Spinning Gold Copyright © 2012 Vivi Andrews All rights reserved.
Chapter One: A Charm Offensive
Once upon a time…
Juliana Ravel didn’t trust charm. Her father had been charming. She knew all too well that charm was merely a sweet candy coating—often disguising a core rotted with pure selfishness.
So when the notoriously charming prince flashed his famously dreamy smile down at her from his golden throne, his perfect lips curving in a perfect caricature of warmth, Juliana was not comforted. Instead her stomach curdled and cramped, and it was all she could do not to cringe.
But Ravels did not cringe. A Ravel was composed at all times. Even when petitioning a charming prince to spare the life of her wrongfully condemned brother.
Juliana sank into a low curtsey, sweeping down until the trailing ribbons decorating her sleeves brushed the floor. Head bowed, knees trembling, she waited for the prince to bid her to rise. She may be a merchant’s daughter, but she knew her courtly etiquette.
The throne room was opulent, with solid gold candelabras as tall as she was forming an aisle down the center of the room, leading up to the prince’s gilded throne, but she was not intimidated by wealth. Money was an old friend. An ounce of gold had a price, but royal favor was much more difficult to purchase.
“What have we here?” The prince’s low question carried easily across the silent room, his tone silken, smoothed by decades of practiced charm. Juliana fought back an instinctive shiver of revulsion.
“Citoyenne Juliana Ravel, Your Highness.”
She didn’t dare lift her eyes, but didn’t need to in order to identify the speaker. Torlemain, the prince’s chief advisor, a tall, thin scarecrow of a man who always dressed in unrelieved black.
“Ravel…Ravel… Now where have I heard that name recently?”
Her thigh muscles began to burn with the effort of holding her curtsey motionless and deep. The weight of a dozen stares bored into her back from the opulent antechamber beyond the prince’s throne room. The viper pit, Colin had called it when he spoke of his mandated appearances at court. The prince’s inner circle. A courtly death-spiral, cycling ever tighter with each vaunted lord and lady trying to squeeze out those with more influence than they possessed. The parasites of power, hungry only for their own survival.
Her name hummed through their ranks. They knew her. Though not part of their elite circle, her wealth made her a fascination they couldn’t ignore. The Ravels had been richer than all of them combined before her brother’s arrest.
She heard his name too—and the word that was attached to it now—whispered on a delighted hiss that rippled through the crowd. Traitor. The injustice of it pressed into her chest, a hard stone where her heart ought to beat.
“Ah yes. The Traitor Ravel. Such a shame.” The prince’s honeyed tones possessed just the right amount of regret at her brother’s impending beheading. “Rise, my dear. We don’t stand on ceremony here.”
Another pretty lie. If she hadn’t bowed properly or stayed down long enough, the prince could have claimed insult and had her executed at her brother’s side. She rose without complaint, keeping that knowledge from her face. Her quick tongue would only buy her trouble—and she didn’t have space for any more trouble in her life—so she held it clamped between her teeth, her gaze fixed on the polished marble floor.
“Come now, Citoyenne Ravel. Am I such a fright to look upon?”
Juliana instantly raised her eyes. “Certainly not, Your Highness.”
The prince—handsome, poised, chestnut hair perfectly curled—sat on his throne, a smile tilting his lips as he studied her face, her breasts, the cinch of her bodice at her waist. A chill slithered down her spine.
The touch of his gaze carried with it the feeling that she was merely another possession stripped from her brother’s hands, a prize for idle men of power to squabble over. No one had ever dared look at her in such a way before. As an object to be passed around. Yes, the women in her family were known to be beautiful, the same way a diamond was beautiful: as a fact of its nature, a facet of its worth. The adjective was often preceded with “frighteningly” or “brutally” and accompanied by a wry shake of the head, as if her beauty was a weapon in her bargaining arsenal. Before this moment, Juliana hadn’t considered how beauty could be a blight as well as a boon. She could curse her naiveté later. Right now she needed all her wits focused on survival.
“Such a shame,” the prince murmured. “Not your husband, I hope.”
“My brother, Your Highness.”
Juliana caught herself nervously adjusting the ribbons on her bodice and forced her hands to still. The decorative ties were shot through with gold thread—the family color—and the silk alone was worth a small fortune. She’d debated the extravagance of wearing such finery as a supplicant, but in her experience men of power responded more to strength than humility, and the Ravel family’s strength was money. Pots of money. Ducats enough to drown in.
An embarrassment of riches was the trademark of the Ravel clan…and every last penny of their fortune would be confiscated by the crown the day her brother lost his head. Small wonder Colin had been framed.
Juliana couldn’t stir much optimism that the prince would commute her brother’s sentence. It was too much of a coincidence that the richest man in the kingdom had suddenly been found guilty of a falsified crime at the exact moment the prince’s coffers were running low. Yet the prince didn’t have to yield to her demands, only to delay the execution. If she could buy them more time, the letters of petition her brother’s allies had sent to the king would have time to find him.
The king was not known as charming. Gregory V had a reputation as a harsh but fair ruler, merciless with his enemies. But Colin wasn’t an enemy. The king would save her brother, Juliana was sure of it. The problem was no one had seen the king in public in years. Officially, he was on an extended diplomatic tour, but there were rumors he’d died at sea or on some distant hunt, rumors the prince himself had poisoned or smothered him in his sleep, even tales that he’d gone barking mad and been locked in his own dungeon.
Juliana refused to believe the stories. If she did, her hope would lose its foothold and slide off into despair.
She couldn’t think beyond this moment. The moment of truth. Or of lies. Whichever freed Colin.
“Found guilty only yesterday, wasn’t he?”
“He was, Your Highness, but in error, I assure you. Colin would never betray the crown. He is your most loyal subject.”
“And yet our courts say otherwise.”
Courts notorious for their ability to be bought. Colin might spout off political nonsense in the pub, but he was no more guilty of treason than she was. Though if women could hold property under the law, she would doubtless have been in the cell beside him. Her brother’s guilt was gold.
Perhaps it could also be his salvation.
Juliana brushed her rings with her thumb, reassuring herself with the touch of gold. “What if I could purchase his freedom, Your Highness?”
The prince laughed, a seductive ripple of warmth that made goose bumps break out in icy droves across her flesh. “Only a Ravel would think justice was for sale. What is your family motto again?”
Juliana swallowed. She’d always hated the words and they felt vile now on her tongue. “Through gold, justice.”
The prince smiled. “But you have no gold.”
She lifted the rings, flashing them in the light from the sconces. “I have these.” She touched the diadem on her forehead. “And this.”
The bulk of their assets already seized by the crown, she wore all that remained of the Ravel fortune—golden rings, golden thread, a golden circlet gleaming in her golden hair and the medallion bearing the family crest, a heavy weight of solid gold dragging down the gold-linked chain around her neck.
The prince arched a brow. “Pennies. Does justice mean so little to you?”
He waved a languid hand and the ornate gilded doors, double the height of the tallest palace guard, clanged shut behind her, blocking out the curious eyes from the viper pit. Juliana hoped the prince had not seen her flinch. With the doors closed, the throne room felt oppressively small, a jail cell closing her in. The prince’s personal motto—Everything in excess—was on full display in every gilded sconce and priceless masterpiece lining the walls, but for all that the chamber was surprisingly stark, containing only a massive throne. All others stood in his presence, or knelt at his feet.
They were alone now, save a handful of guards paid well to be deaf and dumb and the advisor with ancient eyes too jaded to care what became of her.
“Do you have nothing more to offer me?”
Juliana’s knees began to tremble. Could she sell herself for Colin’s freedom?
She had no other coin to use. The banks had frozen all their accounts on the day her brother was arrested. She’d pawned the contents of their townhouse to pay for his defense—a waste of good coin. Their usual trade had ground to a halt with Colin imprisoned and all of Juliana’s resources going toward his freedom. All that was left was the contents of their warehouse she’d been as yet unable to sell. And her body. Would that be payment enough? Or would the prince take her virtue and give her back nothing but the empty promises of the ever-charming, keeping mercy for her brother out of reach?
What other option did she have? Her brother was her anchor. He’d been her rock throughout their chaotic childhood. She couldn’t abandon him. And without him, she had nothing. Nowhere to go. Even her so-called friends had already begun distancing themselves from the taint of Colin’s supposed treason.
Juliana wrapped her hand around the family medallion, finding comfort in the familiar ridges and notches of the engravings. The scrollwork R. The faded words in a forgotten language scratched around the edges. The heirloom medallion was said to be enchanted, the source of her family’s prosperity for the last four generations. She had never believed the faery tales that claimed the medallion was the key to a magical prison her great-grandmother Rowena had created to ensnare one of the golden fae and force him to lavish her with riches.
At the moment she wouldn’t have minded having one of the fabled golden fae as her personal slave. Trading such a creature for her brother’s life was a much more straightforward transaction than weaving a tapestry of gold out of thin air and half-lies to bribe the prince, as she had to do now.
Please, Gods of Mercy, help me find a way. Anything. Desperation flung the words from her mouth without conscious thought. “I have straw.”
A warehouse full of it. Useless surplus from a heavy harvest.
The prince gave a low, not-unsympathetic laugh. “My dear, unless you can spin that straw into gold—”
She was barely aware of the words. They seemed to come from outside her; she was only their channel, not their origin.
The prince had gone very, very still, his charming smile for once absent. “Can you now?”