Her men carried in a man trussed up in chains. “Something to entertain you this evening, my queen,” her bodyguard said. “A Thornsman soldier for you.”
He was proud of himself, and Clara saw why: this one was perfect. Lean, tall, with a great mop of gray hair. An outraged look on his face behind the gag.
“He wouldn’t shut up.” Her bodyguard kicked the man down to his knees. “Show some respect to your new liege-lady,” he said. The captive struggled for an instant against his chains, then subsided. He looked even angrier than before.
“Take the gag off,” she said. Her guards shrugged and took it off, then bowed and backed out of her tent.
Clara loomed over him. She could feel the excitement rising in her. A little struggle, a little threat, and this one would be doing his best to please her and earn his freedom, just like all the ones that had gone before him.
“Would you care for some wine?” she said. She filled a single cup and held it out to him. The step toward breaking them down: make them drink from her cup.
This captive turned his face away from the cup to glower at her. “I don’t like being chained up,” he said.
A lovely voice, with the accent of a land far to the north of the country of thorns. That was interesting. But he needed to be knocked into his place. Clara drank the wine herself, then said, “You’re a prisoner taken on the field of a defeated foe. You should be grateful my men know what I like, or you’d be in the pen with the rest of them.”
Clara walked around behind him to check on his bonds. Collar, chain down his back, arms folded and cuffed. He was helpless. He didn’t seem to realize it, however, because he was glaring at her, formidable eyebrows gathered like lightning bolts over a stormy face.
“I don’t much like where I think this is going,” he said.
“Too bad,” she said. She ran her hands over his body. Thin, wiry, barely anything there under the uniform tunic of the princeling she’d defeated earlier in the day. The princeling she hadn’t expected to defeat, because his father’s armies had given her the very devil of a battle until that week. They were rumored to have a man at their head, a man who was not a soldier but an advisor, a northern wizard, who always knew what his enemy was planning, who always had his troops in the perfect places, who could never be brought to battle except when he wanted to be.
It hadn’t gone like that today, however. Today had been almost easy: her enemy had been caught unprepared, and had unwisely risked its cavalry in a move that was showy, brave, and idiotic. Clara had shattered their lines and then mopped up. It had been boring, almost. The only upside was that her army had suffered minimal casualties.
“I’m feeling magnanimous today,” she said. “If you please me, I’ll give you your freedom.”
“Please you? How?”
“Surely you can think of something.”
The captive turned slowly, studying her tent carefully. Then he froze and nodded at the game board set by her bed.
“I see you play chess,” he said. “I can play chess with you. Or teach you the game the easterners play, with black and white stones on a grid. That’s a fun one.” He grinned at her, but it was a false grin, showing his teeth but not crinkling up his eyes.
Play chess with with her new prisoner? She had been planning on taking him to bed, enjoying his lean body and his gray hair for as long as he was willing to play along, then discard him like all the others once he got fussy or weepy or entertained ideas beyond his station. Young men were cocky and assumed they could seduce her; older men at least were canny enough to try to please her. But this one-- This one was too canny. Too self-assured. This one was not a soldier. A man from the north, who played games of strategy.
“You’re the Thornsman strategist,” she said, in shock.
The man frowned at her. “That implies there’s only one.”
“We know there is only one.”
He smiled ruefully and shrugged. “Worth a try.”
“Whatever shall I do with you?” she said.
“I am of noble blood, you know. You could ransom me for quite a lot.”
“The prince died on the field. There’s no one to ransom you to.”
His eyes widened. He hadn’t realized, then. A moment of regret on his face, then he said, “Good.”
“He was a pudding-brain. Empty skull. No fit heir to his father. Didn’t follow my instructions ever. That cavalry charge he led–”
“Idiotic. I had archers picketed in the trees.”
“Of course you did. You are not a pudding-brain. You show some promise.”
“Some promise? I’ll have you know I have yet to lose a battle.”
“Luck. You have been lucky. The chance arrow that killed my lord at Gravesend was luck. Without it we would have taken the field and the harbor.”
Clara frowned, because he had a point there. “And you contend that without Prince Harold in charge, you would have beaten me?”
“Like a drum. But it would have been worth the contest. You have wits. With a little training–” He was standing now, and gazing at her intently, and breathing hard.
“Is that what you like? Not chains, but a contest?”
He blinked. Clara kissed him. He did not respond for a moment, then opened his mouth to her. Oh, yes, there it was, there was what she was always seeking, fire in his blood and challenge on his lips, pressing against her without fear. A man who did not fear her: how long had she been seeking that?
But then he pulled away, and wiped his mouth against his shoulder. “I don’t like being chained up,” he said, again.
Now the battle of wits began. “I will not unchain you until you consent to enter my service.”
The strategist smiled, and that was a genuine smile. “Is that all? I consent.”
Clara snarled at him. “I cannot trust that. Your capitulation was–”
“Far too easy.”
He looked at her closely. He was evaluating her and it made her angry. “Think it through,” he said.
“I conquered your king! I killed him on the field! Why would you serve me?”
“Think! How do our goals align?”
Clara got a grip on her anger and thought. Beyond the fact that he was bargaining for his life-- and indeed he didn’t seem to care much about his life-- what was the strategist known for? For his inspired set of battles holding the superior forces of Bran the Vicious at bay. For the mercy of his king over his defeated enemies.
“Bran,” she said. “I haven’t behaved like Bran.”
He nodded at her. “You haven’t sown the fields with salt or massacred the civilians. You seem to want to hold the lands you’ve conquered. If you were Bran the Vicious, I’d be dying right now rather than talk to you.”
“Bran’s probably next on my list, in fact.”
“Exactly.” The strategist shrugged. His chains rattled and he winced.
“I believe we understand each other. I repeat my offer. Enter my service, and I’ll unchain you. Will you teach me what you know?”
“Will you listen to me and take my advice?”
“I will. I swear it upon my sword.”
The strategist smiled at her. “Then I will teach you how to think, my lady.”
“Will you serve me in other ways? Willingly?”
He looked almost adorably shocked. “What? Me? That wasn’t just a game to persuade me to work with you?”
“You.” For he was even more attractive to her now than he’d been when they’d dragged him into the room, now that she knew him to be worthy of her time. She walked up to him and stroked that wild untamable mane of hair.
"I-- " His mouth hung open.
“I will only take it from you willingly.” Because he was that sort of man, a nobleman and a thinker, and she was that sort of woman.
He looked down at the floor of the tent, at the piles of carpets, and frowned. “I am not fond of dalliances,” he said. “But you’re interesting. I would enjoy talking to you in the evenings. I’ll be with you. Yes.”
Clara went around behind him and unchained his hands. “I can’t marry you and put you on the throne. I need a strategic alliance there.”
“Oh, right, of course,” said the strategist. “You’ll be after the fellow from Windflown, whatever his name is.” The chains fell away from his hands and he stretched and groaned.
“Need a buffer on my Eastern border.”
He flicked his newly-freed hands in a gesture of contempt. “Don’t even bother saying that sort of thing to me. It’s perfectly obvious. Of course you’ll marry him. Meanwhile–”
Clara smiled at her new strategist, her new tutor. Her new bed partner. “Meanwhile, I have an evening of celebration planned. Come and drink the wine I took from your last master. And tell me your name.”
He grinned at her. “You haven’t earned that yet. Ask me again after our first victory.”