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 glasssmiths 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 would question 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.”
Verity’s eyebrow shot up in an unflattering imitation of her father. “Excuse me?”
Cae glanced down the hallway, her body language clearly conveying a worry of being overheard. “May I come in?”
Verity nodded and stepped aside, closing the door firmly behind her. She leaned against it and faced Cae, who hadn’t relaxed one iota. “Why are you here?”
Cae’s brow knotted. Even that was attractive. “I live here.”
“No, I mean why did you come to my room?” Verity began to wonder about the girl’s intelligence.
“I have to warn you,” Cae said. “My father is not a good man. Not like the king. It could mean your life if you remain in Oriole.”
Verity felt a warmth unfold in her chest. Perhaps this is what it feels to not be alone. “I thank you for your concern, but I already knew your father to be ambitious and cruel.”
“Oh, he is so much worse than that!” Cae put a hand on Verity’s arm. “I feel so grateful to your father for accepting his proposal even though I know it is selfish of me to feel that way. It makes my heart ache to know my salvation comes at such a price.”
“What exactly are you saying?” Verity asked.
Cae stepped away and wrapped her arms around herself. “What he said about my sister and my mother was true. What he left out is that my mother killed herself to escape his abuse of her, and that my sister and her husband won’t even let their children visit here. This is an evil place, Princess. These walls have known much grief and tragedy, and all of it at the hands of my father.”
Verity pursed her lips, uncertain how much of her still-formulating plans she wanted to share with Cae. Every aspect of the girl radiated sincerity, but someone as trodden down as she claimed to be may report to her father out of fear.
“I’m sorry you have suffered.” Verity felt a stab of guilt for hating her own life. She’d only been neglected and undervalued, but not abused. “But my father’s word is law.”
“Yes, exactly.” Cae’s body lit with urgency. “If you were to speak to him, convince him of my father’s evil, he could order my father to surrender me without trading you. I’m certain the king would listen to you.”
At that, Verity laughed outright. “Then you don’t know him well at all. He never listens to a thing I say.”
“But you’re so strong, so brave.” Cae’s brow furrowed. “He must love you.”
“Trust me, you have a better shot at my father’s ear than I do. Give him a son and he’ll likely grant any request.”
“That’s too long,” Cae stated. “You could be dead by the time I’m delivered of a child.”
Verity felt the urge to comfort Cae rather than worry about herself. “I’m not helpless, and I do have some plans of my own. I’ll be okay.”
Those round brown eyes skewered her. “Truly?”
“I never lie,” Verity replied.
“Ever?” Cae regarded her solemly. “You are so brave.”
Verity shrugged off her reaction. “It’s really motivated by self preservation. Early on I realized I have no talent for telling stories, and I have a horrible habit of mixing things up. Honesty is simply easier.”
“If only everyone felt that way.” Cae sighed. “Life would be less complicated.” She looked away, her shoulders dropping. “But I still think you should try to talk to your father. Tell the king what a monster my father is, and maybe it will all work out.”
Verity found herself agreeing, though she knew it would do no good. “Just don’t expect too much from our conversation.”
Cae gave her a warm, trusting smile. “You underestimate yourself, I think. I shall wait right here for your return.” She settled into a chair next to the bed.
Verity returned her smile, though hers lacked hope, and left the room. Down the hall a worry struck her and it was as though all the warmth from her conversation with Cae washed away. She knew the king would never listen to her about Bakkus. Why did she agree to talk to him? He was probably still furious with her.
On her way to her father’s chamber, Verity paused at a balcony that overlooked the gardens. Why Bakkus had gardens, she had no idea. He didn’t seem the type to take pleasure in flowers and shrubbery. As she gazed out across the moonlit treetops, she practiced what she would say to her father.
Unlike most fathers, King Gerard wouldn’t respond to a daughter’s pleading. But as a king he may respond to cold logic. But Verity knew she’d have to keep a tight rein on her emotions or she’d lose any ground with him.
“What a surprise to find you here.” Bakkus’s greasy voice made her whirl around. She caught his gaze as it traveled the length of her, from the top of her close-cropped hair, over her plain woolen dress, and to the tips of the worn leather boots she wore. His easy smile never left his face.
Verity tried to go around him but he sidestepped to block her. “Let me pass.”
“You’d best lose that royal attitude,” he told her. “As soon as the ink dries on that contract, you’ll be mine.” He leaned in so close she could smell his foul breath. “And I don’t take kindly to disrespect.”
Verity slid one of her throwing knives from her sleeve, the weight of it in her palm giving her a measure of confidence. “I tell you again—I will never belong to you.”
She took a step back to protect herself from his odor, but frowned fiercely at him so that he wouldn’t assume he’d intimidated her. He laughed so hard his belly jiggled.
“It’s amusing that you think you have that power,” he said. “And I suppose while you still amuse me I won’t punish you for your mouth.” Bakkus raised a chubby finger and waggled it at her. “But I warn you, when my patience runs thin, I’ll beat that proud streak right out of you.” His eyes slid over her again. “Or perhaps I will be more creative in my punishments.”
Verity shivered with revulsion. If he touched her she would cut him. She almost hoped he would try because she dearly wanted to see his face when she drew blood. Perhaps he’d learn to treat her with more caution. But she never struck first.
Bakkus went on. “Of course you are a tad young for coupling, and I prefer my women to have hair on their heads, so you may be safe from me for a while.”
Bile burned the back of her throat at the very idea. Yes, at fourteen she was too young to be eligible for mating as the legal age in Mercia was fifteen, but she didn’t plan to spend one birthday in Oriole.
“You will regret it if you ever touch me,” she said, her voice surprisingly even.
He laughed again. “You can do nothing. Come the dawn, I own you.” Bakkus leaned in and whispered, “and I plan to enjoy every moment.”
Verity didn’t move as he walked away, and only when she was certain she was alone did she slide the knives back up her sleeves. Nobody knew she carried them like that, secured on her forearms by peculiar straps of her own design. When her knife throwing had begun to impress her father’s guardsmen she’d realized the benefits of keeping weapons handy. It didn’t matter to some that she resembled more boy than girl—some people were apt to try to take advantage of her, even back home in her father’s castle.
With a new resolve, she marched to her father’s door and knocked. “It’s Verity.”
“Come in,” came his reply.
Verity opened the door just enough to enter and then firmly shut it. Her father was alone, reclined on his bed in his dressing gown. He’d shed his boots and tunic for something more comfortable.
“Have you come to apologize?” he asked.
“No.” Honesty always won out.
Gerard sighed. “You’re disappointed in me, I know, but you must try to see things from my perspective. A king . . . .”
“. . . must have sons,” she finished. “I know, Father. But at what cost?”
“A calculated risk. Eventually one of these maidens must produce a son.” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “You well know neither you nor any of your sisters can inherit my throne. What am I to do? Surrender it and let Mercia become as lawless as it was in my great grandfather’s time? Our family built this kingdom out of the rubble of the Final Wars. You know our history, Verity. And so far I’m the only male of my lineage to fail to produce an heir. Seven daughters! My forefathers must be spinning in their graves.”
“I didn’t come for a history lesson, Father.” Truly, she knew it almost better than he did. “If you want Cae, I can do nothing to stop it. I actually like her, and taking her away from here would do her good.”
He leveled a look at her. “But?”
“You could give Bakkus anything in exchange, and he should be grateful. His daughter could be queen! That’s enough for any man.” Verity took a deep breath to calm her rising emotions. She had to stay in control.
“But he wants you, though I confess I don’t know why.” King Gerard shook his head with a rueful smile. “You are stubborn. Intractable, even. You hunt with snares and I’ll bet you carry some weapon on your person. You speak your mind far too freely. And with that awful haircut, you aren’t much to look at, though I suspect you could be a beauty if you tried.” He sighed. “Your mother certainly was.”
Verity bristled at that, even though his tone held no censure or contempt. He simply told her how he viewed her. “I am not my mother.”
“I know that.” Another heavy sigh. “Believe me, I do.”
Verity had gone beyond the girl who begged her father for stories of her dead mother. “But you don’t have to trade me for Cae. Offer Bakkus gold. Offer him a seat among your advisors. Offer to expand Oriole and make him twice as prosperous as his fellows. You can do that.”
“I can’t.” Gerard’s eyes found hers again. “The contract is already signed, the terms clearly spelled out. As of tomorrow, you become his and Cae becomes mine.”
Verity barely held back a blistering epitaph. “Then I suppose we have nothing more to say to one another.” She cursed her quavering voice.
“I suppose not.”
That moment sealed her resolve. “Goodbye, Father.”
“Good night, Verity.”
The walk back to her room passed in a blur Verity hardly acknowledged. Only when she saw Cae’s hopeful face did she come out of her thoughts long enough to speak.
“The contract is signed.”
Cae’s eyes filled with fresh tears. “Then we can do nothing.”
Verity shook her head. “No, there is something I can do.” She pulled her satchel from under the bed and started throwing her clothes back into it.
Cae gasped. “What are you doing?”
“I’m leaving.” Verity rolled up her dirty travel clothes and stuffed them into the satchel. Dirty or not she would need every article of clothing.
“You can’t go out there, not in the dark! You’ll be killed. Think of the Devourers!” Cae was fast becoming hysterical.
“I won’t stay here,” Verity replied. “I’d rather take my chances in the wilds.”
Cae lapsed into silence while Verity finished packing and tied up the satchel. She checked her knives and added a couple to her belt before slipping her pack onto her shoulders.
“If you insist on doing this then I want to help you,” Cae said, her voice taking on that vaporous quality. “Please.”
Verity found herself nodding.
Cae took her hand. “Come with me.”
They stole soundlessly into the hallway and Verity followed Cae down several doors to one with an iron handle. Cae opened it and motioned her inside.
“This is my room,” she explained. “I want you to have this.” She took a long brown cloak from her closet. “It will help keep you warm at night.”
Verity held up a hand in protest. “I can’t accept this.”
“Please, it would mean so much to me,” Cae said. “And, in the mean time, I will try to convince your father to break the contract so you can come home.”
Almost involuntarily Verity accepted the cloak as Cae placed it around her shoulders and tied it under her chin. The material felt like nothing Verity had ever known, soft yet sturdy and thick—obviously expensive and of good quality.
Cae smiled at her timidly and then led her to a staircase at the end of the hall. “This is the way to the kitchens. Fill one of the flour sacks with any food you can carry. And there are water skins by the back door.”
“How will you explain the missing food?” Verity asked. “Won’t you get into trouble?”
“Tomorrow I belong to the king,” Cae replied with a lift of her chin. “My father can do nothing to me then.”
Verity hugged her. “Thank you for your help. I’ll return the cloak when I can.”
“No, keep it as my gift. And I wish you luck. Goodbye, Verity.”
Verity stole into the night with ease. All the guards around Lord Bakkus’s keep had the responsibility of keeping things out—not keeping a slip of a girl in. Once far enough away, she lit one of the torches she’d taken from the kitchen with flint from her pocket and used it to light the path. Not that there appeared to be much of a path, but Verity only concerned herself with getting as far away as possible. Once the sun came up and she got her bearings she would alter her course westward.
The wilds were aptly named, she thought as she pushed back another branch that threatened to slash her face. So much had been destroyed by the Final Wars that while the human population fought to rebuild itself, the vegetation fought a battle of its own. One of the effects of the chemical warfare that had nearly consumed a once proud nation had produced mutant plants, some almost like living bloodsuckers.
Then, of course, there were the Devourers. Descendents of chemically-infected people who mutated rather than died, the Devourers were fast, ruthless, and undiscerning. Verity fought panic at ever snapped twig, every rustling bush, certain she was about to be surrounded by the hulking creatures. With any luck she’d never see them coming. Devourers possessed incredible speed and so were far faster than their distant human cousins.
Finally—after traveling all night—exhausted and past caring, Verity collapsed underneath a bush that provided good coverage from passers-by and slipped into oblivion.
She awoke to a nearby rustling. Verity froze to listen, every fiber of her being trained on the sounds coming from no more than six feet away. Briefly she wondered whether a Devourer could smell her, for she’d heard their senses were keen. Would they kill her first or do they prefer their food alive?
She nearly jumped a foot when a brown rabbit hopped into the bush and, seeing her, hopped quickly out again. Verity laughed to herself at her own fears. A rabbit. While they weren’t completely harmless, they were easily startled. And if this one decided it wanted to try and take a nibble out of her with its two inch fangs, she wasn’t going to wait around for it to come back.
Verity pulled her weary body out of the bush and dragged the satchel out with her. Before she shouldered it once again, she took a sip from the water skin in the front pocket and grabbed one of the apples she’d taken from Bakkus’s kitchen. It’s rough, orange skin wasn’t good to eat but the fruit within burst with flavor. Verity swiped at the juice that trickled down her chin and glanced around.
The sun had made its debut hours before and now hung to her left. After a quick survey of the tracks she’d left behind the night before, Verity realized in her haste to escape she’d gone east—which would mean she’d have to double back if she meant to get to the western desert. Only this time she’d be sure to give the keep a wide berth so that nobody who might be looking for her would have a hope of spotting her.
To that end she fixed her direction south and started walking. If luck favored her, her father would think of looking east and north toward the heart of Mercia where their home was located. She didn’t know anyone or anything south and west of Oriole. If he knew her at all he’d suspect she would shy away from anything familiar, but, thankfully for her, he didn’t know her.