OLIVE trees reached their age-twisted branches into the cerulean sky, imitating gnarled sentinels protecting the sun-washed landscape. Vineyards added compact bounty. In the mountains fading into the distance, secretive oak groves sheltered ancient temples long faded from common memory. The old groves granted me wonderment and loss, so unfitting for a Prince. Despite their so-called illegal allure, I’d examine them again on this long-anticipated trip.
My ancient cultures obsession remained secret, since my royal family specialized in destroying anything challenging the cruel Serpent Throne’s might. Heavens, imagine if cultural loss invoked the Prince’s sympathy. If certain deranged nobles discovered my spiritual heresy, they might feel inclined to create an ugly confrontation. How dare the Prince feel compassion.
How dare indeed.
What was wrong with me? I relaxed into my seat and shook my head. Acting so damned introspective was silly. Time to enjoy the rugged, bountiful landscape spreading outside the carriage window in warm bliss. The sight eased my long-lingering tension. My war-battered shoulders felt lighter, less constricted. Sad to think I hadn’t visited the invigorating Southern climate in years. What a surprise; war threw life off course. In my years protecting my country, I experienced too much war and death, damn it, enough death, blood, and suffering to thrust a man into madness. My life energy defended my country from those who despised what we stood for in this modern world. In truth I despised what we represented, but my thoughts dwelled only in my mind. I held so many personal secrets. When not battling the rebellious neighbors, I worked to guide Ardaul in a cleaner direction. The country’s transformation progressed in solid determination; well, when not hindered by my ignorant brother.
My fingers rubbed my face. A frown bespeaking sour recollection creased my weathered skin. Stop. I fled court to forget my recent blood-splattered years, but dismissing such a gloomy time from my waking mind needed more concentration, more drinking, more everything pleasurable to wash away the darkness. Pleasure as medicine worked for me. A well-deserved vacation stretched before me. I needed to cease fretting.
The coach slowed. We passed through the manor’s imposing iron gates. The time displayed on my silver vest clock prompted a smile. I should have commed ahead but please, a Prince should be able to do as he pleased. I knew arriving four hours early tossed the household into majestic frenzy. But I held no desire to arrive when my cousin’s guests swarmed the manor. Cousin Keith enjoyed surrounding himself with merriment, so he didn’t mind if nobles dedicated to delight lingered at his manor for months. A few of the more determined ones probably remained for a year. According to the schedule commed to last night’s inn, Keith’s social crowd enjoyed an afternoon picnic at Lord Lazio’s, so this way I arrived, bathed, and embraced solitude. Solitude suited me most of all, which is why I warned Keith acting as his shining royal guest did not suit me. My dear cousin understood my need for privacy. I even traveled without the usual fuss and fanfare, using a simple horse drawn carriage instead of the dreadfully uncomfortable steam-driven royal carriage. My four bodyguards and five trusted armed guards deterred bandits and terrorists. I could have deployed the royal airship but to me the vessel screamed target. No, better to keep my feet close to the soothing earth.
My personal staff would enjoy their well-earned vacation. If I needed anything, Keith’s staff would accommodate my needs. Aside from eating, sleeping and the greatly desired physical pleasure, I doubted if I needed his staff. I knew how to dress myself and wipe my derrière. What a noble wonder!
Why did simpering royals need everything handed to them? My valet Gerald loved me since he owned an easy job. He entered my bedroom, woke me and offered advice if he felt my vest not quite appropriate for my jacket. I loved mixing patterns; I swore my years trapped in a dull military uniform inspired the urge to imitate a frivolous peacock. My poor page worked harder, especially when we camped in a cold clime. Breaking ice in the water bucket during a hard sleet was never fun. The gears in the hand-cranked sparkers often succumbed to extreme cold. Young Gerald deserved knighthood and, when he reached the proper age, I planned to bestow the honor on him.
Ahh, yes, the carriage navigated the last curve. Massive Elidian Manor sprawled into view behind the sweeping formal rose gardens and elaborate fountains. Three glittering five-story octagonal towers decorated the bulk. The front foyer bell tower, containing an amazing clock dripping with ponderous gears, stood before all. The clock was an ancient first gear model, and, if it ever fell from its high perch, the massive weight would sink into the marble floor for many feet. I hoped no one stood below the tragic impact.
Powers on High, why did I act so morbid? I arrived unscathed so I should rejoice.
My favorite cousin appreciated his wonderful country home. In turn, he monitored local politics for me. Again, perfect. Keith’s watchful stance allowed me to imprison a few rebellious nobles who thought to try staging an uprising while we fought in the North. Think again, fools.
I felt like a waiting spider occupying an extremely large web. Fitting. Disturb a line and snap, I supplied quick destruction via any technology at hand. I appreciated the analogy.
The carriage pulled to a jangling halt. Footmen scrambled from the front door. A turmoil of bowing, opening doors and respectful hushed greetings swirled around me as I stretched my legs in blessed arrival. Jasper, Colm, Laswell, and Jenkins hastened forward to sweep my suite for any suspicious nastiness. My highly developed sense of caution demanded appeasement.
Keith’s butler Anders appeared in his remembered stately grace, a perfect cliché of a well-mannered, efficient butler. I smiled in remembrance. I swore the regal man emerged from the womb and sternly scolded his mother about the dreadful mess she created in birthing him.
Anders walked forward. He bowed enough to act respectful but no more. Grand style. “My esteemed Prince Linden, how delightful to see you after all these years. We have missed your royal grace at the manor.”
“It feels fine to return, Anders. I look forward to a lovely, relaxing holiday in this fair place.” I followed him into the ornate, tall foyer hall and smiled in recognition. The strong sun captured the upper clock tower’s swirling stained glass. Gleeful colors sprinkled across the stern gray stone walls until the black marble floor consumed their light. Dazzling. The bright spectacle already made me feel welcome.
My trunks bobbed past along with my bags. I chuckled to see my two travel trunks seemingly sprout legs. “Still running splendidly as always, eh, Anders?”
Raised voices echoing from the left interrupted Anders’s quiet reply. Clearly scornful words violated the air. “You annoying bore, I am ready but he’s hours early! At least let me button my jacket!” Ha, someone owned a saucy attitude!
I heard Anders’s scolding sniff and glanced at him. His right brow twitched in aggravation. His lips thinned into deadly sharpness, ready to rip out a servant’s unruly soul. “Excuse me, my Prince, there seems to be….”
A slight young man dressed in a stylish black suit, not the normal dull rust livery, hastened from the left into the foyer, agitation palpable in his abrupt arrival. He rapidly buttoned his knee-length frock coat over his black and silver embroidered vest, adjusted his jacket, looked up, and froze in complete dismay before he regained his composure and stared at the floor. Hair curtained his face. His melodic voice—ah, what an interesting accent—emerged in breathless contrition. “A thousand pardons, Mr. Anders, erm, my esteemed Prince. Forgive my shameful tardiness and unseemly behavior. Please forgive me. Please.” The young man bowed so low I feared for his balance. He straightened back up. Two more steps. Hesitation. He halted and bowed his slight form in a fresh dire tip. His petite stature allowed his long black hair to sweep the ebony marble floor. The two black hues swallowed each other.
Quite a lively arrival! My calming laugh crashed against the unwelcome tension. “Please, young man, no need to fret. Do cease the relentless bowing. Your constant up and down motion renders me quite dizzy.” Please cease since I needed to see the fair face again and confirm my amazement.
The young man looked up in relief. “Yes, my gracious Prince. My apologies.” The words emerged from lips set in a high-cheekboned face tinted a burnished sienna. Delicate violet swirls started at his right temple and fluttered down his skin to his chin before winding around his neck. The languid swirls imitated wild Nerdean canyon rose canes, sinuous, graceful and deadly to the casual trespasser. The hunting canes hooked, collected and suffocated until the carnivorous blooms fed on flesh. Since the roses sprang from old magic, they resisted all known modern pesticides.
Just as I thought; there stood a Southern Totandia Elf of the ruling rank. The violet canes told me the Elf's startlingly high rank. Up North we seldom saw Totandians. Their ancient race hid in the deep Nerdean canyon lands edging against the inhospitable South Inatoli Desert. They believed in nature’s rule and nothing else, so they challenged modern thinking. In the past my ruthless family ferreted them out from the country with lethal efficiency, not trusting their subtle magics and strange, secret culture. After nearly destroying the race, our country regarded them as handy slave fodder since they were delicate in stature plus they acted docile and non-violent. My scholarly heart regretted the destruction of such a mysterious race.
Still, the male’s features looked distinctly human, especially in the strong cheekbones and firm chin. As I recalled, pure Elves displayed a narrow face and extremely pointed chin shape. No hint of the uniquely slanted Totandian eye structure met my examination, but his eyes displayed the unusual violet color befitting his noble rank. The robust coppery skin hue screamed Elf, yet his long, narrow nose appeared too pronounced for an Elf’s. Definitely an exotic Halfling, rare to see.
Even more curious something about the refined features sparked a hazy memory in my mind. How odd.
Another deep bow almost followed before the male conquered his instinct. He respectfully inclined his head. His curly mane drifted around his smooth face. “I am Alasdaire, my esteemed Prince, and during your visit here my duty is to serve you to my full ability.”
To my surprise Anders huffed in quiet but pointed annoyance. Coming from him the sound counted as a cruel slap across the young man’s face. “Yes, my Prince, since he knew you traveled sans your normal staff, Lord Keith arranged for Alasdaire to be your personal slave; that is, if you approve of allowing a common slave to serve you.”
Powers on High, I could have ice skated on Anders’s last words. I disliked how Anders emphasized the slave aspect. A hidden story lurked here. But I certainly wanted to give the unusual beauty a chance, especially since I understood what Alasdaire meant by serving me. Keith remembered my fondness for fascinating young men, and this mesmerizing creature defined exotic. My words embraced sheer good will. “How lovely, yes, I heartily approve of my cousin’s special choice for me. So, Anders, feel confident to leave me in Alasdaire’s skilled company.” I smiled at the watchful young Halfling. He quickly dropped his chin toward the floor. Hmm, no mutual flirtation from a pleasure slave? Why?
“Very good, my Prince. If this particular slave is not to your liking, please let me know immediately so I can correct the staffing error. Above all I desire your complete satisfaction.” Anders shot Alasdaire a deadly glare before he bowed and left us. Around us bustling footmen finished carrying my belongings up the grand staircase. I wondered why Anders disliked this glorious beauty? Ah, sadly, the prejudice against Elves ran strong in many men’s hearts; obviously Anders despised this Halfling. Such ill behavior from the normally stoic head butler bothered me. Well, Anders was Keith’s servant, so I owned no say in the matter.
The insulted Alasdaire briefly frowned after Anders’s retreating back before he controlled his temper. He inclined his head in further silent apology before he gazed up at me. His violet eyes were remarkably blank. His inner passion vanished with impressive speed. “My Prince, time to create today’s schedule. Lord Keith and his guests currently attend Lord Lazio’s grand picnic. Do you want to…?”
I held up my hand in halt. “Please, absolutely not, Alasdaire. I wish to enjoy a light lunch, a not so light drink, then a bath. Perhaps I shall embrace slothful behavior and indulge in a nap!” Ahh, the thought thrilled my aching body. I swore the last war destroyed my stalwart constitution, since before this past week a carriage ride never defeated my body. It felt suspicious. I knew no one had poisoned me; the small amount of toranada root I ingested each morning guaranteed protection from common poisons.
“Of course, my noble Prince, I shall arrange for your supreme comfort.” Alasdaire signaled to four watching young pages. They bowed and scurried off in different directions. Next he gracefully gestured forward. “Please follow me to your suite. My Prince, I trust you enjoyed a pleasant journey from Rahalda? I understand the weather embraced calm, sunny conditions, unlike the recent unruly storms.”
“Pleasant enough, Alasdaire, although it was a long journey. Five days of carriage travel taxed my old body.” At least the young slave chatted with me. Normally everyone acted dumbstruck around this so-called mighty Prince. Still, the beauty’s words felt mechanical and rehearsed, merely a pleasure slave’s trained interest. But I sensed this male’s uniqueness. I wondered how many times Alasdaire entertained Keith’s guests? Did he despise his house concubine status? Hmm. Usually the pretty young men in such positions were well-treated and even pampered, since they supplied the master or mistress discrete pleasure. Judging by how basely Anders treated him, this manor did not regard Alasdaire as special. Foolish of them. I certainly looked forward to enjoying this young creature blessed with the legendary charms of Totandian blood.
My self-pitying sigh made me sound in need of comfort. “I confess I feel battered as an old boot.”
“Now you can relax. You will be pleased to hear fresh weather graces us, Prince. The worst summer storms passed on their way East. You will enjoy a lovely visit this month.” Alasdaire mounted the carved staircase.
My new companion ignored my baiting words. He wasn’t prone to abject fawning, a trait I admired in a man. I followed Alasdaire, taking the opportunity to admire his knee-high pearl button boots. The supple black leather sculpted his shins into delicious fullness. We traveled down the long hall lined with legions of dour, deceased ancestors until we reached the far tower. Alasdaire halted and remembered not to bow. “Here is your usual suite, my Prince.”
“Yes indeed, I remember this suite well.”
Jenkins saluted me. “All clear, Prince. Will Colm and I be sufficient for the first watch?”
“Yes, that’s fine, Jenkins. Locate chairs so you can guard in comfort. I don’t think anyone will try and ambush me here.”
A smile softened Jenkins’s sharp features. “One never knows, eh, Prince? But yes, thank you, chairs would be splendid.”
Alasdaire stared at the two powerful guards in surprise, then his face assumed his professional demeanor. A glance into the dressing room lurking beyond the large bedroom revealed my trunks were opened and much of my apparel already settled into drawers and closets. Nothing like efficiency! I nodded to two flushed pages who bowed and quickly resumed their tasks, although the younger lad fumbled and dropped a shirt. A shame how everyone acted so flustered when I entered a room. Quite tedious. Unlike my insane brother, I never beheaded anyone for a simple mistake.
I paused and sighed in pleasure. Sprawling mountains, tinted in dark grays and purples, dominated the scene. “The view is staggering, so wild and free.”
“Indeed it is, Prince. Before dusk the sunset illuminates this suite in audacious colors, like you said, so wild and free. If no one resides here and I am unoccupied, I slip in and experience the wonder. Sometimes I stare toward the west and wish I saw what dwells beyond the mountains. How foolish. I know it is impractical and ridiculous for a mere slave to imagine freedom.”
Really? Those revealing words made me arch my brows at the young man, but Alasdaire had already turned back to the bedroom to scold the pages over their clumsy handling of my clothing. Fine, let him pull rank. I took advantage of his absence and murmured my personal ward reactivation spell. Ah, splendid, no one ruined my spell signature. This suite guaranteed me safe haven. I trusted Keith as much as I trusted anyone, but with so many guests milling around, better to feel secure. Magic was outlawed but many people still understood its allure and power. I held no qualms about using added protection.
Alasdaire directed the arriving pages to set laden trays and bottles, resting in ice buckets, on the window side table in the large sitting room. He twisted toward me and smiled in sterile civility. “Does this light meal look suitable, Prince?” Alasdaire uncovered two silver trays supporting plates and bowls containing thickly sliced meats, cheeses, olives, herbed bread, three interesting vegetable salads and a fruit bowl.
“The offering looks nourishing and delicious.”
“Excellent. My Prince, I offer you red or white wine from this land’s bountiful grapes.” Alasdaire paused; then he cocked his head. “If I may be so bold, this year the estate’s white tastes truly charming.”
“Then yes, Alasdaire, let me sample the white.” I settled into the comfortable window-side chair and kicked off my short boots and silk socks. Ahh, freeing my feet made me feel oddly carefree.
After he deftly conquered the cork, Alasdaire poured a brimming measure and handed the cool crystal vessel to me. I sampled the wheat-hued liquid and smiled in satisfaction. Crisp, light yet heady and potent. “Mmm, this wine tastes accomplished. The vintner definitely understood his grapes. Thank you, Alasdaire, it’s a fine recommendation.”
“Excellent, my Prince.” Alasdaire offered me another slight smile but his violet stare never met mine. Instead he arranged food on a plate, shook out my napkin, and displayed my silverware. “Do you need me to taste the food, my Prince?”
“There’s no need.” My personal ward spell told me nothing tainted the food.
“Then enjoy your meal, my Prince.” Alasdaire’s smart little bow ended before his hair met the floor. He stepped back and stood by the table’s far end. The young man’s gaze focused on something outside the large window, something distant and impossible. Sunrays played over his noble cane twists and made them look nearly iridescent. It appeared my intriguing companion switched off and merely awaited my instructions. Sad. I wanted him to react to me, not follow dreary protocol.
As I sampled my first mouthfuls, I examined his sculpted face. Who did this striking wonder resemble? Someone seductive from my long ago youth, yes, someone who… by the Powers, the hazy memory solidified into focus. Recognition struck me like a jagged mountain boulder. I almost choked on a black olive. Alasdaire’s swarthy coppery coloring, curly, long black hair and exotic Elven markings threw me off the memory. But the defined facial structure down to the stubborn chin and classic profile alerted me. I should have recognized the long, arrogant nose. Despite the lacking height, the compact build looked correct. Asking Alasdaire felt rude, but I sensed he was the bastard son of a lover from years ago, a handsome, haughty noble who lived mere miles away. Unless my accurate memory failed me, the seed from Leonardo’s loins stood staring into eternity. Fascinating. Fascinating yet exceptionally strange. Why was Alasdaire a slave at Keith’s manor? Leo lived nearby, so why did Alasdaire reside here? Who was his mother? When I enjoyed my affair with Leo Tyrone, I knew his carnal interest spanned the genders, but this lad looked old enough to have arrived soon after our passion. During my twenty-fourth summer we enjoyed wanton infatuation with no attachments or regrets. A heady time, before my mad brother descended into his mental abyss and I assumed my shadow rule.
So many memories. All right, I needed clues. I gestured to another chair. “Alasdaire, please sit down.”
Instead of complying, Alasdaire stiffened and respectfully shook his head. “My Prince, to sit down in your royal presence while you dine is a punishable offense.”
What archaic nonsense. I snorted in rude dismissal. “Pish, I certainly will not punish you. You standing over me acting so mute and remote unnerves me. I feel like I share the room with a pretty automation, not a flesh and blood man.”
His raw unease assaulted my hearing. “Please, my Prince, if Anders….”
Enough protesting. My fingers angrily swatted the air. “Lovely Alasdaire, listen well, the only way cranky Anders will find out is if he spies on this room. If he dares to act so disrespectfully toward me, he’ll feel sorry for his rude action. If you are to serve me during my stay, I at least desire friendly conversation.”
“You wish to converse with a lowly slave, my Prince?”
Ah, there, the lurking bitterness leaked free. “No, with a fellow living being. You are living, correct? Beating heart, flowing blood, all the practical essentials that makes one alive?”
My words provoked an unexpected response. Alasdaire stared directly at me and cocked his head. Despair infected his deep violet eyes. “Am I truly alive, my Prince?”
This young Halfling owned issues with the world. His position as noble slave carried a terrible burden. Again I knew a tragic story lurked behind the resentment. Time to urge my new companion to discuss his complicated life. I pointed at the embroidered chair. “Sit down so we may discuss the important matter. Sit down or leave me alone while I eat, but do not hover over me like a somber crow.”
Further hesitation followed. Alasdaire shifted on his feet; then he settled onto the chair and shook his head in sorrow. “My Prince, please forgive my atrocious actions. I fear you should request another slave more suitable to your needs.”
“Tell me, Alasdaire, how do you know my needs?”
The confused Alasdaire stared at me before his fingers fluttered against his cheek rank in helpless bewilderment. “I fear you wish to be entertained during your holiday. My Prince, trust me, I am not the proper slave for the task.”
This moping beauty needed something to shake off his self-pity. No wonder; his diminished status in life promoted a dismal humor. I swallowed strong Pratago cheese, ahh, no mistaking that tart flavor. Bluntness supplied the best attack. “Why aren’t you the companion for me? Tell me, are you exceedingly dull, stupid and boring, lacking in any social grace?”
A quick flash of insult challenged me. “Not at all, my Prince.”
There, I appreciated his anger. Time to act blunt. “Do you like warming beds?”
A long silence followed until Alasdaire shook his head. “My Prince, may I be so bold to ask to savor wine?”
Perfect: we shattered the wretched master and slave wall. I filled the second glass and handed the cool weight to Alasdaire. He stared, and then a true smile, sunny and fresh, broke through his nervous worry. “Thank you, my Prince. So you are as gracious and kind as everyone claims. To your eternal fine health, sir. The world needs more noble men such as yourself.” He saluted me, and then he sipped and examined the wine. When he looked at me his expression displayed remarkable honesty. “I feel quite proud of this wine. Since he knows drifting around the manor awaiting a guest’s pleasure bores me, Lord Keith lets me work in the greenhouses and the winery. During the past two years I supervised the mixing of the estate’s white grapes. So this wine is my accomplishment, minor but still mine.”
“It tastes delicious. There, if you were not alive you would not understand how to craft such a vibrant wine.” I hesitated; then I shook my head and revealed my knowledge. “Alasdaire, you occupy an uncomfortable position in life. Being a noble bastard son is cruel, especially since you span two races.”
Alasdaire twitched so hard I feared his tense fingers might crush his delicate wine glass. “My Prince?”
“When I first saw you, I thought I recognized your features beyond your unique Elven beauty. I know Lord Leo.”
Alasdaire’s body spasmed in distress. He acted like someone had applied a hot steam blast against his spine. Wine entered his lips until he drained his glass and carefully set it on the table. I leaned over and refilled the glass. “Were you permitted to eat your lunch or did they make you sit and wait for me?”
A bitter laugh tainted the air. Long fingers vaguely gestured toward the floor. “You know the pecking order all too well, my Prince. Harriar, the deputy butler, made me sit in the side room beginning at nine. Unfortunately, when you arrived, I had just returned from relieving myself, so his scolding provoked my shameful outburst.”
“Then tuck in.”
During the fresh silence, Alasdaire stared at me in frank appraisal. “Please tell me, why do you treat me like an equal, mighty Prince?”
I parried back. “You are a noble Totandian and the son of a Lord. Why do you want me to treat you like an unwanted stray?”
Vivid silence descended and collected until Alasdaire sat back in his chair and slowly shook his head. His riotous mane trailed across his shoulders. “How much do you want to know, Prince Linden?”
“Well, I wish to eat and you need to speak, so feel free to talk to me.” I speared more beef and shrugged. “Tell me what you wish. I sense you need to speak to someone and I enjoy listening.”
Instead of speaking, Alasdaire filled his own plate and nibbled on the robust green-veined olive cheese and roast chicken slices. After he enjoyed a few mouthfuls he sighed. “My Prince, I enjoy my sexuality when I possess the choice, which is a rare event. I do not enjoy pleasing wretched guests seeking to inflict pain. As you know my Lord entertains many nobles, and he thinks he knows their desires, but they hide their cruel nature from him. The lecherous degenerates look forward to abusing a Halfling. They think me something along the lines of a mysterious sprite, so surely I possess special magical skills to make them feel ecstasy. When they feel I do not please them, they own the right to whip me bloody for their failure. Is it my fault their shriveled old cocks act useless as dead twigs? My mouth cannot create a physical miracle. Since I am a slave, I am beaten.” Alasdaire’s teeth determinedly tore into a chicken slice. I imagined he wished he could treat certain noble cocks the same way!
His story bothered me. “Wait, Keith lets his guests abuse you? He usually does not condone violence.”
“Forgive me for speaking bluntly, my Prince, but I doubt if Lord Keith cares how I am treated as long as I please his noble guests. Naturally I protest about my torment to Anders and he claims I deserve what I receive since I am a haughty, insubordinate disgrace who does not understand his true place in the world. Being judged by a bigoted butler insults me, especially since Anders feels after what I did, I should feel happy to even breathe free air.” Once his bitter words hung in the air, Alasdaire instantly halted and inhaled a distressed breath. He returned to examining the far off view.
Instinct told me this young man’s tale turned dangerous. I arched a brow in inquiry. “Well, since you entered the risky territory, I need to hear further details.”
The view seemed more important than looking at me. Words emerged in a choked whisper. “My Prince, I fear if I tell, you then you will turn me away and I do wish to stay with you. I appreciate your kindness. Your kindness makes me feel whole.”
Good to hear Alasdaire understood my efforts. I cocked my head in fresh question. “Why would I turn you away? Did you murder a noble?”
As I watched in alarm, Alasdaire’s smooth flesh somehow looked paler under his coppery hue. He appeared to fade before my sight. His chin tucked to his chest. “When I was fifteen, I tried.”
Well! I finished my wine and refreshed the contents. My thoughts pointed at something shadowy. “Bah, you rash idiot. Let me guess; you tried hurting your father for a supposed slight.”
He leaned toward me, his face anguished. “No mere slight, my Prince! My father left my noble mother to die in horrible pain!” Alasdaire slumped back and shuddered in distress.
My legendary soft spot welled open in anticipation. “But your mother was a noble Elf.”
“Yes, but one captivated by love. My grandfather Afratair is Duke of the South. Can you imagine this common bed slave is descended from the Supreme Duke of the South? Tragic. But my mother was a rebellious female, and Elven court, from what she told me, offers a single female strict and tedious lives colored by pure obedience. She claimed her culture smothered her. When he visited the Totandian court in search of valuable healing herbs, my craven father wooed Mother. She told me she appreciated his effort, since to woo a noble Totandian involved danger on his part. He finally convinced Mother to flee her family’s tyranny. The clever seducer spoke of marriage in the future, so Mother ran away with him. Foolish, so foolish.”
Silence fell. I waited for more words. Alasdaire obviously hated telling this tragic tale. I sensed silence helped him continue.
His soft words were barely audible. “Elven culture is a delicate dance. In truth my Mother truly loved Father, so she ignored the nasty circumstances and believed the best of that soulless dog. He did not marry her, although Mother told me he often hinted about it until my birth. Then the thing disgraced her. I arrived within two years of her living at the manor. Once I arrived, the dog moved Mother into a snug cottage away from the manor. My bold royal canes and true coloring threatened the coward. Since she was female, Mother appeared paler, plus her few canes were easily hidden under clothing. I emerged fully branded as male Totandian royalty. Imagine, in Totandian culture I outranked him. My bloodline is more ancient.” Fingers traced his cheek canes and Alasdaire’s lips tightened. “We existed in a strange twilight world, not truly part of the estate. Father hired a tutor to teach me reading and writing, but regarding accepting me, ha, I rarely saw him. His promise of raising me as a true son vanished. Mother grew weak and sad. She spent time dreaming in bed, unable to accept her rejection. When I was twelve, he threw us to the mercy of the estate. He turned us out from our cottage without notice to move someone new in.”
“He threw you out?”
A painful nod answered my question. “One autumn morning guards arrived and told us to leave. I tried to fight them but naturally they subdued my feeble threat. We did not know what to do! We retreated to a hut behind the barn, sans a real fireplace or solid furniture, but at least no one turned us away. My delicate mother felt completely betrayed. Imagine being promised to be cared for then being dumped like garbage. Luckily the cook pitied us so she smuggled me food.” His voice dropped to a rough whisper. “When an exceptionally bleak winter set in, Mother began coughing up blood. I begged to see my father, begged for a physician and instead I was told if I tried entering the house, I’d be horsewhipped. Despite their threat I tried and was beaten bloody. So I sat and helplessly watched my mother die from a combination of cold and heartbreak. I buried her in the forest.”
My recent tasty lunch stirred in my stomach in pity. “Are you sure Leo was even home?”
This time Alasdaire’s lips twisted in rage. “Bah, he was home. One morning while my mother suffered, I saw him leave in his carriage. I ran, screaming and begging, but I could not keep up.” Alasdaire shook his head. A low snarl emerged. “After Mother’s death I became a common slave, working in the barn. I feared running away since I would be regarded as a slave no matter where I fled. My heritage cursed me. Returning to Nerdean would have meant my death since the Totandian Elves despise Halflings even more than humans. Amazing how everyone at the manor pitied me. If not for them I might have gone mad.”
“So they taught you not everyone in the world acted cruel.”
Hands slammed against the table. Another snarl emerged. The Halfling descended into feral rage. “How wonderful, eh, my Prince? How wonderful to become a filthy slave after being promised to be treated like a true son!” A low gasp followed. “Forgive me for my impertinence, my…”
I waved away his servile words. “I asked you to tell me your tale. I understand anger is part of the tale. Go on.”
Alasdaire sighed, sipped again and frowned into his wine. “Three years later a chance for revenge presented itself to me. My Father so wanted to travel to the Eastern war. All I heard from the other servants was how eager he felt to be at the front serving under mighty Prince Linden. He fancied himself quite the potential hero commanding the war dirigible. He proposed one last hunting trip. By ill luck I prepared his horse. My hatred overwhelmed me. I located a harness tack and positioned it under his stallion’s saddle so when the saddle shifted, it pierced the horse.” Alasdaire sank back in his chair. His voice recaptured lost regret. “My illustrious Father was thrown and shattered his leg. They found the tack in the horse’s hide so they knew who committed the deed. I finally received my promised horsewhipping from the stable master. After I was horsewhipped, he locked me in a shed until I was dragged before the lord of the manor. Once he stared into my face again, my Father halted in his vengeance. Instead of severely punishing me, Father sold me to Lord Keith with the condition I must remain a slave.”
Just as I thought, so young and rash. “Alasdaire, your outlandish act could have thrust you in a grave next to your Mother!”
As he leaned forward, Alasdaire’s violet gaze acquired near-sparkling brightness. “My Prince, would you have killed your own son?”
I drew back from his power and frowned in dismissal. “No.”
Crows screeched beyond the window. I savored more wine and thought yes, Keith supplied me a challenge. I sipped and awaited further revelation. Alasdaire watched the crows streak across the sky. He sipped his wine and sighed. I tried imagining his tormented life and failed. His soul wanted revenge.
After long minutes Alasdaire slowly shook his head. “This is the worst memory of all. When my so-called Father came to the stable joking with his cronies, he never acknowledged me. Please, I am hard to miss! If he had offered me one kind word, one hint of fatherly recognition, I would have never sabotaged his saddle. No, instead he treated me like any other slave, then he dismissed me from his life.”
“I agree for him to neglect you is base.” I hated asking my next blunt question. “Do you still blame him for banishing you?”
“After my rash act? No. In truth I would have ordered me killed. In a sick fashion Father finally bestowed his own warped generosity on me. Despite the occasional mistreatment I feel far happier here.” Alasdaire suddenly rose from his chair. His face looked haunted. “Now, my Prince, I shall leave you since I feel sure you…”
Not again! I pointed and delivered my command. “By the Powers, sit back down and stop telling me what I might or might not do already. I never realized Totandians were such skilled mind readers!”
The shaken Alasdaire obediently sank into his chair. Great confusion dominated his expression but at least he listened to me. I shook my head in mock exasperation. “Clever Keith knows I appreciate a challenge, which is why he offered you to me. Tell me, my lad, are you still inclined to harm nobles?”
Alasdaire replied in soft denial. “No, my Prince, since only my Father truly wronged me on such a cruel scale.”
“Good. I’ll take your word on the ugly subject and consider it closed.” I flicked my fingers at the table. “Now finish your lunch.”
The Halfling stared at me in further astonishment and returned to eating with haste. I filled his wine glass and then sampled the red. Spirited but lacking the white’s expertise. This day called for enjoying a bowl. I rose but gestured for Alasdaire to continue eating. Time for my pipe and fine Eastern long leaf. I relaxed, lit my pipe and watched Alasdaire select cheese and bread. Next he devoured olives, the remaining beef, and another cheese selection. The lad acted like they starved him.
Alasdaire finally rested back and smiled. His fingers stroked his middle. “Thank you, my Prince. I appreciate fine food but Anders wants me slim, so he rations my food in case I decide to add gluttony to my long list of terrible sins. Ha, sometimes I want to sneak into the kitchen and eat myself into a round ball merely to spite him.”
What a bizarre situation. I set my pipe in an empty dish. I regarded the beautiful young Halfling. After hearing his dangerous tale, I should turn him away, but I trusted him. My instincts often proved correct. Remember, Keith trusted him with me so I felt secure. “Well, my beauty, if you are finished, please prepare my bath.”
“I feel honored to do such, my gentle Prince.” Alasdaire rose, leaned close, and smiled. I tilted my chin up and received a warm, talented kiss. Mmm. My mouth opened to accept Alasdaire’s lively assault. My fingers reached up and caressed his thick mane. Yes, ahh, delightful. Once he left me nearly breathless, Alasdaire drew back, stroked my cheek, and disappeared into the bathroom. Hmm, I believe I just experienced someone’s true nature. Quite a change from his sullen demeanor.
Keith knew I’d enjoy a tempestuous noble Halfling. My clever cousin knew me all too well. I relaxed, sipped the red wine, and watched the bright sun flirt with streaky clouds. It looked like a stray storm might strike. More crows dashed across my view, racing the warm wind.
Rustling drew my attention to the left. Alasdaire stood framed by the arch, clad in a black silk robe. “Your bath is ready, my Prince.”
My breath caught in sincere appreciation. The snug black robe offered me a fine glimpse of where Alasdaire’s canes trailed across his firm chest. A narrow silver necklet sat low on his neck. Was the piece something inherited from his mother? The thin band looked uncomfortably snug against his dark skin. “Thank you, young lord.”
Alasdaire’s voice emerged in a low, barely controlled tone. “Do not mock me, my Prince!”
Ah, a return to the tiresome self-pity. “What did I say wrong? I am not mocking you since your noble canes mark you as a ruling Totandian. You are the grandson of a Duke and the son of a noble.”
“I will not….” To my amazement Alasdaire stalked forward toward the suite’s door. What now? I scrambled from my seat, grabbed his arm and kissed his warm sweetness. The prickly Halfling instantly relaxed and let me savor his lips.
I finally drew back and shook my head in amusement. “I see I shall enjoy quite a lively vacation. I’ll supposedly insult you then need to catch you before you run off in a snit. Why can’t you believe me, you young porcupine? I do not mock you, but if such words offend you, I shall not use them.”
A low sigh escaped Alasdaire’s lips. He tucked his head under my chin in an intriguing gesture. His breath hit my neck. “My Prince, forgive me, but I have endured too many nobles mocking me for my heritage. You are right, my Prince, inside I feel noble but due to my rash actions I cannot be free.”
“What if you escaped and fled to another country? I know rebellious Arta welcomes all races.”
He leaned back and stared up at me. A twisted smile marred Alasdaire’s face. “My Prince, surely you know about a Torvine Catch? I believe your grandfather invented the clever punishment.”
I gasped in acknowledgement. “But a Torvine Catch is outlawed unless….” My insipid sentence died away. By the Powers, how dreadful. Now I understood the necklet’s dangerous purpose.
This time a mocking little smile answered my thoughtful silence. “Precisely, my Prince.”
“This is wrong. You did not kill anyone, plus you acted from youthful impetuousness, not deadly premeditation.” My frown felt ancient. “The Catch is meant only for the most heinous crimes.”
A slow headshake punctuated his reply. “It matters not, my Prince; the device captures me all the same. It tracks me as efficiently as a hunter. If I wander beyond the estate’s inner boundaries, the collar releases the poison needles. What a lovely contraption. Instant death.” His fingers tapped the now ugly to my sight silver band. “The King himself granted my caring Father permission to allow a licensed Catcher to bind me to Lord Keith’s property.”
How did I not hear of such a special event? Ah, of course, years ago I was already at the front, deep in the Eastern battle. I closely monitored the use of the Catch; if I ignored the situation, my dreadful brother would use the cruel device far more than warranted. I found the practice abhorrent. Leave it to my deranged ancestors to decide to place the collar on the neck. After all, one would risk chopping off a hand or foot to escape death. Damn Edward for granting such a harsh punishment.
I tried imagining being trapped in the same small area for long years and shuddered in distaste. No wonder Alasdaire felt destroyed. “I feel glad my cousin owns generous acreage.”
Alasdaire’s fingers kept stroking the silver. “I agree, my Prince. At least I walk freely into the meadows and forest but not into the hills. I know when I swerve too close to my boundaries since the wretched thing tightens like a noose. I so wish to walk the hills and mountains. The rugged landscape calls to my blood, but I must deny the urge.”
Curiosity prompted me. “How old are you?”
My mind reeled in distaste. “Wait, when did Keith place you into service?”
“Lord Keith is a decent man. He waited until I was eighteen before he introduced me to the concept of being a companion. When I first arrived he knew I was not ready for intimacy. I worked in other capacities until he decided to promote me into the house ranks. He acted quite gentle with me. Now that he is married he only visits me on occasion.”
“My cousin is a good man although I need to speak to him about the beatings you… wait, if he beds you then surely he sees your scars?”
Alasdaire simply stared at me. His intense gaze registered so many emotions he nearly defeated my reason. I sighed and shook my head. “Well, we have plenty of time to talk further. Now I need my bath.”
“Please, my Prince, do not defend me to him. I do not want to….”
“I want to and there’s an end to it.”
A soft sigh answered me, and then fingers fussed with my vest. “As you wish. Now let me undress you, my Prince.”
Why not? I allowed Alasdaire to banish my clothing, neatly placing my vest on the chair. His fingers worked at my shirt buttons and a startled gasp broke from him. Fingertips touched my flesh. “You display the Serpent scales!”
“Are you surprised?”
He shrugged but I felt tension dance through his body. “You are the Prince so no, I should not feel surprised. Long ago the Order of the Serpent destroyed us and of course your royal house is descended from the Order.”
I hated my question but needed to ask it. So far this troubled male owned numerous reasons to harm me. “Do you feel the need to injure me?”
A piercing stare met my inquiry; then gentle lips leaned up and captured mine. “No, my Prince, since you offer me kindness and respect. Also you are not my Father.” Another kiss led to a long, sweet interlude. We embraced, cane to scales, hands caressing hair. Alasdaire drew back and peeled off my trousers. His fingers wandered down my stomach. “You are an impressive man, my Prince.”
“Thank you, beauty. Wait, I wish to see you.”
Alasdaire smiled in sultry pleasure and dropped his silken robe. Yes, seeing his canes in full majesty looked wonderful. The delicate swirls began at Alasdaire’s left temple, fluttered down his cheek to his chin before swirling around his neck and curling in serpentine abandon across his torso and down his left leg. His toned body looked more muscular than I expected, broader across his waist and chest. Even his burnished skin appeared magically enhanced. I stroked his shoulder and smiled in appreciation. His skin felt soft, almost satiny to the touch. “How could anyone mock you?”
“Because they don’t see what you do, dear Prince. They see a victim. You do not.” Alasdaire suddenly licked my jaw, descending down, his tongue rapidly defining my chest scales. He dropped to his knees and licked my cock.
My fingers gently tugged on his wavy mane. “Alasdaire, no, there is no need for you to….”
The lovely half Elf’s words breathed against my eager flesh. “I want this honor, my Prince.”
Why deny the pleasure?
I succumbed to his warm talent.