A HEAVY CROWN
Three daughters were born to High King Uorsin, in place of the son he wanted. The youngest, lovely and sweet. The middle, pretty and subtle, with an air of magic. And the eldest, the Heir. A girl grudgingly honed to leadership, not beauty, to bear the sword and honor of the king.
Ursula’s loyalty is as ingrained as her straight warrior’s spine. She protects the peace of the Twelve Kingdoms with sweat and blood, her sisters from threats far and near. And she protects her father to prove her worth. But she never imagined her loyalty would become an open question on palace grounds. That her father would receive her with a foreign witch at one side and a hireling captain at the other-that soldiers would look on her as a woman, not as a warrior. She also never expected to decide the destiny of her sisters, of her people, of the Twelve Kingdoms and the Thirteenth. Not with her father still on the throne and war in the air. But the choice is before her. And the Heir must lead…
Here’s an oily excerpt:
Two of the mercenaries marked off a circle with twine, roughly twice a man’s height in diameter, while Captain Harlan and another man began stripping off their shirts and pants. To keep from watching, I pulled up a bench and set to polishing my sword. Not that I hadn’t seen plenty of men unclothed—field outposts and battle left little room or reason for modesty—but Harlan’s muscled physique seemed unduly attention-grabbing.
His all-over golden tan hinted that he often went unclothed outdoors, and his fair hair barely showed, leaving the rippling cuts of his muscle plainly defined. He seemed more lithe, more like a male animal, without the hardened leather armor he typically wore. Fortunately he and the other man retained strips of cloth over their groins, though their buttocks were bared.
Unfortunately, they commenced applying some sort of oil, the morning light catching it and making Harlan’s golden skin gleam over taut muscles. I resheathed my sword when I came close to slicing off a finger, Danu take him.
“Now, that,” Jepp said, coming to straddle the bench next to me, “is a fine way to start the day.”
“I thought you were teaching those mercs the Midnight form.”
“This is much more interesting. Everybody is coming to watch.”
Indeed, the other female Hawks had drawn quite close, expressions avid with more than casual interest. Marskal circulated, taking more bets, no doubt, but everyone else watched Harlan and his man. At the far end of the practice yard, Madeline and some of the maids and kitchen ladies gathered, their giggles carrying on the air like birdsong. The castle ladies would likely be sorry that they were not early risers and had missed the spectacle.
“Nice of you to grab us a ringside seat,” Jepp continued, sounding entirely too casual, “but then, this is staged for your benefit, isn’t it?”
I was sorry I’d put my sword away, as I had nothing to do with my hands now and seemed to be unable to look away from the glistening display of Harlan’s masculine form. “Yes. Marskal knows I’m keen to learn more about how these Dasnarians train and fight.”
“Oh, Captain, we are all keen to see more,” she drawled.
“No consorting,” I snapped, without thinking it through. Always a bad sign.
Jepp gave me an astonished—and terribly disappointed—look. “You can’t mean it.”
She leaned in on the pretext of drawing her knives to polish and dropped her voice. “If we’re to get out, it will be through them. I’m working on making some special friends.”
“Duly noted. But you needn’t do anything you don’t wish to.”
“Not exactly a sacrifice.” She boldly eyed the near-naked men. “I don’t mind fucking one or two. Or five. Possibly all at once.” The two men in the ring circled each other, thighs flexing in their half crouches, backs rippling, as they flexed muscles in display. “Do you think they all look that good under their clothes? I need to know. Call it scouting. Postcoital glow is excellent for extracting information from a man. Danu, I love my job.”
“You worry me, Jepp.”
“I won’t touch the captain, but say I can try a few of the others. Please?”
“Danu. Fine. Have any of them—even the captain. I don’t care. Just watch your own glow and what gets extracted from you.”
She tore her gaze away to cast me a quick, delighted grin. “You’re flustered. I’ve never seen you flustered.”
“Shut up, Jepp.”
The men connected, grappling, their hands sliding off the oiled skin of the other before catching to hold. They strained to master the strength of the other, their muscles hardened and impossibly bulging.
“I missed my workout is all,” I added. “All this waiting and wondering. It’s making me restless.”
Harlan flipped the other man and they went down in a tangle of limbs, the oil gleaming bright. The other man slipped partly free and Harlan laughed, exultant, scrambling to lock him into another hold.
“Uh-huh,” Jepp breathed. “I feel exceptionally restless this morning also.”
The maids and kitchen ladies had made bold to press through the ring of onlookers now—else they wouldn’t have been able to see through the crowd—and cheered wildly, cheeks pink and eyes bright. No one blocked our view, however, much as I wished they might.
“We’ll have a crop of Dasnarian-made babies in nine months,” I predicted. “And likely no Dasnarian fathers about to help feed the lot.”
“Mmm,” Jepp hummed, not listening to a word I said, fascinated gaze locked on the men as they tumbled over each other. Harlan had the other man pinned, facedown, locked so that he could barely struggle. Another mercenary counted in what must be Dasnarian, slapping the ground on a shout.
Thankfully that ended the match, the mercs, Hawks, and overexcited ladies cheering alike. Even Jepp leapt up from the bench, squealing in most un-warrior-like fashion. Harlan and the other man rose to their feet, now swarmed by the onlookers with much congratulating and slapping of backs.
“Not bad for a little rabbit!” The loser clapped the mercenary captain on the shoulder, shaking his head as he did.
Jepp turned on me with a stern, expectant expression. “You can count on me, Captain. I swear to extract as much as womanly possible”—she couldn’t suppress her grin at the thought—“and hands off Captain Harlan. Fair?”
“I told you, I don’t care if—”
“I’ll report!” She gave me a distracted salute and sauntered over to the man Harlan had defeated, a saucy sway to her trim hips. Harlan used her arrival to deftly extract himself from the cluster. For a big man, he moved with slick precision, and came toward me.
I stood to go, but he stepped into my path.
“Not bad for a rabbit?” I echoed his man, raising my eyebrows.
Abashed by nothing, he grinned. “‘Harlan’ means ‘rabbit’ in Dasnarian.”
“Not very auspicious.”
“I don’t know about that. What did you think?”
“An interesting sport,” I commented, keeping my eyes on his, pretending that he wasn’t standing nearly naked in front of me, glistening with oil and sweat. “As you noted, not terribly useful on the battlefield.”
“Did you like what you saw, though?” he pressed.
“Not enough to be further interested.”
He smiled easily. “You’re not tempted—not even a little?”
“Tempted?” I had gone for arch, not breathless, Danu take it.
“I think you are. We could trade lessons. You’d enjoy it.”
“You’re mistaken.” I deliberately looked at the sun, pretending to gauge the time. “I have no interest in learning a new sport; nor do I have free time to squander on pointless activities.”
“Never pointless, if done well.”
Over his shoulder, Jepp had her hands splayed on the other man’s pecs, as if measuring, gazing up at him with a bright, teasing smile. Madeline had corralled the maids into heading back to their duties, but more than one gazed back longingly. We’d be in for a bumper crop of babies, indeed.
Harlan turned, following the direction of my gaze. “Shall I order the men to keep hands off? They are accustomed to exercising that discipline.”
“As are you?” I riposted, seizing the opening and regretting it instantly.
“As well you know, Your Highness,” he returned in that smooth, deep voice, a caress in it that reminded me of the feel of his hands. “I would never press an undesired advance. Nor would my men. But yon ladies look most willing. The men will resist any and all invitations, however, if I instruct them so.”
“No need,” I sighed, thinking of Jepp’s ulterior motives and enviable enthusiasm. “I’d have every woman in Ordnung out for my blood. But make sure they behave themselves—and that they pay up for any babies they start.” That should have been in his almighty contract. Docked pay for each child left for us to raise.
“There won’t be any.”
“You’re so sure?” In my skepticism, I made the mistake of looking at him, his blond hair dark with the oil, the thick neck and corded shoulders. For some strange reason, my fingers itched to do as Jepp was even still—run my hands over the shape of those muscles, to feel that strength for myself, to discover if his skin was as smooth as it looked. I shouldn’t want that. Had never felt that desire.
He knew it, too, Danu take him, eyes glittering with answering invitation. This is staged for your benefit, isn’t it? “We have methods for preventing unplanned babies. Our women are always safe with us. No Dasnarian man would have so little care for his lover as to expose her to that danger. I should have made that clear last night. It didn’t occur to me that it was one of your concerns.”
“I have many concerns—none of them to do with you. Believe me, Captain, I haven’t given you or your… offer the least bit of thought.”
“Liar.” He leaned in close to murmur the word, so I scented his skin. Man, sweat, and sunlight. “How did you sleep? I tossed and turned myself. I kept thinking of you and the way you taste. Imagining how your hands on me would feel.”
Calling it a strategic retreat, I stepped back, removing myself from the temptation to touch him, to run my fingertips over his oiled muscles. “How unfortunate for you,” I replied. “I had far more important things to think about and still do. Excuse me, Captain.”
Satisfied at having set him back on his heels, I strode away, ignoring the fact that his amused laugh once again followed me.