Sunday, June 26, 2011
The Imperial Flower
Siobhan wondered why the Empress had assigned her a private room complete with maid. It made no sense! Am I a member of the secret guard or not?
She was taken to the baths, and pampered. Then she was brought to the Imperial seamstress and fitted for a new wardrobe. This seems like an expensive way to care for an orphan.
She was made to wait and practice her patience for two full days, but finally, the mysterious man came to get her. He led her to a hidden doorway in an abandoned corridor, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment when he commanded her to follow him into the dark unknown. He had only a torch to light their way, and guided her carefully.
Twenty minutes later – after traveling down a seemingly endless set of stairs, and through several branching tunnels – they arrived at a room ablaze with candlelight. Siobhan allowed her eyes to adjust for a few moments, and then realized that it only seemed overly bright at first. It was actually lit by only a dozen large, thick candles.
She silently studied the three occupants of the room. They were all male, but seemed to have nothing else in common. One was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and looked like a wandering minstrel. The second was in his early 20’s, and looked like he worked in the palace stables. The third was approximately 17, and looked like a self-important son of a wealthy lord.
The mysterious man watched Siobhan as she inspected their companions, and smiled as he saw her notice every detail about them. He waited for her attention to return to him, which gave the others time to scrutinize her in return. Their expressions were all mixtures of curiosity, disbelief, and appreciation of her slight beauty.
“Siobhan, welcome to the secret guard. These are your fellow guards: Corbin, Eck, and William… and I am Lord Raston Everett,” the mysterious man announced.
“Pleased to meet you,” Siobhan curtseyed to the room in general. Her co-workers greeted her pleasantly in return.
“Is this the entire secret guard?” She wondered.
“Yes, because – as it is implied – we are to remain a complete secret, and that is hard to do. Especially if there are a lot of members. Therefore, only a select few are chosen,” Raston answered.
“I’m confused… why was I selected?” Siobhan asked.
“I will explain everything, but first, I suggest we all get comfortable,” Raston said, pointing to the circle of overstuffed armchairs in the corner of the room.
Siobhan complied, sitting on the chair as if she might need to leap from it at a moment’s notice. Corbin handed her a mug of warm tea, and she hesitated to drink it, though it smelled delicious. She wondered if she could pretend to sip it, and then politely set it aside.
Raston laughed. “You are wise not to drink something a stranger gives you, but we must all trust each other with our lives here. I assure you the drink is not tampered with. Please, drink up.”
Siobhan nodded, and took a few sips. It was a pleasant mixture of bitterness and sweet with hints of mint. She decided she liked it, and smiled.
“Let me come directly to the point,” Raston stated rather suddenly. “Siobhan, you were raised as part of an Imperial program to care for orphans. This program was only created about 20 years ago, and was designed to train children – orphans who would otherwise suffer, alone, on the streets – as future guardians of the Empire.”
Raston paused to sip his tea. “The Empire takes in all the young children who find themselves parentless, and trains them to be –“
Siobhan interrupted him. “Successful members of any family, I know.”
“Yes, but there’s more. You are trained for so much more. Not every child is able to endure their training, and frankly several are passed along to other agencies, orphanages, or wherever… Those that flourish during the training – such as you did – are given to parents who wish to adopt, but you have all been ‘programmed’ to…” Raston sighed.
“I guess the best way to say it is that you are programmed with a deep desire to protect the Empire at all costs… and the skills necessary to do so,” Raston finished after another sip of tea.
Siobhan quietly thought this over. It made sense. She knew there were large portions of her training that she couldn’t easily recall, and it also explained why her parents thought her so strange. She wasn’t really being taught to be part of a family, she was being taught to serve the Empire. She nodded.
“Part of each child’s training are codes to trigger normally dormant skills. If a child reaches adulthood without those codes being triggered, then they are free to do whatever they want, with a large desire to help the Empire. The men usually decide to join the army… If a child’s codes are activated, however…”
Siobhan noticed her fellow secret guards all bow their heads for a moment. Things were starting to make sense. Should I really be this calm?
Raston discovered he was out of tea, and set his mug aside. He continued. “Well, depending on the circumstance, the child must leave their home and join the secret guard. For example, you were ordered to kill a certain Lord, and your parents got in the way. With no one to care for you, you had no other option.”
That numb feeling washed over Siobhan again, and she nodded vaguely as she relived dream-like memories of the incident. She knew he was telling the truth, and memories of hidden parts of her training brushed her mind. She even recalled a dull, flat, droning voice telling her over and over that she must work towards the good of the Empire, even if it meant killing loved ones or sacrificing herself.
“It’s a lot to process, I understand,” Raston murmured sympathetically. “Lastly, I must tell you… You excelled in your training, and we knew before you were ever cleared for adoption that you should be placed carefully. We considered ourselves fortunate to place you so close to a Lord suspected of treachery. We knew that there was a high probability that you would be activated.”
“You knew I would kill my parents?!” Siobhan demanded.
“No!” Raston denied her accusation honestly. “If things had gone exactly the way we hoped, you would have killed the Lord, and then returned to your parents never knowing what had happened.”
“I see,” Siobhan muttered calmly.
“Don’t feel quite so bad,” William leaned over in his chair to place a hand on her knee. “I was placed with a couple conspiring against the Empire, so when I was activated, it was specifically to kill my parents. At least yours weren’t meant to die.”
Siobhan realized that the only reason they were telling her any of this was so she did not find out about it on her own in the future and feel betrayed. She had far too much to think about, and decided to push it all to the back of her mind to mull over later. She smiled her thanks to William.
“Why am I the only girl?”
“First of all, not many of the adopted orphans ever get activated. Of those who do, the majority are able to complete their mission, and resume their lives as if nothing happened. There’re only a handful of you that have nothing left to go back to when it’s over. Lastly…” Raston hesitated.
Eck had been exhibiting signs of agitation the entire time. He decided to speak his mind. “It’s not right for girls to be part of the Secret Guard. They just don’t have what it takes!”
Corbin smiled at Siobhan, and shook his head over Eck’s concern. “Eck is referring to a girl around William’s age who was activated two years ago. Her mission went horribly wrong when she ended up killing her husband and their infant in the process. When she was brought here and things were explained to her, she killed herself out of grief.”
“How tragic!” Siobhan exclaimed, suddenly very glad she had not killed any children.
Raston nodded in agreement, and then turned his attention to Eck. “I understand your concerns Eck, but I assure you, Siobhan will make an excellent Secret Guard. I wasn’t lying to her when I said she excelled in her training.”
“Don’t we all? I was under the impression that any child who didn’t got booted from the program,” Eck pointed out.
“Yes, that is true, but even the Empress thinks highly of her skills,” Raston informed them.
Siobhan gaped at him. “How could she? I don’t even know what my skills are!”
“The Empress likes to inspect the IAA from time to time to see how well the program is working, and during her visits, the best of the best are brought to her attention. She has observed you many times, Siobhan,” Raston stated.
“I don’t believe you,” Eck said as he shook his head. This was crossing the line from saying this girl was suitable to be one of them to saying that she was possibly better than any of them.
“Shall I demonstrate?” Raston asked.
“Please do,” Corbin agreed pleasantly. He was also curious to see this girl’s likely over-promoted skills. He believed she was capable, but Raston made her sound like a prodigy.
Raston gave Siobhan his full attention for a moment, and then smiled. “Would you please go behind that screen and change into the plain work clothes I have provided?”
“Yes sir,” Siobhan agreed obediently. She realized that obeying orders must have been part of her training, but it didn’t matter to her.
As she completed her task, Raston pulled a cord hanging near his chair five times. It was a bell pull that led to a nearby dungeon that housed the Empire’s worst criminals. Those who had been sentenced to death but hadn’t earned a public execution.
The bell signaled the guards there to select and escort five prisoners to this secret room. They arrived before Siobhan finished figuring out how to remove her fancy dress all by herself. Raston dismissed the guards, and inspected the prisoners.
By definition, the worst criminals were the most violent, and were often strong and good at fighting. These men were no exception, and it was obvious that they were sizing up the Secret Guards to determine if they had a good chance of escape. The odds seemed to be in their favor, but there were still guards outside the room, and a whole dark labyrinth of tunnels to prevent their escape.
Siobhan finally emerged from behind the screen. She was now wearing a pair of loose – but not too loose – pants, a belt with a dagger, and a thick work shirt. She had even used the hair tie provided to keep her hair out of the way.
“Now what?” She asked.
William laughed. “We come here to train all the time, and we use criminals to hone our skills. We’re probably all going to take turns showing off.”
“Quiet, William,” Raston ordered, and then addressed their newest recruit. “Siobhan, I am going to activate you and give you some orders. I will no longer tell you to forget your actions when you are done, so you will remember exactly what you do. Are you willing?”
Siobhan was intensely curious, and nodded with a smile. She had nothing else she could do with her life, so she may as well do what they wanted her to. Besides, the Empress had called her promising.
Raston nodded, a bit sad that he had to do this to such an innocent young girl. “There once was a flower filled with secrets aplenty. Mysteries kept inside, waiting and at the ready. Now is the time to open them wide, to spill blood and create a tide.”
“I await your command,” Siobhan responded, her face going blank.
“Siobhan, these men have all committed violent crimes, and have been sentenced to death. It is your duty to execute them.”
“The flower blooms, the tigress leaps,” Raston completed the code, and Siobhan sprinted towards the men.
They’d clearly heard the order to kill them, and decided that they were going to go down fighting. They didn’t particularly think Siobhan would be much of a challenge, but each one would kill her in a heartbeat if it meant they might live. They prepared themselves to catch her, and hold her hostage.
Almost as quick as lightning, Siobhan leapt onto the biggest, burliest criminal, and stabbed him in the neck with the dagger sheathed in her belt. She used him as a temporary shield as she kicked two opponents away. Then she pushed against the wall with her feet as her first victim finally died, causing him to land on the two that hadn’t been kicked away.
She reclaimed her dagger, and stashed it between her teeth as she fatally twisted the neck of one of the trapped men, and then stabbed the other in the heart. She let her dagger sit there for a moment as she dealt with the two men rushing her. She used one man’s momentum to throw him against the wall, and then tripped the other.
She quickly pinned the tripped man down using her body weight, and grabbed her dagger to throw at the other before he could recover and come at her again. The man she had trapped under her decided to beg for mercy. He couldn’t believe how lethal she was, and figured he could appeal to her tender side.
Siobhan punched him across the nose to stop his begging, and used enough force snap his neck. She grabbed him by the hair to see if he was really dead, determined that he was, and let his head drop back to the ground with a loud thud. She stood, and faced Raston.
“The flower has done well,” Raston used the code to officially end her mission without deactivating her and causing her to forget.
Siobhan stumbled slightly as she returned to herself, and her eyes widened in horror. She immediately looked to the pile of dead bodies. She remembered killing all of them, but it was hard to believe it!
“She’s quick!” Eck finally managed to say. They could all do what Siobhan had done – kill five opponents – if necessary, but they doubted that they could do so as rapidly or without any injuries.
“She’s one of us all right,” Corbin remarked, elbowing Eck in the ribs. Eck merely grumbled and nodded.
William had only been a Secret Guard for a year, and still remembered what it felt like to realize that he had a killer hidden inside. He walked over to Siobhan, and placed a hand on her arm. “It’s not all about killing. In fact usually, it’s about not killing our target. We listen for conspiracy, and keep an eye out for trouble. Most of the time, we are just people living normal lives, and that’s why we are so effective as a Secret Guard. No one suspects us because we are all well known. Killing people randomly would blow our cover.”
Siobhan nodded, and gave him a faint smile. “Thanks.”
“That’s not to say that you won’t ever kill,” Corbin clarified. “We frequently practice on criminals marked for execution, and then there is the occasional mission.”
“Oh,” Siobhan uttered softly with mild depression.
William turned to Raston. “What is her cover anyway?”
“She’s the new ward of the Empress. Her Imperial Majesty has decided to take in this poor unfortunate girl that has been orphaned twice as an example to her people. As an Imperial ward, she will be expected to interact with the court and attend to the Empress.” Raston looked Siobhan in the eyes.
“You main duty will be to keep an eye out for assassins, and if one gets close enough to the Empress to threaten her life, you will stop them, even if it means jumping between her and an arrow. Understand?”
Siobhan nodded. It made sense. It felt like what she was trained for. She instinctively knew that chances were good that she would be called into duty often, and potentially fatally. At the moment, this didn’t seem so bad.
Months passed, and Siobhan’s life fell into a pattern. Most of the time, she played an instrument or sang to entertain the Empress and the Ladies of her court. After dinner, at the time of night considered too late for her, she was sent to her room – which was the Empress’ code for her to go train with Raston.
She trained with Raston every night, and their training was mostly sparring to keep both their skills in top form. As often as William could, he joined them. William’s cover was a bit complicated.
He had been adopted by a couple with a lofty title, wealth, and power. After killing them, he was still their only heir, and so he was now an actual Lord of influence. This meant that he needed to mingle with the court and fritter away time and money with the rest of the bored heirs to a title.
William insisted on joining them at least three or four times a week, and as a result, had somewhat of a reputation – among his peers – of being so bored that he could not even bother to find something to do half the time. This suited him fine as it gave him the perfect excuse should he need to leave at a moment’s notice. “This bores me, I’m leaving.”
Corbin and Eck were required to come train with them once a week, though they both arrived randomly at least one other time each week. Therefore, there was one day each week that they all gathered in the secret room.
This was when they did more than train, they shared information they’d come across, hunches they had, and anything they thought strange. They also talked about their lives in general, and gave each other advice on how to deal with those problems in which murder wasn’t the answer. Figuring out women – for example.
Siobhan felt like she belonged to family. A strange and secret family, but a family nonetheless. It was true that had to trust each other with their lives, and that’s why they always had to be open and honest with one another. It was honestly a refreshing break after hiding their true identities from everyone else.
Corbin was a minstrel that played in the various inns around the Imperial city, and Eck was the assistant Stable Master. Their jobs prevented them from coming to the training room as often as they’d like, but they still showed up whenever they could. Eck even treated Siobhan like she was his little sister, especially once he discovered that she had a mind capable of inventing real solutions to the myriad of technical problems he encountered in his job.
Corbin taught Siobhan new songs and dances as they became popular, and loved to listen to her play. She practiced her lute, harp, and flute melodies on him so that they would be perfect when she played them before the Empress. In return, he got permission to take her with him once a month to the inns he played at. He earned more money when she was with him, and it made her happy to get a break from the palace.
When she was 14, she really did have to throw herself in front of an arrow to protect the Empress, and so, for Siobhan’s 15th birthday, the Empress threw her ward a small party. Every young lord or lady whose parents wanted to please the Empress attended, and Siobhan had a great time. If given a choice, she would far prefer to celebrate alone with her parents, but she didn’t have a choice, and so she made the best of her circumstances.
William attended her party, of course, since he dared not risk the Empress’ wrath. She’d made it clear in the invitations that it was the event of the early season not to miss. Everyone thought it strange that a “small” birthday party for a ward who had not even been officially debuted into society was the event of the season, but the Empress was known for such quirks.
“May I have this dance?” William asked Siobhan formally. This would be their first official meeting, and so they had to act as if they didn’t know each other, but they had practiced dancing – while Corbin played – so often that they flowed across the dance floor in perfect harmony. They even forgot that they had an audience for a few moments, and performed some of the flashier dance steps they knew.
Siobhan laughed flirtatiously, and the crowd cleared the floor to watch them. With the whole floor to themselves, they were able to dance faster, and really show off their skills. The crowd speculated on whether or not the two of them would become a couple. The young lord could do worse than choose the Empress’ ward as his bride.
Soon, the dance ended, and Siobhan noticed the Empress signal her. Her heart sank, and she knew she had just made a mistake. She hoped that the Empress wouldn’t punish her too badly.
She insisted that she needed to rest her feet, and returned to the Empress’ side. She acted as if nothing were wrong, but knew that she was likely going to be told to leave the party. Will I have to feign sudden illness, or will she make her punishment public?
“Imperial Majesty,” Siobhan curtseyed deeply.
The Empress nodded her head regally, and motioned for Siobhan to attend her for a while. Siobhan obeyed, and stood next to the Empress, relieving the Lady in Waiting stationed there. The Lady took the opportunity to dance for a few minutes.
“It seems you are ready,” the Empress finally whispered to Siobhan a few minutes later.
“Ready?” Siobhan questioned.
“The next time you see Lord Everett, tell him that I said it’s time for the next step in your training. We have discussed this before; he will know what I refer to.”
“Yes, Majesty,” Siobhan acknowledged respectfully.
“For now, please refrain from showing off any further tonight, and while you may publicly befriend young Lord William, you may not give any indication that there is something more between you,” the Empress commanded.
“Of course,” Siobhan nodded.
“Though I rather like that my court will assume young William intends to make you his bride. It will give him a bit more power he can use, because it will now be assumed that any man that can win your hand will have my favor.”
“Am I to encourage everyone equally then?” Siobhan asked.
“Encourage, hmm… No, I think not. I would prefer that you neither encourage nor discourage every man equally. You will learn more when Raston begins your new training.”
“She wants me to advance your training now?!” Raston exclaimed in dismay. It was the night after the party, and happened to be their weekly meeting.
“I don’t understand,” Eck stated. “None of us ever had advanced training.”
“That’s because none of your cover identities required me to train you in this,” Raston replied absently. He was trying to mentally prepare himself for Siobhan’s new training.
“In what,” everyone wondered.
Raston sighed. “The Empress planned from almost the first moment that Siobhan arrived to appoint her as the Heir Apparent’s personal bodyguard… In addition to his actual bodyguard. She’s to be his secret bodyguard.”
They could all tell he was over-emphasizing the point to delay saying it out loud. “And?”
“Well, Siobhan is the Imperial ward, not a member of the guard, so the Empress can’t just make an announcement assigning her to his side. Siobhan has to have a good reason to be there, right?” Raston inquired.
“Oh,” Corbin stated in understanding, and Eck looked like he wanted to punch something.
“I don’t understand; what reason?” Siobhan asked.
“You are going to become his official lover,” Raston finally told her in no uncertain terms.
“Oh!” Siobhan blushed slightly. She had no objection, partly because her previous training in the orphanage had programmed her not to, and partly because it was every girl’s fate to someday be married and submit to their husband in the marriage bed. Society did not encourage waiting for love, and so she had no reason to refuse.
She took a deep breath. This meant that she was going to publicly become the Heir’s lover, which meant that her hand was going to become even more sought after by men who thought to use her to influence the future Emperor. No wonder the Empress had ordered her to neither encourage nor discourage anyone.
Siobhan also realized that the Empress probably intended to someday give her to the man who made the best alliance. Unless she would be given to the man that needed spying on the most. She might even be married to a traitor with orders to kill him at some point!
She decided to focus on the here and now. “Tell me about this training.”
“Well,” Raston glanced at the other three in the room, not surprised that they all looked like they wanted to kill him. “If you are going to become the Heir’s lover, you will need to know how to please him, and keep his affection so that he will keep you by his side. I must show you how.”
Siobhan nodded; it made sense. She felt mildly numb at the prospect of learning how to be a good lover from a man she considered family, but she didn’t really have a choice. If she tried to defy the Empress, she knew that one of the Secret Guards would have to arrange an “accident” for her. She wondered why the others were glaring at Raston.
Eck blurted his response first. “She is like a sister to me! I am supposed to protect her honor until marriage! How can you expect me to just stand by while you do this to her?”
Corbin took Eck by the arm. “I understand exactly how you feel, but we have both been assigned to bed a lady in order to uncover secrets her husband may have told her. This is really no different.”
“I know that!” Eck nearly shouted, “but that’s what men do, not women!”
“I rather think you are deluded about that,” William replied a bit sadly. “I have witnessed many a woman spread her legs to get what she wanted, whether information or something else. I for one would feel better knowing that the Prince has a Secret Guard at his side. The court may believe that his mysterious illness last month was just that, but we all know that he was poisoned.”
“It’s only a matter of time before someone sends assassins to murder him in his sleep,” Raston added.
Eck nodded. He knew that they were right, but had once belonged to a family that pampered and cherished their girls, and would never allow them to spread their legs before marriage. The morals they taught him still ran deep, and he had a hard time accepting this turn of events.
Raston decided to continue, and let Eck deal with his emotions on his own. “As you all know, the Prince’s 16th Birthday is in two weeks, and the Empress has a huge gala planned to celebrate it. Siobhan, I have until then to prepare you.”
“In the meantime, you need to start taking these herbs everyday… They will prevent a child from taking root,” Raston informed her as he handed her a small bag full of unpleasant smelling leaves.
Siobhan stood outside the Heir’s closed door. It was still about a half an hour before dawn, and she was supposed to give the Prince his first taste of intimacy. If she did her job right, he would decide to keep her with him, and announce why before his mother later on this morning.
Everyone expected him to take a lover now that he was 16, and many members of the court had a pool of bets on just who that would be. Gossip placed her in the top ten most likely, but most everyone assumed that the Empress would not allow it. The woman that topped the list was the young and exquisite new wife of the Duke, but he had made it clear that his wife had better not stray.
The guards outside the Heir’s door had been ordered by the Empress not to deny Siobhan entry to her son’s chambers, and they wondered what the Empress had in mind. They figured that the Imperial ward must have a gift to deliver that the Empress did not want to give in public. The shrugged, and opened the door for her.
The guards inside the door took a moment to quietly search her for hidden weapons or anything that might be poison. They had also been ordered not to hinder her, and escorted her to the door of the Prince’s actually bedchamber. His personal bodyguard nodded permission when she entered the room, and whispered.
“He is not awake yet, you must wait.”
“Not for this I don’t. Leave us,” she commanded.
The bodyguard looked to the two guards that had escorted her, and nodded. They left, closing the door behind them. Siobhan noticed that there was a soft light from a small candle on a table next to the guard. She looked at the bodyguard expectantly, waiting for him to leave as well.
“I’m sorry, my Lady, but I am forbidden from leaving the Prince for even a moment until my partner takes over,” he informed her quietly.
Siobhan nodded. Great! Not only am I going to have to do this, but I have to do it with an audience. She squared her shoulders in determination, and marched towards the bed.
The Prince had made things slightly easier for her by tossing and turning in his sleep. As a result, his blankets were thrown to the side, and his nightshirt had bunched up. She had easy access to do what she was told to do.
She lightly climbed onto the bed, and stroked the sleeping prince’s shaft. It responded by firming up, and she bent her head to take it into her mouth. Just like Raston showed me…
Practicing on Raston had been surprisingly fun and easy. She was confident she could do what needed to be done, but was inexplicably nervous actually doing so. She knew the Prince, of course, and they had even spent time together at court functions, but prior to now, she had never thought of him in this way.
Siobhan cast her doubts aside, and steadied her nerves. I can do this! I know I can!
The Prince soon started moaning in his sleep, and she could tell that he was enjoying her little wake up present. She practiced all of her new skills on him until he was obviously awake, and trying to figure out who she was. She discarded her nightgown, and shifted to straddle him.
“Siobhan!” He gasped in surprise as she impaled herself on his rigid shaft.
“My Prince,” she purred in response. She rode him using a pace that prolonged the experience without losing his interest, and waited for him to take over. Raston assured her that he would at some point.
“I don’t understand; why are you here?” He was intelligent enough to know that his mother had planned to send him someone she approved of to be his lover. She had hinted at it in exchange for his cooperation in not breaking the tradition by taking his first lover before his 16th birthday.
“I…” she hesitated. She wasn’t really supposed to tell him that she was ordered to, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to pretend she had been interested in him for a while. “I just wanted to make your birthday extra special.”
“I see,” he replied. He watched her do her job for a long time, and she could tell by the look on his face that he was thinking about something that confused him. When is he going to take over already?
She was panting, and honestly felt pretty good, but she had expected him to be done by now. Raston had warned her that a man’s first time often ended in minutes – if not seconds, and that she would probably have to let him recover before starting over. If he took much longer, she was going climax, and then she had no idea if she’d have the stamina to continue, much less do it again!
Siobhan started to moan and gasp, and her body shuddered lightly. She no longer cared what the Prince was thinking, and threw her head back in pleasure. I am almost there!
The Prince chuckled, and decided that she should not be the only one on the verge of climax. He flipped her under him, and pounded into her in a way that pushed her over the edge. She gasped, and held her breath for a moment.
“Oh gods!” She chanted in between squeals, and her pleasure sent him over the edge. He planted himself firmly inside her, and grunted as he filled her up.
Siobhan panted heavily for a few moments, and then giggled softly. “That was even more wonderful than I hoped it would be, but you may need to give me a few minutes to recover if you want to do it again.”
“Give you a few minutes!” The Prince laughed. “I don’t think I will be ready for more for some time.
Siobhan snuggled into him, and listened as he drifted off to sleep. This was a good sign. He had not sent her away, and trusted her to share his bed. She smiled, and gave into her own drowsiness.
All too soon, the Prince’s bodyguard shook them awake. “Imperial Highness, my Lady… the attendants will be here soon. Should you two remain together, or should Lady Siobhan return to her own room?”
Siobhan looked to the Heir to decide. If he allowed her to stay, then he planned to make her his official lover, but if he sent her away then he either didn’t want her as his lover, or planned to keep it a secret. He hummed as he took a moment to decide.
“I think I would like to keep this a secret, for now… Siobhan, return to your room.”
“Yes my Prince,” Siobhan conceded, and pulled free of his embrace. Despite his order to leave, he did not make it easy for her to do so, and she wondered if he might change his mind.
Once free, she accepted her nightgown from the bodyguard, and slipped it over her head. She leaned over to kiss him, and purred, “Until later.”
He moaned in anticipation, and watched her walk away.
Later on, Siobhan stood in attendance to the Empress. She kept her face smooth, and did nothing to hint that she might be the new official lover of the Heir Apparent. The Empress appreciated her discretion, but wanted to be certain.
“Is it done?” The Empress asked when the court grew fairly loud.
“Yes, Imperial Majesty,” Siobhan informed her.
“He says he wants to keep it a secret for now,” Siobhan replied.
“Does he? I wonder why?”
Siobhan shrugged. “Perhaps he fancies another, or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to announce it before his big gala. It may put a damper on things of the ladies feel his heart is taken… or at least the free space in his bed.”
“You may be right,” the Empress responded in a tone that implied she hadn’t thought of that.
Siobhan curtseyed respectfully to acknowledge the compliment.
“I think I would like to hear you play the harp,” the Empress stated, and waved Siobhan away. Siobhan bobbed another curtsey, and stepped aside to allow room for the Lady waiting to take her place.
That night at the dance, Siobhan was careful not to dance too flirtatiously with anyone – not even William, who she was publicly friends with now. It would have been uncharacteristic of her not to flirt at all, so she did, but in a way that the Empress would approve of. She was a popular dance partner, especially now that it was clear that William was not going to ask for her hand just yet.
“May I have this dance?”
“Of course, Prince Alexander,” Siobhan accepted with a smile. It was their third, and therefore last dance if they didn’t wish to break etiquette, and the Prince guided her around the floor fluidly.
“I rather hoped that you would treat us all to another showy dance with William, but neither of you has shown any real flair while dancing tonight,” Alexander informed her.
“I guess I didn’t want to seem to favor him,” Siobhan answered both honestly and without revealing anything she shouldn’t.
“You feared that I would grow jealous?” Alexander laughed. “Well, you were right, but not for the reason you think. I am jealous of both your skill on the dance floor. I would kill to be able to dance like that!”
“You dance wonderfully, my Prince! I am certain you could –“
“No… I’ve tried… I can only do what I have practiced repeatedly. I cannot improvise steps at the spur of a moment.”
“I could practice dancing with you until you can,” Siobhan suggested.
“That may be an excellent idea!” Alexander grinned. The music came to an end, and the Prince signaled for the orchestra to delay starting the next one.
He waited a moment for everyone to give him their attention, and then smiled. Siobhan wondered if he was going to announce their bed-sharing now. She kept a smile on her face to cover her sudden nervousness.
“At Lady Siobhan’s ball two weeks ago, she exhibited a flair for dancing that has been missing all evening. I know I am not the only one holding my breath in anticipation of what she might do next, and so before anyone may begin the next dance, I decree that the Lady must perform once more. Lord William, will you be her partner again?” Alexander asked.
William appeared from the crowd. “I would be honored, Imperial Highness.” William bowed respectfully to the Prince, and then held out his hand for Siobhan.
The orchestra wisely decided to play something upbeat, and soon the pair was swirling around the floor. They started off mildly, not prepared to be put in the center of attention so suddenly. William cast Siobhan a questioning grin, and she nodded with a laugh.
The next moment, they were dancing as if they had been partners all their lives. They stepped quickly, and performed maneuvers that took plenty of skill. They danced as if they were able to read each other’s mind.
The crowd gasped, ooo’d, and ah’d repeatedly, and when they were done, everyone clapped for at least two full minutes. Siobhan and William curtseyed and bowed to their audience respectfully several times, and she was relieved to see that the Empress was not angry with her. At least, the Empress did not look angry with her, which was good, because there was no way she could have refused the Prince so publicly.
The dancing continued, but Siobhan had to retire for the evening. She had pretty much danced three times with each man, and could not dance with anyone again without creating a scandal. She returned to the Empress’ side.
“I cannot decide whether my son was hinting at taking you for his lover, or if he was hinting that he’d prefer to see you with Lord William. He did seem much more relaxed with you, and it is known that he cannot dance well…” the Empress muttered.
“Hopefully I will know tonight,” Siobhan whispered in reply.
“If he does not summon you, I expect you to visit him first thing tomorrow morning,” the Empress commanded.
“Yes, Imperial Majesty,” Siobhan agreed.
“Good. Now, go prepare yourself for either possibility.”
Siobhan curtseyed. “As you command.” The entire conversation had been conducted quietly so that no one would overhear, and Siobhan turned to follow orders.
Something caused her to stop before she took even one step. “I sense danger.”
The Empress gestured for Siobhan to help her, and once the girl was in front of her, stood to address the gathering. “It is time for Us to retire. Please feel free to continue on in Our absence.”
Siobhan pretended to support the Empress as they exited the ballroom, and noticed that the guards silently took action in response to a hidden hand gesture. The guards took care not to disturb the guests, and did their jobs discretely. The Empress waited in her private hall until it was determined that her chambers had not been compromised.
“Suspicious men were located and detained,” a messenger reported to the head guard, who reported it to the Empress.
A moment later, another messenger appeared. “The Imperial chambers are clear.”
The Empress nodded, and turned to Siobhan, whispering, “It is imperative that you not fail in you mission. These attempts are growing ever more frequent, and I fear for my son’s life.”
Another messenger arrived to report that the Heir and all of the other Imperial children were safe, and the Empress sighed in relief. She cast Siobhan a commanding look, and Siobhan nodded once more.
“I will not fail,” she vowed just loud enough for the Empress to hear.
The Empress nodded, and left.