Trying not to think about what they might be doing here, I started watching the watchers, making up stories for them in my mind—that woman was a newly raised noble, nervous to make certain she did her duty and retained her new status. That servant was old and trusted by the King, so could be rude if he chose.
On and on, until another man, much taller than most of the servants, and swathed in a long, brown robe with black markings, like David's advisor had worn the night before, came in to stand at the back of a cluster of other servants.
His hood was up and his face in the dark shadows of it. It looked very disturbing. Especially when he leaned back against the wall, facing us, then didn't move again. Watching us?
What a creeper.
But before I could make eyes at Ash to see if he knew who the pervert was, I was distracted by Mother Estow's quiet but firm words.
"…and as I'm certain you are aware, the most important Queenly duty is to bear the King's future children, and so raise the next generation of Rulers. You are all educated, I'm sure, in the conflicts with our enemy states. If not, please approach me away from the festivities. We must make certain you understand how your actions and words might affect the Kingdom. And how others may try to manipulate you if you are chosen as Queen.
"While our King holds the greatest strength, he is only human. He will not live forever. As such, the bearing of multiple heirs will be the Queen's paramount focus in the first years of her rule. For The Select this means, the further you pursue the process, the more intimate your relationship with the King may become…"
I blinked, trying not to allow my jaw to drop open as most of the women around me nodded or looked bored, as if this information was not new. And worse… wasn't questioned.
Was she saying what I thought she was saying?
My throat closed and I coughed. Mother Estow broke off in her schooling and turned those piercing eyes on me. I would have sworn my skin was freezer-burned.
"Did you have a question Lady Zara?"
"Just Zara is fine—but yes, I do."
Mother Estow's brows rose sharply. "Please," she said quietly, "you are among friends. Feel free to speak your mind."
"Thank you. I was just wondering… wanting to make sure I'd correctly understood what you're saying. And that is… that is that the King plans to become intimate… with all of us?"
She nodded as if she were pleased I'd been paying attention.
I gaped. "At the same time?" My voice climbed, and I was forced to clear my throat, hating myself for sounding shocked when everyone else just seemed irritated by the interruption, or confused about why I was questioning the point.
Mother Estow smiled carefully, but those eyes nailed me to my little throne. "Of course not," she said quietly.
"Oh, thank goodness—"
"Any intimate engagements will take place only between the King and the companion he has chosen from The Select at that particular time—always away from the Court, or others. You would not be expected to share those… interactions with another woman."
I almost choked on my own spit. "But… I just want to make sure I understand… you're saying he might choose to be intimate with me today and… and another one of my, er, friends here the next day? Or some other day later?"
All the women turned and looked at me, some of them looking less bored, but still no one seemed upset.
I stared back at them waiting for someone else to speak up. But either they didn't get it, or they didn't want to be seen to question it.
I thought these medieval types were supposed to be prudes? That all women were expected to have protected their virtue, or whatever? Where was the shouting about fragile flowers? Where was the chest beating from the Knights? I wasn't naïve—when Ash had raised that last night I'd assumed he meant that it was something forbidden that happened in hiding, that everyone suspected, but no one talked about it.
But these people were all sitting here listening to a lecture about it? Being told it was part of the process? A prospective Queen's paramount duty?
Wasn't this the era of Chastity belts?
I scrambled mentally, flipping back through my memories from the books, trying desperately to remember if this had been part of the plot—but I was certain. I'd read those books a dozen times. There was always only one man and one woman. Star-crossed lovers, sure. The world—or the fates—against them.
But never someone else's thighs.
"Is there a problem, Lady Zara?" Mother Estow asked, an edge of caution in her tone.
I looked at Ash who stared back at me, his face unreadable, but also unmoving, as if he were consciously stifling expression.
"I… no," I said, the lie leaving a bad taste on my tongue. "I just wanted to be certain I understood correctly," I said faintly. "That was all."
"Very good. Are there any other questions?"
She waited several seconds, but no one else spoke up.