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Beauty's Kingdom, Page 2

Anne Rice

  Tristan had been one of those taken off with the famous princesses Beauty and Rosalynd and Elena and Princes Laurent and Dmitri.

  Now the Sultan, long gone from the world, had been a close ally of Queen Eleanor. Her ancestors and his had started the custom of naked pleasure slavery over a century before that time. But in Queen Eleanor’s realm it had fallen into decline, and when she mounted the throne, emissaries from the Sultan had come to help the Queen revive it and make Bellavalten once more the talk of the world.

  Occasional slave raids were part of a game played by the Queen and the Sultan from time to time. And any slave of Bellavalten learned much under the customs of the Sultan’s pleasure gardens. So nobody would have thought much of this latest raid had not it ensnared the fabled Sleeping Beauty. Her parents demanded that Queen Eleanor rescue their daughter and return her to them at once. Servitude to the Queen and her son, the Crown Prince, they could approve but not the loss of Princess Beauty to a foreign lord.

  So Captain Gordon was sent with a few handpicked soldiers to reclaim Beauty and what other slaves he might rescue easily with her. Alas, scandal followed. Beauty, and her companions Tristan and Laurent, had not wanted to be brought back; indeed the three of them had fussed, rebelled, and all but kicked and screamed as they were recaptured.

  And the beautiful and irresistible Laurent, one of the worst of the rebels, had even been so bold as to kidnap one of the Sultan’s most devoted stewards, Lexius, and insist that Captain Gordon bring him back as a trophy to serve Queen Eleanor.

  Queen Eleanor had been furious with her recalcitrant brats. Beauty she could not punish further, as she was at once freed to go home to her parents’ kingdom. But Laurent and Tristan the Queen condemned to a year in the village stables—to the hardest labor a slave can know: perpetual servitude as a pony. As for the mysterious and seductive Lexius, the Queen was outraged that any slave should presume to offer himself to her as Lexius proceeded to do. Yet she had relented, later making him a favorite as dear to her as her own Prince Alexi, whom she’d famously broken in harsh ways.

  Before the end of that year, Laurent had been freed due to the death of his father. Home he had gone to become the King of his realm, and no sooner had he received the crown than he had ridden out to the home of Princess Beauty, who had served naked beside him under Queen Eleanor, to make Beauty his queen.

  Ah, it had been another great scandal in Bellavalten as word spread that two former naked slaves were now married and ruling the most powerful house in Europe. Queen Eleanor had thought them brazen and disgraceful, but what could she do? King Laurent was a proud and able ally; and Queen Beauty became the jewel of his Court.

  “I will not tolerate talk of them ever,” the Queen had famously declared, “and their names must never be mentioned to me.” Royal slaves, when freed by her, should return with heads bowed to their kingdoms, never speaking of their naked servitude in her opinion, quick to slip into the demands of royal life. But here were a pair of legendary incorrigibles married to each other and presiding over a glamorous kingdom.

  My uncle Nicholas told me that the story of King Laurent and Queen Beauty had not been easy to suppress. Indeed, it spread wildly amongst the slaves of the castle and the village who were heard to comment that it served Queen Eleanor’s son, the Crown Prince, right for bringing the awakened Sleeping Beauty here as a slave in the first place and not making her his bride.

  Cursed by a wise woman to sleep for a hundred years with her entire family and Court, Princess Beauty had been awakened by the kiss of the Crown Prince—who had brought Beauty naked and submissive to his mother’s feet.

  The Queen had boldly disregarded the legend, and her son’s remarkable achievement, treating Beauty like any other abject erotic toy of the Court, and exiling her to the village for her first real disobedience.

  But once King Laurent had taken Beauty as his bride, the Queen sang another song. “If anyone should be the husband of the wench,” said the Queen, “it should be my son, not that impudent and unruly Laurent. How did such a thing ever happen with those two disobedient and rebellious slaves! I tell you I am confounded.”

  “And Laurent was such a handsome prince,” my uncle Nicholas told me. “You cannot imagine. Laurent was brown haired, brown eyed, amazingly tall and strong, with features molded by the gods, perhaps one of the most impressive slaves ever to serve at the castle. Lady Elvera was his mistress. Every day she whipped him. Every day she set him to taking two or three princesses in her presence for her delight. He was tireless. His cock was enormous. And when he ran away only to be condemned to the village it was out of boredom. That’s what these slaves do, you see, and the Queen never caught on. They pick and choose what they will do and where; and the Queen simply doesn’t understand it. She doesn’t understand the allure of different punishments for different slaves, or the allure of different masters and mistresses, and that clever slaves have always had ways of defeating her for their own amusement.”

  This was true. Queen Eleanor did imagine herself always to be in full control. I had seen this as soon as I’d arrived. Old Lord Gregory, the Queen’s venerable minister of slaves, fell into the very same error. And so had some of the more rigid and scolding squires and pages, and members of the Court.

  Whatever the case, the Crown Prince had never married. It was said he hated his mother for not allowing him to wed the Sleeping Beauty. But that seemed hardly fair. He’d stripped her naked and brought her barefoot and trembling into the kingdom. What had he expected his mother to think or do?

  But King Laurent and Queen Beauty had passed out of the Queen’s clutches and into history. And there was nothing to be done.

  King Laurent and Queen Beauty had gone on to rule for twenty years of unparalleled prosperity until a year and a half ago when, placing the crown upon the head of their beloved son, Alcuin, they had retired to a southern land to live in seclusion.

  Queen Eleanor had heard the news as she and her son were preparing for a sea voyage. I had only just been chosen to be head mistress of all slaves in her absence.

  “I wonder why the famous pair have retired,” she asked. “And whether or not they will come here soon for a visit. Now that young King Alcuin rules in his native land, what will Beauty and Laurent, both in the prime of life, do with themselves?” The Queen had looked at me with her sharp, cruel black eyes. “Do you think they ever speak of their time together here?”

  The following day she went on to declare, “You know, Eva, that I had hoped, well, hoped that someday those two—Laurent and Beauty—might come to live at Court here, and inaugurate a new era.”

  The Crown Prince had been shocked. “What’s wrong with things the way they are!” he had demanded.

  “Nothing,” said Queen Eleanor, “except I’m tired of them and so are you. Just think how very pleasant it would be to give the entire kingdom over to those two and be done with it. I have achieved a great thing here with pleasure slavery, yes, as my ancestors did before me, and as the Sultan had done in his land before his unfortunate ruin . . . but I am weary of managing anything.”

  The Crown Prince had grumbled. He’d told Lord Gregory, the elderly minister of slaves, to be ever more strict, charged me to do the same, and then gone to make certain his trunks had been packed properly.

  And then they had headed for the coast.

  But not before the Queen had given me a sealed letter. “If some misfortune should befall us, Eva, you are to open this,” she’d said. And with a cold kiss, she walked out of the castle and towards her waiting coach.

  I’d been only too glad to accept the responsibilities given me. I had a knack for governing naked slaves, both male and female, and had used it well since my arrival. By the hour, I’d read my uncle Nicholas’s Chronicles of the Kingdom and knew the stories of many slaves and how they had been broken and trained and how they had loved and wept when forced to return to the “out
side world,” as my uncle called it.

  I understood slaves. I loved studying them and disciplining them and wringing from each a perfection that the slave had thought impossible. I had a great gift for it. I found their most subtle responses fascinating, and I was thrilled by the endless variety and freshness surrounding me as I wandered the castle corridors and gardens.

  At night on my pillow I sometimes dreamed of King Laurent and Queen Beauty; what had they truly been like in their naked servitude?—the King so strong and spirited, and Beauty with her fabled flaxen hair and blue eyes, a dainty slave admired by all? And I dreamed of Tristan too, Tristan who had spent most of his life here.

  Of course there had been a time when Tristan did go into the outside world. He’d served out his year as pony in the village as punishment for his disobedience when rescued from the Sultan’s palace.

  But his family had called him home not long after Laurent was called home. Tristan’s older brother the King had been killed abroad in a battle. And Tristan had to take the crown. Such was the way of the world. He had not protested.

  Yet three years later, when Tristan’s brother had returned much to the surprise and happiness of the family, Tristan had traveled night and day to return to Bellavalten.

  It was no longer meet that he should be a naked pleasure slave, of course. Queen Eleanor would not hear of it. And Tristan did not ask for such a thing. But yes, he could restore and outfit the manor house he’d purchased and lodge there with Uncle Nicholas and Aunt Julia. And he might have as many naked slaves as he wished. Queen Eleanor welcomed him as a shining member of her Court. And the Queen’s cousins—Lord Stefan, Lord William—and her uncle, the Grand Duke André, were glad to have Tristan in the inner circle.

  After all, it was common for royal slaves to become members of the Court in later years. Princesses Rosalynd, Lucinda, and Lynette had all been slaves long years ago and they made up proud and beautiful members of the bored contingent of ladies-in-waiting gathered with their embroidery around an empty throne in the great hall of the castle. From my uncle’s pages, I knew their stories, and those of others too numerous to name.

  And Prince Alexi, a favorite of the Queen long years ago, had only lately returned, welcomed by the Queen only six months before she’d left. He’d been very happy to rejoin the Court and the royal cousins.

  “Is it so surprising that they come back?” my aunt Julia had whispered. “They were happy here when they were nude playthings. And those who’ve been trained often make the finest trainers.” My aunt now ruled the Queen’s Village as ably as any male mayor ever had. “I knew,” she said, “that Queen Eleanor would forgive Prince Alexi any old offense and allow him to stay.” There was some story there which she did not confide.

  But she and Prince Alexi often walked out in the evenings together, talking of old times, apparently. Prince Alexi had auburn hair, and small delicate features and dark skin, and what a beauty he was now, as handsome as he’d ever been, said my aunt, who remembered him well as the Queen’s favorite. “How she punished him night and day. But then there were rumors . . . and tales . . . but then we can’t talk of those things.”

  Something there that none would confide about Prince Alexi befriending the mysterious Lexius, the steward of the Sultan brought back by King Laurent as a slave, something about Lexius and Alexi displeasing the Queen, but try as I might, I could never get the full story.

  And now my uncle was gone wandering the world, and the Queen and the Crown Prince were beyond reach, and I dared not ask Prince Tristan to let me see the Chronicles of the Kingdom, which Nicholas had shared with me when I was a girl.

  Prince Alexi was still boyishly handsome, with smooth dark skin and quick dark eyes, and an easy laugh, but I found him strangely provocative. Never did he smile at me without my thinking he wanted me to be his mistress, wanted me perhaps to strip off his fine velvet and gold braid, and smack him hard with my belt. He had a way of lowering his eyelids and looking up at me even though he was taller than me, which many former slaves possess. And when our hands now and then touched, I felt a great shock over all my skin as if he were sculptured from sizzling fire.

  One could never know quite what was up with the former slaves who came back to Court.

  Had Tristan been the secret slave of my uncle Nicholas behind closed doors in the manor house? And what about Lord Stefan, the Queen’s cousin—the indecisive one who had failed to master Tristan years and years ago, prompting Tristan to run away? Lord Stefan had always been here, but how afraid he seemed of his quiet blond-haired slave, Becca, as if she held some secret and immeasurable power over him. I’d caught a glimpse of them in the Goddess Grove one afternoon, that old neglected garden on the western side of the castle that the Queen ignored.

  It was late afternoon, and so quiet I could hear only the birds singing. And I’d come upon them in the high grass, the naked Becca with her long flaxen locks straddling the fully clothed lord who lay thrusting and twisting on his back, her oval face upturned and her cold blue eyes on the sky, whispering as she rode his cock, “You will come when I say you can come, and not before! Do you dare to disobey me?”

  I had hurried away. The old neglected Goddess Grove had always seemed a haunted place with its vine-covered marble statues and broken arches. And I avoided it after that. Such a shame, for it could have been a beautiful place.

  But I had more than ever the sense of the torment of those finely dressed lords and ladies who longed to serve with the abandon of the naked slaves but weren’t permitted to do so. As for Becca, she often spanked other slaves for Lord Stefan’s amusement. And it seemed it was Becca who picked the slaves Lord Stefan drove with his paddle along the Bridle Path. Did Becca ever shed a tear? No, nor did she ever look unhappy. And it seemed to me that even the elderly Lord Gregory, the archdisciplinarian of slaves, avoided her. I’d been tempted to borrow Becca of an evening for my own amusement. But why disturb what is best left alone?

  And now in the Queen’s absence all struggled for some day-to-day equilibrium.


  It was full dark when I reached the castle, and I hoped to reach my quarters without any further interruption. But I found Prince Alexi outside my door.

  His youthful face was contorted with pain, and even in the feeble light from the small lamp in his hand, I could see he’d been weeping.

  “What is it?” I asked. I unlocked the door, and putting my arm around him, I drew him into my parlor.

  The fire had been started by my devoted slave, Severin, and the candles on the table had been lighted as well. I took the lamp from Alexi’s hand and set it on the sideboard. He looked utterly lost.

  “Come, sit down, talk to me,” I said.

  “Eva, this is unspeakable . . . ,” he said, shaking his head. He drew a stiff parchment letter out of his velvet doublet. “The Queen . . .” and then he broke off, unable to continue.

  At once, I opened the letter and read it.

  It had been posted from a distant city in the south seas, and was addressed to the Grand Duke André, uncle of Queen Eleanor. The writing was clear and official.

  “It is our sad duty to inform you that your sovereign, Queen Eleanor, and her son, the Crown Prince, are indeed dead, and the search for the wreckage of their vessel has been called off, as their bodies have washed up on our shores, along with several other bodies from the unfortunate vessel and all hope is lost . . .”

  The letter went on and on as to the identification of the bodies and that of others, and there was a brief description of the storm in which the ship had been lost. Two early survivors of the disaster, Princess Lynette and Prince Jeremy, who’d been traveling with the Queen, were on the way back to the kingdom now.

  Alexi sat with his face in his hands, weeping softly, his auburn hair hanging down over his eyes.

  I pondered what I’d always known of him, how he’d been the Queen’s fav
orite slave for so many years, and how he’d somehow displeased her in the end. This was not the time to ask for that story.

  “Who else knows about this?” I asked.

  “They all know—André, William, and Stefan. They’ve sent me to you. None of them is fit to take the reins of this kingdom. None of them is willing! As soon as the slaves find out there will be panic. You don’t know how many dread the day they’ll be sent home free to their families.”

  “Yes, I do,” I said softly.

  I looked up. The Grand Duke André was standing in the open door. He was not an old man, though he was the Queen’s uncle, and his hair was still jet black for the most part and his rectangular face was still handsome.

  “Lady Eva, what are we to do?” he asked. His voice was ragged with emotion.

  I rose at once and invited him to take a chair between mine and that of Alexi. And quietly I went to my desk near the window.

  There was a lighted candle there as it was often my habit to read or write late into the night, and Severin had set out my ink and quill pens and parchment.

  I unlocked a small gold casket that sat on the desk, and I removed from it the sealed letter which Queen Eleanor had given me on that last day before her departure.

  I came back to the table and sat down without asking the bereaved Duke’s permission. He didn’t care. He was comforting Prince Alexi.

  “It is the end of our world,” said the Duke softly now as he looked at me. He did not resemble the Queen, but he had the same black eyes, which often appeared as cold as her eyes, though they did not now. His heavily lined face was wet from his tears.

  “I fear you’re right,” Prince Alexi answered. And he took the Duke’s right hand in his and clasped it. “Bellavalten cannot survive without our gracious Eleanor.”

  I looked down at the letter in my hand. It was addressed in bold and beautiful script to me with the notation “In the Event of My Death.”