“Well!” Emilia sighed as she sat down. “What a trip, my dear! You have no idea!”
Viviette allowed herself to look shyly up at the only friend she had left. After all, a friend was someone who kept coming around when all else had abandoned you — when everyone else gave up hope, right? Those other girls, with whom she had giggled and cavorted those first heady weeks and months of her marriage, they didn’t matter. They were all gone now, ensconced in their own castles with their own servants, maids-in-waiting, husbands …
Their own babies …
Those girls didn’t come around anymore.
But Emilia still did. Emilia, who was so much older than Viviette, who understood Viviette’s pain as much as any other mortal woman could. Why, Emilia was twenty-six and childless — surely, if she could smirk at the world and dare them to find a fault with her still-girlish waist, then Viviette could find the courage to emerge from her chambers when she had to. Viviette was only twenty-one, she’d only been married four years, and … well … there were other circumstances.
“What happened?” whispered Viviette as Emilia smoothed her skirts and fixed her with the glance of the cat who was wiping the cream of its whiskers in full view of you and daring you to do something about it.
Emilia did not speak at first, but looked around, eyed the walls for peep-holes and listening posts, and beckoned Viviette closer. Viviette could have told her not to bother; she doubted any of Lord Lucinius’s spies were still watching her. Not now that it was obvious to all how she had failed, and that it wouldn’t matter what she did.
Still, Viviette edged closer and leaned her head. Emilia’s hand brushed her cheek when she leaned forward to whisper. “An apprentices’ riot! On Baker Street!”
“Baker Street!” Viviette repeated, if only so she wouldn’t have to say the word riot.
“I know! It’s getting bad, my dear. The bakers will remain in business even if everything else goes. Sims have to eat. But if their apprentices are rioting …”
“Oh … goodness,” Viviette murmured.
“The kingdom is like a powder keg. We’re just waiting for someone to light a match,” Emilia shook her head.
“Oh, no!” Viviette whispered. Her stomach knotted painfully. She used to welcome such knotting, praying it was a sign of a coming child. But she knew, now, that it wasn’t. Her husband … well, never mind that. It wasn’t a child, Viviette knew that.
“Oh, yes. And that’s not the worst of it. At least, not for me — my litter-bearers almost carried me right into the riot!”
“Aye! And let me tell you …”
Viviette cocked her head to the side, waiting to hear how Emilia had scolded the apprentices into returning to their work, or how she had grabbed one of the rolling-pins and given the first apprentice to give her any sauce a good crack on the skull. Emilia was certainly capable of it. She was capable of just about anything in Viviette’s eyes.
Instead, Emilia shuddered. “I’d never been so scared in my life.” And her hand flitted over her stomach and gave it a rub.
No … not quite her stomach — Viviette’s eyes widened. Emilia’s eyebrows drew inward. Then she followed the line of Viviette’s gaze. She jerked her hand away from her belly as if the silk of her dress had burned her.
And Viviette knew.
She could say nothing, though, for a knock came from the door. “Enter!” Viviette cried, grateful for the interruption.
One of the castle servants entered. “Your Highness,” he said without preamble, “his Majesty the King requests your presence in his audience chamber.”
My presence? Whatever would he want to see me —
“Immediately,” added the servant, bowing his head.
“What?” croaked Viviette.
“Alone,” the servant continued.
“Go, dear.” Emilia patted Viviette’s knee. “I’ll see myself out.”
The servant walked meaningfully to the door and held it open with a quirked eyebrow. Viviette jumped to her feet, nearly tripped over her skirts, and hustled from the room. She was twisting her hands together again as she walked — she thought she was over that horrible habit.
Horrible habit. Viviette shuddered. It was amazing how the word “horrible” snapped into focus when you had a meeting with the King ahead of you. So many things were horrible — so many things that you could not begin to imagine. So many things that you hoped the King would not see fit to do to you.
Viviette shuffled alone through the wide corridors and carpeted rooms. Nobody came to meet her, nobody even bothered to stare. There was nobody to do either. This castle was like a dragon-plagued village: when the fire-breather was abroad, everyone ducked into their cottages and prayed he would fly over without roasting them alive.
Even as she shuffled through the corridors, though, Viviette had to wonder: What had she done that the King would request a private meeting? Could she have offended him? How? She was not very wise, not very clever, but she kept out of the way of the dragon. She kept to her rooms. Her conduct was always modest and becoming. So what if it was due to shyness and not true poise and modesty? What mattered was the final result, not the ingredients that went into it.
Could he know already that she knew about the riots? But why would he care if she knew? Surely everyone else in the palace already knew about them. Viviette could have overheard a couple of maids gossiping, anything, really.
Or maybe he was finally going to send her away …
It was that happy thought that gave her the courage to walk into the room and fall to her knees before her King in a courtly fashion, not a merely terrified one. “Majesty,” she whispered.
“Arise,” the King snorted. “And speak up, while you’re at it.”
Viviette slowly stood. She kept her head held high even as the King’s gaze undressed her. But he did that to all of the women — why should she be any different? Even if she was married to his son. It was not as if Vortimer could or would oppose his father in that.
… Vortimer. Poor Vortimer. He was the only reason why, as Viviette’s failure became more and more obvious to her, that she did not simply drag the problem into the open and offer to retire to a nunnery so that the King could find him a new wife. He was like a little lost boy, and sometimes she wondered if she was his only friend. She could not leave him.
“Come up here,” the King said as soon as Viviette stood. “Sit by me.”
“Well!” the King barked. “Do I have to ask twice?”
“N-no, your Majesty! Of — of –” She almost tripped over her skirts in her haste to be up. And as she sat, she could feel the King’s eyes tracing over her shoulder, her arms, her waist and finally her backside. Her cheeks flamed.
Viviette sat and smoothed her skirts. She glanced sidelong at the King. The King stared gloomily at the wall ahead of him. Viviette dared not take her eyes off him.
“You know,” the King grunted, “you’re the first woman to sit there since the Queen died. The first Sim, rather, I should say. Not like I’m letting Lord Lucinius have a seat there, much as he wants it.”
“Though,” the King snorted, “he’s probably more comfortable behind the throne, old bastard. Sneaky as a rat, that man. If I didn’t know he wants me alive, I’d suspect him of poisoning my every meal.”
Viviette could not reply; she could only feel her eyes slowly go wider and rounder.
“Tell me,” the King continued, “now that you’re finally up here — what do you see?”
All Viviette saw was a bit of carpet, some suits of armor, a couple of chairs, and some windows giving out onto the courtyard.
“I see the kingdom,” Viviette finally gasped. She glanced at the King and regretted it immediately: his eyebrows were arching ever-higher above those piercing blue eyes. “Meta–metaphorically.”
The King snorted. “You see a couple of chairs, some suits of armor, and window giving out onto the courtyard.”
“M-Majesty!” Viviette gasped.
“You’re a terrible liar,” the King continued. “Mind, I don’t hold it against you. I’ve surrounded myself with — or been surrounded by — women who are too damn good at lying. It’s refreshing to see one of the other sort now and again.”
The King nodded, secure in his role as the one to whom thanks were given. No matter whether he deserves them or not, came the treacherous thought — a thought Viviette banished. Surely a king could sense treason or disloyalty from a woman who sat so near? He never could have survived all of those mistresses if he did not have that power.
“However,” the King continued, “the … uninspiring nature of the view notwithstanding, how like you the seat?”
“I …” Viviette wiggled a little, then realized he was watching her hips and froze. “It’s … not very comfortable …”
“It’s a throne. If it was comfortable, you’d fall asleep during the audiences,” the King snorted, waving his hand. “But what do you think? Do you feel it?”
Feel what? Viviette wondered. She felt nothing other than a hard, twisted knot in her stomach.
“You don’t,” the King sighed. Viviette could only hang her head. “Perhaps it’s just as well that you don’t. That’s all we need — a princess with ideas.”
“Still,” the King continued as if he had not even heard her — and perhaps he had not. You did not need to hear others when you were the King. They would be sure to hear you. “Do you like your life here? Being a princess? Having everybody kowtow and cater to you?”
There was only possible answer to that, the truth notwithstanding. “Yes,” Viviette squeaked.
He didn’t notice her lie this time, or maybe he just chose to ignore it. “It’ll only get better when you’re a queen, you know. They pretty much ignore you now, I know. But when you’re Queen … well, with your … husband …” The King sighed. “They’ll come flocking to you. They’ll do whatever you say, so long as you toss them a bit of a bone at the end. They’re worse than dogs, you know. At least when a dog wags his tail, he means it.”
“But being a Queen,” the King continued, fixing Viviette with that piercing stare, “has to be earned.”
“It — does?” Viviette squeaked.
The King looked significantly at her flat belly. “It’s been four years.”
“How often does he sleep with you?” the King barked.
“I know he goes to your room once a week,” the King continued. “Conducted there with great ceremony, I might add. I’m surprised you don’t still have a monk blessing the bed. Not that I think it would do a fat lot of good, with … everything …” The King sighed. “But tell me. How often does he actually do the deed?”
Viviette blanched. “Your Majesty, I don’t think –”
“No, that’s right, you don’t think. It’s not your job. You sit tight, look pretty, and pop out an heir or two or five. That’s your job. You see, thinking doesn’t come into it at all.” The King’s eyes narrowed. “Now tell me. How often does he do the deed?”
“Maybe … once a month …” Viviette admitted.
“Maybe?” the King barked.
Viviette’s eyes dropped. “Sometimes … less …”
“Wright almighty. No wonder it’s been four bloody years. Oh, you needn’t look like that,” he added as Viviette’s head drooped and she tried to shrink into herself. “I’m not blaming you. Wright! Once a month, not even! Only a madman tries –” He winced. “Never mind. Anyway, you can’t blame a field for not bearing fruit when the sower only throws in a handful of seeds every couple of years. It’s not your fault.”
Viviette blinked. Not her fault? Not her fault? Four years — and it wasn’t her fault? There was nothing wrong with her? Well, maybe she knew that — the midwives she had consulted, secretly, had told her that much — to hear the King, a man, tell her so … it was vindication.
“And you’re a modest young maiden. Well, maybe not a maiden — technically — anymore, but modest enough. I know that bloody well. I made sure my ambassadors picked out a modest one. We’ve had far too much of the opposite sort around here lately. But you’ll have to stop being so modest. You need to entice him.”
Viviette gasped. “What — sire!”
“You know! Entice him! Wright! Do I need to spell it out?”
“I … I don’t know,” she admitted.
“Don’t know what?”
“Ask one of your women, then. Lord! I’ve been on the receiving end of it often enough, but don’t ask me how it works!”
On the receiving end of it! Hmph! From all Viviette had heard, the King did not take much enticing — and he did not take no for an answer, either. A woman didn’t need to seduce him when all she had to do was shoot him a come-hither look, or else seem as demure and modest and unwelcoming as possible. No wonder he didn’t know how it worked.
“But –” Viviette tried to interrupt.
“None of that. You know how to work a man, or you can easily –”
“But he’s a child!” Viviette gasped.
The King stopped. Those eyes seemed to pin down her very soul under their gaze.
“He’s a child,” Viviette repeated in a whisper. “In his head. He — he’s not –”
“Stand!” Viviette did so. The King stood as well.
“Do you,” he yelled, “have any idea what is at stake here?”
Viviette cringed away.
“It’s a kingdom! My kingdom! The only one I’ll ever have! Do you have any idea what will happen if you don’t step up and complete your end of the bargain?”
“Chaos!” the King barked. “Rebellion! Anarchy! Every last bastard in this kingdom will see himself with a crown on his head and play for the throne! Do you want that?”
“N-n-no! B-b-but –”
“How can I stop that?” You made the problem! You had all those bastards! You so offended your Queen that she wouldn’t go near you again! If you had done your job, you would have had a spare or two or five, so you could have disinherited Vortimer and put a brother into his place!
“By doing your job, you stupid slut!” the King roared. Viviette tottered backward. “Bear that boy a son!”
“Because you know what will happen if you do, don’t you? The people will have hope. They’ll know — they’ve only got to put up with King Vortimer the Cheesehead for so long. The minute that boy is of age, somebody can push his father off the throne and install the son in his place. And everything will be right again. Or, hell, I can disinherit Vortimer and make your son my heir and be done with it. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Like it? Like it? How could she like it when her father-in-law was so casually tossing his own son to the side like that? Vortimer was not king material, maybe, but he was good —
“So here is how it’s going to be,” the King whispered, low, menacing. Viviette saw how he got so many women, innocent virgins, to come to his bed when he crooked a finger. “You have a year to bear — no, I’ll be generous. You have a year to get pregnant. Visibly pregnant, mind. That won’t be so hard, now will it?”
Viviette’s throat was too dry to answer.
“But if at the end of that year, my lump of a son hasn’t put a baby in you — well, then. We’ll solve that problem.”
Viviette nodded slowly, expecting to hear that she would be sent away, that the King would find someone who —
“I will put a baby into you.”
She was never quite sure what she did after that. She probably just fled from the room. Surely the next thing she remembered was dashing up the stairs to her chambers, tripping over her skirts, stumbling forward as best she might in a mad dash to escape …
Not paying attention to whom she passed …
Until she reached the safety and security of her chambers. Then she broke down in tears.
She had a year before she was to be raped by her own father-in-law. There had been no mistaking that look in his eyes. He would have her, and he would justify it, too — he’d say it was all for his kingdom. No, no. He wouldn’t need to say anything. If Viviette ever dared to speak, he would call her mad, foolish — or slut or harlot. He would say that she seduced him. And everyone would believe him, because he was the King and she was only some Gaulish girl he had picked as a wife for his mad son.
And she would be damned. The stories were all very clear on them. Adulteresses were always damned, even if they hadn’t wanted to become adulteresses.
Unless, of course, a miracle happened, and she fell off her horse or was struck down by illness and died before he could take her. That was the only miracle she dared hope for — the thought that Vortimer could give her a child —
Viviette froze. She hadn’t locked the door!
“Viviette?” came the voice again. One would expect the voice of man who had the mental understanding of a child to have a high, boyish tenor, but Vortimer’s voice was always deep and rumbling. “Viviette, what happened? Why are you crying?”
Viviette tried to turn away — she could never explain this to him —
“Viviette?” He put an arm around her shoulder and tried to brush her hair out of her face, but clumsily, like a little boy trying to imitate the way he saw his father comfort his mother.
Viviette only stood very still and trembled. She couldn’t cry too much in front of him — he would never understand, and it would only trouble him. He didn’t need to be troubled when he could do nothing to solve the problem.
“Viviette, did my father talk to you today?”
She gasped and stared at him. How did he –?
“He talked to me,” Vortimer admitted. “He asked me … how often we shared a bed. And then he asked me … well, it ended with him saying I was stupid. I wish I could stop being stupid,” he sighed.
“You’re — you’re not stupid,” Viviette sniffled. It was true, too. She had heard that Vortimer had been a very intelligent young man before his accident. As for after … well, you wouldn’t call a child who exhibited Vortimer’s understanding and comprehension stupid. It was not Vortimer’s fault that he was a child stuck in a man’s body.
“I must be,” he sighed, “because I didn’t guess that what he would say to you would make you cry. If I had guessed, I would have told him he shouldn’t say it. That’s not nice, Viviette, to make girls cry. I know that.”
“Yes, you do know that,” Viviette heard herself admit. “You’re a good … man.”
“I’d be a better one if I knew how to make you happy,” Vortimer replied. “Or at least not so sad. You’re always sad, Viviette. Why?”
Viviette blinked very slowly. Then …
Could she trust him?
She turned to stare into her husband’s eyes. They were the same blue as his father’s, but they did not bare her very soul. She wrapped her arms around him. “Vortimer?”
“I … could you put a baby inside of me?”
Vortimer blinked. “Viviette …” He looked up and down. “I don’t think a whole baby would fit inside of you. And wouldn’t that hurt?”
“No — no — that’s not what I mean — I mean — you know that thing your Uncle Antonius tells you to do, with me? In our bed, at night?”
“Y-y-yes …” Vortimer replied. “What’s that got to do with babies?”
“That’s how you put the baby inside me. It’ll be very tiny, and then it will grow in my belly, and then it will come out and we’ll have a baby.”
Vortimer’s brows furrowed together. “But Uncle Antonius says that’s for getting an heir.”
“Oh!” Viviette almost laughed. “It means the same thing. We start with a baby, and then it grows up and becomes an heir.”
“Then why didn’t Uncle Antonius say so? And why didn’t you say so, if it would make you happy? Viviette, you know I want you to be happy.”
“I …” Viviette tried to smile. “It’s hard, sometimes, to ask for things — do you — do you understand?”
Vortimer cocked his head to one side. “Yes. I think I do.”
“Good — good. But — but Vortimer, you will have to come to my bed every night, so we can have a baby. Can you do that?”
“If it’ll make you happy.”
“Oh, Vortimer,” Viviette murmured, burying her face in his shoulder, “you — you have no idea how happy it would make me.”