The Condesa Elena Maria de Reten
Condesa Elena Maria de Reten was stunningly beautiful. Her hair was a lustrous black, arranged skillfully around a smooth brown face dominated by large eyes the color of a starless night sky. White and even were her teeth, and appropriately for nobility, all present. Fourteen years old and slender, only now coming what would be an impressive adult figure, she was dressed in a sapphire-blue satin gown, silver dangling from her ears and neck. She stood, silent and still, in the solar of her father, Marquis Gordo de Reten.
The Marquis was a large man, tall and wide, and gaudily garbed in the finest clothes that the nine nations had to offer. His family had ruled in the port city of Reten and the surrounding lands for more than a thousand years, and the centuries of tribute and taxes had made the Retens one of the wealthiest families in Rha. His son, Conde Ignacio Paz, would inherit these titles and fortunes, and lead a life of ease and comfort. The Reten family was steeped in wealth and influence, but the Marquis set his sights higher. He lusted for power, raw and unadulterated, the kind of power that would come with marrying his daughter into the Oepacian Royal Family.
“Elena Maria, if you were to marry the Arqueamiento, you would be queen of a modest household, and mother to squalling brats who at best would follow their father as Bow Knights. As wife to The Heir, you will become the next Empress. Your first son will be Cavalieri Heir. Reten blood will sit on the Imperial Throne forever.” Reten’s eyes shone with lust. He towered above his daughter, his hands dripping with jeweled rings, and his massive body rippling with fat earned at a thousand royal feasts. The Condesa loathed her father. Everything about him repulsed her, from the thick clammy hands that pawed at her body, to the cloying musk he used too liberally to hide the odor of his rotting flesh, to the harsh words he used to belittle her desires. She forced herself to return the monster’s stare, and her eyes were filled with hatred. He laughed, a phlegmatic, hacking sound.
“Good. Your anger becomes you. I do not seek your affection or approbation, dear daughter, simply your obedience. And this I will have. You will not see your knight again.” Elena’s face turned ashen under her cosmetics.
“Even you would not have one of your own Arqueamientos killed, simply to spite me!” She felt her heart stop as she cried out the words. The thought of her Porfiro dead, those black eyes never again meeting her own again, those lithe fingers never drawing a bowstring or caressing her cheek, that light and musical voice silenced forever, filled her with grief and rage. As her hands balled into fists, the Marquis simply kept laughing.
“Do not fret, my little blackbird. It would be a crime to waste such a specimen. I have not had him slain, though in time he may wish I had been so merciful. No, this poor, foolish man who had the gall to be seduced by you, Condesa, has found his way to the Zaphiro mines. After a month’s time in those caves, you would never recognize him, or desire him. Forget Porfiro, Elena Maria. He may not be dead, but he is to you.”
Tears welled in the Condesa’s eyes, and she turned away so her father would not see them. Her flesh burned at the touch of his thick hands as he seized her by the bare shoulders from behind.
“We leave in the morning for Castle Talar. I am taking you to Imperial Court, blackbird. The Heir will lust for you as the Emperor lusts after your dowry, and you will become the Prince’s intended.” The Marquis’ phlegmatic voice was a low rumble, his mouth almost touching her ear, his stench overpowering. “Thank the gods that your Porfiro did not have the opportunity to take your maidenhead, or I would have killed him, and you would be the one on your knees unearthing sapphires.” Elena Maria twisted her neck to face her father. His jowls were moist with sweat, and white spittle flecked his close-cropped black beard.
“I will not live to see the Court,” she vowed, finding that she believed the words. She was a daughter of Reten, and however repugnant a creature her father was, it was a long and honorable line. She would die by her own hand before she would be sold off like a common whore. She wrested free of the Marquis’ grip and slapped him hard across a flabby cheek. He took a step back, and raised his hand to strike her. She did not flinch, awaiting the blow, but it never came.
“No,” he muttered, wiping his red face with a silken handkerchief. “Mustn’t damage the wares! The Heir would ill like a bruised cantaloupe. So, the blackbird wishes to become the hellkitten? Very well, daughter. You will live to see the Court, I promise you that.” He walked to the writing-table under the enormous windows of the solar. He rang a small silver bell, and Reten’s ayudante entered. The Marquis scratched some words on paper, folded it and sealed it with wax bearing the scallop of the Reten family.
“Recado,” he beckoned to his chief valet. The red-cloaked ayudante moved quickly to Reten’s side, and took the proffered paper. “My daughter is never to be without supervision. Two of your men and two handmaids are to be with her at all times, even while she sleeps.”
“Yes, Marquis. It will be done.” Recado bowed slightly. “And the message, my lord?” Reten smiled and glanced at the Condesa.
“See that it finds its way to the Zaphiro Mines, Recado. Send a fast rider, and one of the thieves in the jails to replace the miner I’m reclaiming. I find I’m no longer in the mood for mercy.”