One

I spent most of the day in his suite of rooms, watching a drama on his iPad and ordering for a supply of snacks to be sent up. I called for Callie sometime in the middle of the afternoon and asked if she had met my husband. She shook her head, looking somehow younger today than when I'd first met her. I resisted the temptation to ask her more questions, considering that Addy would not want it, and she would tell me more herself. She played chess well, and knew some card games, I was able to observe, before Jenni arrived to announce it was time for dinner. I checked my phone, Harland would be arriving soon; he always made it back for dinner together.

Reluctantly, I left his suite for mine, knowing he'd be more annoyed by having to wait for me, than pleased at my staying to welcome him.

Callie was seated across from me, looking fetching in a green jumper, and plaid pleated skirt. I was pleased she wore black tights, matching mine; bare legs were not allowed at dinner. I was smoothening out the pleats of my navy dress, when Harland walked in. I stood and Callie took my cue, taking to her feet too. I could not tell the sort of curtsy she gave but considered that it should have been deeper than mine. I felt a bubble of excitement as Harland got closer; his smile perhaps, or the appreciative glint in his deep blue eyes as he approached me.

He took my chin and kissed me on the mouth, without a word.

"I missed you," I mouthed. He merely smiled, stroking the edge of my jaw, before turning to our guest. I wanted to reach for the soft fabric of his turtleneck, feel for the hard muscle that was poorly disguised beneath. But that would be inappropriate with Callandra watching.

"Miss Day, it is a pleasure to welcome you to our home. Queen Asa is a very good friend, and I am always willing to be at her service."

I swallowed as he mentioned my mother, who had no concept of Callandra's existence. Was he being polite or teasing me? I felt a tendril of discomfort creep up my spine.

"Please sit," he urged, taking the head of the table. We both obeyed, Callie with a vacant smile, that made me wonder for the millionth time, who she was.

Dinner was a quiet affair, Harland asking innocuous questions about how we had spent the day. I felt a touch of guilt at doing no work, when he turned an amused eye to me. He made no remark however, and we finished our meal in silence. I asked to be excused, considering that I might actually go do some studying this evening.

"Darling," he stopped my exit, "I didn't excuse you." I paused; he was correct, but it had been such an automatic exchange that I had not noticed the absence of his assent. I felt my face heat up and could feel Callandra's eyes drinking in the interaction.

"Sit, please," he gestured casually to my chair. There was nothing casual in the look in his eyes. It made me want to run out of the dining room. I forced myself back into the seat and clutched my hands together in my lap.

"Callandra," he said, still looking at me, "I am meeting you for only the second time, and unfortunately you have managed to inspire my ire. Do you know why?"

"Your…your majesty…highness…" She stuttered the words and turned a panicked look my way.

Harland turned an almost lazy glance toward her, and then shook his head.

"You know who I am, Cinna; your sister must have told you. You should stop the subterfuge. Now."

Cinna?

"Cinna?"

Callandra, or perhaps Cinna, had seemed to turn to stone, and now observed my husband in apprehension.

"What does Banna want? And why could she not approach me in a more conventional manner?"

I was confused but was quickly putting the puzzle together. Banna of Dorna, the youngest Queen in the West world, was quite familiar to me. I hadn't known she was acquainted with Harland.

"Uncle Tordin has invaded, and he has called in armies from the South. Banna had to send me off-world, or he would have taken me too. She has…she has been helping Adelie with off-world travel and I…I used to go out for…well entertainment." Here she paused, for Harland had raised a questioning brow.

"Nothing dangerous…or…or bad," she continued quickly. "But I thought I could pretend to be from there and see if she would guess. Then our uncle came, and I had to hide somewhere, so Banna sent me off-world, thinking I had never been, you see. So, I sought out Adelie, and hoped…hoped I could get help. I thought perhaps Prince Chelsea…"

She stopped, for here Harland had seemed unable to control a bark of laughter.

"But he began asking unfortunate questions, I suppose?"

She nodded with a flush.

"Is Banna alive?" His tone was softer at the question.

"He's keeping her alive until the spring festival, when a new leader may be chosen," she replied quietly. He nodded, looking pensive.

"Chelsea doesn't agree with involving ourselves in other worlds, you would not have gotten far with him."

"Did he tell you he suspected her?" I asked, feeling indignant.

"Essa, I wanted you here to satisfy my curiosity about your involvement in this matter. But we have business to take care of ourselves, don't we?"

I felt a knot form in my stomach, but I nodded. I murmured a very tiny affirmation.

"Very good, would you wait for me in your rooms?" My rooms? Had he misspoken? Surely… And I wanted to hear more about Cinna. I bit my bottom lip, debating my words.

"May I…" I began, but he cut me short.

"No, you may not. Go now, wait for me."

"But I want to stay," I couldn't help saying.

He took a long sip of his wine before putting the glass down and snapping his fingers. Almost immediately, a servant appeared at the door, bowing low in greeting.

"Have a birch brought here, green and freshly cut," he said, and the man simply bowed and left. I was on my feet, but he shook his head at me.

"Sit down, Essa."

"I…I'm sorry, I didn't mean not to mind you, I just…I'll go now…please?"

"No, you'll sit, as I've just told you."

"But…I'm…I want…" I felt very foolish now; of course, Harland would react this way. It was like playing with knives and not expecting to get cut.

"Essa, you won't like what I do, if you're not sitting when that birch arrives."

That was enough; I could either sit or run, the latter option would probably have worse consequences. I sat once more, staring down at my lap; I couldn't care less about Cinna now.

"Hey," he said into the silence, "Look at me." I looked up reluctantly, feeling pretty small.

"I know you're interested, but you also know better." My eyes flickered uncomfortably to Cinna and saw that she was staring in almost awe at Harland. "When I tell you to do something, you do it, correct?"

"Yes, sir," I replied in a tiny voice. As if on cue, there was a knock at the doors.

"Come in," Harland said, still holding my gaze.

My only wish was that he wouldn't beat me now, that he would send Cinna away, or that he would wait until we were upstairs. It was all I could do, not bolting for the door, when the man brought the birch and laid it on the table beside the prince. He nodded at the man, who bowed once, before leaving and shutting the door. Harland for his part, merely picked up and examined the birch, green sticks, tied expertly together. He turned to Cinna, still fingering its length.

"How long ago did your uncle arrive in Dorna?" Cinna for her part seemed to recover quickly from the interlude and answered promptly. Although there was also something threatening about Harland with a birch rod that inspired quickness.

"A week or so? He was well prepared; he took the castle easily." There was a bitter edge to her voice at this admission.

"Perhaps he was aided by someone on the inside?" His expression was unchanged, and he seemed to be testing the flexibility of the rods.

"I wondered…I cannot say."

"You don't know, or you cannot say?"

"I…I don't know, I'm sorry. My sister handled state matters, you see."

"I do," he replied shortly, after staring at her for a moment.

"Now, do excuse us, for tonight. I will call for you tomorrow morning, we shall have to involve my father." He said the last almost dryly, as though he saw some hidden humor in needing to involve the king.

Cinna rose, curtsied deeply and walked quickly toward the door. It was almost as if she wanted to escape the tension in the room. When she shut the door behind her, you could have heard a pin drop.

"Come here, Essa."

I didn't even consider disobedience, wanting, instead, to show how very good I could be. I reached him quickly, noticing now that my chest rose and fell more rapidly than before.

"When was the last time you disobeyed me, Caressa?" His use of my full name scared me perhaps more than the birch he held.

"Um…" I began, thinking.

"Have you forgotten?" He tapped the branches on my arm, and I jerked. I shook my head rapidly, trying to organize my thoughts.

"I…I ordered the movie…the one with…the one you said…" I was stumbling over my words because he was fingering the birch and looking at me in that piercing way as though assessing how best to punish me. He pushed out of his chair, rising and towering over me. It took an absurd amount of courage not to cower or run, but I felt myself shaking.

"Essa, I want you to answer me when I ask you a question. Full sentences, none of this stuttering, do you understand me?"

"Mhmm, yes, sir," I said, nodding. "I meant the movie that was rated "Explicit," that was the last time."

"What did I say that last time?"

He pulled the chair out further, and sat once more, waiting for my answer.

"That…that you would b-birch me…only please, I'm sorry, I just wanted to know who she was."

"Come, lay across my knees," he gestured me closer.

"Please, Harland, I didn't…I just wanted…" I was twisting my hands together and looking down at his lap, fear clouding my vision.

"Essa!" He said my name sharply and it brought my eyes up to meet his. "What you're doing now, is making this worse. I already had cause to punish you tonight, didn't I?"

"Y-yes, s-sir."

"Don't make this worse, Essa."

"Please, please, I'm sorry," I knew my words were distorted as my throat tightened. He sighed and put the birch on the table.

"Essa, you can't just do what you want, do you understand that?"

"Ye-yes, I do, I'm sorry."

"I'll give you a choice, lay over my knee now, and we'll resolve things here. Or I'll take you upstairs and what you'll get is a whipping." A choked sob escaped me. Harland had only ever whipped me once; he'd tied me down and I'd thought I'd die.

"Well?" He wanted me to answer.

"I…I'll go on your lap," I whispered, feeling defeated.

"Oh? Well now you'll need to ask me for your birching before I accept that lackluster response."

Hard eyes met mine, and I almost broke, and ran for the door. Instead, with many sobs and sniffles, I got the request out. Luckily, I suppose, he accepted this, and beckoned me forward. His thighs felt hard against my abdomen and I immediately felt a wave of panic as he took both my hands behind me. I felt him lift my dress, and I moaned, squirming across his body. He smacked me once, sharply and I stilled myself. He didn't say a word as he took down my tights and briefs. He moved me forward, so I felt like I was hanging precariously across his thighs. It was hard, having my hands trapped behind me, and I had to remember that he wouldn't let me go. Forcing myself to think about this, I was almost shocked when the first spank came. Almost. I cried out and felt the urge to try to squirm away. The smack was followed by several others in quick sensation. I couldn't help squirming now, my bottom soon on fire. Again, and again his large hand fell, I was crying freely and loudly, especially as he encountered the delicate skin where my cheeks met my thighs. How, how could his hands feel so hard?

"No, no, please, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" I would have promised anything for him to stop, but the frightening thought that he wasn't finished remained. When he stopped, I kept crying, but stopped trying to cross my legs. They were trapped in my tights in any case.

"You would be done now, Essa, that was all I would have given you," he said, his large hand actually soothing the fire in my bottom.

"I am?" I asked tentatively.

"Well, no, not now. We still have to deal with your disobedience, don't we?" I wailed loudly at this and squirmed in frustration over his thighs.

"Please, please Harland, I'm sorry, I won't do it again!"

He actually chuckled, continuing to stroke me.

"Yes, possibly not for a while," he said shortly. "If I let go of your hands, do you promise to keep them out of the way?" I couldn't answer, making a sound that was just a long whine with sobs injected. He smacked me again and I started crying softly. Finally, I got out a very muffled yes. I gained the freedom of my hands and brought them in front of me.

"You may hold my leg, but if you let go, we'll do this with you over the table. Is that clear, Essa?"

"Ye-mhmm, yes, s-sir." It was hard to talk and cry, and I wished he didn't insist on so many actual answers from me.

"You're doing great, love, now be a good girl for the rest." I found a strange pride in being told I was being a good girl, even if for my punishment. The first stroke of the birch made me question that, and I must have screamed, I actually could not have been sure. Seven more times, the birch fell, the force not tempered at all by the limited swing he had with me over his thighs. It was actually easier for me, mentally to be this close to Harland. I held on desperately to his leg, through the whole thing.

I may not even have known he stopped if I didn't feel the massaging warmth of his hands on my bottom.

"Shh, it's okay, it's over." He held me there for some minutes, rubbing my back and bottom, as I calmed down. Finally, with much coaxing, he turned me over, so I sat on his lap.

"Will you live?" He asked, with a muted smile. I was still sobbing and buried my face in my hands now. He pulled me closer, and stroked my arm, enveloping me in his warmth.

"Hush, hush love, I know it hurts, but it's okay now."

"Bu-but I said I wouldn't do it again," I got out finally.

"Do what again?"

"No-not mind you," I said, plaintively.

"Darling, I didn't punish you because I don't believe you, but because you didn't do as I said in this particular instance."

I sniffed, squirming a little where I sat. My bottom hurt, but I did like that he was holding me so dearly.

"Do you understand why I punished you?"

I made a small sound of assent, and nodded my head, which thankfully was enough for him.

"Let's not repeat this too soon, okay?"

"Mhmm," I concurred, cuddling closer to him. We stayed like that for a while, and I must have fallen asleep, because I woke up in his bed, under the blanket. How had he taken off my clothes without waking me, though? I didn't question it too long, feeling myself drifting back to sleep.