A Deceptive Alliance
Sydney Blackburn © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Kel was as nervous as any bride as he prepared to take his sister’s wedding vows to Prince Darin of Pervayne. More specifically, the prince’s proxy, a duke to whom Kel had never been introduced.
It wasn’t the first time he’d dressed as his twin, but never for occasions of state—her wedding, of all things!—and never before had the consequences of discovery been so great.
Twins were considered an ill omen in the kingdom of Pervayne, so Kel had been sequestered upon the arrival of the foreigners in a tower that had fallen into disuse. Isabel, who had always known that, as the king’s niece, her marriage would be arranged, had seemed resigned to her fate right until a few hours ago. She’d stormed into Kel’s draughty chamber in tears and swore she would only marry for love.
Kel had tried to reason with her, but that had resulted only in Isabel accusing him of betraying her before she left in as much of a flurry of silks as she’d arrived.
When her maid, Molly, was unable to locate her mistress in order to dress her for her wedding, she’d sought out Kel. He and Isabel spent a great deal of time together, under normal circumstances, and it was reasonable to assume that, even if they weren’t in company, Kel would know where she was. But he hadn’t.
He had donned a hooded capelet to search out Isabel’s usual haunts, without giving away his close relation to her, while Molly waited nervously in Isabel’s chambers.
Unable to find Isabel anywhere, he’d returned to her chamber, certain she must be there, letting Molly array her for the ceremony.
By that point, finding someone in the family—his cousin, the crown prince, for example—would delay the proxy wedding.
Kel and Isabel had been raised in the royal palace after being orphaned at the tender age of three. They knew almost as much about the king’s policies as his own children, their cousins. Kel understood this ceremony, proxy though it might be, was an important aspect of the treaty King Maurice of Karleed had negotiated with King William of Pervayne.
Now Isabel was gone, the proxy wedding only an hour away, and Kel was in his sister’s undergarments with his sister’s lady’s maid. “You could simply tell the king your sister’s run off,” the maid, Molly, suggested as she combed out Kel’s hair.
“I wish it was that simple. But it’s still a much-needed political alliance and informing the prince’s envoy that ‘oops, we’ve misplaced the bride’ may be taken poorly.”
“She is twenty,” Molly said with the kind of reproof only many years of personal service could get away with. “Time she wed and got over her foolish—”
Kel nodded in the mirror, jerking the brush stroke somewhat painfully. Already his hair, normally worn in a single plait down his back, hung in loose dark waves over his shoulders. It softened the planes of his freshly-shaven jaw and angular cheekbones. “I know of her lovesickness for the gardener’s first apprentice.”
Molly tutted. “If the world did not hold a woman’s virtue higher than a man’s, she’d have got him out of her system by now.”
Kel coughed out a surprised laugh at the lady’s frankness. “You think it’s merely a passion of the flesh?”
“I’m a woman myself,” she remarked. “I know of these feelings. Many a young woman in the palace feels the same for you, I’ve no doubt.”
“Pardon my frankness, my lord, but while it is fairly common knowledge among the staff at Castlemere that your eye never falls on the fair sex, many a maid desires to be the one to ‘fix’ you. Granted, many others are relieved to know there’s a man of rank in the palace who’s safe to encounter in a dark stairwell.”
“I hadn’t realized I was so transparent,” Kel said cautiously.
“Oh it’s none of ours what the above stairs get up to,” Molly said cheerfully, adopting a broad, country accent.
“I can see her fascination with the gardener’s first apprentice, though,” he said in a thoughtful, if hesitant tone, still studying his reflection. The chemise he wore had a scooped neckline and only the thinnest of straps to hold it up. The delicacy of the fabric served to emphasize the most unladylike shape of Kel’s arms and shoulders. Because his sister dodged needlework to join him in the yard learning swordplay, her arms were almost as muscled as his—the sleeves of her gown wouldn’t strain if they were of a close-fitting style.
Molly chuckled. “Simply to look at, he’s a fine specimen, especially when he strips down in the heat, but my mistress believes she’s in love with him.”
“Could she be? I’ve heard love is a fickle thing.”
“It is. But for people like you and the mistress, love and marriage are completely different things, my lord. Marriage is—”
“An alliance, a joining of houses,” Kel finished with her.
“You really should not be taking her place.” She lifted the frothy concoction Isabel was to take her vows in. “Come stand up and let me help you into this. Then we’ll see where we need to accentuate with some well-placed padding.”
“It’s a proxy wedding. If the groom needn’t be here, neither does Isabel,” he said, trying to hide his uncertainty of the truth of his words. “What do you know of padding? Do you dress other men in women’s clothing?”
“Naive child,” she mock scolded, dropping the heavy skirt over his head and tugging it into place around his waist. She quickly tightened the skirt strings. “You think every woman is naturally endowed with breasts ample enough, hips broad enough to suit herself?”
“I hadn’t ever thought about it, finding neither ample breasts nor broad hips desirable,” he said. His previous adventures in Isabel’s clothing had been wrought in secret, Isabel powdering his complexion paler and lacing him into one of her awkward bodices.
The ivory skirt was full and of a rather stiff fabric that someone had spent a great deal of time sewing pale pink, ivory, and white fabric flowers to, making it seem almost fluffy. “I think you can do without hip padding,” Molly said, giving him a critical look.
She helped him pull the bodice over his head, being careful of the hair she just dressed. She tugged the lacing at the back and then moved to the wardrobe to fetch two small bags. She handed them to him. “Put these in your bodice. It’s millet, which gives a natural enough shape, but it won’t pass a squeeze test. Not that anyone should be grabbing at your chest, anyway.”
Kel didn’t admit he was familiar with them. Nor did he ask how it was Molly knew of them. He simply did as she instructed. Today would be the first time he’d have to fool people in broad daylight. Including his own relatives.
Molly laced him up tight and fixed his hair before standing back to study him critically.
He gazed over at the heavy curtain drawn back to let in the light while Molly flexed the small grain bags on his chest to get them to appear “natural.” She hadn’t explicitly denied dressing other men in women’s clothing, and he wondered again at her apparent skill, and her knowledge of the small bags—had she told Isabel of them or had it been the other way around? He didn’t dare ask.
“Forgive me for saying so, my lord, but as remarkable as the resemblance between you and her ladyship is, I think this is unwise.” Molly fixed a high collar of southern lace around his neck to disguise his otherwise bare shoulders and the Adam’s apple of his throat. Satisfied, she settled a headpiece, composed of a mix of real and fabric flowers over his forehead.
His image in the full-length mirror told him he was his sister’s doppelganger. Small differences gave it away—the set of his shoulders, as becoming as they appeared beneath the lace; the width of his jaw; the size of his hands. Full sleeves of southern lace gathered loosely at his elbows and his hands had been pumiced and rubbed with a light oil to feel smooth in spite of the calluses he’d gained training horses. His fingernails had been buffed and polished. “I hate my sister,” Kel muttered.
Molly tsked and pulled out a jar of red cosmetic, smearing it on his mouth and then wiping it off. The mirror showed a stain of it remained on his lips, making them appear fuller, more feminine. “You have a nice mouth, my lord, but every little bit helps.”
Kel nodded. He didn’t doubt he could fool anyone from Pervayne. Fooling his cousins and his aunt and uncle, though, that was another matter. He had no time to explain that to Molly. Already servants were knocking at the door, to escort the Lady Isabel to Castlemere’s small family chapel.
Isabel’s feet were more delicate than his, but he owned a few elegant pairs of slippers for court, and the skirt was long enough that, as long as he walked in short, quick steps, his feet would never show for more than a few seconds. Nobody would be looking at his feet, anyway. He hoped.
His uncle, King Maurice, waited outside the chapel to lead him in. Suddenly terrified that Molly had been right and this was a horrendous mistake, Kel hardly dared to breathe. Any second now, he was certain his uncle would realize he had the wrong twin on his arm.
Maurice led him to the priest in front of the chapel and patted his hand as he leaned over to whisper, “I’m proud of you, niece.”
Kel swallowed. He didn’t think he sounded much like Isabel, so he kept his mouth shut and nodded. He would have to speak when the priest told him to “repeat after me,” but until then…
Terrified of what he was promising in the chapel of the many-faced god, Kel stammered out the final words of the vows, “I belong to you, Prince Darin, and you belong to me.” Under other circumstances, it might be considered quite romantic.
The prince’s proxy, Duke something or other, placed Kel’s hand on his elbow, and they walked out to a spray of flower petals, filling the air with the heavy scent.
“Savoy,” Roget said, “May I speak with my cousin a moment?”
Savoy—that was the Duke’s name.
“Of course,” Duke Savoy said with a deep incline of his head. “It would be unseemly for me to spend too much time in the princess’s company, anyway.” He turned to Kel and made the same obeisance. “We’ll be leaving Castlemere at dawn, Your Highness. Breakfast will be awaiting you and your travelling companions in your carriage.”
Kel swallowed and said, “I look forward to the journey, and more, the arrival.”
When he was out of hearing, Roget grabbed Kel’s arm and said, “What the hell are you two playing at? Do you know how important this is? It’s not a game!”
As crown prince, only the king might know better than Roget how important it was, but Kel was certainly not unaware. “I know. Don’t you think I was terrified the entire time? Isabel ran off at the last minute, and no one could find her! I didn’t have time to ask for guidance; I only did what I thought was best.”
“She’ll be here in the morning?”
Kel sighed. “I hope so. She’s decided she’s in love with the gardener’s first apprentice—”
“Every woman in Castlemere is in love with the gardener’s first apprentice,” Roget growled, impatient and frustrated.
Kel couldn’t imagine why—Roget was the crown prince and not unattractive, surely no woman would spurn him in favour of a gardener’s apprentice, no matter how handsome he might be? He shook his head, more important considerations on his mind. “I swear, all this week she seemed to understand and accept the necessity of the alliance.”
Roget sighed. “Then I suppose I owe you thanks. I guess a proxy marriage is still valid when both parties are using proxies.” He grinned suddenly. “Terrified, huh?”
“The only thing more terrifying will be my own wedding,” Kel said, not needing to fake his solemnity. He didn’t expect to see understanding in Roget’s eyes. “You…do not look forward to marrying, either?”
“It’ll be different for me. I have a chance of growing to care for my wife. I know it won’t be so easy for you.”
Chagrined, he asked quietly, “Does everyone know of my…peculiarity?”
“Not my parents. They’re oblivious. No one dares say it aloud. But honestly, Kel, you’ve twenty years and a pretty face. Many a maid in the palace or city would lift her skirts for you, if you had the slightest inclination. I know when you’ve taken Isabel’s place at a ball it wasn’t because she was tired.”
Kel felt an embarrassed heat steal over his face. Taking Isabel’s identity at a ball had allowed him to dance with all the handsome men. Not that he could flirt too much, because it would come back to his sister. “No one else knows it’s me, though, right? I’m not embarrassing the family?”
“No, of course not. I’d have said something if you were. But if you ever act on your desires, you need to be extremely careful.”
Kel’s blush deepened. “What makes you think I haven’t?”
“Apart from the red currently on your face?” Roget sighed again, his smile wry. “There are so few others who share your peculiarity, as you put it, that it would be a difficult secret to keep in Castlemere.”
Kel had found a few rather accommodating men among the travelling entertainers hired by the palace, but he kept that information to himself. His blush was not caused by his cousin’s assumption but by the memory of a juggler not long passed through the city gates. His parti-colour had been cut in such a way to hug every muscle of his torso, and though most eyes were on the objects he manipulated so skillfully, Kel’s gaze found and stuck to the muscles controlling the objects.
After the performance, the juggler had amiably and obviously flirted with the ladies, while flirting much more subtly with Kel. Not until the end of the evening had Kel discovered whose favours the juggler actually desired.
He had yet to know all the things the juggler had whispered to him, of the things that happened between men, but the two had done much. More than any of Kel’s other fumbling encounters with passing entertainers.
He could have been the family scandal, but his twin kept him restrained. He knew his behaviour affected how good of a match she made. Third son of the King of Pervyane had seemed very good, to him. “I suppose now that Isabel is married, my uncle’s eye will turn to me.”
“As you’ll be Lord Kindere, you’ll be expected to marry and uh…yes, he’s considering a rather lot of offers. I’ve been trying to advocate for you.”
“In what way?” Kel fidgeted. “I look forward to accepting my inheritance in every way save one. I don’t know if I could, er…perform for a woman.”
“I’m sure many a woman does her duty by picturing her husband as a younger, more handsome man.”
Kel grinned. “I should picture my wife as a young, handsome man?”
“If that’s what it takes to get the job done.” Roget smiled after his words. “I will do my best to find you a biddable wife, one who’ll not begrudge you your true nature.”
Kel didn’t know what to say to that. The idea he could be married and still engage in sexual relations with men didn’t sit well with him, but neither did spending the rest of his life with no more release than his own hand. “I thank you for that.”
“Be aware that alliances without heirs are often short-lived.”
Kel grasped Roget’s arm. “Read your history, cousin. Alliances with heirs are often very short term as well.”
“True enough. Go become yourself. It’s unnerving to see you looking so divertingly pretty.”
Kel laughed. “With pleasure. Why do women wear all this froufrou?”
“Because men find it attractive.”
Kel stopped mid-turn and raised an eyebrow. “Not all men.”
“I’m afraid to ask what you find attractive.”
“Well,” Kel said thoughtfully, a twinkle in his eye. “The gardener’s first apprentice…”
“Not you, too, you brat! Go, before I’m accused of striking a lady!”
Holding his skirt immodestly high, Kel burst into laughter as he ran back to Isabel’s chambers.