STARS AND SOIL: CHAPTER FOUR
In Which Caitlin Meets Too Many Royals
Note: This is a draft. The contents here may change or alter between now and publication.
Copyright 2023 Dax Murray – All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. It contains depictions, scenes, and discussions of topics that some may want to avoid. I have tried to make this list as exhaustive as possible, but I cannot know everyone's possible triggers and sensitivities. Please know that this book handles mature topics and themes. This chapter contains:
- Riots and Violence
- Consensual Kink and BDSM
The guestroom went unused.
Brenna didn’t waste any time. Her knee crept between Caitlin’s thighs, parting them while Caitlin’s hands were pinned to the wall above her head. “Does this count as free time, Ms. Businesswoman? Or is this part of negotiations for you?”
“I…” Caitlin shivered as she spread her knees to accommodate Brenna’s advances.
Brenna held a hand over Caitlin’s mouth. “What sort of items exchange hands?” She let go of Caitlin’s arms and tossed her to the bed. Caitlin tried to sit up to get her dress off, but Brenna was quicker. She threw the bottom of the dress over Caitlin’s head and ripped off her stockings. The cool air shocked Caitlin, trying to remember how to speak. “Do you barter in cotton?”
Brenna’s finger slowly crept, softly, up to Caitlin’s thighs, and both hands sliding under the top of her dress, pulled Caitlin forward off the bed to take the dress off entirely; Caitlin helped her as much as she could. “Do you barter in silks?”
“I think I heard somewhere that some of the best negotiators are mostly silent.” Brenna pulled the silk belt from the loops on Caitlin’s dress. Caitlin’s eyes widen, her thoughts slowing as she wonders how that silk will be used against her. “Are you a silent negotiator?” Before she could protest, Brenna gagged Caitlin with the belt.
“Tap your hand on my body three times, or kick three times with your foot. Do you understand? Good. Let’s see how my negotiating skills match with yours.” Brenna took the now torn stockings and bound Caitlin’s arms together and affixed them to the molding over her dresser. Then she slowly unbuckled her own belt and set it on the edge of the bed, never breaking eye contact. “Is it the person who shares their wares first that has the upper hand at first? Or is it the other way around?” Brenna mused, one hand under her chin as she looked up. “Ah, but you won’t say, will you? The stalwart silent negotiator.”
Caitlin twitched and pulled against the restraints. Too much, it was getting to be too much and yet not enough. Brenna had been so close to touching her, having her hand exactly where she wanted it. And Caitlin had missed the opportunity to put her own hands where she wanted them to be on Brenna.
“Maybe I should try to get you to talk, to say something that would spoil a deal, or end with you overpaying on goods.” Brenna turned Caitlin around, pressing her against the wardrobe and rubbed her hand in circles on Caitlin’s behind, giving little taps at the end of each. It was too much. The taps became hard and quicker. “What part of transactions is this? Does this part have a name?”
Caitlin writhed, wanting to lean back, to lean into Brenna’s body, into Brenna’s hands. Each circle and tap made it hotter, warmer. The vibrations running up and down Caitlin’s body. Brenna stopped. Then leaned in to whisper Caitlin’s my ear. “Do you want to keep being a good negotiator?”
Caitlin nodded and moaned, she was pent-up lightning, she was a dam ready to burst, she was a goblet about to overflow.
“That’s m’girl. I am hoping you realize that I currently have the upper hand,” she traced a finger down Caitlin’s neck, over her shoulder, and then clasped her breast firmly in her hand. “This might be the best item in your inventory, and I intend to have it.”
Caitlin’s breath hitched. Eyes closed, she pressed herself into Brenna’s hand. But Brenna kept going. Brenna pulled Caitlin back away from the wardrobe, and then pulled her close, and her hands made their down Caitlin’s abdomen. Caitlin whimpered, but then Brenna’s hands stopped, hovering inches away from the spot that Caitlin wanted her to touch. “Oh, please,” Caitlin tried to say around the gag.
“I hear that sometimes you only give a potential buyer a peek at the wares, showing off only a selection of what might be.” Brenna pulled her hands away completely and backed away from Caitlin. Caitlin tried to look over her shoulder to see where Brenna had gone. Her eyes grew wide as she watched Brenna pick up her leather belt. “I was only showing you a fraction of what I can offer, too.” She spanked Caitlin again with her hand, each strike making it warmer, more sensitive.
“Are you ready? Remember what I told you earlier. Three times.”
The first strike came, and Caitlin floated instantly. The second strike came and she was lost in a haze of sea salt and metal. The third strike came and she stopped thinking about anything else, just the heat and yearning. “I like to see the other person’s reactions when I first show my hand. Gauge what they might be thinking. And I think you want another glance or two at my offer. Am I right?”
Caitlin nodded vigorously, getting on her tiptoes and trying to shove her behind closer to Brenna. Brenna cupped a hand around the wet and glistening spot between Caitlin’s legs, one finger entering Caitlin, her entire palm pressed against that spot. Slowly, her finger slid in and out. “And I think I am getting a good feel of what you offer, the prize of your inventory.” Just as quickly, her hand pulled away, and the belt met Caitlin’s skin again.
Each strike, each grab, each word whispered in Caitlin’s sent her higher and higher.
Brenna removed the gag. “Are we close to the pinnacle of our negotiations? Are you ready to shake on the deal?”
“Yes, yes, yes.” Caitlin’s voice was breathy, light. She could remember only one word at the moment. “Yes.” Brenna’s hand reached between Caitlin’s legs again, fiercely, mercilessly.
Caitlin sagged as Brenna removed the restraints, catching her as her knees gave out and she collapsed. Brenna set her down gently on the bed, stroking her hair as she caught her breath. “Slowly, m’girl. Deeply and slowly. There you go.” Brenna examined Caitlin’s wrists, rubbing them and massaging the palms. “Do you have a bath?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Let’s get you there then.”
They found that they had far more to haggle over still after the bath, though.
“THE SEAMS ARE FRAYING,” the Duchess of Clare says, picking at the embroidery on the cuff of her sleeve. Prince Cian had invited Caitlin to a “small” excursion. Small. But the hunting party comprised far more people than Caitlin had expected.
The Duchess of Clare, Aelena, his cousin and the daughter of the Kingthe king’s deceased brother, is the tallest of the hunting party, and the youngest, though with her high cheekbones and razor-sharp nose and her eyes perpetually crinkled in disdain, she could have fooled anyone into believing her to be the oldest. She looks Caitlin up and down upon her arrival as if she was looking at a rotten fish. She nods and says nothing to her, apparently deciding that Caitlin was not worth her time or attention, and is probably just another one of her cousin’s silly infatuations, and so she goes back to complaining about the quality of various things. The dressmaker had not sewn the embroidery on her dress well, the greens in the morning breakfast were too wilted, and her own party’s invitations were made on inferior parchments. What was this country coming to?
“We do not need to have this conversation in front of our guest,” Princess Eleanor says. The prince’s older sister is equally annoyed to be part of this hunting party, but probably because of her proximity to the Duchess Aelena and not her disdain of Caitlin; the tension between the cousins fills the air. Princess Eleanor greets Caitlin kindly enough, her smile sincere as she takes Caitlin’s hand. The glare she throws at her brother afterward, though, would send anyone else fleeing. But Prince Cian, in all his pompous assery, is unphased.
“Don’t you dare go insulting the table linens again; I am taking care of that.” Caitlin recognizes Sir Liam as one of the men who had been with Prince Cian at her fathers’ party. Keeping his chin high, he swaggers over to the Duchess and claps her on the back. “I’m taking care of it.”
His husband, Sir Connor, grins at him and then winks at the Duchess. The two husbands both sport short, neatly trimmed beards and they both seem partial to stroking them.
She rolls her eyes and crosses her arms. “You had better be.”
“Don’t be so sour,” Liam shoots back, flipping his long dark brown hair over his shoulder. “You’ll never catch a lover that way.”
Princess Eleanor sighs. “Cut it out.”
Caitlin cannot help but notice how all of the members of the Royal House of Fola shared the same unnaturally pale blond hair that, certain light, look nearly silver. They all shared the same pale, icy blue eyes.
Princess Daya takes her wife’s arm. Princess Daya is just as warm in her greeting, taking Caitlin’s hand gently in both of hers. She is the smallest of the little party and the eldest by a decade. Her tight-fitting jacket and collared dress shirt make her appear more elegantly masculine than Liam and Connor, both of whom dressed in poorly fitting and tattered breeches and shirts. She seems more open to sullying her clothes than Duchess Aelena, and never likely to complain about the quality of said clothing. Caitlin likes her immediately. The sun makes her deep golden skin sparkle in a way not unlike that of an Ástfríður, spotted with flecks of honey freckles.
“Fine. Where are the horses?” Aelena asks.
Some young adults, though they looked hardly out of their childhood, meet the party at the end of the garden, several horses and hounds in tow.
“Have you ever seen such a beauty?” The prince says as he takes the reins of a black stallion. “I named him Lightning. He is the fastest in the country. Come, let him smell you.” As soon as Caitlin gets close enough, he puts his hand on her back and pulls her close to him. “He won’t bite.”
It is not the horse that Caitlin is fearful of, though. Appraising horses for sale or purchase, making sure those provided to employees were taken care of: all of these are part of her duties. The prince hopes she is scared, which will give him an excuse to be closer to her. Caitlin obliges him, nevertheless, and does not protest when he puts his hand on her shoulder.
“This one will be yours for the day.” One of the youths hands the reins of a small chestnut mare. Caitlin appraises it. The horse is probably nearing her time for retirement, but is otherwise in spectacular health and a beautiful coat. The reins are a fine leather; Caitlin can’t help thinking about the price this would fetch. As the rest of the party mounts their own horses, the prince gestures Caitlin to his right side, “We are hunting foxes today.” He grins at her, expecting some sort of response, but Caitlin can’t figure out what that response is.
“Let the hunt begin; I can’t wait to bring home the best catch!” Princess Eleanor raises her hand to the sky, grinning wickedly at her wife.
“This will be my, let’s see, the sixth time this year bagging one before you?” Daya says to her wife as each swing a quiver over their shoulders, her eyes twinkling. “We both know who is the better huntress.” “Ah, but my catches are always of better quality than yours,” Eleanor retorts.
“You are entitled to your opinions, wrong though they may be,” Daya chides her. They both laugh and kick their horses into a gallop.
The prince narrows his eyes, a dark and sour look on his face. “Well. Let’s get to it.” His petulance is grating. He kicks his own horse, and the rest of the party falls in line behind him.
The forest on the lands to the north of the palace is sprawling, dense enough for fauna to feel safe, but too thick for horses to be unguarded. These lands belong to the monarchy, but the king has given Sir Connor permission to take its lumber and game. A privilege many others could only dream of.
“You can’t tell me that you don’t enjoy this,” the prince chuckles as he halts to find the rabbit he had shot, his sour mood fading away as he gets the first catch. It isn’t the fox that he had wanted, but he takes the opportunity to brag, regardless. He pulls the arrow out and tosses the rabbit in his game bag. “See how the arrow pierced the heart? Don’t you like the rush? The thrill?” When Caitlin does not respond, he continues. “You’ll understand when you get your first catch.”
“Cian, let’s go. You can still brag and show off on horseback.” Sir Connor winks at Caitlin; his jovial laugh carries through the woods. The Duchess rolls her eyes and starts off again.
The prince comes around to help Caitlin back in the saddle. She wants to push him away, but she knows staying within his good graces is vital for both herself and the business she will inherit. Hold him off, but keep him happy enough so that, when he ends this, his opinion of her will still be favorable. She holds back a sigh and allows him to lift her up. His hands linger on her thighs as she settles on the horse. “Not every woman looks as beautiful with her hair tousled from the open forest winds as she does inside the walled gardens.”
She blinks at him, unsure what to say at all. He mounts his horse again. Caitlin hopes that this silent rebuff of his compliment will put him off a little, and make him second-guess his affection. But he chuckles. “A modest lady? What wonderful world have I entered?” He tugs on his reins and takes off again, sending the hounds forward.
The princesses Daya and Eleanor had been teasing each other, and they both accumulated their share of small game, each showing the other their catch and keeping a running tally. When they both surpass the number the prince has so far caught, the whole party tones down their excitement. Princess Daya lowers her bow slightly when she sees her brother-in-law aim for a rabbit and then waits for a second after he lets his arrow loose to shoot hers. His arrow pierces the rabbit, though not perfectly. Daya’s arrow is buried in the ground, only a hair away from it. “Well done, my sister! You might have had this one yourself.”
“Do not believe I am not chiding myself, too. But the catch was yours from the start.” He takes it as a compliment. He does not see the scowl she makes to her wife; a scowl is so quickly replaced with an enormous smile.
He holds his catch high and grins at Caitlin. “Impressive, my lord,” she says. “I could not have made such a catch.”
“We won’t leave these woods without you having a prize of your own!” He jumps off of Lightning tosses the reins to Sir Liam and climbs behind Caitlin on her horse. The party takes off at a slow trot, everyone now quiet as they scan for one last piece of game. Caitlin makes no comments as the prince holds her hips tightly, sometimes running them a little too far up or down for her comfort. She tries to control her breathing, lest she turn around and punch him square in the face.
“Shh. Right there. See it?” The prince points to a squirrel.
Quietly, he gets down from the horse and puts his bow in her hands. Caitlin knows very well how to shoot game, and does not need the prince’s help at all. Yet she lets him adjust her hands and fingers, grimacing as she knows that he is doing it all wrong. “Now pull back. Wait… wait… Let it loose,” he whispers in her ears.
Even hampered by the prince’s help, she does not miss.
As the day presses on, they make their way to a clearing to picnic. Every time the prince tries to boast to Caitlin of his prowess, of his strength, of his intelligence, his cousin mentions his past paramours.
“Remember when you brought Miss Alice here?” “You had a cake like this when we had a party with Lady Amelia.” “Did you help Lady Shennen, or was it Miss Marianna, bag the fox last year?”
Each time she does this, he grows more and more irritated. Each time, Daya tries to steer the conversation back to a subject that Cian will be less sour over. But she can only do so much.
Tiring of her games with the prince, the Duchess says to Caitlin, “So you’re from a merchant family?” “I am, Your Grace.”
“Does your family work with any of the garment makers?”
“We sell fabrics and clothes to some, yes.”
“Do you sell to Liam’s business?”
“I’m not sure, Your Grace. I usually deal with silk merchants; other employees handle cotton and other fabrics. What sort of garments does your family make, Sir Liam?”
“Oh, it’s not my family. It’s a more industrial outfit. I have factories.”
“Have you always worked for your fathers?” The Duchess presses.
“I have, Your Grace.”
“And isn’t it just shameful that they have kept this rose hidden away in some small town?” Cian puts his arms around Caitlin. “I hear they came here often, yet never thought to bring you with them.”
“I preferred to be at home, at our headquarters in Whick,” Caitlin says.
“Home? Is this not your home now?” Cian leans in closer.
“Was there something that kept you there?” The duchess cuts in, brow furrowed.
“I liked it there.”
“Anyone? A wealthy merchant’s daughter surely must have had at least a few overtures over the years,” the Duchess continues, a wolf ready to pounce.
“I am much too busy with my duties.”
“So you had no sweetheart?” She continues. “No one at all?”
Cian looks back and forth between Caitlin and his cousin, equal parts angry and skeptical.
“If you are asking me if I have some lover waiting for me in Whick, I must tell you I do not.”
“I heard otherwise,” the Duchess grins, making eye contact with the prince.
“I do not know what you may have heard, but there is no one in my life romantically.”
“You wound me, cousin!” The prince says. The duchess scoffs. “Have you no feelings for me? I am insulted that you would think this peerless maiden would deceive me!”
Caitlin takes a deep breath, calmly thinking through the best way to proceed. The duchess could have the prince feel as though Caitlin is playing him the fool while having someone in the background. Leading him on while pushing him off. It would humiliate him. That was indeed what she was doing, but not with anyone in the background. But the Duchess was playing on his jealousy. Caitlin looks at the prince. She had studied well, so she knows what he is expecting. But with this card, the best she can hope for is that he will tire of her sooner than he had the others. “I had no reason to believe any would be reciprocated; I would not dream of having feelings for one who would never return them.”
“Ah! You should indeed dream, my rose. You should always hope and believe.”
THE GATES TO THE CITY ARE CLOSED when they returned. The prince had been in a sweater temper as they rode back from the picnic. His affections grew bolder and bolder as they continued toward the palace; he sang, asking others to join in. He boasted of his talents; trying to impress. But each attempt now accompanied by touches or meaningful glances. He would talk about what he wanted for the future, for his days when he will be the most loved, the golden prince, the jewel of the kingdom, the king that would reign in Fayn forever in the memories and history books.
But his speech on the meaning of kingly love halts when the guard told us we could not enter.
“I am the prince; this is my capital; you will let us in.”
“Your Highness, that is the problem. You will want to go in a back way.”
“This is my goddam city; I will go in whichever way I want.”
“My brother, I want to take our horses on another quick run; I think they are still antsy. Please go in without us.” Princess Eleanor turns her horse, and Daya waves at us before they take off again.
He waves his hand in dismissal as they leave. “Open the gates.”
The guards slowly do as they are told.
“I see nothing wrong,” Sir Liam says.
“The guards think too highly of themselves,” Sir Connor responds.
The duchess stays quiet.
They come upon a large crowd, most of them trying to get a better look at something. Sirs Liam and Connor move to the front of the small party and part the crowd. As they got closer, they heard shouting. And then screaming. And then the crowd becomes chaos. Caitlin’s horse rears up, tossing her from it. She rolls as she hits the ground, and then gets swept up in the riot.
At the center of the crowd is a platform. Five guards are trying to pull a dozen people down from it. Pamphlets are flying down into the crowd. Caitlin grabs one and pushes her way further into the crowd toward her home, not bothering to search for the prince and his friends.
“What are you doing here?” A familiar voice says. Diarmuid spins her around to face him. “It is dangerous to be here, for more than one reason.”
“I didn’t intend to be here! I just want to get home now.”
“Where did you intend to be?”
“The prince invited me to a hunt, and we were just returning; I fell from my horse. I don’t know where the rest of them went.”
“This is no good.” He scowls.
“Well, just let me get out of here then.”
He runs his hand through his hair and sighs. “No, you need to get back to the prince. That is the safest place for you, much as I hate to say it. I’ll help you back there. And give me that pamphlet.”
“Diar, you owe answers when I get home.”
He doesn’t reply, just grabs her arm and pushes her back into the crowd in the direction the prince had been. “Now play nice.”
She runs to the formation of guards that had surrounded the prince and his friends. “Find her! Now!” “We don’t know…”
“Prince Cian! Please! I’m here!” She looks back over her shoulder. But Diarmuid had disappeared, and with him, the chance to leave and she has no choice but to return to the hunting party.
“There she is! Get her over here; she is not to be hurt.”
A guard scoops her up and puts her on a horse, and then the party and a handful of palace guards make their way to the palace.
It is not just the prince who is in a foul mood when they get to the palace. Liam had grown more and more irritated as they escaped the crowd, and is now outright red with rage. He pulls the prince aside, dragging him away by the sleeve. The prince dismisses Caitlin with just a wave of his hand and tells the guards to take her home. Caitlin does not want his show of affection, but she had expected it. It is remarkably frightening that he does not wax about her beauty and bemoan the fact that he will have to wait to see her again. He does not even mention inviting her to another excursion.
“This way Miss Pedigree.” A guard motions to her. “You are staying in District Heights?”
“Yes, sir.” She takes one last glance at the prince before allowing herself to be led to a carriage.
Diar is waiting for her, slouching in a chair in the back of the office, scowling. “You never mentioned your date with the prince.” He does not even wait for her to take off her jacket. Caitlin is growing weary of moody men, and Diar is not helping her escape that.
“Hello to you, too. I’ll put on some tea. Sit straight, you’ll be in pain later if you don’t.”
He does as she says, and then runs his hands down his face. “I’m sorry, Caitlin. Everything is just a mess and I can’t do anything about it. Thank you,” he says, taking the mug she hands him.
“Tell me what is going on. What was that all about?”
“It doesn’t matter what it was about,” he threw his hat to the ground. “It doesn’t matter, and you should not concern yourself with it. Not being so close to the prince.”
“You seriously aren’t jealous of him, are you? We’ve had this conversation.” “No, I’m not jealous. I’m scared.”
“No, you will not do this. You will tell me what is going on,” she punctuates her statement with a flick of her spoon against the edge of her spoon and then tosses the spoon down onto the table.
“Fine.” He pulls the pamphlet from his coat pocket and hands it to her.
“Farmers upset at their lords? Taxes paying for palaces? Textile workers upset with working conditions?” She flips through the pages. “Saying these things… This could be construed as encouraging treason.”
“Which is why you can’t have that pamphlet, and why you should not have tried to escape at the demonstration today. If you’d taken off…”
“So this is what the riots were over?”
“Yes, sort of. There are two factions to this. The ones today were the ones who think change can happen peacefully.” He rolled his eyes. “That if we ask nicely enough, we’ll be given what we want.”
“But it became a riot. How is that ‘peaceful’?”
“That’s a brilliant question. But it wasn’t supposed to be.”
She flips through the pamphlet. “Are all of these things true? Is it really this bad? It can’t be, surely.” “Yes, it’s all true. There are farmers working sunup to sundown, and half of their lot has to go to their lords or the the king. And you have seen what that is spent on. There are people in those textile mills and those garment factories that are being worked to death. They are dying, so the factory owner can make a few extra dollars. Do you think people shouldn’t be furious when the wealthy and privileged think of them as disposable? Weighing a life against a larger profit? Calculating how much a life is worth.” The duchess picking at a stray thread, commenting on the table linens. Liam saying he was working on it. The comments at the garden party that the people asking for better were upsetting the gods.
Brenna. The people willing to kill for the chance at finding some mythical port and a road to riches. “I don’t think you can change those sorts of things peacefully,” she says.
“No, probably not.”
“And the other faction?”
“Our meetings are much more secret.”
“You’re part of it?”
“Of course I am. Now do you see why I am so worried? Why I am scared?”
“What does your faction believe?”
“I cannot tell you.”
“Why? If you claim you can’t tell me because you want me to ‘be safe’ then—”
“It’s not that. You must earn the trust of the leaders.”
“When is the next meeting?” This won’t bring Brenna back. This isn’t truly getting justice for Brenna. But it might be close enough. She can at least meet them, maybe it could ease some of the pain in her gut whenever the prince put his hand on her back. Maybe it could fight off the chill every time she thought of the greed so many harbored.
“The next meeting? Caitlin, no. Absolutely not. You go gadding all day with the prince. Do you think that will earn you the trust of the leaders?”
“I am not going to tell him if that’s what you think!”
“I know you won’t; I still need to fix the door you broke. But if you are caught, if we are caught, if anyone in our group gives anything away and you are found, it would be your life. Either at the hands of the royal guards or the hands of the organization’s leaders.”
“It would be yours, too.”
“But it would be torture for you, first. You would be called not just a conspirator, but a spy and a potential assassin. Everyone has seen you; the entire city knows you are his current prey.” He sits up and takes my hands from across the table. “Caitlin, my Caitlin. I have been a terrible friend lately. I should not have doubted you; I should not have assumed you were…Well, I let myself get carried away in emotions. I was jealous of the prince, jealous of what might happen between you—”
“Between me and a selfish prick?”
“Emotions aren’t always logical—”
“You didn’t go to the party because you didn’t want to be recognized if anyone suspected you… That’s why.”
“That is why. Caitlin, I wish I could have been there; I wanted— Fine. I’ll talk to the leaders, see if you can at least attend one of our more benign meetings, see what you can do to earn their trust. If that is what you really want.”
She knows there is more he wants to say, but she wants to put the fight behind them. “I understand. For now, I am hungry. We could go to the pub.”
“That would be wonderful.”
“I think tonight is card night, too.”
“Ah, so you want to lose some money? Duly noted.”