Setting: Palace Interior, Later that Same Spring

I was dreaming about the new house. It was very disappointing to wake up and realise that it still doesn’t exist.

After a whole day of writing contract terms, my brain is exhausted. I’m royally sick of severability and force majeure. If there’s an earthquake, it’s not our fault. If we break the law in one bit, the rest still applies. What kind of people wouldn’t understand that?

Oh yeah. Brides.

Back to the contract mines!

***

So. Given that I’ve been writing all day, I figure I may as well share a couple more scenes from my manuscript. After opening up that file yesterday, I keep flicking back to it to read more and more… and I realise how much I miss walking around in that world. It occupied an enormous chunk of my life at one time, and now it’s a bit like flicking back through photos of old friends.

Old friends that, you know, I tortured horribly for years and years. But it was all for the sake of a good story. Honest….

***

The dignity of the Emperor’s quiet office seemed to have no effect on the young Crown Prince. AJ had flipped his chair around and was leaning forward across the back two legs. “Do I get any say?”

“Of course,” Aarik replied, sitting back on the front edge of his desk and facing his son. “Max and your new man, Parker, will present you with the best candidates, and you can take your pick. Don’t do that to the chair.”

“Can I pick more than one?” AJ grinned, readjusting his chair to a more upright position.

“If you want,” Aarik didn’t sound convinced. “But it’s more usual to take one wife at a time – especially at the start. That way you have a legal Prima Uxor if you happen to die without an heir.”

“So if I die without an heir: she gets the estate?”

“No, as it stands at the moment, I would retain the estate, and take over the financial management of your wives’ trust, as well as your household. But if we die at the same time, or I die before you and you still don’t have an heir, then the household passes down to your brother John (and so on down the line). The reason why you need a Prima Uxor is because your estate would no longer have a Kiz to manage your wives’ affairs, and the day-to-day management of the Women’s Quarters would pass to your first wife.”

AJ screwed up his face. “I’m confused.”

“One wife at a time,” Aarik sighed. “It makes life a lot easier. Besides which, you can only take on as many wives as you can afford. That’s the law.”

“How many can I afford?” the boy grinned again.

“It’s up to you to manage your own finances from now on, AJ. I’ve arranged for you to have a meeting with Max and Parker tomorrow, to go through the books of your new estate and set a budget for your household.”

“But it’s Saturday tomorrow,” he whined. “I was gonna go racing with Michael!”

“Do you want a house or not?”

AJ just rolled his eyes.

“Then you will need to take responsibility for it,” Aarik continued.

“Does that mean that I can have my maid back?” he was trying his luck.

Aarik gave a dry laugh. “Ha ha… No.”

The prince persisted as though he’d struck on an idea. “But if it’s my house, then I can have whatever staff I want – right?”

The Emperor shook his head. “Don’t make me regret this, AJ. The choices you make have huge consequences for the entire empire… You’ve got the world at your feet. But at the moment, the only things you seem to want are the things that you can’t have.” Aarik looked exasperated.

“What if I want to marry my maid?” he was being obstinate.

“You don’t want to marry her,” Aarik replied calmly.

AJ shrugged. “No, you’re right: I don’t want to marry her.”

“Then you have no right to toy with her.” Aarik pressed his fingers into his eye-sockets with a pained expression. “These rules aren’t arbitrary,” he continued. “We don’t say these things to you just so that we can spoil your fun. If you’ve got no intention of fulfilling your side of the transaction then you have no right to ask a woman to give herself to you. It’s not just unfair on her; it’s illegal.”

“She didn’t seem to mind,” the boy sniffed.

“I can’t answer as to the foolish hopes and dreams of a servant girl. Just because she doesn’t know better, that doesn’t give you the right to take advantage of that. You know it’s wrong.”

AJ just sniffed again and stared out the window.

“You’re going to be able to share your life with any number of beautiful women. You’ve got the sort of opportunities that most men only dream of… Ingratitude is unbecoming of a young man in your position.”

“Well I just don’t see why I should be grateful for something that I have to pay for!”

“Where would we be if the next in line to the throne was born on the wrong side of the bed to another man’s wife?”

“Her husband’s dead. He was like 80 or something.”

“I don’t care! Do you have any idea how much power that would put into the hands of that girl’s family?”

“So instead I encourage some girl’s parents to sell off their daughter in exchange for big houses and fancy titles? I don’t see that that’s the sort of moral fiber we should be trying to breed into the empire!”

“Don’t even try to take the moral high ground on this one, kid!” Aarik’s volume rose with his frustration. “Your decisions had a lot less to do with social justice and a lot more to do with boredom and lack of self-control!”

AJ just kept looking out the window and didn’t respond.

“We’re going to make some rules,” Aarik continued, a little more reasonably. “You’re going to pass a urine test every week for the next year – and any time after that such as I deem necessary. And any girl who turns up, who is not your wife, and yet can claim paternity of her child against you: and I will be naming John in your stead.”

The boy’s eyes widened and he turned back to his father. “You’re fucking kidding me!”

Aarik let out an impatient breath. “I’m not,” he replied firmly. “This is serious, AJ. You need to learn how to control yourself. If I can’t trust you with something so basic then how am I supposed to trust you with an entire nation?”

“So you’d give it to that little fag instead?”

“He’s your brother.”

“He’s a fucking cabbage!… It’s not fair.”

“It’s perfectly fair.” The Emperor still sounded calm. “You are a prince. You need to show me that you can behave with dignity… We grant land and titles because we can – because it pleases us and our people if we show power and generosity. If you don’t want a wife, then you don’t have to follow these traditions – but there are no other options for you when it comes to women.”

The boy shrugged again. “Just because they want me, I don’t think that it should be my job to take care of them. I just don’t see what’s so great about being ‘Big Daddy’ to a bunch of brainless whores.”

Aarik gave his son a dark look, followed by a quick back-hand across the face. The young prince was nearly knocked off his chair, and couldn’t hide his shock. His eyes watered from the sudden sting. Aarik raised and index finger to the boy’s now-bloodied nose. “You will not speak of your mother in such a way ever again,” his voice was cold.

AJ glared back at him, touching his face and wiping the blood off his lips.

“This isn’t a game, AJ,” the Emperor continued. “You have certain obligations to fulfill.”

“I don’t have to like it though,” the boy shot back.

“No, you don’t have to like it. But you still have to obey.”

***

The Emperor’s children had been dressed in their best (a matter of either great delight or great dismay, depending on the child) and given their dinner at 6pm sharp. They got a short stay at AJ’s party before the inevitable bath and bed. The girls tended to relish the chance to wear miniaturized versions of their mothers’ dresses – all color-themed to match – whilst the boys tended to fidget and fight and quickly scuff the knees of their little suits.

Max knew how much the Emperor enjoyed these family occasions. His Excellency rarely got an opportunity to spend a decent length of time with his children, and so it was a pleasure to see him sitting beneath the portraits at the head of the room, surrounded by small faces, with two little girls in his lap, keeping them all enthralled as he explained the story behind the Silent Revolution. He kept it tastefully edited for a young audience, but even the nannies who skirted the group, with infants held tight on their hips, seemed completely transfixed by his tale.

Like all family parties, the Moonlight Ballroom had split into clusters very early on. The twinkling, moving lights overhead just exaggerated the fact that the 300-strong crowd resembled a sea of stars, drawing themselves into tight galaxies around the room. Across one side of the dance-floor, AJ’s school friends did their best to impress the eldest of his sisters, and AJ’s eldest brothers did their best to impress AJ’s friends. The girls only rolled their eyes. The boys’ parents mingled in groups, occasionally dancing, but mostly making awkward small-talk and positioning themselves in places where they were likely to catch a passing tray of exquisite canapés. The formal dinner would be next door, in the banquet hall, but it wouldn’t come until after the little ones had been put to bed. Their other, younger children played raucously with the Emperor’s brood. Many of the Emperor’s wives sat, played or danced with their own children, or simply chatted together judgmentally like the cool girls in a high school cafeteria. The eldest of AJ’s friends’ sisters would sidle up and try to join this group – jockeying for a position amongst the unspoken category of ‘pretty girls’. Some of the wives flattered them and offered compliments on hairstyles and fashions – often not entirely altruistically. Most of the wives just thought that they were annoying little girls. The wives already knew that they were at the top of the heap in this hierarchy, and they weren’t about to dilute their position by accepting all-comers.

As the hour approached 7:15, Max dispatched the head nurse of the Children’s Wing (a very no-nonsense lady named Lydia) to start rounding up the younger children from the far end of the room, while he headed towards the Emperor to collect the last of the kids. On his way, one of the fathers plucked Max’s white sleeve as he passed by.

“I’d like to introduce his Excellency to my daughter, Annette,” the man said, physically placing the teenage girl in Max’s path with an arm across her back and a hand tight on each shoulder. “Would that be possible?” The girl gave a momentary, mortified smile to Max, and looked down, pushing her hair back behind her ear in a nervous gesture.

Max made an instant mental assessment: pretty, but too big in the hips and already showing an unnatural tightness of brow that was a dead giveaway of cosmetic surgery – and still far too young. She looked to be about fourteen.

“His Excellency has indicated that this is really more of the Crown Prince’s night than his own,” Max demurred. “He is merely here as a private citizen and proud father.”

“The Crown Prince, then,” the man suggested, giving his daughter a not entirely affectionate squeeze.

“The Prince is… not looking at this time,” Max replied politely, then leaned in a little closer to murmur in the man’s ear. “Give your daughter a few more years, and then you’re welcome to seek a nomination. The minimum age is eighteen.”

“There’s no harm in introducing them though, huh?” the man insisted.

“Official channels are always best,” Max continued softly. “It helps to ensure that the girl’s position is clearly defined. You wouldn’t want people to start talking about your daughter, would you? Even unfairly?… ” He gave the man a more pointed look and an ingratiating smile. “You understand.”

The man looked a little put-out, but tried to recover himself. “It’s ridiculous… having an age limit.”

“One must start somewhere,” Max smiled again, far too politely. “If you’ll excuse me.” He nodded at the gentleman and carried on his way.

When he reached the top table, he made his excuses to the Emperor and insisted that the young ones were due for bed. There were a few little groans.

“What was that about?” Aarik smirked softly, using his eyes to briefly indicate to the father who’d accosted Max.

“I believe that Mr. Hynd does not want to have to pay to feed his daughter for another four years,” Max smirked back.

“Oh,” Aarik replied, with his best straight-face. “What a shame.”

Max tried to hide his smile.

“Anyway,” the Emperor said, trying to let his daughters down off his lap. “You heard the man. Bed time.”

One of the girls got down whilst the other stuck out her lip and clung to her father with an insistent “no!”, burying her face in his jacket. Aarik stood up and had to gently pry her loose, handing her to one of the nannies with a kiss on the forehead. “I’m sorry, my love. I will see you again soon.” He gave the girl’s belly a little tickle, hoping to get a giggle.

“When?” she was being stubborn, and trying her hardest not to laugh.

“Next week.” He was calm but firm.

“Noooooo….” the little girl continued, trying to squirm out of the nanny’s arms and clutch at her father. She was clearly tired.

“Bed,” the Emperor insisted in a tone that tolerated no arguments.

“Say ‘goodnight’ to your father,” the nanny suggested, trying to distract the girl with a happier voice.

“Goodnight,” the toddler finally acquiesced, sticking out her lip again.

“Kiss?” Aarik asked, offering his cheek to the little girl.

“Mwah!” she added a sound effect to her goodnight kiss.

“Mwah!” he replied, doing the same. “Goodnight.”

The children all waved as they were led away, and the Emperor waved back.

Max’s had made room so that the visiting children could also spend the night. Thanks to Aarik’s very prodigious grandfather, the Children’s Wing was more than large enough to accommodate another eighty children as well as their staff, and Max understood what an inconvenience it was for visitors to travel out to the palace at night with their children. They always accommodated overnight guests with the height of generosity.

As Max opened the ballroom doors and let the nannies and children pass by with their guard escort, the music flooded out against the white columns of the wide West Hall. Max turned to see the group safely on their way, but he was surprised to catch sight of a little cluster of figures beneath a vaulted arch further down the hall. In fact, the nannies themselves were a little surprised too, and paused, unsure whether they should proceed any further. The children chattered and started to run off along the gallery, apparently blind to any problem.

Two of AJ’s bodyguards stood in the centre of the carpet, back to back. Between them, and to one side, the birthday boy leaned hard over Wife Thirty-Three, the pretty, blonde Melanie, whom he had pinned against the green, draped wall. Their bodies were close enough to be touching from knees to shoulders, and AJ appeared to be saying something into her ear, because she was shaking her head with a fearful expression. AJ’s hand caressed the side of her waist, despite her apparent protest.

Max was having none of it. Ignoring the bodyguard detail he marched down the hall, outpacing the gaggle of women, and grabbed the oblivious AJ by the ear.

“Ow! What the hell do you think you’re…” AJ yelled.

Max cut him off with a quick order to the trembling girl. “Go to bed.” He waved his head in the direction of the other women, and Melanie took off with an audible sob. Two of the older ladies quickly enveloped her into the group of servants with concerned arms, and got between her and the prince – shooting worried looks back over their shoulders as they walked away.

Max released AJ with an angry jerk back against the wall.

“What do you think you’re playing at, huh?!?” the prince exploded.

“You know better than that, AJ!” Max barked back. “Show some respect.”

“We didn’t do anything! It was just a bit of fun!”

“This isn’t the sort of fun you can afford to have, my boy,” Max warned. “Whatever happened to honoring thy father and thy mother? How would you feel if one of your young friends decided to have that kind of fun with one of your wives?”

AJ simpered. “That depends on whether he’d let me watch…”

Max grabbed the boy’s arm and slammed him hard against the wall.

“Hey, I’m a man now!” AJ blurted. “You’re not allowed to touch me like that!” He looked at his bodyguards for support, but they both stood facing away from him as though they heard and saw nothing.

“Correction,” Max hissed up into his face, still holding the boy’s arm in a pinscher-like grip. “You were born at 7:48 at night. Which means that I’ve still got…” he checked his watch, “twenty-six minutes in which I can legally thrash you.”

AJ was lanky, but he had nearly eight inches on Max and tried his best to push the old man off. However, the Kiz was a great deal stronger than his size would suggest. After a short struggle in which Max held him fast, AJ just stopped and tried to look unimpressed. “We were just talking! Shit, Max, don’t get your panties in a bunch!”

“Do you want me to tell your father about this?” Max continued.

AJ ran his tongue across the split inside his lip, stuck out his jaw and looked away – pretending that he didn’t care.

“You’ve got a lot of potential here, AJ. But you’ve got not right to be messing up your nation’s future just because you can’t keep your hands to yourself! Now show some respect to your father, go back into that ballroom, and try to behave like the man you claim to be. You want to be a grown-up: act like one!” Max released his grip, hoping that he’d been understood.

AJ just wiped his still-swollen nose. “Fuck you, Max.”

***

Melanie was called away just before the women assembled for Saturday Service. There was no fuss and no inkling that it was anything out of the ordinary. Like so many other days, the girls just assumed that Aarik had simply asked for her at the last minute. It happened from time to time. He was allowed to break all the house rules about church attendance.

She didn’t come back for lunch. They thought that maybe she had gone off somewhere with Aarik.

When Lily and Michelle were called to dinner, there were a few suspicious looks passed between some of the wives – especially the older ones. If Aarik was home and looking for company, then where had Melanie been all day?

As they passed back through the main lounge after dinner, Darbi thought that she’d quietly try the door to Melanie’s room, in order to see if something was amiss. However, as she tried to cover her maneuver by nonchalantly leaning against the door, she found the big, gold doorknob didn’t turn.

Wife Number Two, Ruth, had spotted her and crossed the room with a striding gait. “It’s locked, isn’t it?” she interrogated, a little too loudly.

“Um,” Darbi squirmed, not wanting the sudden attention. “Yeah.”

Max had materialized on the far side of the room, watching the ladies with an authoritative frown. Everything about his posture warned them to back off.

However, Ruth was having none of it. “This isn’t the way it’s done, Max,” she called out. “She had plenty of time left. You owe it to all of us to tell us ‘when’ and ‘why’.”

The discussion had already attracted a lot of attention from the other girls.

“Yeah, ‘why’?” Denise chipped in. “What had she done?”

“She was not suitable for a position in the palace,” Max replied calmly and coldly. “Regrettably, she has had to leave the Emperor’s household and be reassigned.”

“Yeah, but what had she DONE?” Denise insisted. “I mean, you can’t just say that she’s not suitable! If we don’t know what she did, then we don’t know what not to do! We didn’t even get to say goodbye!”

Max’s expression remained like concrete.

“You can’t just suddenly start sending us away for no reason!” Denise’s voice was starting to get shrill. She was clearly keen on starting an argument, but a lot of the other girls looked more scared than angry.

“There are protocols in place for this, Max,” Ruth continued in a much more bossy tone.

“The protocols have changed,” he replied, almost sounding bored by the whole conversation.

Most of the women understood instantly what that meant. “We’re not all like Marcia!” Ruth retorted.

Max was impassive. “Thirty-Three could not stick to the rules, and that’s why she’s gone. It is as simple as that. There is to be no more discussion on the matter.”

Darbi looked like she might be nauseous. “So we don’t even get a warning anymore?”

Max turned his head slightly and fixed her with a stony gaze. “What did I just say?”

Darbi looked down, fearfully. “Sorry, Max.”

He turned back to address the whole group. “There will be games in the music room until eleven, and then bed. Remember we’ve got Sunday Service in the morning.”

Most of the wives looked unenthusiastic – even a little ill. There were a lot of worried and sad expressions passed between neighbors.

Max crossed the room and took Darbi firmly by the upper arm. “And you’re going to bed now,” he said quietly, marching her to her room. As he opened the door, he held her arm for a moment longer. “You know better than to be opening doors that don’t belong to you,” he said in a calm but clipped tone.

“Sorry, Max,” she repeated, shaking a little. There was something about his voice that was positively murderous.

***

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