Chapter 1 Part 1 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book 1
Whithorse Estate, Whithorse Province
Ammaday, the 5th Day of Spring's Beginning, 990 KY
In the stable yards of Whithorse Estate, two lanterns burned. They shone up at their owners, who sat on a straw bale against a brick wall. The low light transformed the rangy, blue-eyed one's fair hair into a burnished bronze, and turned the shorter, stockier one's eyes near-black. Both wore battered old tweed caps, and coats just heavy enough for the early spring night. The shorter one held a flask of wuisc, full at the start of the evening, and as its level dropped, they listed into one another more and more.
"Say, d'you plan on drinking that whole thing yourself?" said the tall one.
The shorter one passed the flask over. "Be careful, Tem, you're not used to this stuff."
"And you are?" said Temmin. "If I'm going to the Keep, I have to learn to drink." He took a choking swallow, and pulled a face. "Where did you get this stuff? Besides, it's our last night to do this sort of thing. Any sort of thing." Temmin sighed and bumped his head against the bricks. "Why do I have to go, Alvy? Why can't I stay here in Whithorse? Breed horses for the family or something?"
"Don't gulp it, sip it," said Alvo. "The King needs just so many horses, and you're his only son."
"Sedra should be the Heir. She's smarter, and she's the oldest."
Alvo took the flask back, sipped, and snorted. "A woman will rule when Nerr gets the Heir. For that matter," he added, "this wuisc will be drinkable when Nerr gets the Heir. I told you I couldn't get the good stuff. Crokker would've given you some if you'd just asked."
"And let Mama find out? I don't think so." Temmin sat up straighter. "Here's a thought. You go to the Keep and be the Heir and I'll take your job."
"You could pass for a groom in that cap, but somehow I don't think His Majesty would mistake me for you."
"And why won't he let me take you with me?" said Temmin. "You're my best friend, and the best groom I know. What will I do without you? What will Jebby do without you?"
"They have grooms at the Keep who'll keep your horse in trim. You spoil him, y'know."
"Jebby deserves all the sugar lumps in the world, if I could get them away from Elly. She shouldn't eat 'em all, anyway. T'ain't fair to the horses, and gives her the headache. Sisters--between her and Sedra..."
They fell silent as the sky faded from deep indigo to black. "Turning eighteen is awful," Temmin resumed. "They make you do things you don't want to do, like study, and have tea with old baronesses that smell like heliotrope soap."
Alvo took his friend's hand. "I don't want you to go, either, but you gotta." He looked down on their joined hands, both short-nailed and tan from the sun, his own rougher and the nails much dirtier. "I need to tell you something." He pressed his lips together and licked them. "I love you."
Temmin gave his friend a bright, unsteady smile. "I love you too, Alvy." He resumed staring into a wobbly middle distance.
"No, I mean I love you--"
"Ssh!" Temmin blared. "I hear someone!" He rose to his feet, listening. Floating from the hedge alley came the sounds of a young woman's light laughter, ending in a soft groan.
Alvo took up a lantern, rising more surefooted. "You don't know who's there!"
"That's the point!" Temmin lurched on tiptoe toward the alley and barged through a gap in the hedge, Alvo on his heels.
Two young lovers appeared in the lamplight. A footman pressed a maid up against the hedge, his arousal poking from his unbuttoned fly; her breast shone white and rose against the dark green of her open bodice. The footman jumped back, fumbling with his trousers. "Who would you two be--my Gran's, judging by the livery," said Temmin, tipping on his heels as he stared. The footman hid his face in his coat, and ran down the alley toward Meadow House, the smaller of the two great houses now barely visible against the night sky. "Hey! Did you see who that was?" he said to Alvo, who shook his head.
Temmin turned toward the girl. She hid halfway in the hedge and tried to cover her breasts, but her fingers shook too much to do up the fastenings. "It's all right--no, let me see," said Temmin, staying her hand. "Alvy, hold the lantern. I haven't ever seen a woman undressed. You're very pretty. What's your name?"
"Temmin, leave her alone," coaxed Alvo. "Let's go back, we haven't finished the flask." He tugged at the Prince's sleeve, but obediently held up the lantern.
Temmin shook him off. "So you serve the Dowager Duchess at Meadow House?" he said to the girl. "What's your name?"
"Mattisanis Dunley, Your Highness, but everyone calls me Mattie," said the girl. "Please, sir, I need my job. Please don't tell Mr Crokker!"
"Why would I tell the butler one of the maids has pretty tits? Alvy, how come none of the maids at the Great House have pretty tits?"
"Tem, come on!" said Alvo.
"No, it's true! All the maids at the Great House are old women--at least 35 if they're a day--and they're as homely as ever a woman was." Temmin's hand still rested over hers, and his thoughtless thumb stroked the bare skin above her breast. "You really are very pretty. Mattie, is it? Was that your sweetheart? Not a very amiable fellow, if you ask me."
"Please, sir! Don't tell Mr Crokker!" she said. Tears dampened her heart-shaped face, and Temmin fuzzily followed one off the point of her chin, past her collarbone, and down between her breasts.
"Now, there, don't cry!" said Temmin, patting her cheek in drunken concern. "Pretty girls shouldn't cry. If he's really your sweetheart, he'll come back." He handed her a handkerchief. Mattie wiped her eyes, but when she moved to close her bodice, Temmin stopped her again. "I'm not done looking, and you obviously don't mind or you wouldn't have been out here with that footman. In fact, I should really like to touch them. May I touch them? You seemed to like it."
"Tem!" hissed Alvo. "You're drunk!"
"Pagg's own balls! Why would I be drunk just to want to touch a pretty girl's tits! Don't you want to?"
"Just don't tell Mr Crokker, sir, please don't tell, I need my job, you can touch all you like, just please don't!" Mattie pleaded. She opened her bodice further.
"See?" said Temmin. "I told you she liked it! Now," he said to Mattie, "do stop crying, and stop asking me not to tell Crokker, I'm going to do no such thing!" He stumbled, steadying himself on her breasts. "Oh, that's so nice! I've always wanted to feel one. Alvy, you sure you don't want to have a go? She has two of 'em, and she doesn't mind, do you?"
"No, I don't want to have a go, I want to get out of here and leave her alone!" said Alvo.
"Then go," said Temmin. "But leave the lantern." Alvo stomped away, leaving the lantern on the ground; it lit one side of Mattie's face and threw the rest into shadow.
Temmin pressed closer; she turned her face away, but he brushed it back toward the light. "Does your sweetheart kiss you? D'you like that? Never kissed a girl a-tall--don't tell anyone. May I have a kiss? Just one." She nodded, tucking her chin into her neck.
He kissed her, sloppy, inexpert and fumbling; she alternately squirmed and turned rigid, until Temmin broke it off. "Don't you like this?" he asked. "You said you did."
His eyes grew wide, his stomach lurched, and he stumbled back. "Alvy?" he called. "Dammit! Not now! Alvy!" Alvo ran back, just in time for Temmin to drop to his knees and vomit.