(Here's another fun tidbit: This book is dedicated to one of my good friends and fellow book lovers--Karen Tezen)
The fat man across the table chuckled and lifted his glass to drink. Verity turned her gaze away, trying to hide her disgust. Her eyes fell upon her father, King Gerard, at the head of the long wooden table. The candles placed between them had somehow erased the hard lines around his eyes and mouth, making him look almost gentle.
Lord Bakkus, the brute across from her, set down his glass with a loud thunk. Verity was surprised the thing didn’t shatter, but the glassmiths in Oriole—Bakkus’s province—were well known for their craft. And of course the province’s ruler would have only the best.
Bakkus belched and leaned toward the king. “I must confess, my liege, that I have an alternative motive for asking you to Oriole a few weeks early.”
King Gerard lifted one eyebrow. “Oh? And what might that be?” He lifted his glass and took a long drink, never once taking his piercing blue eyes from Bakkus’s ruddy face.
Verity’s ears pricked. She knew Bakkus had an agenda, and only wondered if he would disclose it now or feed her father some other lies. The man reeked of deception—she could feel it coming off him in waves. No one could be as unassuming as he pretended.
But Bakkus leaned back in a casual way and motioned someone forward with his hand. As she stepped into the light, Verity recognized the blond girl as the one who had stood behind Bakkus when he greeted her father upon their arrival. The same girl who had served the king at the table.
“My youngest daughter, Cae,” he said with unmistakable affection. “As you can see, she is a rare beauty.”
Dread sank deep in Verity as she realized where this conversation was headed. Hot anger threatened to bubble from her throat but she clamped her mouth shut and waited. She darted a glance at her father. Yes, Bakkus had pricked the king’s interest, but all of Mercia knew a lovely young woman of child-bearing years would draw King Gerard’s attention. As he told her every time she questioned a new acquisition, “a king must have sons.”
Not even seven daughters could measure up to one son. Not for King Gerard.
Verity focused on the young woman. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen, and framed in candlelight, was the loveliest girl Verity had ever seen. She kept her eyes demurely cast down toward her shoes, allowing her long black lashes to frame rosy cheeks.
Bakkus spoke again. “Cae is from a long line of good breeders. Her mother gave me four strapping sons to build my territory, and two lovely daughters to add to my wealth. Cae’s older sister has given her husband six strong sons. Which is more than any of your women have done for you.”
Bakkus leaned forward, a little too eagerly in Verity’s opinion, to watch her father’s face. Verity could see the deep frown in his profile as her father looked at the minor lord. He’d struck a nerve, certainly.
“What would you want in return?” the king asked.
Verity saw the gleam of satisfaction hit the lord’s eyes for the briefest of instants. Did her father see it? Probably not. His gaze had wandered back to Cae’s heart-shaped face. And other qualities.
Bakkus was looking at her now. Why? Verity wondered. That gleam was back in his eye. She almost shook her head. He couldn’t want what she thought.
“I propose an exchange,” Bakkus said to the king. “A daughter for a daughter.”
“No, Father.” Verity tried to sound pleading, but the glare from her father told her she’d missed the mark.
“Be silent.” He turned back to the lord. “Why would you want her? She has nothing to recommend her. Her own mother died giving her life, and well before she could give me any sons. Verity has little value.”
“Then you risk nothing,” Bakkus said. “But such a jewel as the king’s oldest daughter will be a feather in my rather humble cap.” He steepled his fingers under his three chins and waited.
The king glanced at Verity. “I thought, in a few years, I’d barter her off in marriage to increase my holdings.”
“You have vast wealth,” Bakkus said. “And, from what I hear, plenty of daughters to barter off if you choose. All you would need to do is reclaim them from their mothers, which shouldn’t be difficult for the king of the realm.”
The jab hit home, Verity could tell. Her heart sank as she realized her father was seriously considering the greaseball’s offer.
He asked again. “What do you want with her?”
“I realize she’s not much to look at now, though she does have those unusual eyes,” Bakkus said. “Perhaps, in time, I would offer her to one of my sons in marriage. Or keep her as a servant. You must realize how impressed other lords would be to see the king’s daughter servicing me.”
Verity shuddered as chills crept up her arms. She bit her lip to keep from pleading with her father again. It would do no good. Instead she ran a nervous hand through her close-cropped hair. She knew men hated her short hair. It was part of the reason she kept it that way.
“You realize, if your daughter does not give me a son, I will turn her out,” Verity’s father said. “It could mean her life if she fails me.”
Bakkus waved a hand. “She would be yours to do with as you will.” He chuckled. “But I doubt you will be disappointed. By your own law, my daughter could be queen.”
Yes, Verity thought. The law. The first woman to give the king a son will be queen. Perhaps that’s what Bakkus was after—a back door to the throne. But why involve her?
Perhaps her father wondered the same thing. “Still, I don’t understand why you would want my daughter. I could recompense you well for young Cae without burdening you with Verity.”
That stung, and Verity sucked in a quiet breath. While it was true she wasn’t feminine, and was more outspoken than her father deemed appropriate, she was still the king’s oldest daughter. And, apparently, a burden.
“She would not trouble me,” Bakkus claimed. “I would simply turn her over to the women of my keep and they would bring her into line. I believe what has been lacking in your daughter’s life is a firm hand, applied liberally, if necessary.”
King Gerard leaned back, his expression contemplative. For Verity it seemed the whole room held its breath. Bakkus had done an excellent job at weighing the exchange heavily in her father’s favor. Even she could see that he’d be hard pressed to refuse.
She watched his eyes rake over Cae once more, lingering on the gentle curve of her hips and the swell of cleavage visible just over the neckline of her gown. And she knew. One word from her father and she would become subject to Lord Bakkus and his firm hand.
“Done.” Gerard’s voice pierced the stillness. “Draw up a contract and I will sign it tonight.”
“You have made a wise decision, your majesty.” Bakkus rose from the table. “I expect you to be the proud father of a son and heir before another year passes.”
Verity also rose, disappointment mingled with fury. “While you discuss terms, you’ll forgive me if I submit an objection.” Her father cast her a warning look but she ignored it. “I have no intention of staying here and subjecting myself to that man’s whim!”
The king shot to his feet. “You’ll do as you are told!” he ordered in a rising voice. “You are my daughter and your responsibility is to me. I forbid you from causing forfeit to the contract. Once it is signed, you become the property of Lord Bakkus.”
“I do not!” Verity hissed. “You may be my father but you do not own me! I refuse to obey your orders in this.”
“I am your king!” Gerard’s face mottled with rage.
“A sovereign I no longer recognize,” she replied. “You gave up any power you had over me when you agreed to trade me like a sheep or cow!” She didn’t wait to hear any more, but shoved her chair back and stormed from the room, heedless of his calls to bring her back.
Verity didn’t stop until she’d given her bedroom door a satisfactory slam. She gazed at it a moment and wondered if her father would sweep in on her heels and yell at her some more. Certainly it wasn’t their first argument. It seemed ever since she’d had a general grasp of speech, they fought. And that had been twelve years ago. She knew she vexed him. No one gave him as much grief as did his daughter.
As the seconds clicked by, she realized he wasn’t coming after her and breathed a sigh of acute relief. But what now? She had no intention of belonging to Bakkus, but how could she hope to prevent it? Her father had been well within his rights, according to the laws of Mercia, to barter her away. He must have considered doing just that more than once. She remembered a moment at age ten, after a particularly vocal fight, wondering why he kept her around at all. Rumor whispered that her mother had been the only woman he had ever loved, and losing her had been devastating. But she was not her mother, and keeping Verity close couldn’t bring her back.
Which brought Verity back to the issue at hand. If her mother were still alive, if she had been so important to her father, then she could have argued against trading Verity for Cae. The idea made Verity laugh. If her mother were still alive, she might have given Gerard sons and he would not be so hungry to find another woman who could.
She had few options, the most obvious being running away. With her skills and a little luck, she could vanish completely. Perhaps head to the great western desert. She’d essentially renounced her citizenship—in front of witnesses, no less—but she didn’t know how far that would carry her when the king’s word was everyone’s command.
And what of the dangers of the wild? Verity had only ever been out with her father and a large contingent of his guards. They kept a secure perimeter, tearing the throats of any wild beast who would hunt the royals. But what of the Devourers? A shiver raced through her as she thought of how useless her skills would be against those flesh eaters. They roamed freely through the wild forests, consuming any living creature in their path. Packs of them littered the whole of Mercia, but it would only take three to tear her apart. Two she could get with her knives, but that would only leave her vulnerable to the third.
Would she rather risk her chances with them or Bakkus?
Verity snorted, in part amused that it was even a question she considered. What if she succeeded though, and made it all the way out west? People had done it. Explorers had returned to report that there was nothing of value left. Her father would never think to look for her there.
Jeopardizing his contract didn’t bother her in the least. If Bakkus laid a claim against the crown, all her father had to do was increase the lord’s holdings, fill his coffers, or maybe even offer livestock. And if everything worked out as Bakkus hoped, he would be the father of the queen of Mercia. That position would secure even a greedy man’s wealth and position for the rest of his life.
A timid knock on her door made Verity jump. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and opened it. Her father wouldn’t knock like that—he’d pound.
Cae stood in the hallway, her hands clasped in front of her and her eyes, which Verity now saw were round and brown, filled with tears. “I came to check on you, Princess,” she said.
Verity leaned forward to catch the words spoken with such timidity as to be like vapor. “I’m fine, but thank you.”
“I beg your pardon,” Cae responded. “But you are far from fine.”