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"My lady," Maxime said, "I understand you're disappointed"
Lady Diamanta Picot threw a gold-and-ruby pomegranate at Maxime's head. He ducked, but it still clipped the top edge of his coronet and rebounded into the wall of the receiving room before hitting the floor and spinning to a stop.
A handblown goblet whizzed by his ear; he flung up his hand and caught it before it could shatter against the ducal throne behind him. "Now, wait," he said. "That was a particular token of my esteemlook at all these beautiful cloud fish etched into the bowl"
"Fuck you!" Lady Diamanta screamed.
"I'm afraid not," Maxime said. "I did not agree to this marriage. Therefore I will not marry you."
Diamanta vibrated with rage, her slender fingers clenched upon the next gift, a handful of ebony hair sticks topped with gold knobs, the rich coppery-red gold of the far south, seldom seen in the duchies. She snarled, "You have no choice in the matter."
"On the contrary," Maxime said. "I am a duke of the realm. I may marry whom I please. My charter clearly states"
"You will marry at the king's command," Diamanta said, her voice going cold. She set the hair sticks back on the table, but continued to fondle them, as an archer might fondle arrows. "If you refuse me, my life will be ruined."
"No, it won't," Maxime said. "You hate me. You've hated me since we were both fourteen." He set the goblet down on another table, out of her reach.
Diamanta licked her lips. They were plump and pink and inviting. Her fingers trailed along the table and lightly caressed the marquetry lid of a box of caraway comfits before returning to the hair sticks. She said, "My feelings don't enter into it, nor do yours. I am wealthy."
"So am I."
"That's why we belong together. That's why I am to be a duchess. My father's wealth will provide a substantial dowry for the crown, and for your duchy, as well. I've been trained from birth to manage a duchy and its interests."
"You won't be my duchess," Maxime said. He clasped his hands behind his back. The elaborate rings he'd worn, hoping she'd see them as the respect he intended for her, dug painfully into his fingers. "My refusal has nothing to do with your management skills. I am despondent you traveled all this way. I informed the king weeks ago I would not marry you, or anyone of his choosing. Perhaps you could convey this to him directly."
"You are a fool," she spat. "Our marriage could be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would increase your wealth beyond anything you can imagine. You may have two heirs of me, or even three. And I would not restrain you from your interests outside the marriage bed, if you would extend me the same courtesy."
She'd just stated his worst nightmare. Slowly, he shook his head.
He held her gaze. She held his. Slowly, she released her grip on the hair sticks and trailed her fingers up her rib cage and over her bosom, perfectly displayed in her low-cut purple gown. It was one of the finest bosoms in all the duchies. She lifted a brow. Maxime shook his head.
Diamanta took one of the hair sticks and briskly used it to tidy dislodged strands of her platinum-pale hair. She remarked, "You would have been lucky to have me. You're not such a prize, you know. No matter what the women of the court say of your endowments."
"I'd rather not be a prize in a contest," Maxime said. "You will of course accept my gifts, which express my regret in refusing our betrothal?"
Diamanta cast a glance over the tables spanning the room, each one laden with silks, jewels, sweetmeats and exquisite handicrafts. Thirty matched tourmalines were arrayed on black velvet and surrounded by twists of intricate lace. Whole pears, glittering with an armor of sugar crystals, spilled from a brightly polished silver bowl, and a mixture of saffron pastilles and candied violets adorned a perfect marzipan replica of the king's castle. A tiny yellow bird with an orange beak warbled sweetly in its bamboo cage, and an albino monkey watched them from atop a tree carved from jade.
Diamanta fondled a distinctive enameled sweets box, this one the most valuable item of the lot, containing as it did candied lumps of a balsam imported from the other side of the world, which Maxime had not yet released to a general market. Feigning reluctance, she picked up the palm-size box. "I suppose they will have to do." She gestured to her silently waiting maid, whirled in a swirl of silks and exited.
After the door closed, Maxime sank into a chair and scrubbed his hands over his cropped dark beard. He'd barely escaped a fate that made him shudder insidea lifetime of brittle politeness and brittle, obligatory sex with someone with whom he never wanted to converse. Being threatened with such a marriage was one of the things he'd managed to avoid while still merely Lord Maxime of the Coastal Protectorate.
He was lucky the king hadn't had him drugged and forced to speak vows. He cast a glance at his wineglass, remembered Diamanta had passed near it and poured its contents into a potted tree.
The monkey ate another grape.
He'd thought he had more time.
Until five months ago, he and his duchy had been treated as a client state in all that mattered. As the son of a duke murdered for unspecified acts of treason, Maxime's position had been precarious. One false move, or even a whim on the part of the king, and he would have been swept from power, perhaps even executed. For that reason, he had never married, and made certain never to sire an heir or indeed any child. He'd been left orphaned when his own parents were killed. He wouldn't wish that fate on anyone, either the initial pain or the subsequent subjugation to another.
He'd wanted to be his own man when he proposed marriage, free to ask because it was what he wanted, not because it was required of him. He'd wanted to marry a woman of his own choosing, who would share in ruling the duchy with him, as his parents had shared. He wanted a lover and a confidante, and he wanted those things with legal status that no one could take away. He'd waited years for the privilege of marrying as he wished.
This business of being a duke was not all that he'd hoped it would be. It was more of a prison than a privilege.
When he was still merely a lord, his unmarried status had been allowed, and even encouraged. Now, though, the dukedom was restored to him. His marriage had become a matter of concern to the new king, a concern that grew steadily more pressing. Letters and messengers had been succeeded by the actual appearance of Diamanta as a potential bride, and he didn't doubt other "choices" would soon arrive at his castle gates. He needed to marry soon, before the king took stronger action.
He would have to approach Captain Imena Leung.
For the thousandth time, he cursed himself for employing her soon after they'd met. If he'd known she would be so scrupulous about separating pleasure from her business relationships, he could have tried some other method to get to know her. It was too late now. He had to work with what he had, and if he wished to escape being married off like a virgin princess, he needed to work quickly.
He hadn't wanted to rush something so important. Again and again he'd delayed, out of fear he'd make a mistake and lose any chance at her forever. Now he had no choice, and for that, he cursed King Julien as well as his own cowardice.
Captain Leung was due back in the duchy this week, after a visit to her parents in the Horizon Empire. He would speak to her then.
Captain Leung seized one end of her trunk and hauled it noisily across the bamboo decking. "I'll visit in the spring," she said.
Her father stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "Let me call a servant to carry your trunk."
"Quickly," she said. She didn't actually want to manhandle her trunk all the way across the palatial houseboat, up the stairs to the main deck and then down to the waiting cargo skip. She lowered it to the deck.
Her father smiled and gently stroked her arm with his large, callused hand. To most, his dark-skinned, elaborately tattooed face with its odd pale eyes was frightening; to her, impossibly dear. "Imena, you don't have to leave just yet. Your mother and I"
Imena crossed her arms over her chest. "It was her idea to marry me off."
"Well, you are past thirty now, and"
"Your marriage wasn't arranged for you," she pointed out. In fact, her father had been a prisoner of the imperial navy; his love match with her mother, his former captor, was still a scandal, decades later.
"That was different," he said. "Utterly different. We want to do the right thing for you. We don't want you to grow old alone."
"I'd rather marry one of Mother's lapdogs than one of that crew of"
"Imena!" Her mother stood in the doorway, dressed in full regalia as an admiral of the fleet, looking much larger than she actually was; the immense pile of hair atop her head added to the illusion of size, but not as much as her posture and air of command. Three snub-faced dogs with silky black-and-white hair snuffled at the hem of her deck-length robe. The fourth flung itself onto a pillow on the deck, resting its head on its paws. "They are all respectable men," she said. "You won't have to suffer for your choice as I did. I had them investigated very carefully. Any one of them would make a fine husband for you."
"I don't want"
"I spoke to all of them first, as well, and made sure to impress upon them how closely I'll keep my eye on them," her father said. He stroked the long knife he wore at his hip. "I've seen that these arranged marriages often work out well, much better than you would think at first. Most of the marriages in this port came about that way. If you would only reconsider"
"I don't want"
Her mother interrupted. "You'll never find a husband at sea, or among the foreigners. Be reasonable. Let us find a suitable man for you."
Apparently, her mother's own husband didn't count as a foreigner. "I don't want you to find a suitable man for me."
Admiral Leung's cheeks colored with anger. "Imena! I am your mother. It's your duty to obey me in this."
"As you obeyed your parents?" Imena asked. "I'll see you both in the spring." She bowed to her parents, stepped over her trunk, pushed past her mother and climbed up to the deck. She'd catch a ride in the cargo skip rather than wait for more formal transport.
At least on her ship people listened to her.
Three weeks later
Imena straightened her embroidered turquoise dress coat and brushed off the matching silk trousers as she emerged onto the deck of her ship, Seaflower. Her feet were bare, displaying their swirling wavelike tattoos, and she wore a long, jeweled dagger at her waist, a gift from her employer, Duke Maxime. She smiled. It felt good to be back in the duchy, where she was free of parental dictates. If only her mind could be free of them, as well. Her visit to Maxime should help. She always looked forward to seeing him. He was pleasant to look upon, and he wasn't difficult to talk to, either. Under other circumstances, she might have tried to seduce him.
No, she would have tried. And knowing him as she did, she would easily have succeeded.
Imena's handpicked sailors, both male and female, filled Seaflowefs narrow deck, chanting while they passed crates of mangosteens from hand to hand and thus onto the dock. She gave them a nod in appreciation of their efficiency, and went to the railing where her first mate waited.
Chetri smiled at her. His long, wavy hair was loose, rippling in the breeze, a sure sign of upcoming shore leave; normally he wore it tightly coiled at the back of his neck. "We'll finish the offloading by this afternoon," he said.
"Shore leave is port watch first, this trip."
"Aye, Captain." He grinned at her. "And may I say the captain looks very clean and tidy?"
She laughed. "You may." She ran her hand over her bare head. At sea, she rarely bothered to use a razor, but in port she made a point to expose the intricate blue, red and white designs tattooed on her scalp, each hard won in her youth as an imperial privateer. Like Chetri, she'd outlined her eyes with kohl.
Chetri wore tightly fitting trousers and a silver-embroidered vest that showed his muscular form and the black tattoos on his pectorals, circles within circles within circles, to good advantage. Silver rings cascaded along his earlobes; his neck was hung with bright silver chains, one of them suspending a medallion engraved with birds, another a cluster of black pearls. Another tattoo, this of a snarling monster's face with a tongue of flame, marked out his hard-muscled belly. He needn't worry that advancing middle age would deter anyone's glances. She said, "May I offer the hope that my first mate is lucky on his shore leave?"
"You most certainly may. Now, be off with you, Imena, and do the pretty with His Grace. And may you be lucky, too. What's his name again? Sanji?"
Her stern glare only made him laugh. Chetri knew very well that Sanji had been her only lover for almost a year. There was a saying, that making the tide on land didn't count. For her, that had never been true.
She was lucky the potential husbands her mother had introduced to her hadn't permanently put her off sex. She'd never seen a more tightly laced bunch, draped in layers of fine silk robes and ballasted with necklaces and belts enough to festoon an entire fishing village, all of them eyeing her as if she were a trinket they wanted to buy, if they could only overcome their distaste at her profession.
She would have to face them again the next time she visited, or worse, she would have to confront her mother and make plain that she would not marry a man of the Horizon Empire, and forever be considered his accessory. After that, it would be almost trivial to convince her father that he could never threaten such a man into loving her. For a couple who swore they'd fallen in love at first sight, their opinions on marriage for their daughter seemed decidedly odd. Perhaps they'd finally realized the truth of the matter, as Imena had.