It was full dark when I reached the castle, and I hoped to reach my quarters without any further interruption. But I found Prince Alexi outside my door.
His youthful face was contorted with pain, and even in the feeble light from the small lamp in his hand, I could see he’d been weeping.
“What is it?” I asked. I unlocked the door, and putting my arm around him, I drew him into my parlor.
The fire had been started by my devoted slave, Severin, and the candles on the table had been lighted as well. I took the lamp from Alexi’s hand and set it on the sideboard. He looked utterly lost.
“Come, sit down, talk to me,” I said.
“Eva, this is unspeakable,” he said, shaking his head. He drew a stiff parchment letter out of his velvet doublet. “The Queen… ” and then he broke off, unable to continue.
At once, I opened the letter and read it.
It had been posted from a distant city in the south seas, and was addressed to the Grand Duke Andre, uncle of Queen Eleanor. The writing was clear and official.
“It is our sad duty to inform you that your sovereign, Queen Eleanor, and her son, the Crown Prince, are indeed dead, and the search for the wreckage of their vessel has been called off, as their bodies have washed up on our shores, along with several other bodies from the unfortunate vessel and all hope is lost…”
The letter went on and on as to the identification of the bodies and that of others, and there was a brief description of the storm in which the ship had been lost. Two early survivors of the disaster, Princess Lynette and Prince Jeremy, who’d been traveling with the Queen, were on the way back to the kingdom now.
Alexi sat with his face in his hands, weeping softly, his auburn hair hanging down over his eyes.
I pondered what I’d always known of him, how he’d been the Queen’s favorite slave for so many years, and how he’d somehow displeased her in the end. This was not the time to ask for that story.
“Who else knows about this” I asked.
“They all know—André, William, and Stefan. They’ve sent me to you. None of them is fit to take the reins of this kingdom. None of them is willing! As soon as the slaves find out there will be panic. You don’t know how many dread the day they’ll be sent home free to their families.”
“Yes, I do,” I said softly.
I looked up. The Grand Duke André was standing in the open door. He was not an old man, though he was the Queen’s uncle, and his hair was still jet black for the most part and his rectangular face was still handsome.
“Lady Eva, what are we to do?” he asked. His voice was ragged with emotion.
I rose at once and invited him to take a chair between mine and that of Alexi. And quietly I went to my desk near the window.
There was a lighted candle there as it was often my habit to read or write late into the night, and Severin had set out my ink and quill pens and parchment.
I unlocked a small gold casket that sat on the desk, and I removed from it the sealed letter which Queen Eleanor had given me on that last day before her departure.
I came back to the table and sat down without asking the bereaved duke’s permission. He didn’t care. He was comforting prince Alexi.
“It is the end of our world,” said the duke softly now as he looked at me. He did not resemble the Queen, but he had the same black eyes, which often appeared as cold as her eyes, though they did not now. His heavily lined face was wet from his tears.
“I fear you’re right,” Prince Alexi answered. And he took the duke’s right hand in his and clasped it. “Bellavalten cannot survive without our gracious Eleanor.”
I looked down at the letter in my hand. It was addressed in bold and beautiful script to me with the notation “In the Event of my death.”
I showed it to both gentlemen. The grand duke had never learned to read or write, but Prince Alexi was well educated. After they had taken notice, I broke the seal and tore open the letter.
My beloved Eva,
You have been a great consolation to me since your arrival for you have a passion for the realm which I myself have lost. I am well aware that our custom of pleasure slavery is now the vital heart of the kingdom. The visitors whose gold fills our coffers daily come here to see and live amid the spectacle of our well-trained and beautiful slaves. Indeed, many of our finest townsmen, scholars, scribes, craftsmen, and weavers might desert us if deprived of their naked slaves. Our soldiers would likely desert, and even the lowliest of our common people might wander beyond our borders if the old customs which distinguish our realm from all others were abandoned. Even my own great wealth would not sustain the kingdom in such a decline. Therefore, let us pray that I will return from this journey with a new sense of purpose and regard for those dependent on me.
But should I not return, should some accident befall me and my son during our trip, it is my wish that you present this letter, carefully written in my own hand, to my beloved uncle and cousins.
It is my wish that our ways not perish, and that before they abandon Bellavalten to her ever voracious allies and neighbors, they approach King Laurent and Queen Beauty with an offer of the crown and the scepter. If King Laurent and Queen Beauty will honor the custom of pleasure slavery as I have established it, if they will preserve my realm according to those precepts and customs which have made it famous throughout the world and even to the shores of unknown lands, I bequeath to them all my wealth, my property, my castle and my manor houses, my lands, and my entire kingdom.
Eva, I solemnly charge you to approach King Laurent and Queen Beauty yourself, and implore them to take the reins of Bellavalten. And I solemnly charge all my family and all my Court to prevail upon them to accept full authority and to make them welcome.
Only a monarch who has known the wisdom and pleasure of naked erotic servitude in Bellavalten can know the full worth of the laws of our realm. In Laurent and Beauty we have two such monarchs. And it is my hope that they will take the kingdom in hand for the benefit of all who live in it and more-that they may have a fresh view for its continuing prosperity. I am convinced that they will not accept this inheritance if they have no such vision. They are too honorable for that, and too rich to be tempted by wealth alone. On the contrary, it is my belief that Laurent and Beauty have together the force to set a future course for Bellavalten.
If this is not to be, then I leave it to my heirs to disburse the lands and wealth of Bellavalten for their own benefit. All slaves must be freed at once and sent away with appropriate rewards. And Bellavalten shall fade from history as mysteriously perhaps as it long ago entered the written record.
I laid the letter down on the table.
There followed on a second page a long list of plainly small bequests to be made in the event of the Queen’s death, but that could all be read later.
And there was her unmistakable signature and her seal.
I looked up into the eyes of Prince Alexi, and then at the grand duke. “You must go to them,” said Alexi. “This is our only hope. Eva, you must go, and I will go with you! I remember Laurent well. I remember Beauty!”
“Do you think they could be persuaded?” asked the grand duke. “King Laurent is famous for his conquests on land and sea. Why, he’s a tireless soldier. Half the world is afraid of him, and half the world is in love with him. Frankly, he made me shiver even when he was a… a naked… a slave.”
“Yes, but the great king is retired now,” I said, “weary of war, as all know, having given over his crown to his son!”
“Ah, yes…” The duke sighed. “There is hope.”
“And I’ve seen King Laurent once or twice in the last ten years,” said Alexi eagerly. “Admittedly it was brief, and at a tiresome Court affair in this or that place. We talked for only a few moments. But I know how well he and his queen remember their service here. At least I know how he remembers it. There was something unspoken between us. I wager they’ve never lied to themselves about how it was.” He was becoming ever more hopeful.
“Call Lady Elvera,” said the grand duke. “She too must go. She was Laurent’s mistress. He’ll listen to her. And Captain Gordon, he too must go.” Lady Elvera. She was a cold one, very severe, who punished her slaves through aloofness and calculated indifference. And Laurent had served her for two full years before rebelling and having himself exiled to the village.
“What if the King remembers Lady Elvera with resentment?” I asked. Alexi had to stop himself from laughing out loud.
“He adored her,” he said. “He became bored, that’s all. Trust me.” He leaned forward as if to confide. “He’s wined and dined her since at his Court. And laughed about the past. That was about ten years ago. But Eva, I’m surprised at you. You of all people should know the enduring bond that exists between a true mistress and a true slave.”
I put up my hand for silence.
“Very well. I ask that you both go to Lady Elvera, and send word to Tristan and summon the Captain of the Guard. But you must, all of you, keep this information from everyone else. No one must know of this calamity until we have King Laurent and Queen Beauty’s decision.”
“Agreed,’ said the Grand Duke. “The slaves mustn’t hear a word of this, or the people either.”
”And no one here at Court must know,” I said. ”And, Your Excellency, kindly wake your secretaries. We will need appropriate letters and documents for safe travel.”
”Ah, I didn’t even think of it,” said the Duke. “Eva, you think of everything.”
I thought to myself, I know, but I didn’t reply.
As soon as they had left me, I went into the bedchamber to find that my slave, Severin, had obviously been listening at the door. I slapped him hard for his impertinence. But he’d been weeping and he scarcely cared.
“Lady Eva,’ he said, kneeling before me with his arms around my skirts, “I can’t be sent home. I can’t. I’d rather die.”
“Oh, do be quiet,” I said. “I haven’t time to whip you now. Pack my trunks at once, and go to the master of the common wardrobe and obtain clothes for yourself for the journey. You can’t very well travel naked. Now hurry!”
“Clothes!” he fussed. “I have to wear clothes?” He was such a pretty boy, with golden ringlets and sweet gray eyes. But this was the limit. I dragged him to the nearby chair, sat down, and threw him over my knee and spanked him hard until I was tired of it. ”And this is just a taste,” I said. “When we’re packed and ready, I intend to whip you so soundly you’ll be sore for the entire journey, and in any inn where we stop, I’ll whip you again and likely invite any inn keeper along the way to share the pleasure of same. As for your cock, I’ll starve it for the entire journey. Now go!”