“So you’ve finally seen fit to join the living, have you?”
Benedict rolled his eyes. “Rae, I believe I’ve told you before not to speak to me until I give you leave.”
“Which would be never if you had your way, hence why I ignore you every time you say it.”
“You’re in fine form this morning,” Benedict replied, matching Rae’s acidic tone. “What, did you get turned down again? I suppose even money will only go so far.”
Rae slowly set down the sheaf of papers in his hand. “You are late, Highness. We were supposed to begin going over these lists at eight o’clock; it is now a quarter past nine.” His carefully polite tone abruptly dropped. “Have a hard time kicking the strumpets out of your bed?”
“No strumpets this time,” Benedict said with a yawn. “I was reading an excellent book, actually.”
Sneering contemptuously, Rae ignored him in favor of helping himself to the contents of a lavish tea tray that had been quietly brought in once the servants realized that Prince Benedict was finally awake. The sugar tongs clicked faintly as he dropped two cubes into his tea. “Find a book of explicit pictures in the library?”
Benedict laughed. “I wish—my father would have an apoplexy. No, it was a history book, actually.” He smirked. “Too difficult for you, I’m sure. Lots of big words, no pictures.”
Instead of replying, Rae merely retrieved his papers and all but threw them across the table. “If you managed to read a history book, which I highly doubt, then you should have no trouble going over that list as your mother requested a month ago and ensuring that you have no problems with the names therein.” Grimacing as Benedict yawned, Rae stood up and strode over to the desk.
Quick as anything, Benedict leaned over the table, snatched up three more sugar cubes, and dropped them into Rae’s pale blue china teacup. Sitting back, he idly poured cream into his own cup as Rae stalked back toward him. He made a show of reading over the first of what must have been nearly fifty pages of names. “Why am I looking over this again?”
“Because,” Rae said, pushing his spectacles up his nose—a gesture that said he was rapidly losing patience. “Your mother wants to ensure that all of her sons are pleased with the guests.”
“Bloody hell, what does it matter?” Benedict demanded in disgust. “It’s the Masque—I’ll be as likely to take a maid or footman to the gardens as a lady or lord.”
Rae pushed up his glasses again—twice in as many minutes. Good, the bastard needed to lose his temper more often. “Be that as it may, Highness, your mother would like you to go over the list and tell her if there are any she should be certain you avoid or encounter. She could have avoided or ensured inviting them, but as per usual, you are a month too late for that.”
“Oh, do be quiet. You’re insufferable.”
“Then by all means, dismiss me, Highness.”
Benedict snorted and lifted his teacup, breathing in the scent of the fragrant brew specially blended by the monks of the temple several hours north. He’d visited there as a boy and had fallen absolutely in love with their blends; he refused to drink any other. Black tea with hints of cherry and currant, the faintest touch of vanilla. Divine.
His momentary peace was shattered by Rae’s sharp, cutting voice. “If you could please focus, Highness. I know it’s difficult for you, but do try—we’re already over an hour behind on your work for the day.”
“Then I suppose there’s no reason to rush about trying to catch up. Is there anyone on this list of whom I would especially approve or disapprove?”
Rae picked up his own tea and took several sips, furious dark brown eyes never leaving Benedict’s face. “Try reading it and see for yourself, Highness. Although at a glance, I think it safe to assume that only half of the list has slept with you.”
“Then by all means, make certain that half is kept from my presence—and that the other half is pressed upon me.” Benedicts grinned and reached for a scone, slathering it with thick cream and biting into it with a hum of pleasure.
“Why must I be stuck with you?” Rae demanded, a complaint voiced at least once a day—often more. Rae was strict, bossy, severe, and wholly lacking in respect for his betters. That his employer was none other than the second son of the king and queen never seemed to strike him—he had called Benedict a perfect waste of a human being two hours into his employment. Benedict should have dismissed him on the spot, and more than once Rae had seemed close to simply walking out; however, neither of them would be the one to lose to the other. Benedict would rather become a monk than dismiss Rae and therefore indirectly admit that the bastard was right about his being a hopeless, moral-less, lazy, good for nothing spoiled brat of a prince.
Or something along those lines. Usually he just ignored the bloody bastard.
No, Benedict was bound and determined to see Rae offer his resignation. On his knees, begging to be set free. Yes, that would do nicely.
Benedict shook off his thoughts and glared at his mortal enemy. “What?”
It was a pity, really, that Rae was so obnoxious and unbearable. If he’d let go of that wretched stuffiness—and the awful vaguely pine cologne he insisted on wearing; Benedict knew he did it for spite—he would be rather appealing. He had the long, slender build that was so fashionable in men these days; he was nearly too skinny—no doubt using up all of his energy nagging people to death. His hair had potential, but rather than let it fall around his face and soften his sharp features, he kept the light brown strands rigorously combed back—Benedict wondered sometimes if he somehow pasted it down. His skin was pale, no doubt from all of the time he spent in the dungeons casting evil curses or whatever condescending, snotty assistants did to amuse themselves at night, since the pleasures enjoyed by mere mortals were obviously beneath him …
Benedict realized he’d completely missed what Rae had just said—and the glint in his dark brown eyes said that Rae knew it. “I’m sorry; I was noticing your pallor. Did you not drink enough blood last night, my dear assistant? I told you to be generous; I wouldn’t want you starving to death.”
Rae pushed his glasses up his nose. “Highness,” he said in a carefully level tone, “I know it’s difficult for you to do anything but sleep, eat, and rut, but you are one of the highest peers of the realm. Do try to act like it from time to time.”
“Then who would you harass and insult to death? I must give you something to do, since apparently you cannot even read a list of names without my assistance.”
“Damn it, Highness!” Rae slammed his hands down on the table, making the dishes rattle and his tea splash over the side of the delicate cup, onto the fine, white, linen tablecloth. “I am an assistant, not a nursemaid. If you are going to be useless and insufferable, then take yourself off back to your bed and whores!”
Benedict let his own temper loose, knowing his green eyes held a fury to match any Rae could summon. “I did not start this, you rude, obnoxious, insufferable servant! I was all set to bid you good morning and instead I am greeted with more of your bitter insults! If you are tired of playing the role of my assistant, then you are more than welcome to take yourself elsewhere!”
“Are you dismissing me, then?” Rae asked, leaning over the table until their faces were just short of touching, anger all but sparking in the air between them.
“Oh, no, my dearest mortal enemy—if you leave, it will be because you choose.” Benedict smiled, baring his teeth.
Rae matched the expression. “I, unlike some, do my duty no matter what. Until Your Highness sees fit to dismiss me from your worthless presence, I will remain your devoted, hardworking assistant.”
“Rude, pompous upstart you mean?”
“Just because I actually work is no reason to be bitter with me, Highness. If you’d spend half the time working that you do fornicating with anything that moves—”
“Oh, not anything,” Benedict said, the last remnants of his control snapping. “I would sooner take an oath of chastity than so much as kiss you.”
Rae sneered. “Highness, I would sooner die than even think of such a thing. I am not so desperate to be thought well of that I would leap into bed—”
“Good heavens, you two are starting early today,” a voice interrupted.
Benedict made a face as he turned to greet his brother. “Damn it all, Edwin, what do you want?”
Edwin sniggered. “I was coming to see if you wanted to join me for a ride this morning, distract some of the clingers … but I can see that you are already enthusiastically engaged in other matters.”
“Enthusiastic?” Benedict grimaced. “I would sooner be strung up naked in the courtyard than stay in this room another moment.” Not that he particularly wanted to go with his brother either, but he hardly had a choice in the matter.
“I’m certain that can be arranged, Highness,” Rae snapped.
Benedict turned and stalked away. “Review those lists, assistant, and send them off to my mother.” He threw a taunting, sneering smile as he reached the doorway, ignoring the way his brother laughed in the hallway. “Have it done by noon, for then we must go over the reports.”
He smirked as he heard porcelain shatter against the door as he closed it.
Damn the man! The arrogant, lazy, good-for-nothing prick!
Rae picked up the sugar bowl and sent it after Prince Benedict’s teacup. “Bastard!” he swore, and sat down heavily in his seat, glaring at the one vacated by the prince. The sorry excuse for royalty had certainly wasted no time in running away—no doubt to carry Lord Q or Lady K off into the woods.
Disgusted, furious that his mood was already completely soured, Rae shoved away from the table and made to move toward the desk—but at the last, veered toward the massive bay window instead. Outside, he could see the crowd milling about as the horses were brought out. It was impossible to miss Prince Edwin and his worthless younger brother; both were tall and slender, although Benedict was a bit toward the broad side. Wheat gold curls and eyes like leaves in spring … every bit of the arrogant, lazy whore of a prince made it clear why he had no trouble keeping his bed warm. Obviously he never talked to any of his victims, as they’d immediately dismiss him for the insufferable, selfish bastard he really was.
Snarling, Rae jerked away from the window and snatched up the papers Benedict had left on the table, then strode to the door and yanked it open. “You!” he barked at the first footman he saw—and the lad must be new, to pale like that; the old ones were used to him. “Take this to Her Majesty and tell her that what she requires is on the last page … and send a maid to clean up the mess in here.” His boots crunched on broken porcelain as he stalked to the desk.
Selfish, stupid bastard. If the bloody fool spent half as much time working as he did being worthless—
Rae buried his hands in his hair and grit his teeth, struggling valiantly to calm his temper, but knowing it was a lost cause. Benedict had completely ruined his morning—probably his day. He just wanted Benedict to tend to his duties for a few hours—he’d even held off breakfast until Benedict had deigned to arrive. He’d already gone over the lists and the reports had only to be signed before he sent them off … all for nothing. Benedict had not even wasted an hour before running off to rut in the forest while leaving him do all of the work without so much as a mocking ‘thank you’. Just taunt after infuriating taunt because Benedict couldn’t stand that someone in his life actually thought that he should fulfill his responsibilities.
Rae had been to school and endured countless tutors until he knew the rules of etiquette, the politics, everything; he was the equal of anyone in knowledge. However, instead of shining as the assistant he should be, he got to spend his days locked up in Benedict’s study, doing all of the work while stupid, spoiled, worthless, lazy Benedict engaged in stupid pranks with sugar cubes before running off to see how quickly he could divest someone of his or her clothing. From the very first day—and he’d been so excited to be hired by the king to attend his second son—Benedict had proven worthless. Rae had been so determined, despite everything, to be a good assistant, to help Benedict, to see him shine …
Well, Rae had quickly grown out of that illusion. By the end of that first week, he’d realized that nothing but shouting and sniping accomplished anything. Benedict was a lost cause, and Rae bitterly wished that he could just leave and go where his skills would be appreciated. That, however, would be giving up … and he wasn’t going anywhere until Benedict finally lost all of that dignity and arrogance, and threw him out. Their shouting matches were not nearly enough to force Rae to resign; even when he lost his temper, Benedict still had that confounded air about him. No, Rae wanted to see him lose it completely. He wanted to see Benedict lose everything: dignity, arrogance, all of it. Someone should make the bratty prince suffer for once in his life—humble him.
Rae let his head fall back against his seat as he closed his eyes, thoughts of seeing Benedict put in his place for once in his life soothing. Insufferable wretch; he wanted to see Benedict suffer what he made others suffer. To be the one left angry and miserable.
No, if he were to be honest with himself, Rae didn’t want to see Benedict suffer—he wanted to be the one to cause that suffering. There just wasn’t any way to do it. What would affect Benedict like nothing else? There was no besting him in their sparring matches—Benedict often won those, as much as Rae hated to admit it; the closest he generally came was drawing even. No, that wasn’t the way to go about it.
Humiliating him in front of everyone? Unlikely—a prince had nothing to fear from the assistant everyone perceived he hated and Rae knew for a fact that his temper tantrums were often a source of amusement for the court. Truly, the only thing that might possibly affect Benedict would be some scandal or incident involving one of his lovers … former lovers, rather. No one had yet managed to capture Benedict’s interest for more than a few days. The record was Lady T, who had lasted two whole weeks.
Rae grimaced as the answer came to him; it was rather obvious, really.
I would sooner take an oath of chastity than so much as kiss you.
That was it—nothing would humiliate and infuriate Benedict more than to realize that he’d been seduced by the person he most hated. Seduced, and then immediately discarded. Yes, that had a nice ring to it. Rae’s eyes gleamed as plans began to take shape. Benedict would never expect such a thing of him and the Masque was so perfect an opportunity that it almost seemed he was meant to do this.
The Masque was the climax of the autumn festivities, when harvesting was finished and everything was in readiness for winter. Everyone across the kingdom celebrated with banquets and fairs before the snow descended and trapped them indoors; in the city, the Royal Masque was the greatest of these celebrations. For each of the three nights, a masquerade ball was held. All manner of competitions and guessing games would occur, from the finest costume to the strangest mask. All the while, the masks remained on, identities not revealed until the stroke of midnight on the last day.
It was simply too perfect. Rae knew Benedict’s weaknesses like no other, what would capture his attention, hold it … enslave it. The very thought was the sweetest of balms—except, of course, for the part where he actually had to seduce him. How did one seduce a man he hated? Well, he knew what Benedict would find appealing; the rest he would simply figure out.
Humming softly, Rae bent eagerly over his desk, writing out a note to his sister with a long list of what exactly he would require from her—for she would be the source of the most crucial piece, the one thing he needed in order to draw the prince to him rather than any others.
Drying and sealing the letter, Rae strode out of the study and snagged a footman, barking out instructions on where to take it. Then he turned sharply around to see to the rest of his plan.