Home > Knightfall (Tangled Crowns #1)(8)

Knightfall (Tangled Crowns #1)(8)
Author: Ann Denton

The man turned back but didn’t face me. He faced sarding Declan. Declan shook his head.

The butler was out of the room before I could argue.

I seethed, standing and turning to Declan again. “What was that?”

Declan smirked. “We have a bet going. I’m simply taking the opportunity to settle the matter.” He strode past me toward a massive desk that sat underneath a twenty-foot arched window. The desk was covered in scrolls and missives. An ink pot and quill stood neatly in one corner. As Declan pulled out his chair, I was again forced to move closer to him.

I waited, but the servants were taking their time bringing the tub, my maids, and the water. They were probably all quite intimidated by the disagreement between Declan and I, and were waiting out the fury, so that they wouldn’t bear the brunt of it. That’s how they’d been after my mother and I would row when I was younger, anyway.

I tapped my foot impatiently. But eventually curiosity won out. I had to ask. “What’s the bet?”

Declan’s mouth curved into a half grin just as the sunlight shot a beam onto his face. He looked breathtaking in that moment. I had to remind myself he was a know-it-all triptaker who’d find fault in everyone short of my mother. An ass, who’d just called me a coward.

“The bet …” he turned slightly in his chair and let his eyes wander down my figure, “is whether or not you’re horribly deformed. Down there.”

My eyes widened, and my jaw dropped. “What?”

“Ryan’s put twenty pounds wagering you have a cock.”

My head exploded. This? This is what they thought? I opened my mouth to respond but Declan cut me off.

“You see, Ryan can’t think of any other reason you might have refused him. Of course, before today, none of us knew that you’d given yourself away—I believe that will change any payouts. Connor wagered pretty heavily against the cock.” Declan’s eyes flickered between mine, as if hoping to catch me out. But I was so caught up in my fury at this wager the men made, I couldn’t focus on anything else.

Declan shrugged. “Now, Quinn has theories about other deformities. Scars, diseases. He gave the most detailed description out about blue waffle disease.”

A whore’s affliction!

My hand flew to my mouth in horror. “That’s a lie!”

Declan turned back to his papers, as if dismissing me. “I suppose we’ll see, won’t we?” He grabbed a letter opener and sliced open a missive. He acted as if our conversation meant nothing. As if the years of speculation about me were of little importance.

I rubbed my brow as servants brought in the tub and filled it. It gave me time to think. These men hated me. Tried to explain my departure by way of disease. Treated me as a joke. I’d tried to give them the best chance at life. And I was a joke to them. My mind hardened. Connor. It had to be him. He knew all. Or as much as I could write about with the geas blocking me. He must have instigated this hatred against me.

My face turned to stone as the last of the steaming water was poured into the tub. If he hated me, then fine. There was little I could do. I’d known when I’d left that it was a possibility.

I ignored the full body ache and the hole that opened in my chest at the thought. I would not be some heartsick fool. I’d done what was best for him. If he’d torn up my letters and hardened his heart, that was his choice. But to mock me with the others? Encourage them to think such awful things? That was beyond the pale.

I stripped off my dress and ignored Declan’s speculative gaze on my pale skin; his eyes lingered on the freckles on my arms from the summer I’d spent in the fields, the soft curves of my breasts, and the dull red of my nipples. I stepped into the water, facing him, letting him look his fill. “You see? No cocks. No disease. No extra limbs.”

I circled slowly in the tub so he could see the back as well, letting water slosh onto his stone floor. When I turned forward to stare at him, I think he gulped. “I’m clean. Not quite virginal. But not the monster you’d hoped.” I ground my teeth together as I said that last bit.

I sank into the heated water and pretended Declan wasn’t there, that his eyes weren’t riveted to my body.

I leaned my head back against the side of the copper tub and sighed. I let the heat sink into my bones and wash away my fear for Avia and the disbelief my stupid husbands had about the threat against her. How could I convince them to help? I had no idea. I pulled up my emotions one by one: my anger at my mother, my husbands’ anger at me, my frustration, the desperate trapped feeling of being back in the palace … I pulled each emotion up and then let it go, like the swirls of steam from my tub, disappearing into the air. Emotions wouldn’t help me solve the problems I had.

Queens used strategy. Not emotion.

I’d save my sister and give her the crown, break this curse tying me to four men who clearly hated me, and leave again. I’d figure out how after I’d enjoyed the first hot bath I’d had in four long years.

It must have been an hour later when I looked up from the water. My fingers had shriveled into prunes and I was delighted by that fact. Begrudgingly, I cleaned my skin, refusing to call a maid in. I washed my hair and my face. But my back was a struggle.

I heard Declan muttering as he poured over a giant ledger. “Sixty-two and one-hundred-four. Nine-thousand… that can’t be right. I’ll need to send the auditor.” He made a note in a hand-sized notebook next to the ledger. He reached up and ran a hand through his blond hair, straightening it for the eightieth time. “They should try barley next year … rest the wheat field …” his muttering as he worked was equal parts endearing and annoying. I’d forgotten that about him. When I’d known him, half his muttering had been in Sedarish. And, being a self-conscious teenage girl, I’d thought he’d been muttering about me.

“Have you always talked to yourself?” I asked as I used the sponge to reach the middle of my back. Of course, this made me arch forward.

Declan turned toward me and his eyes immediately fell to my chest. I raised an eyebrow but he didn’t move his eyes away. “It helped me practice the language. Now, it keeps things clear.”

“What province are you looking at?”

“Ranwalf. Reviewing a request from Duke Aiden. He’s scheduled for a visit …” he went back to muttering under his breath at the ledger.

“Is he behind on payment?”

“Why the interest?”

“I happened to run into Quinn and Duke Aiden together. The duke’s rather fond of pissing away his tenant’s hard-earned gold.”

Declan muttered something about women and their gossip.

“Excuse me?” I leaned toward him.

“He cheat on his wife? He or any in his husband group?”

“Daily.”

Declan waved the quill at me. “There you have it. He scorned his wife, so she’ll ruin him for other women by saying he can’t manage his funds. Common tactic. See it at court all the time.”

“His wife’s too busy raising her sixth son to be bothered with his whoring,” I countered. “I’ve seen him lose thousands.”

“Well, Ranwalf province must have thousands to give then. Because they’re paid up on taxes. He’s coming for a visit to discuss crop rotation.”

I scrunched my nose. “Deadly boring.”

“Unless you realize that wheat goes for five times the rate of barley. He wants a second year of the wheat crop. His weather is fantastic for it.” A tinge of the nerdy scholar came into Declan’s voice as he spoke.

I bit down on my lip to avoid calling him ‘adorable’ and end up scorned and silenced.

He continued, “With the right calculations and application of power, I could do it—”

“What?”

“Magnify their minerals. The trick would be where I could take a reduction—”

He turned back to his calculations and a stream of mutters poured forth. I pondered his words for a bit. My mother hadn’t only chosen Declan for his brain. His fae heritage gave him the unique ability to multiply things. He could turn one chocolate cake into one hundred, as he’d done on my seventeenth birthday, before he’d learned I hated chocolate. I’d wanted a vanilla cake, but Declan’s power came at a price. Whatever he multiplied, he had to choose something else to divide. That year, he’d chosen vanilla.

“What would you divide?” I played with the sponge, floating it over the surface of the water.

“I was thinking quartz. I’ll need to research the implications. But …” Declan trailed off as he bent under his desk to grab a book from a stack I hadn’t noticed previously. Bending over gave me quite the view for a moment. I think he might have realized it, for he popped up quickly and bumped his head on the edge of the desk.

I grinned leaned against the tub, “You know, back when we had lessons together, I always thought you were cursing me during arithmetic.”

“If I’d known what a cunt you’d turn out to be, I would have,” Declan turned to grin at me. But it was a bitter grin.

It soured the endearing effect his embarrassment had on me.

I snapped back, “Well, you were supposed to be the genius. You should have figured I’d leave. Guess my mother’s impression of your intelligence was wrong.” I wink at him as I raise a leg to wash my foot.

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