STOLEN BY THE ORC KING
Agathea turned, narrowing her gaze as the serving woman rushed to cross the square courtyard’s cobbled stones, almost tripping on her long skirts, pausing a split second to curse at a gaggle of geese who got in her way.
Agathea almost chuckled at the sight of her maid navigating the bustling courtyard of the senator’s domicile, but she had things to do so pausing even this long thrummed up a familiar sense of impatience.
“What is it, Letitia?” Agathea asked, trying not to snap.
“Domina, the senator requests your presence.” Letitia skidded to a halt, pressing a hand to her ample bosom as she caught her breath, flyaway bits of brown hair escaping her braid. “The Erkving is coming! The Erkving is coming!”
Agathea blinked, frowning. Korgath? Of all the reasons behind the summons she might have expected, this was not it. And if the king of the new Orc empire on the other side of Brithia Isle was close enough to have been sighted, Agathea should have known about it.
Information was part of her business.
“Inform the senator I’ll attend him in due haste,” Agathea said.
Letitia grabbed her wrist, brown eyes hardening with determination. Though a freed woman, her rank was so far below Agathea’s that grabbing her mistress’s wrist was a familiarity allowed only due to the long generations her family had served in Agathea’s household.
“I’ve already suggested to the senator that you bathe and change into something appropriate for an audience with the monster king,” Letitia said. She stuck out her bottom lip, heading off an argument that Agathea didn’t intend to make in the first place. “He agreed with me.”
“And I agree as well.”
Letitia blinked up at her, thrown. She’d expected an argument. Agathea smirked. Her servants should know better than to think her predictable. Letitia straightened her shoulders, nodding decisively. “We go now then. Come! There isn’t much time.”
Agathea abandoned her plans for the day—they weren’t as important as this—and allowed Letitia to drag her across the courtyard and into the wing of the house reserved for the senators betrothed.
A shadow against one of the columns caught her eye. She slowed, holding up a hand for Letitia to remain behind, and approached.
“Mercana,” the cloaked and cowled man murmured. “I see from your expression you have heard the news.”
“Just now,” she replied, a bite in her tone. He didn’t respond and she sighed. “What do you know of it?”
“The son of J’roth comes to parlay,” her spy said. “The seven orc kings have made terms and turn their attention to the settlement.”
Tension gripped Agathea’s stomach. It was what she and the senator feared. Well, not feared, precisely. But a united Orc horde meant one of two things.
“He hasn’t responded to our overtures,” Agathea said, tapping a finger on her lips.
The messages she had sent in secret that the senator knew nothing about. Offering the Orc king of kings a highly lucrative trade agreement. That Agathea meant to broker the deal in good faith and had actually bothered to craft terms which would benefit his people, she thought an added bonus. But there had been no word and with each passing week her worry grew. War was good for business, but if this settlement was to be her home, she preferred an alliance instead.
And there were other reasons why new conflict with the Orc kings would not be in the best interests of her trading empire.
“If he hasn’t responded to that deal, which was a master’s class in tradesmanship, then it means he wants one thing,” Agathea said, meeting the shrouded eyes of her spy.
He didn’t deny it, which worried her further. The Erkving didn’t need to come in person, though. It made no sense.
“And you’re certain he still doesn’t know who I am? That I’m the one behind the agreement?”
He inclined his head.
If Korgath was here to negotiate with her father’s factor, then that would give her time to observe him before he realized her father’s factor was herself and he must conduct a business with a woman—a woman who was also the senator’s betrothed and thus in Romanii terms, the mistress of this isle. Of course, the centaurs would reject that claim and so they should. But in the end wealth and power was all that mattered, even over the right of blood.
The bath was already prepared when she entered her chambers, stripping hastily out of her knee length tunic and leggings, dropping her short cloak to the ground.
Women of the senator’s household attacked, scrubbing Agathea’s skin and hair, rubbing scented oils into her skin. There wasn’t time for much else. This wasn’t the first bath she’d had this week, thankfully.
She suffered them to pull women’s clothing over her head. An ankle length sleeveless linen tunic and wine-red overdress, draping her bare shoulders with a wide rectangular shawl embroidered in geometric gold patterns.
Agathea grimaced. They were turning her from the heiress of her father’s trading empire, a Mercana in her own right, into a proper Romanii matron, though they left her hair loose and uncovered since she was not yet married. Still in negotiations with the senator, they had yet to come to an agreement between their households that both deemed advantageous. There was no hurry. Agathea’s presence here in his household more or less made her his wife under common law though he had not yet touched her. The contracts were details.
No, they both already knew what each would get out of this alliance. Agathea, access to the senator’s patrician bloodlines and social standing which would unlock greater trading opportunities; and the senator, access to the wealth of Agathea’s father’s empire.
And if Agathea’s birth mother was also a daughter of the patrician class, that was an added bonus, though not spoken of since the woman had abandoned her daughter and first husband soon after the baby was born.
Impatiently shrugging off those thoughts as the women weighed her down in a mercantii’s ransom of gold jewelry, and then darkened her lips and cheeks and lined her eyes in kohl—
“Wait, why am I painting my face?” she demanded, blinking when she realized what was happening. “He’s an Orc. He won’t appreciate it.”
They’d captured human women as serving wenches during the conflicts, but no one had ever reported the warriors actually fucking, much less mating, a human female.
“You are the betrothed of the senator, and thus the future mistress of Brithia Isle,” an older woman said, stepping into the room. The senator’s youngest aunt. “You reflect him.”
She didn’t like the woman much, though that was mainly because their outlooks an Agathea’s purpose in life clashed. Agathea had been raised more or less as her father’s son and heir, Briella was the epitome of a traditional Romanii woman and expected Agathea to give up her role in her father’s empire once married.
It amused the senator, of course, who like most patrician men knew to keep his nose out of women’s business. Because he wasn’t marrying Agathea for her ability to whelp babies, and they would be living much of their life on this wild, beautifully savage isle far from the mainland empire anyway, he was more copacetic about the whole traditional Romanii woman thing. Fortunately, or she would never have consented to the match. At twenty-six years of age, she should have been married ten years ago, but her father hadn’t been able to talk her into it. A woman could not be forced to marry, it went against their strict laws. She could be cajoled, but Agathea was more or less impervious to such tactics.
Her goals were few, and simple. Little outside of achieving them offered much temptation.
“I’ll be on my best behavior, Briella,” Agathea said in an oily voice that implied the exact opposite. “We would not wish to embarrass the senator and his household, after all, with my plebeian class mannish ways.”
“I don’t blame you,” Briella said. “If you had had a proper moth—”
“But I didn’t.” Agathea’s words slashed through the air.
Briella’s mouth thinned, her face paling, but she knew better than to continue that line of conversation. The woman was learning. Pity.
The women left her quarters, Agathea setting a brisk pace that didn’t allow for a graceful, womanly stroll. Briella huffed and sped up to remain by Agathea’s aside.
“The senator sent the last message eight weeks ago,” Agathea said. “Is it good or bad that the Erkving has only now responded, and in person?”
Briella’s expression smoothed as they approached the high ceilinged, airy public room where the senator entertained guests of note.
“We’re about to find out,” was the grim reply. “And hopefully today won’t mark the start of a new war.”
Servants opened the carved double doors. “Did the old war ever end?”
That was the question no one knew the answer to.
The Erkving wouldn’t be coming in person unless he was choosing to reveal that answer today.
Agathea stepped into the hall, Briella at her side.
Her gaze honed in on one man. No—he wasn’t a man.
She must secure the trading deal with Korgath, at all costs.
Everything depended on it.