The first thing Aliya felt was pain.
And the second.
And the third.
Then she opened her eyes. The face hanging over her gave little cause for optimism. She doesn’t look like a nurse. Aliya closed her eyes. She remembered the car flipping, the sound of her neck snapping. I ought to be in the hospital, she thought, knowing it would take at least a year of rehab to get back on her feet.
That means putting off my residency. She had been looking forward to it, especially since they had promised her a rotation in trauma. I’m probably in the trauma department now—as a patient.
She opened her eyes again. Why is there a dusty pink rag hanging over my head? And who is the lady with no teeth who keeps bending down over me? Is she asking me something?
“Has My Lady come around?”
The woman’s breath was so vile that Aliya groaned and lost consciousness again.
She felt a little better the second time she opened her eyes. She still hurt all over, but the pain was less. Aliya couldn’t understand why her pelvis ached so badly after the car accident. She remembered hitting her head but nothing that would have caused injury to her lower half. But who knows? Maybe I have a fractured pelvis. It hurts, for sure.
The dirty pink rag was back above her head. The room stank of smoke and feces, but she didn’t feel like fainting again…yet.
Aliya looked around the room, and what she saw made her doubt she was in her right mind. She must have hit her head so hard that she was hallucinating.
She lay on an enormous bed in the center of a large room that had to be at least as big as her parent’s entire apartment. On one side of the room, a window showed her the forest beyond. On the other side, stood a massive set of wooden wardrobes, and in front of her bed, she saw a magnificent gilded door. Everything was pink. The walls were covered with fabric in a sickly pink color with huge gold flowers the size of cabbages. The curtains were a happy shade of pink. The wardrobes had been clumsily painted the same shade of pink with gold accents. The room was furnished with a writing table the color of a robin’s breast with roses painted up the legs, as well as several armchairs, upholstered in the same fabric that was on the walls, and a couple of large vases full of live roses. Topping it all off—literally—was a dusty pink canopy, complete with gold bows hanging over the bed.
It’s the perfect room for an unhinged Barbie doll. Aliya saw pink circles swimming in front of her eyes, but fainting wouldn’t be so easy this time.
“My Lady!” The same face appeared again.
Aliya pulled together what strength she had left and breathed out a question. “Where am I?”
The words came out like “E… a… I?” It was a terrible attempt, but it was all she could manage.
Apparently, the nurse’s aide (Who else could she be?) took that as permission to speak, and burst out, “My Lady, how glad I am that you’ve come around! You’ve been lying here three days. The healer came and said not to touch you. She said that your body would fight off death if it could. Otherwise, it would be your fate to follow your little one. Childbed fever has taken many women. We were afraid that the malady would get you, but we prayed hourly. With the Lord’s help, you’ll be back on your feet in no time. Would you like a sip of water?”
A giant cup made of a yellowish metal appeared under her nose. Could it be gold? Red stones glittered around the edge of the cup.
Aliya felt like a malfunctioning computer. Without thinking, she put her lips to the cold metal and took a sip. The water was delicious, and it was cold. Tasty, clean water without a hint of chlorine. It seemed to have been mixed with something like a cheap, boxed wine.
What is happening to me? Aliya was afraid to ask questions. As a doctor in training, she knew there were times that demanded action and times that required silence. Holding your tongue was always a good idea; she knew that for a fact. You’re never sorry for the things you don’t say.
Instead, she closed her eyes and frantically tried to think. Whatever else they have done to me, the gods have not deprived me of my ability to think.
She pushed to remember more of the accident. The truck was the last thing she saw. Her father yelled, then something hit her head, and her neck snapped. Then everything went black.
There was something in the darkness with me, but what was it? She didn’t know. So, she began analyzing what she had learned from the nurse’s assistant.
My Lady. She was obviously talking to Aliya, but ladies were all done away with in 1917, which was a mistake in Aliya’s opinion. She would have to think about that later. For now, she was a Lady. Where in the world do people still talk like that? She had no idea.
She refocused. You’ve been lying here three days. After an accident like that, Aliya wouldn’t be surprised if she’d been lying on her back in a coma for twenty years.
The healer had been there. What the hell kind of facility has healers instead of doctors and nurses? Even if I were in Africa, there would be Red Cross doctors, and this doesn’t look like Africa. It’s too cold, and the sky outside is gray. Healers aside, why did they wait for me to fight off my “malady” in the age of antibiotics? You just give your patient a mega-dose and watch the bacteria die off.
And what did the woman say about a little one? Did she mean a baby? Aliya had only slept with Alex a few times over the holidays, and they had been extremely careful. She wanted to finish medical school, and he was expecting to be promoted to major, so they wouldn’t get married until they reached those targets. Plus, she had had her period several times since then, right on schedule. I would know if I were pregnant. So what “little one” is the woman talking about?
However, if she’d given birth that would explain the severe pain around her pelvis. But how is that possible?
Aliya had two imaginable explanations for everything. The first was simple. She walked away from the accident, got married, got pregnant and gave birth, and now, because of the stress of postpartum fever and clinical death, she had forgotten everything since the accident and would have to start all over again.
There was a second explanation, but it seemed beyond belief… Her roommate at medical school was a Tolkien freak. She was into role-playing games and believed in parallel worlds, and her half of their room was littered with fantasy books and posters. Aliya knew how Ella would have explained these strange circumstances.
She would say I’m in a parallel world and have to find my way back. Aliyah shuddered at the thought. It defied all the logic instilled within her. And besides, if I am, indeed, in another world, I’ll probably never find my way back! I’m much more likely to die a rapid death without antibiotics. Everything in this room is a potential germ factory—by the looks of it, the fancy cup I just drank out of has never been washed, and the old woman hasn’t seen a bath in her lifetime.
In the end, Aliya decided not to say anything. That seemed the safest course of action. She remembered the Inquisition. Those priests would have known exactly what to do with visitors from other worlds. They’d test her to see if she was an associate of the devil, and that meant going for a swim with a heavy rock tied around her neck. If she managed not to drown, then she was guilty, and the devil had helped her. And if she did drown, they’d say, “Too bad, she must have been innocent. Let’s pray for her soul and thank God for knowing best.” Fun times all around.
What if this is all a bad dream? Aliya didn’t want to drown or be burned at the stake, even in a dream—even as an act of faith. She didn’t care what world she was in or what planet it was or what century. Judging by the fact that there are no mirrors, it has to be no later than the 15th century. She didn’t care about anything but her health. She needed to sleep and get her strength back.
Sleep. Aliya gave a deep sigh and started counting sheep. She was asleep by the time the sixteenth sheep jumped the fence.
Aliya got her second shock when she woke again. After she opened her eyes, she drank some water and realized she needed to pee. Her trusty nurse, who stank worse than ever, pulled back the blanket and stuck some kind of medieval pot under her patient.
Aliya was about to protest until she caught sight of her body. That. Is. Not. My. Body. Her whole life, Aliya had had dark hair, olive skin, and gray eyes, and she’d never been over a size 8. Which is a perfectly average size when you’re five and a half feet tall. But instead, lying on the sheet, which should have been washed a month ago, was a doughy, fair-skinned body that looked like it took a size 16 or more. The body’s dirty nightgown had ridden up, and she saw that she was a natural blonde.
Aliya fainted dead away, but that didn’t keep her from peeing in the pot.
When she opened her eyes again, the sun was up. She still felt awful. Her mouth was dry, and her head ached. She felt nauseous. And she preferred not to think about her perineum. If she had, in fact, given birth recently, the baby must have been a giant porcupine.
Someone was holding her hand and talking. “…Visa Hadson’s ewe threw a two-headed lamb. The medicus, the same one who came to see you, went to look at it and said that he would stuff it and send it to the King’s Museum of Curiosities. By the way, he promised to check on you today. Oh, please don’t die, my girl! Just don’t leave me! I nursed you and carried you in my arms and raised you, and I raised your father, too! You’re all he has, his only flesh and blood. And you’re all I have. I know you want to go back to the earth as your mother did, but he won’t survive without you. Your husband may be an earl, but he’s a villain! Here his poor wife is on her deathbed after trying to give him a child, and he’s back in the capital carousing with whores. I steeped a piece of gold in holy water for you so that you’d be even more beautiful after giving birth. Please get better, my precious angel! I can’t stay here without you! Who would look out for me if you weren’t here?”
The woman’s words dissolved into unintelligible muttering.
Aliya didn’t know anything about a Visa Hadson, but she assumed it was a person. She (or he) has a sheep, which makes her (or him) a person, right? The medicus (Is that a colleague? Why “medicus” instead of “doctor”?) is planning to stuff it and send it to the King’s Museum of Curiosities, which makes no sense because if I’m still in Russia where I belong, there have always been tsars instead of kings.
“I raised you” (she must be a nanny or a wet nurse) “and I raised your father, too.” Aliya was sure that her father had never had a nanny. He had grown up in an orphanage. “You want to go back to the earth as your mother did.” But my mother is alive, and my father is just fine. At least, as far as she remembered after the accident.
In an instant, it all came together. She was in someone else’s body in a completely different world. Apparently, I have a husband who is an earl and a royal jerk. Just what I need. So, my job was to give birth, and he doesn’t care too much whether I live or not. He could find a new wife; earls are always in demand.
There wasn’t much more she could deduce from what she had heard. Aliya made a decision. She could stay in bed as long as she liked, but judging from the sound of crying, there was at least one person in this world who loved her. If she got up, she could make this woman happy and perhaps learn some more about where she was.
Strangely enough, with that decision, her head was completely clear. Aliya opened her eyes and whispered, “Nanny.”
That was enough. The old woman leaped from her stool like someone had poked her with a needle. She smiled with all eight of her teeth.
“Lily! My baby! How do you feel?”
Aliya dropped her eyelashes a bit. “It hurts. Talking hurts. Give me something to drink.”
“Of course, right away, my dear,” the woman began puttering around. “Right this minute, I’ll mix you some water and wine. Or would you rather have milk? We have fresh milk from this morning.”
“Just water,” Aliya said. She felt like she hadn’t eaten in a while, and milk might upset her empty stomach. Buttermilk would be just the thing, so she asked for some.
The woman smoothed the hair back from Aliya’s face. “I’ll start some buttermilk for you this very day! It will be ready tomorrow. For now, take a sip of this.”
Aliya saw the gold cup with rubies flash in front of her eyes. She obediently drank the water with wine. Just a little, to keep it from going to her head. She looked up at the woman who handed it to her.
“Nanny, what happened to me? I can’t remember. My mind is in a fog. Tell me what happened.”
The woman looked away. “You’re too weak still to hear the whole story.”
I don’t see how suspense will make me feel better, Aliya thought. Then she made a sad face. “Please tell me. Please.”
She couldn’t force a tear, but the woman was touched anyway. She looked down and said quietly, “You lost the baby. It was a boy.”
It wasn’t clear what kind of reaction she expected, but Aliya kept her eyes down and asked another question. “I see. What else?”
“You had childbed fever for three days. The medicus came and let your bad blood and gave you a cleansing remedy. Nothing helped.”
Aliya’s eyes flashed in anger. “Don’t let that fool in here to see me again. I’ll rip his legs off.”
The nanny almost choked when she heard that. “But child, how can you say that? Your husband sent him all the way from Lavery when he heard you were unwell.”
“Perhaps he hoped that idiot would do me in,” Aliya grumbled.
“Whatever do you mean?” the nanny burst out. “Medicus Craybey is one of the best physicians in Lavery. Even the king has deigned to use his services.”
“That’s the king’s problem. Why did I lose the baby?”
The nanny shrugged. “Medicus Craybey said that you fell on the stairs.”
“Is that so?”
“We found you at the bottom of the stairs. There was a lot of blood. I was afraid you wouldn’t make it.” The nanny sniffled and hid her face in her apron.
“Not a chance of that,” Aliya whispered to herself. The woman didn’t hear her and continued to sniffle.
Aliya studied the woman. She was short and looked to be about sixty years old, with a tired but pleasant face. She had something like a little cap pinned to her hair. Aliya had only seen things like that in movies, but she was pretty sure that the sleazy fabric covering half the woman’s hair was intended to be a cap.
Her dress was made of what looked like homespun fabric in a grayish-brown color. It was plain, without bows or ruffles. The apron was as dirty as the dress. She couldn’t see what the woman had on her feet because the dress went all the way to the floor. It must function like a prehistoric vacuum cleaner when she walks.
Aliya sighed and spoke again, making her voice as sweet as possible, “Nanny, I need your help. I’m alive, and I want to get my health back. It’s going to take a lot of effort.”
The old woman dropped the apron from her face. Her gray eyes shone with fire, and Aliya realized that the woman loved her just as fiercely as her parents did back in her own world. This was a person who would do anything for her.
Anything at all. Whatever I ask for. A person like that is valuable. She could be useful.
Aliya kept her face neutral. She put on a small smile and said, “I want to try to stand up. I need to wash.”
“How can you stand up, child? The medicus said that you should stay in bed another tennight!
“It’s all right,” Aliya gasped as she struggled to sit, ignoring the pain in her lower abdomen. “I can do it. And I really need to take a bath!”
“But washing is so unhealthy! That is what Father Vopler says.”
“He’s welcome to have all the lice he can handle,” Aliya said, her patience wearing thin. When she saw the disappointment on the woman’s face, she changed her tone to something between whining and begging. “Nanny, please help me.”
The nanny (it would be nice to know her name) sighed and shook her head. “But Lily dear, it’s so bad for you.”
“Oh, all right. You lie here while I order some hot water. When I come back, I’ll help you stand up.”
Aliya nodded in agreement.
Thoughtfully, Aliya watched her leave. Then she began studying the room again. Unfortunately, all of the pink décor was still there. Looking closer this time, she began to suspect that the fabric on the walls was pretty expensive. Aliya was sure that the curtains would cost a fortune in her world. She had a friend who moonlighted as a seamstress and was always trying to teach Aliya about armsyces, darts, gussets, inserts, cross-stitch, machine embroidery and all the different kinds of seams. There was too much to remember, but Aliya could tell hand stitching from machine stitching, even at a distance.
She turned to study the furniture. The wardrobes were huge, pink monstrosities. And who thought it was a good idea to make a table out of heavy marble? It was impossible to move, and if it fell over it would put a hole in the floor. The chairs looked like they had been carved from whole pieces of pine.
One of the chairs looked more like a wooden chest that someone had nailed an uncomfortable back to before covering the whole thing in fabric—pink fabric, covered with ugly gold roses.
She hated this kind of stuff.
The pink canopy over her head needed to be shaken out before the dust completely obscured its gold roses.
Aliya plucked up her courage and looked down at her bed. The bedspread was an expensive brocade, but it was filthy—and pink. It was obviously handmade. The sheets were pink silk. They were dirty and stank. Aliya gritted her teeth and pulled the sheets to the side. She had to have a look at herself. She was dirty; she smelled bad; and she was covered in fat like a big, pink whale. Offhand, she figured she weighed 260-270 pounds. She almost cried; it was the worst reincarnation imaginable. She took a deep breath. I can deal with this. I’ll just watch what I eat and start exercising.
The floorboards outside her door creaked. Aliya pulled the bedspread back over her body just as three men came in dragging a large metal washtub. When they let it down, it hit the floor with a boom that made Aliya jump. The men went out and returned ten minutes later with buckets of boiling water, which they poured into the washtub. After emptying three buckets of boiling water and three buckets of cold water, they put two more buckets of hot water on the floor by the tub. Aliya watched their preparations in surprise.
The youngest of the three men looked to be eighteen. The oldest of them was way past fifty. The third looked to be about thirty-five or forty, no more. All of them were wearing tunics and strange leggings that had once been white. The tunics were pink. Of course. The two older men had beards, and the youngest was working hard to grow out some hairs on his chin. Their heads were uncovered, but they had sprinkled them with some kind of powder. Their hair was tied back with dirty pink ribbons. On their feet, they wore felt shoes that had apparently been designed to make the wearer look dumpy.
They looked awful. She wondered if all the men in this world dressed like that.
Aliya noticed that none of their clothes had buttons. The tunics closed with ties. Her nanny’s dress was the same way. She wondered if buttons had yet to be invented. If not, she would have to invent them and get the patent…if they had patents in this world. And if they didn’t, she would find a partner and open a button-making workshop.
Stop. My mind is wandering too far. I need to stay in the here and now, at least until I’ve had my bath.
The men left, and her nanny came back to her bedside. “Let’s get up, Lily, dear.”
Aliya tried to stand. She almost groaned in pain. Every muscle and cell of her body was in agony. She gritted her teeth. She was used to standing for hours at a time and knew how to deal with pain.
Her nanny helped her up. It became clear that the woman intended to put her into the bath in her nightgown. Aliya stared at her. “Nanny, I won’t wear this nightgown again. Help me take it off and have someone wash it. Then tell me if I have a clean one I can wear.”
“You do, but Lily…”
“I’m begging you, Nanny! I feel so awful. Do you want me to trip on this nightgown and fall again?”
Her nanny was horrified. She helped Aliya get the disgusting sack over her head.
Aliya almost broke down in tears when she saw the rolls of fat on her body, but she kept it together.
“If only I had a mirror,” she mumbled.
“You ordered one, remember? Let me help you, my pretty butterfly.”
Aliya nodded. Her nanny led her to one of the wardrobes and opened the door. Aliya gasped. The wardrobe held a full-length mirror, which was just a sheet of polished metal, and Aliya could finally see what had happened to her.
She had to admit that she had her good points as well as her bad ones. While her legs, hips, and butt were very large, and her waist was obscured by four rolls of fat, she had small, high breasts and a long neck (even if it was partially hidden behind three chins). Her hands were elegant, and her legs were well proportioned. All she needed to do was lose about a hundred pounds.
Aliya was also pleased to see that she had a heavy braid of hair that fell almost to her knees instead of the rat’s tail she was used to. It must be all the organic food you eat in a place like this. She studied her face and liked it. Large cheeks got in the way, but her eyes were big and green. Her nose wasn’t hooked or turned up; it was just a plain, straight nose. Her ears were fine, too. Best of all, she didn’t see any acne, warts or other spots on her smooth skin. Thank goodness, she didn’t see any of the pits left by smallpox, either. There was just a small birthmark at the corner of her lip. Her teeth were all there, and she could tell that her wisdom teeth hadn’t come in yet.
So, she had a good foundation, and everything else could be fixed. While she was getting in shape, she’d have time to assimilate. Aliya thought of herself as a pragmatist. She wouldn’t try to change everything around her all at once. Why bother, when all I really want is a convenient, easygoing lifestyle?
She would start at the beginning by finding out what was going on in the outside world. Aliya turned to her nanny and flashed her a babyish smile. “Come help me wash and tell me all the things that happened while I was ill.”
The old woman smiled broadly. “Whatever you want, Lily.”
The clever schemer hiding behind Lily’s eyes grinned; she knew exactly what she wanted.
“Anna! Sweetheart! Open the door!”
The man kept his voice down and glanced from side to side as if he was afraid of something. He didn’t have to wait long. The door opened, and someone pulled him inside before the lock clicked shut.
“Have you lost your mind?”
The woman who posed the question had passionate, southern features, with dark hair falling in waves over her round shoulders, and a sensual, full figure, with an innocently round face. Her forehead was high, and her hair had been plucked according to the latest fashion so that it formed a triangle above her face. Her thin, arched eyebrows framed large, brown eyes, and she had a small nose and heart-shaped lips above a round chin with a dimple.
“What are you doing here? My father is here today!”
“He won’t be singing you to sleep tonight, and I have my rights as your husband!”
The girl’s face was tight with fear. “Be quiet! You’ll get us both killed!”
“Maybe I’ll save us. You’re already sixteen, and you’ve been my wife for a year. Come here and stop stringing me along!” The man caught the girl by a lock of hair and pulled her to him. Anna cried out quietly, but he had no intention of stopping. He knew she liked a little bit of rough play.
A short time later, they continued the conversation where they had left off, only this time they were in bed, and the sheets were crumpled.
“How much longer will we keep hiding?”
“Lons, you know my father is in charge of my fate until I turn eighteen. After that, I’ll be free. There won’t be any dowry, but at least we can announce our wedding. Just wait a little longer.”
“Two years is a little longer? You want me to hide in the corner for two more years? Two more years of catching your every glance like it’s a favor. Two more years…”
A soft hand covered his mouth. “My father controls my life. With just a word from him, I’d be sent to a convent for knowing you like this. He could have our marriage annulled. The Holy Throne already looks askance at him. You don’t want to have your head on the block for seducing the king’s daughter, do you?”
That subdued him.
“And I don’t want to lose you. You’re my husband. I love you. Everything will be fine. Just have patience.”
“I see you’re a teacher as well as an aristocrat.”
“People will say that you took advantage of my youth and inexperience. Would it be so hard for you to stay away from me when His Majesty and his entourage are here? We can be together again after he leaves. I promise!”
Lons sighed. “Anna, love of my life, I never could refuse you. I promise. I’ll wait a tennight. But tonight, you’re mine!”
There was a predatory light in his eyes as he pulled the girl to him. Anna moaned and ran her fingers through his dark hair. Now, she knew for certain that he wouldn’t be leaving until morning.
And she didn’t want him to.
His Majesty, the King of Ativerna, Edward VIII, shuffled papers around on his desk. The life of a king was hard labor from dawn to dusk, dirty work for no gratitude or appreciation after he was gone. Nobody thinks about the king when things are going well, but any problems always end up in the king’s lap. He is, after all, the favorite of the gods. His Majesty.
It could take a toll on a king’s personality, and in the end, have the historians say, “King Edward was a tyrant and a despot.” He wondered how the historians would fare if they had to do his job. Maybe they would behave like Radiant Ones, but he doubted it.
King Edward was no tyrant or a despot either. He was almost unnaturally lucky for a king; he was loved and had friends.
Thirty-six years before, Edward had married the Princess of Avesterra in an arranged marriage to further his country’s diplomatic aims, but the day of his wedding was also the first time he laid eyes on Aloysius Earton’s daughter, the sister of Jyce Earton. Jessamine was her brother’s younger twin, born half an hour after him. She was charming, beautiful and intelligent and had everything the Princess of Avesterra lacked, but Edward knew he would have fallen in love with her regardless. Love at first sight really happens, he knew. You see a person and realize that you’re looking at your other half. Nothing else matters. That’s true love.
Jessamine had fallen in love with the young prince, too. She was crazy with love, and Edward’s new wife never stood a chance. Her husband was calm and indifferent to her both day and night. His eyes often wandered to the dark-haired figure of Jessie. His gray eyes would find her blue eyes, and their hands would meet when they danced.
“Why are you a prince?” the blue eyes whispered.
“Why aren’t you a princess? I would make you my queen, my goddess,” the gray eyes answered.
The storm broke during a royal hunt. Jessamine’s horse threw her and trotted back to rejoin the others. Several of the men spread out to look for her, but it was Edward who found her. They spent the night together in a woodsman’s cabin. By morning, the prince had an official mistress.
It was an awful scandal. Princess Imogene of Avesterra screamed and cried. She threw dishes. She fainted. The old king shook his head in disappointment. Members of his court gossiped with the outraged members of the clergy.
Edward never hid his relationship with Jessie. The old earl and the old king disapproved but said nothing in public. The lovers did, however, have the support of Jessamine’s brother.
Jyce, Viscount of Earton, adored his twin sister. If she needed the prince in order to be happy, then he figured she should have the prince. Edward knew that, in Jyce, he had gained a true friend. After all, they both loved Jessie.
Two years into their marriage, the Princess of Avesterra gave birth to her first child. The following year, Jessie had a daughter. When Jessie was pregnant for the first time, it was Jyce who helped them decide what to do. He knew that he was impotent, a consequence of the edematous fever he had suffered as a young man. He would have no children of his own, but that was no reason to let the line of the Earls of Earton die out. It would be easy enough to marry some girl and send her away, supposedly to give birth, so that he could claim Jessie’s daughter as his own. And when she bore the king a son, Jyce would announce the birth of his heir.
On the surface, everything was fine, but things were not quite so simple behind the doors of the family home. Jessie’s mother decided that she could not live down the shame of her daughter’s illicit affair and left to live in Earton, the ancestral estate. The earl, on the other hand, loved his daughter and, seeing that she couldn’t live without Edward, found no reason to go against his son’s plan. There was also the future to think of. By providing assistance now, he would gain the good graces of the future king, who would be sure to provide for all of his children, both legitimate and illegitimate. The Earton family would do well in the end.
Jyce’s bride was chosen by a secret council. Alicia Weeks was no longer young, she wasn’t much to look at, and she had little property, but she had a long list of illustrious ancestors and family pride to help her keep her head up. Jyce’s offer of his hand was like a gift from heaven to her. She listened to the unique terms of the arrangement without batting an eyelash and put forward a term of her own: that she wouldn’t actually have to give birth. Doctors had told her that her hips were too narrow. If Jyce could be satisfied by a life where they only saw each other on occasion, it was all right by her. They would each lead their own private lives without interference from the other. She was happy to claim Jessie’s offspring as her own, and Jyce was welcome to take lovers as long as he did nothing to shame her publicly.
Jyce agreed to the bargain and never looked back. Over twenty years of married life, he “fathered” two children: first Amalia and then Jerrison, called Jess, five years later. Alicia had no interest in the children, but for propriety’s sake, she appeared in public with them once a year so that she could be seen petting them, after which she went back to her own affairs.
She shone in high society, flirting, gossiping and behaving like any other lady at court with the assistance of her husband. Jyce was so pleased that his wife provided cover for Jessie’s children and otherwise left him alone that he would have done anything for her. Alicia had all the money and social position she could possibly want.
Amalia and Jess lived with their “father” and a whole host of nannies. The house next door belonged to the king’s official mistress, whom he visited eight times a tennight. During those years, Edward’s wife, Princess Imogene, gave birth to another son, and two years later, she died of a fever.
After his wife’s death, Edward asked for permission to marry Jessie; the old king just shrugged and gave his consent. So, Jessie married a prince and became a queen one year later when Edward ascended the throne. For the next twenty years, the royal family lived in peace and harmony and welcomed two more beautiful daughters.
Then, Jessamine died of a fever and was mourned by the king and the entire nation. The people had always loved their kind queen, and wandering minstrels composed songs about the romantic tale of Jessie and Edward.
There was, however, a dark side to the story. Edward’s younger son with Imogene of Avesterra, Richard, adored his loving stepmother, who sang him songs and told him stories in an attempt to take the place of his dead mother. But his oldest son by the princess, Edmund, was an exact copy of his mother and had inherited her hatred of Jessie and the rest of the Earton family. He tried to avoid showing his true feelings in public, but his father knew.
The oldest son was first in line for the throne, and Edward would have liked to find a wife for Edmund when his son turned thirty, but Jessie’s death was followed by a two-year period of mourning. Edmund seemed to be in no hurry, and his father never forced him to do anything. Sadly, a year and a half after Jessie’s death, Jyce, Earl of Earton, and prince Edmund were found dead in Edmund’s sitting room. Both had been poisoned, and questions abounded. Had Edmund tried to poison his father’s oldest friend? Or had Jyce decided that it was too risky for his family and his sister’s children to let Edmund come to power? Edward didn’t want to know the truth. Jess took up Jyce’s position as Earl, and a friend to the king and to Richard. Edward never told the boys that they were brothers, but they were best friends anyway.
Richard, like his father, was a tall blonde with gray eyes, and Jess was a soldier. Just as his father, the Earl, had been a marshal under King Edward, Jess would serve someday under King Richard. If Jess was lucky, his son would serve under Richard’s son.
That was, if he had a son. Jyce had already married his son off three times, the first time when the boy was eight. His bride-to-be was the daughter of the Earl of Errolston, but young Eliza died at the age of twelve, and Jyce found his son another wife. Magdalena Yerby, daughter of the Barron of Yerby, died giving her young husband a daughter. After that, it became harder to find a wife for Jess. People were superstitious and felt he brought his wives bad luck.
Then August Broklend offered to help. He had a single daughter named Lilian. She was ten years younger than Jess, but that made no difference. She was old enough to have a child, and she had a nice dowry. Jess and Lilian were married, and the house of Broklend joined the house of Earton, greatly expanding their land holdings and giving Jess access to the Broklend family boatyards.
Lilian was August’s only child, despite the fact that the old man had been married three times. He hadn’t wanted to leave his boatyards to a woman, so he was pleased to have Jess for a son-in-law. Jess was not a born sailor, but he set out to learn the boatbuilding business from the ground up with August’s help.
The king was proud of his son’s ambition. Lilian, however, was another story. His Majesty saw her just once—at the wedding—and realized that his first wife, Imogene, could have been worse. At the very least, he could take her to bed without shuddering.
Lilian was dim-witted and overweight. The king couldn’t think of any other way to put it. He quietly held out hope that she would die in childbirth or that Jess would find a lover, as he had found Jessie. His son had already seduced half of the women at court, and the king felt that the love of a good woman would settle him down. It was about time.
Speak of the devil…The king’s musings were interrupted as the door to his chambers creaked.
“Is that you, Jess?”
“Yes.” The man stepped from the shadows into the light.
Edward pointed to a chair. “So, you’ve returned.”
“I have, Your Majesty. I am prepared to give all my attention to government affairs.”
“Jess, I don’t like it when you use that title with me.”
“All right, Uncle Ed.”
To the world, the Earl of Earton was the king’s nephew by his second marriage, and the king preferred to hear his own son call him “Uncle Ed” instead of “Your Majesty.”
The young man’s face took on a roguish expression. The king shook his head. “Forget the government. I wish you’d pay some attention to your family.”
“Government affairs happen to be my family affairs,” the young man answered impudently.
“How wrong you are. The government’s business concerns me alone,” Edward grumbled. “Stop avoiding the subject. You should have given me at least a pair of nephews by now.”
“One may be on the way.” Jess sighed. Then his voice scaled up a notch. “I can’t do it, Uncle! Just look at her. She’s stupid, she throws fits all the time, and she’s ugly! If you saw her in a dream, you’d die in your sleep. You wouldn’t touch her with a barge pole!”
“No one’s asking you to fall in love with her. Just give her a baby, that’s all. You can cover her face with a handkerchief during the act if you like.”
“Or hold a pillow over her face,” Jess spit out. “I’m telling you; she’s pregnant already.”
“How many months?”
Jess thought for a minute. “About three months. Or four.”
“Will you bring her to court after the birth?”
Jess made a face. “I’m sorry, Uncle, but I’d rather not.”
“Think about it. You won’t have to see her often, and…”
“No. She can stay in Earton, so I don’t have to see her ever. I sent her a physician and some money. That’s more than enough!”
Edward shook his head. He had given up trying to raise his son. The boy was already a man, and the king had problems of his own. “What other news is there?”
“I have some reports from the boatyard. We can build very good boats using the drawings we borrowed from Fereiry. The shipwrights want to build one as a trial to see how it turns out.”
“And you agree with them?”
“Of course! August is curious to see the result, as well. I’ve brought the drawings to show you. Would you like to take a look?”
“I have some reports from the treasury to go over. Do you have any idea how much they stole this month?”
“I don’t. I want to build the boat using my own money. It will have two decks, with—”
“Tell me about it later. Have you seen Richard?”
“Not yet. Should I?”
“Yes. I have decided it is time for him to marry. Keep an eye on him. Make sure he doesn’t do anything scandalous in the meantime. Is that clear?”
Jess grinned. Edward’s heart skipped a beat. How he looks like his mother!
“Of course, Uncle. I’ll watch him. Who is he going to marry?”
“Marry? I don’t know. There are two princesses that I know of who are the right age. It will be either Anna of Wellster or Lidia of Ivernea.”
“Both girls’ families want to be chosen. The Wellsters have five other daughters, so they’d like to get rid of one. Anna is the right age, and my contacts tell me she is attractive.”
“That’s good. At least Richard wouldn’t need a handkerchief in order to sleep with her. What about Lidia?”
“She’s the only unmarried daughter in Ivernea. She’s never been married or even engaged. They say she’s plain as a wool sock.”
“Anna is certainly the more handsome of the two.”
“Then why not choose Anna?”
“Beauty isn’t everything. And I want Richard to have a choice; I was never allowed to choose.”
“You made your choice later,” Jess winked. “I think you did the right thing. My aunt was still beautiful at forty.”
“Like I said, beauty isn’t everything. Jessie was kind and intelligent. Those are much more important qualities in a wife.”
Jess’s face fell. Then he shook himself and smiled again. “I’m no king, so my wife can have as many children as she wants. I’ll find kindness and intelligence somewhere else. They say Lady Wells has returned. She needs someone to console her after the death of her old, awful husband.”
Edward shook his head. “How is your daughter?”
Jerrison’s face lit up with a smile. “Miranda is sharp as a tack. Her teachers are pleased with her. But I can’t take her with me.”
“Send her to the country.”
“To be with Lilian?”
“Do you have another choice? Send governesses and nannies with her. People you trust.”
“I may have to do that.”
“What if you send her to your sister?”
“There’s no point trying. You should have seen how Miranda screamed and cried after her last visit. She refuses to see Amalia, and I haven’t the slightest idea why.”
“Fine. You’ll figure out what to do with her. Give it some thought. Now, leave me those drawings and run off. Just don’t let Richard get into trouble. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Jess replied. He gave a military salute and disappeared out the door.
The king shook his head as he watched him go. Good-for-nothing pup. Nobody could claim that the young man was especially talented. He didn’t win all his games of squares, he didn’t command the best regiment in Ativerna, and he didn’t get up extra early to get a jump on his affairs. He didn’t have a hard body with muscles of steel under his courtly clothing, and he probably wasn’t prepared to give his life for his country and his brother.
No, Jess was just a typical courtier. He liked to play with expensive toys and gilded weapons. He was just like all the rest of them. None the less, Edward thought that he and Jessie had made a wonderful child. Perfect in every way.
His Majesty sighed and turned back to the Treasury reports. He knew his duty.
Lady Adelaide Wells was overjoyed. She kept it under wraps, of course; a lady was not supposed to be in high spirits just three months after her husband’s passing—even if that husband was fifty-two years her senior and the bane of her existence, constantly blowing his nose, coughing, and sweating. Even if he was a source of daily torment, a widowed lady was supposed to mourn.
So, Adelaide mourned. She did a beautiful job of it. Other women were welcome to sob until the paint came off their faces. Adelaide would mourn in her own way, with just one diamond-like tear lingering in the corner of her eye. And she would have the most wonderful mourning clothes.
With her black hair and dark-brown eyes, green looked good on her, especially with the right powder and blush. She knew how to use makeup; she had suffered a bout of smallpox five years before and had learned to conceal the few scars remaining on her cheeks. They didn’t mar her beauty in the least.
She was sure to find another husband, but she didn’t want to find him right away. Society was permissive with young widows. They could get away with a lot, as long as they observed certain proprieties, and Adelaide was an expert. She had learned to be cautious at the tender age of fourteen.
“That’s enough, Richard. Let’s go. Camelia is putting on a fantastic show this evening.”
Adelaide started when she heard the man’s voice. She knew that she wasn’t the type of woman that interested Richard, and she had heard that he would be marrying soon. She wouldn’t waste her time or risk her reputation. She felt she was more attractive as a widow in mourning than as the prince’s abandoned lover. The man walking next to Richard, however, aroused her serious interest. Adelaide noticed his broad shoulders, the cut and cloth of his tunic, and the expensive weapons he carried. This was a man worth her time.
He looks like he could do more than snore in bed, and he’d send me expensive gifts afterward. Adelaide was not feeling particularly wealthy on her own. Her husband had left her a sizeable sum, but a house in the capital, a carriage, expensive gowns and jewelry—it all added up. The stranger was just what she needed.
She went into action, unhooking the brooch from the light shawl she wore around her shoulders and letting it drop to the floor. The brooch, an aromatic sphere made just for such purposes, rolled obediently across the floor in just the right direction. This was the key moment. “I apologize, My Lord. My brooch!”
She fell to her knees to retrieve the golden sphere and looked up into the eyes of the man, who had also bent down to pick it up. She blushed deeply and looked him in the eye before dropping her lashes. Her silk shawl slid from her shoulders, revealing her full breasts in a low-cut décolleté.
The man was composed as he gave her one hand and carefully replaced the shawl with the other. As he took his hand from her shoulder, his fingers ran lightly over her breast. Adelaide knew this was a test. If she made the wrong move, the man would visit her bed, but he wouldn’t stay, and she wanted him to stay.
She took a step back and blushed even brighter before lowering her eyes and whispering, “Thank you, My Lord. Forgive me, Your Highness.” Then she got out of the room as fast as she could so that Richard could tell his friend all he knew about her.
She would use her time to find out more about the man. Hunting season is open. There was something exquisite about hunting while pretending to be the prey. The only thing that worried Adelaide was the thick wedding bracelet on the man’s wrist. A wife, however, was less of an obstacle than a husband.
She needed to find out who he was right away.
A tennight is ten days, and a month is forty days. A year has nine months and three extra days, the length of which depends on the phase of the moon. New Year’s is celebrated during those three days.
 Radiant Ones are similar to angels in the local religion.
 Edematous fever was an old name for mumps.
 Wool sock—local slang for an old maid
 A local variation of chess.
 Green is the color of mourning in Ativerna. Pastors also wear green to remind people that life is short.