queen and his son felt like a slap to the face. And by the look on Perkins’ face, he knew it. “He’s a gift, paid for by Queen Cristina, from my own personal collection.” Of course the slave was. Hank had never much liked Perkins, the man having made a name for himself as a slave trader, having earned his land and titles by being a pawn of the crown, just as his ancestors had been. Hank much preferred his men to be loyal to his character than his purse. Perkins would throw his own men in front of a carriage for a quick copper piece.
Perkins leaned forward on the table, uncaring that his elbows knocked over silver plates of food. “I hope you’re not thinking of rejecting my gift,” Lord Perkins said. “Knowing your… strained... relationship with Her Majesty, I’m not sure that it could survive this... “ he waved his hand in the air, “insult.”
“Of course not,” Hank said through gritted teeth. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Ah, good!” Perkins said, sitting back up with a sleazy smile. He placed his hand on the small of the slave’s back. “Slave, introduce yourself to your new master, King Henry.”
The slave stepped forward, tilting his head up, almost proudly, “My name is Connor. I’m the bed slave sent by Her Majesty, Queen Cristina.” Perkins eyes were trained on Hank’s face as the slave introduced himself, beady eyes seeming to find what they were looking for.
Hank cleared his throat, “Alright. Take a seat,” he said, and then immediately regretted his choice of words as Connor went to mirror Perkins’ slave, Mary, and take a seat on his lap. “Wait!” Hank said, before Connor had seated himself. “Not on me.”
“Then where?” Connor asked, puzzled.
“I— don’t know,” Hank said, throwing up his hands. He’d never owned a slave before, he didn’t know the etiquette, the protocol. Connor nodded, seeing his uncertainty, and sat down at Hank’s feet, his own legs bent underneath him. The slave’s back was unnaturally straight, an unnerving effect of their race, Hank thought.
Dinner continued with another course and more propositions from Perkins. Some were easier to swallow than others. Ravendale was strategically positioned between the other two kingdoms on Thirius, between the mountainous Warren and the lush Jericho. After the Great War, Jericho ceased all trading with Warren, leaving only Ravendale as a mediator. With slavery not a vital part of Ravendale’s economy, the elven kingdom continued to trade with Ravendale after the stalemate in the Great War. Hank had met with the elven queen and her human king on far fewer occasions than he had met with Queen Cristina, but so long as they did not interfere with each other’s affairs, the kingdoms left each other in peace. Though Jericho had frequently brought up ending slavery in Ravendale completely, the elven kingdom couldn’t afford to lose trading with Ravendale either, as much of Jericho was covered in forests and lacked the proper grounds to grow grains as Ravendale could.
Perkins proposed another trade route between the port cities of Umbria and Huron, saving both port cities having to travel around the entire Thirius continent, outlining the details as Hank only half listened. He was preoccupied with the slave sitting at his feet. Hank had seen elves that were far more ethereal than this slave was, as enchanting as the slave by his side was. Though the slave was very clearly an elf… Hank wondered if Connor was possibly an Eldritch. Born of a human and an elf, not fully either. If that were true, he must have been from Jericho, the only place where Hank knew that to be possible, the only place in the twelve kingdoms that allowed love to flourish between the races— a necessary aspect of elven reproduction.
“King Henry,” Perkins said, an exasperated tone to his voice as though he’d repeated his name several times.
“What is it?” Hank said gruffly.
Lord Perkins smirked, standing, with Mary behind him. “Let Connor be a taste of what we have to offer,” he winked at Hank. “I don’t want to intrude on the rest of your evening, eventful as I’m sure it will be. I’ll be staying at an inn down the road. I hope you enjoy my gift and… reconsider my other offers. I’ll be leaving this with you,” he said, handing a golden key to Hank, before bowing out.
Hank waved his hand at Lord Perkins, leaving his guards to escort the Warren envoy from the castle. He swallowed the rest of his wine, summoning the kitchen maid, “Send for a chambermaid,” he told the young girl. “Have her escort Connor to my chambers.” The maid nodded, fleeing from the room. Shortly after, one of the chambermaids came for Connor, offering her hand to help him to his feet. Hank didn’t watch them go. Instead, he sat, watching the fire dwindle down to ash as he finished off the bottle of wine. He thought of the fire’s reflection in the slave’s glassy eyes, the languid swipe of a pink tongue across moist lips. Hank didn’t have enough presence of mind to know what he was going to do with the slave at this point, didn’t want to think about it. He had never really been one for unwilling partners.
When he finally stood, he stumbled, catching himself on the carved wooden chair. He waved off an attempt by a guard, who moved to catch him. “I’m not an invalid,” he growled. “I can handle my damn cup.”
He had been far more into his cup before, not even that long ago. His head was reeling from the thoughts of the boy upstairs in his chamber. Having stumbled up the three staircases to the royal family’s corridors, Hank paused before the door to his own chambers. “Reed,” Hank said, frowning. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“My job, Your Majesty,” Sir Reed said, practically rolling his eyes at the king. “And its Sir Reed, even to you.”
“I didn’t ask for you,” he mumbled. “I thought I had made it clear that when you took over as captain of the guard from Fowler that I didn’t want a Raneighs-damn escort.”
“I know, and I heard you,” Reed said. “But you let an elf into your bedchambers,” he scowled. Reed shifted, the chainmail under his tunic clinking against the sword in his belt. He’d lost as much as the rest of them in the Great War, and the plague that followed. “It’s bad enough they’re in the kitchens. If Perkins, the rat, sent him to stab you in your sleep—”
Hank snorted, reaching to steady himself on the stone wall. The rough-hewn stone was a cool, steadying force under his palm. “Think Perkins would send a slave in to do something like that? The bastard would sooner have stuck the carving knife in my back at dinner himself.” He shook his head. He understood Reed’s concern— staying at an inn in the lower towns would give Perkins time to escape, should Connor stab him in his sleep, or poison his goblet, or whatever else Reed was imagining the slave was preparing to do in his bedroom. Hank had other ideas of what the elf was planning on doing, he thought wearily. “Besides,” Hank said, running his other hand through his mid-length silver hair. He’d left his circlet somewhere else— the great hall? He’d have to have someone to look for it in the morning if they didn’t find it first, “he couldn’t hurt me anyway.”
This time, Reed snorted, crossing his arms across his chest. “Those collars they have to wear? I’ll trust the magic in those things as far as I can throw them. And I don’t mean the collars.”
The king paused. Reed, as much as Hank was loath to admit it, had a point. Hank had never bothered testing the slave collars that kept the elves in line, holding their latent magic in place, turning their own blue blood against them. The previous generation of collars, silver bands instead of gold, had begun losing their potency twenty years back. The elves that had been released from these silver bindings started the coup d'état that put an elf on the throne of Jericho. Of course, Queen Chloe had married the human prince who would have inherited the throne anyway.
If the bindings worked as they should, the elf couldn’t hurt him or run away. He’d never seen it for himself, but he’d been told the elves would freeze in place if they so much as thought about going against the order of their masters. And if the collars didn’t work, well— “If they don’t work, I have you, now don’t I?” Hank said with a tired sigh. He patted Reed’s shoulder, “I’ll take my chances,” passing by the captain as he reached for the door.
“I’m not coming in if I hear you scream!” Reed said behind him. “Curse Perkins!” Hank could practically hear the smirk on Reed’s face as he shut the door behind him.
Hank just wanted to stay pressed against the wooden door inside of his chambers, his eyes closed, as his head was spinning. But he barely allowed himself to blink before heading into the room. Through the sheer curtains hanging from the posters of the bed, Hank could see a glimpse of Connor on his bed. The curtains weren’t fully drawn. Hank couldn’t remember if he’d left them like that in the morning. It was a stupid, pointless thought. Hank had far too many of those lately.
The fire in the hearth had been lit by the chambermaid, the warm glow of the fire permeating the drafty room. He didn’t look at the bed as he passed by it. He briefly paused at the desk that he kept in his chambers, just before the wardrobe, to check for urgent letters redirected to his bedchambers. His solar next door had been taken over, many years ago, by the late queen’s possessions, and he hadn’t the heart to clear her things from the room. But tonight, his own desk was clear of any letters. Hank wasn’t sure if that meant there wasn’t anything urgent, or if they didn’t want to disturb him. He would have to remember to check his study on the opposite side of the castle in the morning.
Though he usually slept in little more than his smallclothes, Hank hesitated before stripping, his hand staying as he reached for the broach affixing his cloak to his doublet. It had been a very long time since anyone had shared his bed. It wasn’t that his servants had never seen him in a state of undress, or that his own knights hadn’t pulled him from a drunken stupor on far too many a night as of the past few years, but the last person who had slept beside him in that bed… had shared sworn to be by his side till death should they part, and she kept that promise for over a decade. Since her passing, he hadn’t kept himself as fit as he had been at twenty, a handsome young knight when he’d married her.
Unhooking the golden broach, his cloak falling from his shoulders, he reached for the billowy fabric of his seldom-worn nightshirt and trousers. With his back turned to the bed, Hank stripped to his smallclothes, pulling on the nightshirt on after the trousers, rolling up the sleeves to just under his elbow. As he turned up his right sleeve, he turned back to the bed, and thought it best to get this over with, rather than manufacture some reason to sit at his desk late into the evening. He still felt the effects of the wine, his hand shaking almost imperceptibly as he turned down the oil lamp closest to him until it was dark. He blew out the candles on the desk, and those on the table closest to the door. The only light in the room was the dim light from the crackling fireplace.
Hank sighed, and headed for the bed. Pushing back the curtains on his side of the bed, Hank saw the slave— Connor— flinch back into the pillows he was sitting against. Hank’s eyes widened in surprise— Connor was nearly naked, though Hank thanked Raneighs that he wasn’t entirely unclothed. The slave had shed his sheer clothing, and was sitting there with only his smallclothes. The golden chains binding his limbs together were gone, leaving only the collar at his neck, though through which means they had been removed, Hank didn’t know. Perkins wasn’t a sorcerer, so he must have had a key like the one he’d given Hank. Hank sat down on the bed, several feet away from the elf that was curled nearly at the edge of the bed, as if the slave couldn’t get enough space between them.
In the dim light, Hank could see the fear in Connor’s eyes.
“Your Majesty,” Connor said, dipping his head as a sign of obedience. “How— how would you like me?”
The elf cowered in the corner as if he were a maiden on their wedding night, and in a way, Hank supposed he was. Hank could see in his eyes that Connor had never been touched. Had been taught what to do and he was trying to be brave— holding his head up high— as he had been taught, but it was harder than he thought. Hank knew that he owned Connor. He could do anything he wanted to Connor, and even if they heard him cry out, the servants wouldn’t raise a finger. He was property of their king. Hank wanted to swear. Instead, he sighed.
“Tomorrow we’ll…” Hank looked Connor over, trying not to linger too long on his long legs, or his pale, unmarked chest. He was beautiful, Hank had to admit, even to himself. He looked far too human, but even then, there was something otherworldly in him. Connor’s dark eyes had gone from avoiding Hank’s gaze entirely to flicking between Hank and the door. Hank could only imagine what Connor thought of him, the things he must have been told. “...get you something more appropriate to wear.” Hank lifted the blankets, pulling them over himself as he told the elf, “Go to sleep.”
Hank laid awake for Raneighs knows how long before falling into a dreamless sleep. When he blinked his eyes open, stirring awake, he could practically feel Connor’s eyes on him. He shifted in bed, turning over to see the elf’s face, his eyes closed. Connor was breathing shallowly, his face pressed to the pillow and his body nearly as still as a corpse, as though he were asleep. But Hank had far too much experience with feigning sleep to miss the uneven breaths and fluttering eyelids.
Throwing the blankets off of himself, Hank stood, his feet hitting the cold stone floor. The fire had gone out in the night. He reached for the satin robe that hung on the edge of the desk’s chair, slipping it over his shoulders. There was another robe, a blue satin one to his red, that hung in the back of his wardrobe. Feeling the chill in the air, before he could think better of it, Hank reached for it. Feeling the smooth materials in his hands, Hank tossed it to the bed. “You can wear this for now.” He stepped to the paned window, looking down through warped glass, at the courtyard below in the early light. He could see Reed and the other men training. “They’ll be bringing breakfast shortly. Don’t need to pretend to be asleep on my account.” When he looked back, the robe was in Connor’s hands, his head of curls peering from behind the curtains.