My Lady

This is a story that NO ONE wants to buy. Between January 1998 and December 2004, it got rejected by twenty different magazines. Suffice it to say, that I like it (and I don't necessarily like everything that I write) but can comprehend some of its unsaleability. First of all, although it is fantasy, it is romance fantasy. No dragons or witches or elves or PEOPLE UNDERGOING QUESTS. Just squishy, sentimental feelings. Very Harlequinish. Secondly, many fantasy magazines have family/teen readers, and various editors have commented on, well, the story's . . . eh hem, wink, wink, nudge, nudge (seriously, that's almost verbatim). I do not consider it to be a salacious tale which means either that I have no moral sense or that other people are easily shocked. Nevertheless, my latest works have been almost exclusively sci-fi oriented (older audience, more markets).

**********************************

Ben didn't want to marry the Earl's daughter. He told the Earl--"I don't think we're suited, sir"—who grunted and looked helplessly at Ben's father.

Ben's father said, "It's a better future than anything I would have expected for you."

Which terrified Ben. Earl of Coventry meant responsibilities: head of the council and de facto member of Coventry’s merchant organization.

Privately, to his father, Ben said, "Why does my lady need a husband? She would like the ruling of Coventry alone."

"She would," his father said, "and could do it perhaps, but she would have to prove herself to king and barons alike and Coventry cannot afford that kind of attention from the crown. Kings make perilous neighbors."

The Earl had to pay off the mortgage on land adjoining his manor; otherwise, the land would pass to the king, a consequence desired by no one.

"The council should raise taxes," Ben said.

"My lady doesn’t agree."

Ben snorted. "She doesn’t want our marriage either," but his father only laughed.

The laugh became a cough. Ben frowned, folded his arms and shut his mouth. He escaped to the Rose & Crown with his friends--Pamela, Tricia, Peter and Jimmy.

I won’t marry her, no matter how sick he gets.

Ben's father had been ill since the Fall. He died, unexpectedly, one cold spring morning. The sudden absence of pressure left slivers of guilt in Ben's heart. He agreed to the marriage and became the Earl's successor. The Earl died that summer of a seizure, leaving his manor, his daughter and the problem of the mortgage to Ben.

"We’ll raise taxes," Ben told the councilmen and the merchants.

"That’s not a fair solution," my lady said.

She sat at the opposite end of the council room table. She was small and wiry with hair kept too short for fashion. She wore dusty, too large clothes and looked nothing like a lady, nothing like Pamela or Tricia.

She said, "Taxes are not a fair solution. The property is not used by the town. It belongs to the Earl's house. The townspeople have no part in it."

"If we cannot pay the mortgage, the property will revert to the crown."

My lady said restlessly, "There are other solutions."

Ben said edgily, "Which are?" while the councilmen sighed and shifted in their chairs.

She proposed they rent the property to the merchants.

"The buildings are in poor condition,” Merchanter Garlett said. “I myself would not rent unless the stables were rebuilt."

She proposed they sell the property.

Master Bayes, a councilman, shook his head. "You will create a panic. If the guilds think Coventry verges on bankruptcy, they will move to other towns."

She proposed they cut the councilmen's salaries. Argument broke out loudly across the table. They would never agree to that; Brian knew these men.

"We will tax," he said. "For a year, we will raise taxes."

"For a year," my lady said. "And then again, for a year, but we only meant a year. I've heard such excuses before."

Doubtless she had if she visited the council room as willfully in her youth as she did now.

"You must not do it," she said. "The property is private for all its value, and it is not right to inflict the needs of the aristocracy on those less privileged."

"You would prefer to inflict them with the king's troops?" Ben snapped, and a few of the councilmen muttered uneasily.

The merchants grinned, but they were on my lady's side, she had always been their advocate.

"Perhaps," my lady said, "you would prefer to do the task yourself? Strip the townspeople's cloaks off their backs, parade their children naked through the streets? That's what your taxes will do: take money from those who earned it fairly to solve problems they had no hand in creating. If money were clothes, you would see soon enough what damage taxes can do."

He glared. "Those starving children" was a politician's device, mere rhetoric since the brats had no say in the use made of them.

"It is the most practical solution," he said and stood, the councilmen agreeing--"Aye, only thing we can do"--the merchants nodding reluctantly, their eyes still on my lady, but they could afford the extra five percent.

My lady choked, "No--" and Ben rounded on her furiously, tired of her constant objections.

I didn't want to marry you. I wish you had the ruling of Coventry, and I had no more investment here than I ever had.

"I will see you naked on the streets before I change my mind," he said and strode out of the room.

He crossed into the Earl’s study, sat, chin in hands and stared at the rolls of documents, neatly ribboned and sorted in pigeonholes along the opposite wall.

I spent my days dicing before this, me and Peter Giles and Jimmy Saynes. Or riding or taking the girls on excursions down to the lake. I never wanted to stay at a desk, surrounded by pieces of paper and University clerks.

The older of his clerks, Kyle, entered the study. Ben watched him shut the door and cross the worn carpet to stand in front of Ben’s desk.

He doesn’t need me. He could run this manor just as smoothly if I were gone. Why did my father do this to me?

Kyle said, "My lady is in the town."

"We'll eat late then."

"My lord--" Kyle shifted, "my lord, she has taken your challenge."

"My challenge?"

"To walk naked through the town."

"I never--"

"I realize that, my lord, but nevertheless, she is in the town now, and she is naked."

Ben closed his eyes. What would she do next and when would she stop? When he had left her? How far could he go, his property tied to hers? All his father's money had gone to pay the Earl's debts, his father's final attempt to keep Coventry from collapse.

My family has done what we could, he wanted to tell her, but she, the Earl's daughter, would not be impressed. The Earl had incurred those debts to build the new dye factory, which he had sold to the guilds for less than the cost.

"My lord," Kyle said, pleading.

"Yes," Ben said and got to his feet.

My lady must be allowed to make her statement. Let her make it. Let it go.

Standing on the manor's front steps, he began to appreciate the magnitude of my lady's statement. Townspeople lined the main street, two rows deep on both sides. Merchants stood by the fountain, heads together. Guild members hung from the factory's upper story, calling to their friends below. Councilmen hurried down the cross street. Ben glimpsed his friends standing together on the veranda of the Rose & Crown, laughing and pointing.

My lady came into view, her feet moving quickly over the cobblestones. She was bare from head to toe. Her arms swung at her side, her shoulders taut. Her eyes gazed steadily forward.

Peter and Jimmy called to her, and Ben tensed, but the comments were lost amid the applause, hoots and whistles from the guild members--"Our lady. There goes our lady"--stutters from the councilmen--"Shameful, wicked."

She halted before the manor steps and raised her eyes to Ben's.

He knew her body well enough--their mutual antipathy did not keep either of them from enjoyment of the marriage bed--but he was seeing now what he had only felt beneath his hands: the small, rounded breasts and curve of the hips, the long legs and the long, delicate fingers that had tangled in his hair only two nights before during one of their temporary truces.

He took a breath and realized the crowd had quieted. The merchants were waiting. He had no alternative, now, not if he wanted to retain the good opinion of the townspeople.

He tried to sound wry, amused--"I am answered. Taxes will not be raised this year."

The crowd cheered. The guild members waved handkerchiefs. The merchants grinned and clasped hands; a few approached my lady but stopped at a distance, their congratulations and thanks shouted across a space of dirt and stone.

She paid no attention. She turned her face to the councilmen.

"A few words, gentlemen," she said and ascended the steps.

She passed Ben. Refocusing, he saw clenched fists, lips pressed against each other so only white skin showed round the mouth, eyes that flickered and wavered until lids hooded them.

He looked down the long street. His friends still stood on the Rose and Crown veranda; Jimmy and Peter shouted remarks to bystanders while Pamela and Tricia doubled with laughter.

Ben took Kyle's arm. Kyle gazed after my lady, slack-jawed, and Ben slapped him lightly on the cheek.

"Find out where she started from and pick up her clothes. Find out if anyone--" hurt her, he was thinking; he didn't doubt there had been vulgarities, but he was thinking worse, thinking the things he might have said if he'd stood on that veranda.

Not that my lady didn't deserve harassment. Not that my lady had invited any normal consideration.

"Find the constable for me," he said and turned to the councilmen. "Gentlemen." He beckoned.

My lady waited in the council room. She was still naked, and the councilmen hesitated in the doorway. Old Master Johan put his hands to his eyes; Master Sebastian, who had daughters, said, "Now, now," and placed his hands on his hips. No one sat at the table.

"It would seem," my lady said, "that without a rise in taxes, either Coventry or your salaries are at risk. We could, of course, go to the merchants or the guilds for contributions, but I imagine they would have their own objections, and their own ways of applying pressure once they realized the lack of alternatives. So, gentlemen, make up your minds. Will you give so Coventry may stand?"

They argued, but they were too embarrassed to address her directly. Ben stayed in the doorway, unresponsive to their impatient queries--"My lord, will you not speak?"

Their arguments faded to mumbled ejaculations. Master Sebastian said, "We'll certainly consider it. You should dress, my lady," and the mumbles rose in a crescendo of agreement.

"I'm glad that's solved," my lady said and walked steadily from the room.

It was not solved, but she had given Ben the leverage he would need to persuade them, to coax them with references to intangible benefits, to encourage their sacrifice "after our lady has done so much."

The councilmen retreated. Ben, following, met Constable Hewitt in the corridor and ushered him into the study.

The servants had not yet lit the lamps; the room floated in gray twilight. Ben sat at the desk.

"Was there trouble?" he said to Constable Hewitt.

"No, my lord. Not from my lads and not from the worst of the crowd. There were catcalls--" Constable Hewitt shrugged--"and such but nothing was thrown, no rocks or vegetables, no boy's tricks."

"Nothing libelous."

Constable Hewitt frowned. He peered through the half-light at Ben's face.

Yes, you've seen me before, and you know that you have: rocking home drunk with Peter, singing the ladies to sleep and good citizens awake. I've called you names enough, and you did no more than fine me. What could you do? My father had me destined for other problems, other pains than the Coventry jail.

"Some of the crowd made comments might be considered libelous, but under the circumstances, it would be difficult to punish them."

Difficult but not impossible, Ben heard.

"Which members?"

"Certain members of the aristocracy, my lord," smooth and bland as watered milk.

"Said--?"

Constable Hewitt hesitated.

"To sum up, my lord, implied my lady is not--" a pause here, and Ben checked a sudden movement; he knew the sorts of things his friends might have said--"satisfying to my lord," Constable Hewitt finished and blushed, that obvious even in the gathering shadows--"and other such remarks."

"Could you write them down and swear to them?"

"If I had to, my lord."

Ben pushed his hand through his hair, feeling a gritty exhaustion. Not his friends' fault my lady had decided to provide an afternoon of easy entertainment; not his fault they were so quick and malevolent with their tongues; not her fault they had nothing better to do on an afternoon but wait for the world to pass the Rose and Crown veranda. And yet, surely, she could have devised another tool to force the councilmen's hands.

But not one so doubly simple and effective.

"I want you to write down everything you can remember," he said, "including--especially--names."

Constable Hewitt nodded.

"It was a brave feat," he said on his way out the door.

"Yes," Ben said.

He went to his bedroom and from there to my lady's chamber. She lay on the bed, asleep, clothed, curled tight so her chin touched her knees. He sat in the chair opposite and watched her breathe, watched her body tremble with the deep sigh of troubled sleep.

He wished she hadn't done it. She had arrogance in abundance but none of the self-sustaining surety that guarantees physical confidence.

She would have had no armor against his friends. She had had no armor against him but her clear political desires in which she ruled absolute. He knew what she had sacrificed in that long walk and when, waking, she flinched from his touch, he knew the sacrifice had been total and gone deep.

She didn't come down for dinner. She didn't leave her room the next day to attend another meeting of the councilmen and merchants. He paced between their rooms, reminding himself that he should be glad, he had never wanted her at a meeting before.

"I'll get through this," she said, "if you're worried about an empty bed," turning a cold face in his direction.

He wanted to make love to her, that emotion was tangled with his other, less tangible desires; he gave up and went to the meeting alone.

When she did leave her room two days later, she walked with a new rigidity. The too large clothes which had looked comfortable--if not stylish--now looked ridiculous, uninhabited, unconnected to the body inside as if all the reserve he sensed during intimacy had emerged to coat her in translucent stone.

He told Constable Hewitt to fine his friends a large enough sum to irritate--Jimmy wouldn't be able to buy a new coat for at least two weeks--but not enough to call attention to the matter. He thought.

My lady cornered Ben on his way to meet the archbishop. Ben was coming down the stairs at a run. She stepped into his path, and he reared back, clutching at the banister.

"Why did you fine your friends?" her brows fierce.

"For libel."

"Why not arrest the entire crowd?"

"If I'd had the evidence, I would have, and we wouldn't need to cut the councilmen's salaries."

"Did you have evidence?"

"Yes." He began to edge past her.

"They said nothing that isn't true," she said.

He stopped walking, turned, frowning, the conversation having plunged into darker corridors than he had anticipated.

He said, "What they said was slander--"

"Because they mentioned you?"

"I've heard their cant before."

"So have I," she said. "Not to my face. This time, I was there, and nothing they said was a lie. If you begin to fine and punish those who offend my dignity, you will become a veritable tyrant."

He pressed a hand to the wall, tried to read that tight, furious face, to connect what he saw with the words he heard. That she would be hurt by his friends' remarks, he had guessed. That she would not have the resources to toss back stinging replies, he had known. Words she had in abundance, but her language was strictly the language of the council room and manor: politics and property.

That she would believe what she'd heard, he had never anticipated, knowing his friends lied and how easily.

"You--I've never not wanted you," he said, trying to find the center of this misunderstanding.

The fury blaze. She could barely speak.

"Don't," she managed finally, "patronize me," and plunged down the stairs, the too big clothes flapping awkwardly.

He learned from Kyle that Pamela had visited that morning and guessed my lady's source of information. He leaned his head in his hands while Kyle and the younger clerk, Leo, wavered over the desk, clutching documents.

Leo said with a brightness only an unmarried boy could possess, "You've had a quarrel?"

"It was bad before," Ben said, "but then, at least, we--" and stopped, keeping his eyes lowered so he didn't have to watch Kyle's discomfort or Leo's bewilderment.

He held out a hand for a document.

I had her in my arms before, he might have said. I held her before. Even when she was angry, I could graze my fingers along the back of her neck. I didn't listen, and she would pile her words in strong, stone walls to punish me, to keep me out, but she was there, and she wouldn't flinch or avoid my hands or stand two arm-lengths away.

He did his paperwork, and Kyle went to find the archbishop who was wandering amiably in the courtyard. Ben hoped Kyle and Leo could forget his almost confession, hoped they could all forget the incident. The mortgage was paid, the king wouldn't be coming to Coventry, they could move on to other problems.

Except that Peter Giles--smarting from a fine levied by an old friend--moved to the king's court for the winter where he regaled the king and his company with the tale of my lady's naked walk through Coventry.

“The king is going to visit Coventry next month,” Kyle told Ben; the crown messenger had come and gone while Ben was discussing building costs with Merchanter Gartlett.

"Here? Why?"

"He wishes to see my lady."

Ben glanced over his shoulder. My lady sat at the council table, writing letters. Leo stood beside her chair, holding those that were already finished and sealed.

"He has come before," Kyle said, and Ben brought his gaze back to rest on Kyle's face.

"When?"

"When she was seven," Kyle said reluctantly.

Ben thought, then, "What does he know?"

"Sir Giles stayed in court this winter."

Of course, Peter had told. Allowing that Peter had had provocation, he would be eager to tell; he loved to be funny, to see others snicker at the clever words he uttered. My lady's walk through Coventry would have been such an easy story to tell; Peter would hardly have needed to use his wit.

She will vanish utterly, Ben thought. Emotions, thoughts, wants, all will fade until only the glass-like shell walks and breaths and utters banalities. Even the anger will be gone.

I didn't want this marriage, he reminded himself. Tricia and Pamela would make themselves available if he asked. His friends would welcome him back. They’d been good friends: fun, witty, easy.

Except none of them had the courage of my lady. Neither Tricia nor Pamela would brave the scorn and censure of the world for a point in a political game. Neither Peter nor Jimmy would disarrange a detail of their elegant clothes for any reason or principle. Ben grimaced down at his carefully tailored coat, at the velvet trousers--barely creased--the knee-high boots, shined and spotless.

My lady had always dressed carelessly. She seemed now to hide in her clothes, the long sleeves masking her hands, the baggy pants covering her feet. She had used to nearly strut in her boy's trousers. She had rolled back the sleeves of her boy's sweater, her slim arms gesturing dramatically.

Ben feared she would greet the king in her oversized, winkled outfit, but my lady had gowns, and she wore one for the king's arrival, standing appropriately at Ben's side, two arm-lengths away. They watched the king's carriage careen down the main street. Ben ignored the tug of remembrance; there were the merchants by their fountain and the guild members leaning from the factory windows. This time, however, the councilmen stood behind Ben and my lady, and this time, too, Ben's friends rode with the king's entourage.

"Greetings," the king said. "My newest Earl and his lady."

A big, bearded man, he exuded energy. Ben saw exhaustion settle on the nearest faces. My lady curtsied--poorly, and Ben winced. She straightened, hands loosely clasped, head lowered, distant and unapproachable.

The king grasped my lady's arm. He swept her into the manor, bellowing, "A pleasant home. I should have visited sooner."

He said it all again at dinner:

"A splendid area. You paid off that mortgage, and now I wished you hadn't. I wouldn't mind a summer home in this part of the country."

Ben said, "Ah."

They and the guests sat on chairs against the walls of the great hall. Servants served them on small tables. My lady sat beside the king and shared a table with Ben; the king had a table to himself. Peter sat on Ben's other side. Ben wished Kyle sat there instead, but Kyle was supervising the servants and couldn't be depended on to murmur advice in Ben's ear.

The king said, "You kept that piece of property by unique means."

My lady carved herself a piece of meat. Ben coughed.

"In fact," the king leaned forward and narrowed his eyes at Ben, "by unique and possibly illegal means."

Ben said, "Although the money came from government coffers, it was regulated for the specific use--"

"No, no." The king waved a hand. "I'm referring to the other matter."

Ben raised his brows. My lady chewed: small, careful bites.

"Disturbing the Peace," the king said. "Since you are particular about the law, my dear Benjamin, you should have remembered Disturbing the Peace, and Indecent Exposure in Public."

Peter giggled and thumped Ben's shoulder:

"You didn't think about that, Ben, old boy."

My lady had stopped eating. She watched the king, and there was about her a chill apprehension.

The king could fine an Earl for poor administration of his town. If he believed laws had not been kept or had been enforced unfairly, the king could jail Ben who, as Earl, owed him fealty as well as ten percent of all taxes collected and five percent from his own property.

One believed the king would not be so arbitrary. And yet the king had whims--hence his trip to Coventry--and could be unrelenting in his desire to prove a point, however minor.

Ben picked at a chicken bone. He said, "Indecent Exposure implies a desire to shock or to offend. I wouldn't class the event you refer to as shocking or offensive."

Peter mumbled, "Some of us--"

The king interrupted, "Not shocking? You have more relaxed notions of decency here than in the capital. Perhaps because you are further south? Do you mean to tell me, Benjamin, your town is used to naked women strolling the streets?"

"No, sir, but consider." Benjamin picked up his wine glass, rocked it slightly. "The artistic nude is a masterpiece. It is not a masterpiece one sees every day. Rubens do not hang from signposts. Yet a masterpiece is always admired. When it does appear, people are not shocked; they are pleased and awed by its beauty."

Peter choked into his drink. "If she's your idea of beauty, you'd call a kiddy's scribble great art."

Ben twisted and grabbed Peter's collar. He rose, pulling Peter with him, knocking Peter's table on its side. Silverware, plates and wineglass cascaded to the floor, rolling and shattering.

Ben punched Peter in the face. Peter, for all the wine in him and his natural pretentiousness, could fight, and Ben had only one more punch before Peter retaliated. His first punch struck Ben's cheekbone and glanced sideways, the second Ben's collarbone. Ben slammed his hand into Peter's stomach at the same time Peter's palm shoved Ben's jaw back and then hands grabbed and tugged Peter and Ben apart.

They stood on the other side of the banquet hall, opposite the king. Round the room, guests had risen, babbling with shock. Kyle, in the doorway, looked disgusted. Leo, beside him, looked delighted. My lady had also risen. Ben avoided her eyes, connecting instead with the king's ironical gaze. The king lolled on his cushions. He was smiling.

He spoke, and the hall quieted abruptly:

"That is an interesting argument, Benjamin, a quite elegant argument in favor of nudity."

"The human form--the female form--is an especially beautiful one."

"Perhaps my lady would favor us again."

Peter, safe behind a barricade of servants, snickered.

"No," Ben said.

He twisted loose from the servants. My lady had turned her head towards the king. Ben couldn't see her face.

"No," he said and crossed the floor, slipping on the wine and glass shards. "No."

To lose her now, to forsake her to that desolate place behind her eyes, never to see her at ease with her body, never to see her move freely without threat, he could not allow that to happen.

"I have, personally, always liked Rubens," the king said.

"If I did, would you agree Ben had done right?" my lady said.

"No," Ben said and tore off his left boot, still moving forward so he had to hop over the glass shards.

"No," pulling at his coat so the gold and diamond buttons cascaded across the floor, rolling under tables and ladies' skirts.

"Ben," someone said, "my lord," while he pulled wildly at the linen shirt, tossed it, billowing, into a puddle of wine, shoved his trousers down to his ankles and kicked them loose. He straightened--bare as a baby born--and glared at the king.

Not a few of the ladies shrieked. A good many of the men laughed.

Jimmy said, "Oh, I say, Ben, I always thought you were much more--" and chortled into his glass.

A voice said, "Ben," and he turned towards it.

My lady gaped at him across the floor and then laughed, and he had never seen her laugh, never like this: convulsing with giggles.

He said peevishly, "I didn't laugh at you."

"I'm not--not at you--oh, Ben," stepping towards him, and then, "Don't move. You're surrounded by glass. You'll hurt your feet. Oh, Ben," still laughing, and she had reached him now, "they're lovely feet and I wouldn't want them bruised," and laughing, leaned her head against his chest.

Which pleased him, elated him in fact and such emotions, under the circumstances--"Uh, dearest," he said--and she disengaged, her eyes glittering with amusement.

"If I'd known how you'd react," he said quietly, "I'd have done this months ago."

"I've seen you naked," she said, reminding him.

"Not recently."

Her lips quivered, and he watched her, fascinated.

I never guessed this, this wealth of humor, of pleasure, and he was not sure, even now, what had roused it except that he hadn't wanted her shamed, not again.

"Benjamin."

The king had spoken and the shocked whispers around Ben and my lady subsided.

"It would seem your people are not so used to the sight of a naked man."

"I'm sure they're disappointed at the comparison," Ben said, and Jimmy said, "Oh, yes," which surprised my lady.

The king rose and crossed the hall. His boots crunched the glass. He stood in front of Ben and folded his arms.

"Benjamin," he said very softly, "you and the land are safe. For the present. Put on your clothes."

My lady helped Ben dress while servants swept and tidied around them. Ben's shirt was stained; his coat hung unevenly. The trousers, thankfully, were unharmed but for a hole at the knee. My lady couldn't find the boots.

"I never was repulsed by you," he said while my lady brushed down his coat and folded back the cuffs. "I didn’t think about it," which was not romantic, but she seemed in a mood to listen and understand.

"I never flattered myself I was pretty," she said mildly.

"Don't you? Why else do you think I agreed to your demands that day? Granted, I had no good options, but I didn't even venture an argument."

"No." The buttons on the cuff were intact, and she slipped them through their holes. "No, it wasn't fair, was it? This--" her mouth curved, he could see that although her head was bent to study the lace at his wrists--"was much better."

He understood that, he thought. He had done it for her, but then, he thought, maybe he didn't understand after all; he'd taken off his clothes to an entire assembly of people, and she had come to him without pause which, perhaps, he should have done for her.

"Should I have gone to you that day?"

She lifted her hands to his collar, smoothed it down.

"No. What I did was worth the outcome. If you had tried to protect me, it would never have worked."

He frowned, and she saw and touched a finger to the line at his mouth.

"But I realized they couldn't be right, your--Peter and Pamela and the others. Because you are here with me and you were like I had been, and if they could be shocked by you, you of all people--" she shook her head, glancing down at the floor so she didn't see his pleased flush.

She stepped back and looked up, holding out her hand.

"All the glass is gone," she said. "You can walk now."