When past sins bleed into the present, and the victims seek vengeance upon the perpetrators, how long is it before far enough becomes too far?
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An Unlikely Duke - Myrridia
When King Reginald Claybourne of Myrridia is slain by an unknown assailant during a visit to a Rhennsbury brothel, the question of motive is open - was the killing political or personal? Reginald's children, Robert and Allyson, enlist the aid of Helen Lattimore and Chris McCabe to investigate the murder, unaware of the fact that Helen and Chris have a problem of their own - two unexpected visitors from Chris's home world. During the journey to Rhennsbury, one of their visitors encounters a sorceress, Cecelia Falkes, who threatens Chris in his role as the Duke of Saelym. Is Cecelia involved with Reginald's killer, and if so, is the king's death revenge for crimes he committed in the past? And are Robert and Allyson her next targets?
Robert hadn’t thought he could feel any more uncomfortable, but he was wrong. Feeling no shyness toward his social position, Mary crossed the few feet separating them and put her hands behind his head, pressing her body against him. She stood on her toes and brushed her lips against his. Despite his intentions otherwise, his body reacted to the contact, and he returned the kiss, putting his arms around her awkwardly. With a smile, Mary released him and stepped back, assuming she had caused him to change his mind. She now removed her dressing gown and shift, then climbed onto the bed, her movements slow enough to display her entire body. Her breasts were small, her hips narrow but rounded.
Robert felt his face warm. He couldn’t help but admire her for a few heartbeats, but he forced himself to turn away. He took a deep breath, trying to control his adolescent body. He had never seen a naked, pretty young woman before, nor had he ever been kissed. Robert didn’t want his first experience to be with a professional and wished he could leave the room, the brothel. He pinched himself in a vain hope that he was having a nightmare and he would wake up at his writing table or, better yet, safe in his bed, alone. He closed his eyes, but when he reopened them, he was still in the brothel. He turned to face the bed again. Mary had lain back, her eyes half-closed; she was smiling at him as she moved her hands around on the sheets in welcome. The movement caused a quiet rustling noise. “Come to me, my lord, and I will help you relax,” she murmured, not quite purring.
“I doubt that,” Robert muttered. Seeing no other option available, he sat down on one of the stools, not looking at Mary or the bed. He knew it was rude to turn his back on her, but if he kept looking at her, he was afraid of what would happen. He remembered the brief kiss and was terrified of things getting out of control. He heard a deep sigh from the bed before the wooden frame creaked as Mary shifted position.
“A pity,” Mary said loudly. “I get a clean, handsome young man, who does not have any horrible disease, and he has no wish to bed me. Sweet Mother, where did I go wrong?”
Robert turned to face her, then dropped his gaze to the floor. She had crossed her arms over her chest, and her small breasts now looked more rounded. “I apologize, Mary. ‘Tis not you, it is me. I do not wish to take you like this.” He was frustrated at his inability to say what he meant. “It is nothing personal. Oh, bloody - I can tell off members of the nobility with eloquence enough, but I am not able to say ‘no’ to you gently!”
Mary smiled as she rose from the bed, picked up her discarded dressing gown, and donned it. Gentleness was not something she was used to. She cinched the sash about her waist then walked over and stood behind Robert. He turned to look up at her, but she gently turned him to face away from her again. She touched his cheek for a moment, then placed her hands on his shoulders and began to massage them. In spite of his desire not to relax his guard, Robert felt some of the tension passing out of his shoulders and neck.
“I - That feels nice, Mary,” he said after several moments. His tone was hesitant.
Mary's smile widened a little, sensing that part of his discomfort was due to shyness around women. “I knew I could find something that would please you, my lord, since you do not seem to find my body attractive,” she replied without rancor.
“It is not your body. I-I found your body beautiful to look upon.” Robert was not used to having this type of conversation.
“Truly.” Mary stopped kneading, and Robert again turned to look at her. “I have never seen a woman like that before, but you were - well, I have nothing to compare it to - but you were stunning.” Robert had reddened again, but he forced himself to finish the statement. He knew the young woman, or girl, before him was a prostitute, but he saw no reason to be dishonest. “Mary, how old are you?”
Mary looked away from him, but he reached up and took one of her hands. The gesture surprised them both, but she didn’t withdraw. She shrugged. “I do not know, my lord. I was orphaned when I was a small child and taken in by relations. When I was old enough to earn my keep, a couple of winters ago, my aunt left me here.”
“Your aunt?” Robert tried not to show the shock he felt, but the words slipped out. He was a prince and therefore not supposed to show his emotions, but this was completely outside the realm of his experience. “I am sorry; it is not my affair.” He was still holding her hand.
“Perhaps not, sir, but ‘twould seem you would rather talk, than –“ she glanced meaningfully toward the bed. “I do not know how to properly entertain a fine prince such as yourself.”
“An accident of birth, Mary,” Robert said soberly. “I think I know very little of the world if a story such as yours comes as a surprise to me. I am sure it is a common enough tale.”
Mary shrugged. “Things do not always work out as we plan.”
“What would you rather do, if you had a choice in the matter?” Robert didn’t know if he could do anything to help her, but he could try.
Mary laughed for several moments, then started to cry. Robert was totally unprepared for this. He decided that the young woman must be much younger than he was, and he was probably the first person in a long time to offer her a kind word. He offered his sleeve for her to dry her eyes and blow her nose.
“I-I am sorry, my lord. I will be punished for this.”
“Why should you be punished? The fault is mine; I insisted we talk. I do not plan to tell your mistress about it.” Robert stood and guided Mary to the other stool, then crouched next to her. She met his gaze without flinching.
“I would like to become a midwife and herbalist,” she said suddenly. “I have aided my cousins in delivering their babes in the past, and I have done well at it. I have also helped a few of the women here in that capacity, though one woman, a friend, was not fortunate enough to survive a difficult birth.” She began crying again.
Robert had gotten more than he’d bargained for. He had little knowledge of the birthing process, except what he’d seen amongst the dogs and cats living in and around the castle. When it came to women, all that his father had told him, and that at great length, was about getting women with child. And he was hardly following his father’s advice at the moment.
“Mary,” he said quietly. He was trying to think of something he could do to help her and other women like her. He lacked experience, and he had no real authority in matters of policy, despite being a year past legal age.
Mary had stopped crying, and she gave him a weak smile. “Thank you for listening, Prince Robert. You are a prince, indeed. I think Myrridia might be a far different place in the future,” she said. Then they both stiffened as a woman screamed somewhere else on the floor.