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Monday, October 8, 2012
Sanguine - Part 11
Gavin leaned through the branches of the tree to see his sister better. “Is something wrong?”
“Uncle Trenton tells me that the very best apple can be found at the very top of the tree,” Sandra informed him. “Can you get it for me?”
“Why don't you climb up and get it yourself?” Gavin wondered with a laugh.
Sandra pouted and turned her back on him. “Grams, Nana Mareth, Aunt Christine, and Aunt Lucy all tell me I have to stop climbing trees like a boy!”
Lily, their younger sister – Gavin was 15, Sandra was almost 14, and Lily was 10 – giggled and tugged on Sandra's braid. “They don't tell me not to climb trees anymore! I can get an apple for you!”
Their father called out to them from closer to their house. “Are your chores done?”
“Yes father!” They all replied with a hint of a whine to their voices, and then giggled softly.
A rider galloped onto the property, and the three of them rushed to see who it was. They reached her just as she made it to the house. Gavin stared at the woman in awe. She was utterly gorgeous!
She wore an all black dress, even the lace trimmings were black! She had metal claws for nails, and a subtle hint of makeup. Except her lips were a glittering dark red, which contrasted with her creamy white complexion and jet black hair.
Something about her made Gavin shiver. She almost looked... sinister...
His father gave her a short bow of greeting. “Mistress Sang-Soif. What brings you here today?”
“I bring a message from Lady Sanguine,” Sang-Soif replied, holding her hand out for him to help her dismount.
Gavin heard Sandra whisper to Lily excitedly. “It must be important! The Lady has never sent us a message before!”
“I wonder what it could be?” Gavin muttered. His spine prickled as he realized that the lacy black-clad woman was smirking at him.
Returning her attention to their father, she smiled. “My Lady summons you and your children to visit her in the castle.”
Gavin wondered why his father suddenly looked almost white.
“No!” Danny protested softly. “She can't!”
Sandra was far too excited to stay still. She practically leapt to a spot in front of Sang-Soif. “Why would the Lady want to see us?”
Sang-Soif traced one nail along Sandra's cheek so lightly that it didn't scratch her in the slightest. She smiled at her, tilting her head to the side. “I'm not at liberty to say.”
“Wait a minute!” Gavin burst out. “Now I know who you are! You're one of the three ladies adopted by Lady Sanguine!”
Sang-Soif purred a him. “Yes... the youngest is actually right about the same age as you... You'll probably find this unfair when you have a chance to think about it.”
Gavin frowned at her, baffled. Both of his sisters shrugged in response to his silent question.
Danny sighed. “Just us, or does she want all of us there?”
Sang-Soif shrugged. “She didn't say. I'm sure she probably does, but I guess that's up to you.”
Danny groaned and then muttered to himself, “I'm not ready for this!” Then he nodded to the beautiful messenger. “We'll be there this afternoon.”
Sang-Soif turned to look at the three children. With a smirk and a mysterious giggle, she told them, “Don't worry... She isn't planning on throwing you in her dungeon!”
Danny growled at her, and she decided to mount her horse and take her leave, still laughing merrily.
With a reluctant sigh, Danny gestured to his son. “Ride over to Amos and Mareth and tell them the news. I'm sure they'll want to come with us.”
“Yes father,” Gavin murmured, still confused.
Gavin had never seen the castle grounds in the summer before. He'd been to the last couple of Winter Solstice parties Lady Sanguine held each year, but other than that... He doubted that any of the commoners had been in the castle more often than that!
“Lady Sanguine is so beautiful!” Sandra told Lily. “At Solstice, she dresses up all in red, and then dances with everyone at least once! She's even danced with me!”
“I can't wait until I'm old enough to go to a Solstice party!” Lily exclaimed.
“Soon enough,” Papa Amos assured her. Grandpa Christopher murmured in agreement, poking her in the nose playfully.
Lily sighed, tired of everyone telling her that she was growing up faster than she thought she was.
They walked into the audience room, but stood in the waiting area. A red-headed girl of about 15 sat on the throne-like chair on the dais. She looked bored, but sat up a bit straighter when she saw them.
“State your business,” she commanded with no real interest in hearing what they had to say.
Danny stepped slightly forward. “Lady Sanguine summoned us.”
“Did she?” The girl asked, obviously irritated about something. “Why wasn't I informed of this?”
The was a sudden clicking of heels as Sang-Soif entered the room. “Because Ardent, you stormed out of the room before our Lady could finish discussing her plans for the day.”
Ardent crossed her arms over her chest. “Can you blame me? She stuck me on audience room duty! I abhor sitting here doing nothing in the audience room all day!”
“She stuck you here so that you would learn patience!” Sang-Soif reminded her as she scratched a line across the girl's face. Ardent growled.
Sang-Soif was almost 24, but she resorted to glaring at Ardent like a child would.
A soft laugh startled everyone. “Ardent, you may go work in the dungeon for a bit,” Sanguine permitted. “But … you'll miss what's going to happen here.”
A brunette that was almost exactly between the other two in age smirked at Ardent. “You'll be sorry if you miss this!”
“Shut-up, Glacée!” Ardent hissed.
Sanguine stopped next to Ardent, and then stared at her pointedly. Ardent took a moment, but then blushed.
“Right, sorry my Lady!” Ardent exclaimed as she hastily exited the chair.
Sanguine sat down. She gestured for her family to come closer. The moment they stopped moving and the room was quiet again, she smiled at them, radiating happiness.
“As you know, I have been in the service of their Majesties for many years now, and – while my castle and my dungeon will still remain in service to them – I personally am retiring...”
Of all the people who could have gasped at this statement, it was Ardent that did so. In fact, she gasped so hard that she had to cough a couple of times afterward to clear her throat.
“Retiring!” Ardent protested. “But I still have so much to learn!”
Sanguine smiled at her. “And I'll be there to teach you if you truly need me, but I think Sang-Soif is more than capable of showing you everything you need to know.”
“Why are you telling us this, Sandra?” Danny asked. His daughter cast him a confused glance.
“I plan to have a feast to celebrate tonight, for one. Of course I want my family there with me!” Sanguine informed them with a laugh.
“Family?” Gavin questioned, but no one really heard him. They were all too busy looking at Ardent – who had once again gasped, and demanded incredulously, “Family?!”
Sang-Soif laughed at her. “You would know this if you ever paid the slightest bit of attention!”
Sanguine stood and walked to her mother. Mareth hugged her tight. “I'm so happy for you Sandra! I prayed every night that you would eventually give up that horrible job of yours!”
“Whoa whoa whoa wait!” Gavin blurted out loudly. “She's your daughter Sandra?!”
His sisters gasped as the implication hit them. They had all been told that their mother was named Sandra and was Papa Amos and Nana Mareth's daughter, but they had never been told anything else.
Danny chuckled nervously. “If you had warned me about this, I would have told them so that this wasn't quite a shock.”
Sanguine turned her full attention to her son, cradling his face in her hands. “Yes, I'm their daughter...”
“Then...”Gavin faltered, his heart racing for some reason. “That means that...”
“Yes. I'm your mother,” Sanguine confessed. “I hid this from you for very good reasons, but I must admit that I'm revealing it now for very selfish reasons...”
Sandra and Lily squealed happily, and then hugged their mother as if they never planned to let her go again.
Danny frowned. “What selfish reasons?”
Sanguine took a moment to simply hug her daughters – having released her son's face. Then she faced their father with a solemn expression.
“Now that I'm retired and have these three to take my place, I have to focus my attention on making sure that my people are taken care of if I should happen to die... To that end, I need to train in my heir...”
Danny thought this over for a moment, his gaze unconsciously drifting to Gavin. Gavin felt another chill run up his spine.
Sanguine nodded. “Yes, you see, there's one law I can't really change. My heir is my first born son, and that's you.”
Gavin shook his head. “I don't understand! Why didn't anyone ever tell me this before?! It seems you all knew!” He roared at his father and grandparents.
Danny placed a hand on his shoulder. “Son... your mother didn't want us to... and she had a very good reason why. Trust me, you were far better off growing up on our orchard than here in the castle.”
All of his grandparents murmured in agreement.
Ardent laughed, now that she had wrapped her head around the concept. “I think it's a shame. He looks like he could be every bit as strong and skilled as uncle Frayeur!”
“No!” Sanguine informed her sharply. “That's not going to happen!”
“Why not?” Ardent wondered, bristling with barely concealed anger.
Sanguine hugged her abruptly, despite her protests. Stroking her cheek, Sanguine looked her in the eyes.
“He doesn't have what it takes. I know he doesn't. He has never suffered anything truly horrific...” Sanguine explained softly. “He grew up happy and carefree.”
Ardent pushed her away angrily. “So you're saying that just because my parents beat me everyday until I nearly died, I'm suited to working in the dungeon, but he's not!”
Sanguine purred in sympathy. “Yes.”
Ardent screeched at the unfairness of life, pushing Sanguine away. “Fine! If that's the way things are, then I'll be in the dungeon doing my job!”
Sanguine glanced at Sang-Soif and Glacée. “Go with her.”
They nodded, then Glacée decided to tease her sister. “I don't understand why you're so mad! You love beating a prisoner up!”
“Shut-up Glacée!” Ardent roared.
The two of them bickered as they left the room. Sanguine chuckled from something close to embarrassment.
“Sorry, Ardent means hotly passionate, and Glacée means icy. The two of them fight more often than they get along, and Ardent is mad about everything!” Sanguine sighed. “I seriously wonder how Lady Desespoir managed to have six of us bickering all the time...”
Mareth laughed. “Bickering is how siblings show they love each other!”
“I know,” Sanguine murmured. She took a moment to finish hugging everyone, and then walked them towards the dining hall.
“As I was saying, I had a feast prepared. I hope you're all hungry!” Sanguine laughed, her arm entwined with Danny's.
Young Sandra was not satisfied at all by the change of subject. “What's all this about working in a dungeon?”
Sanguine stopped to take her hand and answer her seriously. “It's true. My job was to reform criminals. Really bad criminals who had been marked for death or repeatedly committed terrible crimes. You don't need to know the details, but I worked in the dungeon.”
“I... see...” Sandra murmured, thinking this information over. Everyone was silent until they were all seated around the long dining table.
“Hang on,” Gavin blurted out. “I'm confused. If you really are Nana and Papa's daughter, then how come you are a Lady and they're simple farmers?”
Sanguine told him how she was taken by the Tax Collector when she was 14, rescued by Lady Desespoir, and eventually given her title and lands by the King and Queen as a reward for excellent service.
“I never really meant to keep the fact that I'm actually their daughter a secret, it just sort of happened,” Sanguine finished her explanation. “At first, I thought that it might be for the best because I didn't want the rest of my people to fear my family as an extension of me, but then – as time passed and my people got to know me a little better – I thought that things could turn out well if I announced my heritage for all to hear.”
She sighed, and took a sip of wine from an ornate cup. “But by then I realized that I did want to keep it a secret from you three... until the time was right.”
“But why?!” All three of her children wondered out loud.
Feeling helpless, Sanguine simply spread her hands wide and shrugged. “I can't really explain it in a way that you'll understand. Maybe when you're older you will, but not now... Just know that I didn't want to expose any of you to what I do... To the service I perform for the Kingdom.”
A maid rushed into the room frantically. “I'm sorry, my Lady! I literally could not –”
She was pushed to the side fairly roughly when a stranger entered the room. He was dressed in a pretentious and fancy uniform worn in the palace. Sanguine frowned, wondering what a palace servant was doing here. I obtained proper permission to retire, after all...
“Announcing their Royal Majesties: King William and Queen Teresa.”
Sanguine got to her feet – as did everyone else – and stayed there even after the King entered the room and insisted that everyone be seated. She had met their Majesties before on several occasions, but was baffled as to why they would even consider visiting her little Castle.
“To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?” Sanguine asked, walking to stand in front of the royal couple. She curtseyed with the utmost respect. “My King, my Queen.”
King William held out his hand in a way that invited her to place her hand in his. “My dearest Lady Sanguine, I wish I could say it was simply to celebrate your retirement, but I am afraid that I have some private business to discuss with you. One more prisoner that I'd like you to handle... personally...”
He waved a signal to a couple the men accompanying him. They responded by coming forward, carrying a large, rolled-up, absurdly expensive carpet between them.
As if fighting back tears, the Queen placed a delicate hand on Sanguine's shoulder. “This man has committed one of the most grievous crimes imaginable. I would consider it a tremendous favor if you took care of him for us.”
“You would be in our debt. A debt I fear we could never repay...” King William added.
Sanguine's face showed a tiny bit of disappointment that her retirement was to be delayed, but that was quickly replaced by resignation and then compassion.
“Of course. It would be my honor to help out in any way I can.” She gestured to the men carrying the carpet. “Follow me.” It caused her a twinge of concern when the King and Queen also followed her, but she didn't have the power to command them not to.
She paused for only one moment to talk to her family. “Wait here. I will return as soon as I can. This particular job should not be rushed, and so I will not truly start it until tomorrow. I shouldn't be more than a few minutes.”
The walk to her dungeon was long enough to give Sanguine time to think about all the possibilities of who could be in the carpet. There was only two things that made any sense for the King and Queen to escort him here personally. He was either someone who had come very close to assassinating them both or he was someone well known and cared for by them.
No one came to mind that fit the second description, so she figured that it must be an assassin who had earned a place in her dungeons where they would never have to see him again.
Upon reaching the dungeon, the King and Queen looked around and saw that Sanguine's three apprentices were occupied with a half dozen men clamped to the walls. This was as it should be and as they expected, but they frowned in disappointment.
“Can we be alone for a few minutes?” The Queen asked.
Sanguine gestured towards a door off to the side. It led to a room reserved for those times when she decided to bind a man to a pole in the most uncomfortable position possible, and then let him sit in the dark for several hours at the very least. One of her loyal guards rushed to open the door for her. The other handed her a torch so that they would have some light as they talked.
The King gestured for his men to wait for them. A moment later, Sanguine closed the door so that she was alone with her sovereign rulers. The room was designed to keep sound from entering or escaping, so they were assured of privacy.
The Queen took Sanguine's free hand in both hers, clutching it almost desperately. “Countess Blood... Ever since Lady Desespoir retired, you and your sisters have more than filled her shiny stiletto heels... We are grateful for your many years of loyal service and know we have no right to ask this of you, now of all times... Please help our son!”
“The Prince?!” Sanguine gasped in astonishment.
“Yes,” the King confirmed.
“But the Prince is rumored to be a kindly and chaste man. What could he have possibly done to earn a stay in my dungeon?” Sanguine asked, still in shock at this revelation.
King William sighed. “It started out innocently enough. When he was still a young man, Collin showed his affections to others his age... Young men who were wealthy and bored and it amused them to spend their time in the Prince's bed. We turned a blind eye to his antics. It seems we ignored them for far too long...”
Queen Teresa continued. “It is true that our son is kind to others. He's never bedded a woman – that we know of – so he is reputed to be chaste, but his appetites have not changed, except that the age of those he brings to bed have gotten younger and younger. We didn't want to believe that anything... perverse was going on, but...”
“One of my most loyal Dukes came to me with a complaint several days ago,” King William took over the explanation. “He claims that my son coerced his 12 year boy into bed. My son is almost 30! He should not be having sex with anyone who hasn't even started to go through the change! That it was the son of a dear friend...”
A tear slid down the King's cheek, and his wife unashamedly cried on Sanguine's shoulder. Sanguine stood there awkwardly for a moment – having never expected to be in a situation in which the Queen was crying on her – but then her natural compassion took over and she held the heartbroken woman tightly.
“He is our only son! Yes we have our daughters, but he is our lawful heir! I fear for the future of the Kingdom!” The Queen wailed dramatically while Sanguine rubbed her back soothingly.
“I can't imagine what you must be going through...” she murmured sympathetically.
“You can understand our dilemma,” the King pressed on stoically. “We have a duty to punish him even though he is our son, but we also want him to return to us alive and relatively unharmed.”
“I'll do my best, but what if he refuses to break?” Sanguine asked. About one in six men died rather than be reformed – and a few more occasionally died despite trying to reform. They simply couldn't survive the process...
Both monarchs got very quiet for a long moment. It was the Queen who finally answered the question. In a cold voice, she said, “If he cannot be broken and/or dies in the process, then that is preferable to a future in which a King makes it a habit to bed all the young boys he can. No child should have to endure that...”
“And no parent should have to choose between protecting their child and refusing a direct order from the King,” William added.
Sanguine nodded. “I understand.”
The King and Queen both squared their shoulders and prepared to leave. They wanted to make this as clean a cut as possible by leaving while their son was still unconscious. Sanguine escorted them to the guards' break room, and then asked them to wait for her. Their men accompanied them, which told her more than anything that they were literally trusting her with their son's life.
Returning to the dungeon, she ordered her guards to unroll the carpet. The Prince was under the influence of a potent drug, and could not be roused despite their best efforts. This was fine by her since she had no plans to begin working on him until tomorrow anyway.
“Secure him to the table,” she ordered the guards then turned to her girls. “No matter what he does, ignore him. Their Majesties have asked me to see to him personally and I intend to do just that. In fact, gag him. I am willing to bet that the inability to talk will annoy him thoroughly and would be an excellent start to his torture.”
Sang-Soif promised that it would be done. Sanguine knew that her orders would be carried out exactly. She left the dungeon while his clothes were still being removed from the Prince's unconscious body.
The trek out of the dungeon was every bit as silent as the trip down into it had been. Sanguine really couldn't blame the King and Queen for not wanting to make idle chatter at such a time. It must be breaking their hearts to leave their son here with me!
Just after they reentered the dining hall, Sanguine remembered her manners. “It would be my honor share this feast with you, my King, my Queen,” she informed them with a small bob of a curtsey.
Her family decided to remain seated since no one was paying them any attention anyway. Plus, the King had previously indicated that he preferred them to keep their seats. Every last one of them was bristling with curiosity though.
“Another time, perhaps...” King William declined. He took Sanguine's hand his and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “You have my gratitude. I plan to grant you more lands... Shall I place this entire region under your jurisdiction?”
Sanguine exhaled a soft gasp. “You honor me greatly! I fear your generosity is too much. Perhaps just the lands surrounding mine.”
“Nonsense!” The Queen exclaimed. “I think the region would benefit from your firm hand.”
Sanguine was genuinely speechless for a moment. “Uh... Th-thank you, your Majesties!”
The Queen continued. “I also think that if you succeed – as I'm certain you will – we should grant you the rank of Duchess.” She looked to her husband as an expression of enlightenment crossed both their faces.
“Perhaps...” King William murmured.
“Yes, perhaps...” Queen Teresa agreed to the unspoken thought.
Sanguine was torn between protesting that this was already more than enough and asking what more they could possibly have in mind. Curiosity won out.
“Perhaps what?” She asked.
King William smiled at her in a way that made a shiver of foreboding run up her spine. He seemed every bit the regal and powerful ruler he was. It was enough to make even her afraid of him because he had the power to do whatever he wanted to her.
Thank the Gods that he's a benevolent ruler!
“It occurs to me that I will need something to take my mind off the criminal in your dungeon,” King William began. “It also occurs to me that I have waited far too long to choose a suitable bride for my son. Whether he likes it or not, when I return to my palace, I'm planning his wedding!”
“M-my King?” Sanguine stammered, not entirely sure where he was going with this.
“Congratulations my dear!” Queen Teresa cried out and then kissed her on her cheek.
Sanguine felt her heart stop. “What?” She just barely managed to ask. It came out as a breathy whisper.
“I know this is all rather sudden, but you are exactly the kind of wife our son needs,” Queen Teresa responded with a cheerful smile.
Sanguine couldn't breathe. Or rather, her breath escaped her in a series of rapid little pants. She clutched her heart, not caring that her claws poked through her dress, through her skin, and left tiny streams of blood oozing from her.
“What?” She couldn't help but ask again. Then she decided to protest. “But, but... I...”
The Queen smirked, showing Sanguine for the first time ever that she was much more intelligent than she generally let on.
“For years I have sent suitors to tempt you, and always you have sent them back to me with the same excuse; that you didn't feel that it was right to get married while you performed such a valuable service for the Kingdom. Only now do I see that this was fate!”
King William nodded in agreement. “You have officially retired. I myself signed the papers ending your employment. You will naturally want to start a family of your own while you still can!”
“You have governed your people better than most of the Lords in our court,” Queen Teresa added. “I'm positively excited to see what you can do as the Crown Princess Consort and a Regent of the Kingdom.”
Sanguine took a few deep and calming breaths. “I thank you for this... magnanimous opportunity, but I cannot accept. I... I'm not worthy. I'm not of sufficient rank. I'm older than Prince Collin!”
“None of that matters dear,” Queen Teresa assured her. “You have what it takes inside to be the right woman for the job.”
Job... With a sinking heart, Sanguine knew that the King and Queen would not let her out of this no matter what she said. In their minds, absolutely no other woman could keep a firm hand on their sinful son and rule in his place if necessary. The job required that she provide an heir of royal blood, and they were likely certain that she would be the only one who could manage that as well.
She was trapped, and she knew it. It took her a moment to admit it out loud. She got to her knees so that she could give them the deepest curtsey, which almost resembled curling up in the fetal position and was reserved for only the most special of occasions.
“I am but your humble servant. If you command me, I must obey,” Sanguine intoned numbly.
“Oh cheer up!” The Queen commanded, her tone that of a cat who'd gotten into the cream. “You're going to be part of our family soon. The whole Kingdom will love you!”
King William took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. “I do hope you won't mind if I choose a color other than red for your wedding dress.” With a smirk of satisfaction that things were now well in hand, he tucked his wife's hand in the crook of his arm and gestured to his men that they were about to leave. “I'll send you the details of the wedding as soon as they are set. In the meantime, you just work on reforming that criminal we brought you.”
He stroked her cheek tenderly as if she was already one of his daughters while the Queen squeezed her hand. A moment later, it was as if the wind had changed and they were now bored. They said their goodbyes and left though Sanguine barely heard them through her state of utter shock.
She stared at nothing, her body trembling. She felt like she was slowly being smothered by an invisible pillow. She was justifiably ungrateful that their reward had turned into a job that she could never retire from.
Danny pulled her into his strong arms and stroked her hair. He of all people knew how she felt about getting married. He also completely understood that she had no choice in the matter.
Sanguine buried her face in his chest and let herself cry like never before.
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