The next day Harland left a note by the bed for me, explaining that he had left earlier for the capital city. To meet his father, with Cinna, I supposed. I stayed in bed for longer than I should have, with a paper due in a few hours. But I finally made my way to my study to type up my work. I was just putting the finishing touches to the paper, when a knock brought my head up. My personal servants knew not to interrupt me while I worked, so the sound was truly a surprise. I felt my mouth fall open when my visitor was announced.

"Essa! You haven't changed at all!"

Vaesa Ralles, fourth daughter of Baron Tilly, walked in, as though she was my bosom friend. I felt a moment of panic, as she approached but calmed myself as she gave me two dramatic kisses on the cheeks.

"He-hello Miss Ralles," I said quietly, hitting "send" on my paper. By rights, she shouldn't call me Essa, but "Your Highness," but she was someone who had actually spanked me in the past, and that made things different. I should have felt awkward if she had anyway, since it just wasn't her way.

"You must be surprised, my dear, to see me?"

"A bit…Harland…His Highness mentioned…" I trailed off. Yes, Harland had mentioned wanting to invite her, but I hadn't expected it to be so soon. And I had hoped…a vain hope, that he had changed his mind.

"He only just reached me, but I happened to be in the area, actually. May I sit?" I felt myself flush as I recalled that I should offer her a seat. I felt so very gauche around Vaesa, and couldn't always collect myself.

"Of course, do sit," I said faintly. I rang for a servant and then asked for some rose wine, which I felt it was safe to do. I felt I needed something stronger, but the horrifying thought that Vaesa may send my drink back, stalled me.

"My dear, I've had the worst luck," she began once the drinks had arrived and been poured. She had simply perched on one of my armchairs like a large tropical bird while we waited. Her suit, for she wore a skirt suit, was of deep lavender, with a pale magenta blouse. A silk scarf, of white and gold wrapped around her neck. Her legs were bare, or else covered in superfine tights, and her feet rested in lavender heels that could not be less than six inches. In my powder blue romper, I felt about five years old. I curled my toes in my tan moccasins, wishing I'd dressed a bit before she'd shown up. But I'd meant to work in private and simply dress for dinner.

"Worst luck?" I repeated when she paused.

"Yes, you see, as a fourth daughter I am not quite the gift to my large family. I have had to find my way, you may imagine." I did not see, and could not imagine, having been a princess all my life. My only suffering was that my husband would not tolerate my disobedience, dishonesty or disrespect, which could be said of any husband, royal or not.

"Of course," I murmured.

"Last time…I had wanted us to be friends, I would be a companion so to speak, but Harland…His Highness, he…"

I felt myself frown as I realized what she was struggling to describe. Harland had expected her to act in the role of a sort of nanny. He had found many of my ways childish and told me he would teach me what he expected. Except, he had recruited, for this endeavor, his former mistress. The effect was that we had naturally clashed. I, who had barely understood the word punishment before my marriage, found I must submit to my husband. But offering that submission to Vaesa had been near impossible. Vaesa for her part, had been kind about it, shielding me in her own way, I had later realized, from worse punishments. Her unique position was not enviable, and she had announced she would be leaving to support her sick mother. I imagined she and Harland had kept up correspondences to some degree, since that point. I knew they did not enjoy intimate relations, at least not of the sort I enjoyed with him. But Vaesa had not been secretive about their previous relationship, and I was too young then to appreciate her situation. I was not much older now, but I had seen a bit more of the lives of unmarried fourth, fifth, sixth daughters in Excelsis, and I understood why she had stayed on at the castle in the first place. I also now appreciated the sacrifice she had made in leaving on her own.

"I…I understand," I found myself saying, to acknowledge her opening.

"You do? Well, I am thankful! His Highness has very…specific expectations, which were not always…comfortable."

Yes, Harland has simply expected us to do as told. Now, with some time behind us, he certainly talked over decisions with me. Even though I sometimes said he didn't, I did notice that he took my thoughts and feelings into account in his decisions. I nodded at Vaesa, waiting to hear the rest of the tale.

"Well, I left, to help my mother, but also because it was rather difficult to…to take on that role. I liked you, and thought we were better suited as companions…and, well anyway, my mother fared better with my being there, but the situation at home…well my situation was not so comfortable. I actually served as a nanny – a real one – to some children in the higher city, but I found it tedious and thought the pay…well you may not know much about that…"

I did, however, understand her story; Hanna's wasn't too different, and she had been saved from engaging in less reputable forms of occupation, by the University Initiative. I had gotten involved and realized that funds were the only thing lacking in what would have otherwise be a life changing program.

"Do go on," I urged her, forgetting my previous reservations.

She smiled at my encouragement and continued.

"Yes, well I thought perhaps I might find a position much closer to what I had had with the prince," she said rather quickly, and I felt my face heat up. She was flushed as well and seemed to take a moment or two to compose herself.

"Did you?" I asked, my curiosity overcoming my reticence.

"Find one? I…yes, but it did not work out, you see. Hence my…luck."

"Was it…was he? What…" I found I couldn't ask the right questions and cleared my throat instead.

"He was not in the market for a permanent situation, and was also not able to support my needs," she said, a bit primly. I found it somewhat hypocritical to put on airs when discussing being a mistress but didn't say so. I supposed one must have dignity, and my question was intrusive. How far had she explored this new man? I wasn't brave enough to ask.

"In any case, when I got His Highness's message, I was already in Excelsis and quite out of luck. I hoped, actually to meet you alone, first. He won't take me in, if you don't like it."

Much you know, I thought wryly.

"Does he know what you've been up to?" I asked, instead.

"Somewhat," she said almost evasively. "I kept him abreast of my mother's condition."

I made no comment, thinking quickly of what it would mean to have Vaesa here. Must she be here? Couldn't she work at the University? But Harland wanted her quite specifically to assist him and me. I thought uncomfortably that there was no helping the situation.

"We have a guest staying, but you should get settled in the South gold suite?" It was her old suite and was close but not too close to either my or Harland's rooms.

"Truly?" She actually looked as though my approval was being requested. I had to believe it was, for she had come to me first, and she had also left by herself. I nodded although I would have to ask Harland when he would speak to her as he'd said he would. Did I want him to? I smiled rather faintly at Vaesa Ralles, who looked perfectly composed somehow, even after such a revelation. I rang for a servant.

"Have Miss Ralles' things sent to the South gold suite and prepare for dinner with four."

"Yes, Your Highness," she said, with a deep curtsy.

"Do you…have you brought many things?" I asked tentatively, not wanting to directly ask if she had appropriate attire for dinner. She could not plan on the lavender suit at the table, surely.

"Oh, only what I've been able to travel comfortably with," she replied airily. My expression must have been more perplexed than I intended, for she seemed to relent with a smile.

"I haven't forgotten the rules of Harland's court, dear child, I won't look so loud when I meet him."

"Oh no, not loud surely!" I insisted immediately, although felt relief and then something perhaps like disappointment? Had I wanted her to look inappropriate? For what purpose? Harland wouldn't even be upset I was sure; only amused very likely. There was a bitter edge to my thoughts, and I looked down at my wine glass which was almost empty. I rang the bell absentmindedly.

"A little stronger, a dash of whiskey perhaps?" I didn't meet Vaesa's eyes as the servant bowed and left. Let her tattle, then at least I'd know where she stood. When the drink arrived, a larger cup, with a single cherry and a tiny umbrella balancing delicately at its edge, I met her gaze over the rim.

"I'd like one myself," she surprised me by saying to the footman.

"Of course, my lady," he acknowledged with a bow.

"It is rather early, but it looks quite delicious."

"It is," I murmured after a pause.

We chatted casually about the impending delegation, and I considered, but decided against telling her about the dance. I wondered if I might still manage to do it, as ridiculous as it now seemed. Hanna had jokingly suggested I wear a mask, and a less revealing suit, as my skin color was a clear giveaway. It wasn't so far fetched a thought, and I would only be doing it to support the other women, not as a statement myself. No one would know, Harland least of all, as he would definitely not expect the defiance… Or perhaps he would I thought, guiltily now, of his punishing me for this exact crime. Well, he'd already punished me, right? I couldn't lie to myself; I knew there'd be hell to pay if…or when he found out.

It was still some hours to dinner, when Vaesa said she would take a nap and retired to the South wing. I texted Harland, simply telling him that we had a surprise guest.


It's a surprise…

My phone's dying…see you soon! I sent the second message quickly, so he wouldn't demand an answer I'd have to provide. I was just about to close my phone when another message came through.

Chelsea and Adelie will be joining us for dinner.

I wanted immediately to inquire about this development, but I'd just said my phone was dying… Ugh he'd probably sent that to annoy me. I turned off my phone for good measure and plugged it into its charger before stomping out of the room. Why were they both coming to dinner? Had Chelsea truly figured out Cinna's identity, or lack thereof?

In my rooms, I paced the floor a few times, before breaking down and calling Harland from the landline.

"Hello, Essa." He sounded amused.

"Good evening, Harland," I replied, biting my lower lip. I felt a warm tingle shoot up my core when he said my name.

"Is your phone charging up?"

"Uh…um yes, it is."

"I have a good guess who our new guest is, but I'll give you a chance to tell me."

"Ah…I did mean it to be a surprise…"


"It's Miss Ralles, Vaesa Ralles," I interrupted quickly. As if he could forget who she was or knew more than one Ralles.

"Thank you," he said magnanimously. "She is a bit early though; I'll need to speak to her." He seemed to contemplate that to himself.

"She told me about how she left, and why and what she's been doing," I blurted out, then immediately regretted it. Perhaps she shouldn't have? The conversation was either wildly inappropriate or was said in confidence. Or both. He was silent for a few moments, before sighing deeply.

"Did she?"

"Not so much…everything…just her mother…and…just that really…" I trailed off, kicking myself for having spoken at all.

"Just that? What has she been doing?" I thought quickly.

"She mentioned working in an…er…educational position, that brought her to the area, so when she got your message, it was easier for her to come here, rather than write back." It sounded smooth enough.

"I see," he said contemplatively. "Well, I'm glad you've taken her arrival so well."

"I…I wonder…have you talked to her yet? I wonder if…you might not…if you might tell me first?"

"I haven't spoken to her," he said shortly. He seemed to pause to take a drink, before continuing. "And if and when I do, that isn't something requiring a discussion with you, Essa."

"But you said…you said—

"Essa, I never said I would consult you before speaking with Vaesa. And why the sudden interest?"

"Because she doesn't like punishing me either!"

"Did she say so? That seems like something better kept between the two of you."

"But Vaesa—

"Is she Vaesa to you, now?"

He sounded amused, and even chuckled over the phone. I frowned but would not correct myself. He had found it funny, that Vaesa could make me mind her, when we'd first met. Perhaps because she minded him so well. I didn't see the humor in the situation.

"She said—


"Stop joking!"

"But I'm not!" His insistence made me want to hang up. But that would have been unforgivably rude. I huffed into the phone and stayed silent.

"Essa? Darling, don't take it so seriously."

"I'm not," I shot back.

"And don't get rude with me," he added in a more serious tone.

"I'm not."

"Little minx, you just earned yourself a trip over my knee." My stomach tightened and the phone felt heavy in my hand.

"I…but I wasn't being rude…I said…"

"Are you arguing with me?" I was silent, for a moment.

"No…I was…I was just saying…I just sounded upset, so it sounded—

"Oh, I know you were upset, and so I warned you, and now you are arguing with me."

"I'm not…I'm sorry," I finished in a small voice. Tonight, was supposed to be a good night. I wanted to hear about Cinna, and Adelie was joining us for dinner, and I had even been excited to see Chelsea again. I found myself sitting on the floor, clutching the phone in both hands

"Please don't spank me," I whispered into the phone.

He'd punished me two times this week already and it felt almost like when we were first married. Back then, I'd begun to think I was surrounded by landmines; I was rude, disrespectful, didn't answer questions quickly enough, complained whenever I was told to do something, sometimes just refused altogether. Harland was certainly patient, but the experience was largely painful for me. He wanted a biddable wife, who obeyed him without question, to the letter of his laws. It was only when I was just frightened enough of being punished to be good, that I'd gotten to see the side of him that teased, joked, played and treated me to anything I wanted. He rewarded equally, punishments or presents, and there was no grudge held after either. He never remarked on his largesse whenever I was disobedient or begrudged me a gift after I'd already been punished.

"Don't," he replied, shortly, taking another gulp, "be naughty then, Essa,"

"Just…just for tonight? Please? I still hurt…"

"The one has nothing to do with the other. And what's happening tonight?"

"You said Chelsea and Adelie were coming," I answered.

"Oh, they'll be busy, you needn't worry about them. Sorry, darling, I must go. I'll be back for dinner, we'll talk then. Okay?"

"Okay, but—

"Essa." There was a warning there.

"Okay, yes, Harland."

"Good girl, goodbye now."

"Buh-bye," I said in a tiny voice.

The line clicked off and I hung up on my end. How had I earned a punishment in under thirty minutes? And why would Chelsea and Adelie both be busy? I should have just restrained my curiosity, and none of this would have happened. I also felt guilty having told so much of what Vaesa had discussed with me to Harland. She hadn't said we were speaking in confidence, but there had been the implication. Speaking to me of trying to enter the service of another man was certainly not something Harland would have liked. Although I had not told Harland that part, it occurred to me that whatever she had told him, was likely not the full scope of her experience. I sighed and looked at my watch: an hour until dinner. I would take a bath before getting ready, I thought, ringing for a servant.