Beauty's Release (Page 42)

Beauty’s Release (Sleeping Beauty #3)(42)
Author: Anne Rice

Gathering her voluminous velvet skirts, she made her way up the steps, her tears flowing copiously.

Chapter 19


FOR A LONG time, I stood watching through the little window as Princess Beauty rode away with her father’s men. Up the hill they went and into the forest. And my heart died a little inside me, though I did not completely understand why. Many slaves I had seen released, and many had shed tears, as she had. But she had been unlike any other, shining so magnificently in her slavery that for me she seemed to rival the sun. And now she had been taken so brutally from us; how could it not scar her sensuous and savage soul?

I was thankful that there was no time to brood upon it. The voyage was over, and Tristan and Lexius and I now faced the worst.

We were but a few miles from the dreaded village and the great castle, and my friendly shipboard comrade, the Captain of the Guard, was now once again the commander of Her Majesty’s soldiers. And in command of us.

Even the sky looked different here, closer, more ominous. And I could see the dark woods encroaching, feel the low, vibrant proximity of the old ways that had made of me a slave who loved both subservience and dominance.

Beauty and her escorts were gone from view. I heard steps on the ladder leading down to the cabin where we had gone to watch her, unseen, through the portholes. I braced myself for what was to come.

Yet I was still unprepared for the cold, authoritative manner with which the Captain of the Guard addressed us as he opened the door, ordering his soldiers to bind us so that we might be taken to the castle for the Queen’s personal judgment.

No one dared to question him. Nicolas, the Queen’s Chronicler, had already gone ashore without so much as a farewell glance at Tristan. The Captain was our Master now, and his soldiers went to work immediately.

We were made to lie facedown on the floor, and then our arms were pulled back and our legs bent at the knees so that our wrists might be bound tightly to our ankles, one firm loop of leather binding all four limbs together. And there were no gilded and jeweled fetters here. This was done with coarse rawhide strips that held us quite well, our bodies slightly bowed by the trussing. Then we were gagged by a long belt of leather, passed through our open lips, its two ends then extended to the knot that bound our ankles and wrists and there secured also. It held our mouths open, though covered, and our heads up off the ground and looking forward.

As for our cocks, they were left free and hard to dangle beneath us when we were lifted.

And lifted we were, first by the soldiers who carried us onto the dock. And then each of us was hung from a long, smooth pole of wood, the pole being passed under our bound ankles and wrists, a soldier at each end to carry it.

It seemed more appropriate to runaways than to us, I thought, confused by the roughness. But then I realized, as we were carried up the hill towards the village, that we were rebels. We had rebelled at the rescue. And now this must be accounted for.

And it hit me with full force that we really had left behind all the soft elegance of the Sultan’s world. We were in for the crudest punishment. The bells of the village clanged, apparently in honor of the men who had managed to bring us back. And, as I was jogged along, swinging from the pole, I could see far ahead the crowds that lined the high ramparts.

The soldier who walked in front of me glanced back every now and then. He must have liked the spectacle of a trussed slave swinging from the pole. I could not see Lexius and Tristan because they were being carried behind me. But I wondered if they felt the same new fear that I felt. How much harsher it would all seem after the refinement we had known so briefly. And we were Princes again, Tristan and I. There was no sweet anonymity that we had enjoyed so much in the Sultan’s palace.

Of course, I feared most for Lexius. But there was always the hope that the Queen would send him back. Or keep him at the castle. I would lose him, whatever happened. I wouldn’t feel that silky skin again. But I was prepared for this.

Our ignominious procession entered the village just as I was afraid it would. Crowds met us at the south gates, common people pushing and shoving to get a close look at us. And the slow beat of the drum preceded us again as we were carried through the narrow, crooked streets towards the marketplace.

I saw the familiar cobblestones beneath me, the high gables, the crude leather shoes of the people who lined the walls, laughing and pointing and enjoying the fairly unusual sight of slaves bound like game to the spit as we moved slowly onward.

The wide leather belt pressed against my teeth, but there was plenty of room for air, though I knew that with every deep breath, my chest heaved most noticeably. And though my vision was blurred, I nevertheless stared back at those who looked at me, seeing the same predictable superiority in their faces that I hadn’t seen enough when I was a captured runaway on the Punishment Cross.

How strange it all was: We were home and yet it was utterly new, the variations of the Sultan’s palace having given the village an alarming gleam, my mind keenly aware of each step the soldiers took, though I saw the garden of the Sultan in strange, warm flashes.

In due time, we were carried through the marketplace and out of the north gates. The high, pointed towers of the castle loomed above us. The cries of the villagers were soon left behind, and we were carried uphill at a fairly brisk pace through the hot morning sun, the banners of the castle flapping in the breeze ahead as if in greeting.

I was calm for a little while. After all, I knew what to expect, did I not?

But, when we crossed the drawbridge, my heart started to race again. The soldiers lined the yard on either side to salute the Captain of the Guard. The doors of the castle were opened. All the accoutrements of the Queen’s power surrounded us.

And there were the Lords and Ladies of the Court, come out to watch us being brought in–all the old royal finery that we were accustomed to. I felt the sting of familiar voices, glimpsed familiar faces. And I felt a catch in my throat as I heard the old language, laughter. The ambience of the Court came back. Bored Masters and Mistresses inspected us out of the corner of the eye–men and women who might find us quite amusing if we weren’t in such disgrace. In an hour they would be back to their old occupations.

The procession moved into the Great Hall. I cursed the strap that held my mouth open and my head up. I wished I could bow my head. But I couldn’t. And I couldn’t force myself to look down. I saw the Court assembling in all its glory–heavy velvet gowns with long dagged sleeves; the fine jerkins of the Lords; the throne itself and upon it Her Majesty, already seated, her hands on the armrests, her shoulders covered with an ermine-edged cloak, her hair long and black and twisting, like serpents, beneath her white veil, her face hard as porcelain.