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Milady’s Wiles             by: Brandy Dewinter, with the invaluable assistance of P.J. Wright

 

Chapter 10 - First Blood

Even Queen Selay was surprised by the expressions of friendship that Hugh and I wore when we re-entered the Council chamber. I could see a question in her eyes, but also acceptance that if I was satisfied, she would accept whatever had happened. That was enormously satisfying, especially coming on the heels of Hugh’s true acceptance of me as well. I smiled my gratitude to her then took my place back at the table.

Though we had spent an inordinate amount of time on trivial issues and then had confirmed the fealty oaths as well, there were still real issues to discuss. We needed to decide how to meet Kragdle’s demands for what amounted to tribute (couched in terms of mutual sharing of skills, though the sharing appeared to be all one way). Food and water were hardly worth transporting though specific delicacies would make the journey. Kragdle, to his credit, was more interested in our techniques with metal working, with medicine, and with book publishing. These were intellectual property that were at the same time easiest to transport and, to us, most valuable.

We were not quite openly rebellious. If called to account for our decision, we had superficial justification that the plans for full trans-fer were scheduled so that artisans in High Canyon would be able to under-stand the steps. In actual fact, we held back the true secrets totally, showing activity without compromising our advantage. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t tell what you’re not being told.

It took all day. In fact, the meeting continued well past its appointed hour so supper was scheduled for after sunset rather than before. I suppose this was best since we somehow never got around to telling those from High Canyon and so Lyonidas must have been waiting to be summoned to dinner while I stood alone on my balcony, watching the sunset.

It was a curiously grey sunset. The color just leeched out of the world as darkness fell. That must have been what made me feel so lonely. That must have been the reason my heart was so heavy when I finally turned to descend the stairs.

Lyonidas did his best to lighten the mood at supper. He described his sparring with Reynal in terms that were mostly self-deprecating, but I noticed that Reynal was sporting a swollen eye while Lyonidas was unmarked. I had never really seen personal combat among the High Can-yonites and wondered if it somehow reflected their amorphous campaign style.

Drayson, the sole Achaiean warrior invited to the head table, took advantage of a break in Lyonidas’ report to offer a suggestion to Reynal.

"General Reynal, if you wore a more effective helm you could protect yourself from such injuries as you display."

"A warrior does not protect, a warrior attacks," Reynal sneered.

Drayson bristled, "A warrior exists to protect his nation and people!"

"The people ARE the warriors!" Reynal declared, getting louder.

About this time I was wondering if Lyonidas would step in but when I looked at him he was looking at me, of all people. I mean, it was nice to have his attention but did he expect me to do something?

Perhaps he expected me to rein in the Achaiean knight as though it were his fault they were arguing. Well, I wasn’t going to do it. Drayson and I had sworn fealty. Reynal was an interloper.

Nonetheless, I interrupted them. In my (actually Mother’s) sweetest voice, a real simper, I asked, "General Reynal, have you seen my kitten?"

"Huh, what?" he replied, unwilling to be distracted from his poten-tial foe.

"My little kitten, Wraith. She was so attracted to you, today. I’m just sure that if I can’t find her, she’ll find her way to you."

"A cat? Attracted to me?" he snorted. Then suspicion flared in his eyes as he realized I might use the cat to irritate him whether the cat wished it or not.

I stood up, and nodded to Lyonidas. "Well, it’s been a while since I’ve checked on her. I suppose I should go do that, and I have my evening studies. If Milord Regent will excuse me?"

He nodded gravely, though the twinkle in his eyes gave away his appreciation for my sharp-edged tease. My pout sent him a message that he should have handled this himself, but since he didn’t I would. I was not really happy about this. We were in a strange limbo relationship with our invaders. They had returned most of their horde to High Canyon and we could probably overwhelm those who were left. However, they had our promise not to reinitiate hostilities. Instead, we were in a sort of unwelcome guest situation where we had duties and they had claims. None-theless, guests had duties, too. I decided I’d make sure they remembered that.

"General," I turned to Reynal, pure sweet honey dripping from my voice, overdone enough even he knew it was fake, "if I can’t find my kitten, could I count on you for help in searching for her?"

"Um, well, I have, uh, other duties this evening," he claimed.

"Oh, that’s too bad. Well, I guess that cuts your supper short as well, then," I offered false sympathy. I also made it clear that his claim that he wouldn’t have time to help me meant he didn’t have time to sit around arguing.

He looked at Lyonidas, who nodded, his mouth showing continued gravity, his eyes sparkling even brighter. Without another word, Reynal left the table.

As I turned to depart myself, Queen Selay took this moment to put her own mark on the evening. "Julia, please accompany her."

Julia’s face fell at the her lost opportunity to be alone with Lyoni-das, though of course the room remained nearly full and Strane was her theoretical escort. Still, Mother was clearly working to keep both of us from our tall Regent for a while.

Those few days set the tone for the next few weeks, and then months. Queen Selay, with the Chamberlain, really ran the kingdom while Lyonidas and Reynal tried to accelerate the transfer of knowledge from our crafts-men to their homeland.

Perhaps once or twice a week, Lyonidas would join me on the balcony for the sunset. We just talked though, of inconsequential matters. Most-ly I avoided his eyes so that he couldn’t see the longing in mine. Mother never again left Julia and me alone in the bathing chamber. Yet, when I looked in Julia’s eyes I dreamed I saw a longing there as well. I felt pulled in directions I didn’t understand and withdrew into a quieter personality not so directly a copy of Mother.

One morning as the seasons turned later into fall, when Julia and I moved from our baths into the dressing room we saw Mother dressed in a deep red gown instead of her constant black. Other gowns were laid out as well, the blue one I had worn the day I became Cherysse and a beautiful dark green one that was obviously intended for Julia.

Julia ran to her dress with joyful exultation, giggling with her attendants as she caressed the soft, rich fabric. I just looked at Mother.

"Is the period of mourning over so soon?" I asked.

"It has been three months," she confirmed.

I realized I had been in shock the first time I had worn the dress, too overcome with the situation and the fresh impression of Mother’s personality to really understand the beauty of the gown she had selected for me. It was every bit as enticing as the sleek black gown I had worn the evening that Lyonidas kissed me. Perhaps more. It certainly fit as well. Without the constant control of my steel guardian it would never have closed about me. Yet, it had light-hearted touches in decorating accents that had been absent in the elegance of the darker dress. When I was fully dressed, I swept my flowing skirts back and forth before the mirror, relishing in the wide swirl. A twirl around revealed that the dress was cut full in the hem, allowing a surprising amount of petticoat to show when my motion provided the energy. It was a dress made for dancing.

This brought me up short. Dancing? With whom? Flirting with Lyonidas to keep him off balance was one thing. That was duty. But looking forward to dancing just because I was in a beautiful dress? What justified that? I had still only been kissed twice, once by Lyonidas (well, all right, he kissed me more than once, but only on one occasion), and once by Julia (well, I had actually kissed her). Both had given rise to strong responses within me, but strongly different as well. I couldn’t decide which one was wrong, but it didn’t seem that both could be right.

Julia, on the other hand, seemed to have no concerns at all. She had been dutifully somber at least on public occasions, but her internal energy could not be contained forever.

"Oh, Your Majesty, could we have a party tonight? Please?" she begged.

Even Mother was not immune to Julia’s charms. I knew if she asked something of me that way, I would give her the keys to the kingdom itself. Mother merely smiled though, and nodded.

The rest of the day was spent in preparation for the celebration. Formal, official mourning was over. For those maidens who had not lost loved ones in the war, all mourning was over and they were free to get on with their lives. I suspected our castle was not the only dwelling hos-ting a party that night.

When we were finally ready Mother sent Amy to inform Lyonidas. Some little time later we heard a knock at the door, followed by Amy’s entrance. Lyonidas followed her through the door with casual ease until he saw us. Then he froze in midstep, a look of wonder spreading over his face.

Resuming his motion, he glided up to where Julia and I stood, stopped with his hands on his hips and let his gaze drift languidly from the floor to our carefully waved hair. Although his words were supposedly to Mother, it seemed as though he were talking to himself.

"Fire and sunlight, green forests and deep blue sea. Your Majesty, it is only with greater self-control than I can believe I possess that I do not issue another decree. Maidens of such surpassing beauty should always wear colorful gowns. Not that even these gowns can match these maidens."

His eyes had tried to take in both Julia and I simultaneously, in the end flickering back and forth between us. As he finished he was looking at me and for some reason I wanted his attention to remain with me.

"Milord Regent, I seem to remember at least one black gown that seemed to meet your standards for a maiden’s attire."

He refused to be cowed, grinning instead, "Yes, but that was so long ago!"

"Not so long that I have forgotten," I whispered.

"Nor have . . ." he tried to reply, interrupted by Julia.

"May we go eat?" she complained. "I’m hungry."

Mother contained her own grin and looked to Lyonidas with an upraised brow.

He nodded to her, bowed low to Julia and then to me before offering his arm to the Queen.

Our escorts sorted out almost as before. However Drayson’s fiancee, Yvina, had pleaded illness and Olrin, the High Canyonite had claimed duty of some sort or another. Our procession then was; Queen Selay with Lyoni-das, Strane with me, and Drayson with Julia.

We met General Reynal with Duchess Amity near the dining hall. She seemed to cling to him more and more lately, never standing straight and tall. At least, not when anyone from High Canyon was around.

The meal itself was as much a harvest feast as an ordinary dinner. Though our nation had lost much in the war, still, there was enough for a sumptuous meal. We had introduced those from High Canyon to a wider variety of spices than they had been accustomed to, which required a correspondingly wide variety of dishes to take full advantage of their impacts to taste. It was almost a treasure hunt, finding the gems of delicate sensation among the fires of wildly-spiced concoctions. The first bite was always tentative, the next intake divided almost equally between another bite and a quick gulp of cooling liquid.

Of course, Julia and I could only taste a few bites of each course, constrained by our garments to almost-fully-compressed stomachs. The men, on the other hand, ate hugely and imbibed even more hugely on the fine beers from the year’s harvest. Finally though, even this great meal was done.

At a nod from Queen Selay attendants cleared some of the lower tables. The musicians that had been providing gentle music during our meal now switched to lively dance tunes. Lyonidas was on his feet as soon as they started to play.

"Your Majesty, would you do me the honor of dancing with me?" he asked politely.

"I think not," she smiled. "At least, not until the musicians burn off a little of their present energy."

"Then, My Princess," he smiled to me. I wanted to say yes but dan-cing had never been a favorite activity for me. I was too slight to provide a suitable partner for most of the noblewomen in the palace and looked like a silly child whenever I tried. An automatic refusal sent a ripple through my hair before I even realized that I would now be expected to be the slimmer, shorter partner.

"Won’t someone dance with me?" Lyonidas appealed to the sky, or at least the ceiling.

"I will!" Julia called, standing so quickly that Strane had no time to assist her.

Lyonidas’ grin widened as he offered his arm to my redheaded rival.

They made a lovely couple. Julia’s bright energy found a kindred soul in Lyonidas’ easy humor. He knew our dances well. As I watched them, I settled ever more deeply into my seat. That could have been me, I realized. Should have been me, my heart shouted!

They danced several quick, light airs before returning to their seats, breathless and laughing.

Lyonidas took his seat next to me and looked at me in my ill humor. He leaned closer and whispered, "Do you remember what happened the last time I saw you pout like that?"

I jerked upright in my chair and looked at him in horror. He wouldn’t dare kiss me here! Would he? Maybe?

He laughed at the complex emotions I knew must have been playing across my face then teased, "Perhaps you should have accepted my invitation to dance."

"Perhaps," I replied, my response more reflex than clear decision.

"I mean, uh, now that, um, my, uh, meal is settled."

"Is it settled, then?" he asked.

"Yes, I believe it is," I answered, letting my eyes meet his clearly for the first time in a very long time.

He stood again, moving to assist me with my chair. I rose to my feet with shaking knees, still torn between desires that seemed to have no common ground. At that instant though, the compelling urge I had was to dance with my handsome escort.

The musicians continued to play light-hearted tunes. It was amazing to me how expressive my gown was. As was proper, I gathered up the full skirts in one hand as Lyonidas took my other and placed his hand upon my waist. He was a strong lead, letting me know with sure pressures on hand and hip what motion he intended and intended for me. I surrendered to his guidance, responding as much to the music as when I played my own instru-ments.

It was wonderfully cheerful. As we gained familiarity with each other he began to initiate even more adventurous motions, finally whirling me under his high arm as I lightly moved first away, then back to his touch. I had dropped my skirts with the motion and my twirl had lifted them high enough to cause a gasp from the crowd, followed by a instant of twittering laughter. But I didn’t care, the music and my partner’s enjoy-ment of it had released me from cares at least for the moment.

I had long learned not to believe in coincidences when Mother was in the room, so I felt only an instant of surprise when the next tune the band selected was slower, and much more intimate. Lyonidas allowed me to once again gather my skirts into my free hand, then snaked his own hand farther around my back than before, bringing us almost into contact.

"Please, Milord Regent, it is not proper," I whispered. But he didn’t relent. At least, not without a price.

"Only on one condition," he warned. "You must call me Lyonidas from now on."

"Can there be no exceptions?" I smiled.

He pulled me even tighter, now our bodies were touching, lightly it is true but the pressures felt warmer than summer sunshine.

"What exceptions would you like?" he smiled. It was a most gentle smile, except deep within his dark eyes where lurked a message I wasn’t sure I wanted to decipher.

"Perhaps, my Prince, we can think of something." Now it was my turn to smile, my turn to let deeper thoughts show through the window of my blue eyes.

"That’s not a bad start," he grinned in acceptance.

I let a smile linger on my own lips to make sure we could pretend to be speaking of inconsequential matters. "A start toward what destina-tion?"

"What destination would you like?"

"Milord, um, my Lyonidas, you are master here."

"I like that even better," he smiled even wider. "But my father’s warriors provide no authority over a maiden’s heart."

"Is that the destination you desire?"

"Is it within reach?" he asked gently, stopping in the middle of our dance.

Reality crashed in on me with heartless power. In all my life, even on the day of our defeat, I don’t believe I wanted anything more than to be able to tell him that my heart was within his reach. But that impulse died before birth, victim to a masquerade that was a greater sacrifice than even my worst nightmares could have imagined.

Without further word I fled from the room, tears filling my eyes beyond capacity and spilling down my cheeks. My sorrow knew no limits that I could control and spilled into anger. Anger at Mother, who had forced emotions into my heart that had no true place there. Anger at Lyonidas, who represented the cause of our distress. Anger at myself, for weakness and for being a thousand kinds of fool. Yet my anger did nothing to stem the flow of tears.

When I reached my room, I threw myself on my bed still fully gowned. My pillow worked to catch my tears, supplemented by the soft nose of Wraith who tried to comfort the inconsolable. Only a knock at my door shocked me enough to regain some small measure of my control.

"Yes, who is it?"

"It is Minah, Your Highness. I have come to help you undress."

My beautiful gown was rumpled and tear stained and somehow that was too much to bear. I had no one I could cherish freely, nothing of true beauty when even my gowns were borrowed from Mother. But I had enough ugliness in my life, and didn’t need to destroy what beauty was there.

"Very well," I called, rising from my bed.

Minah bustled into the room with emotionless efficiency, neither noticing nor condemning my loss of control. I was released from the beautiful blue dress without further damage and handed a dressing gown to ward off the autumn chill.

"Your Highness," she said quietly, "I saw something I think should be reported, but I’m not sure just how or to whom."

She knew who I really was, of course. Her manner told me this was really a matter of policy for the realm, properly handled only by myself, or Queen Selay, or possibly the Chamberlain. With a glance, I invited her to continue.

"A few minutes before I came in here, I saw Yvina, Drayson’s fiancee, heading for the balcony two levels below where you watch the sunset."

"Yes, perhaps she wanted some fresh air," I said, not seeing any significance to her observation.

"Yes, Highness, but as I reached this corridor I glanced back and saw Olrin, the man from High Canyon, ascending the same stairs."

"Indeed. It was probably a coincidence."

"Perhaps, Highness, but it is not the first time I’ve seen that coincidence. It seems to occur whenever Yvina feels ill."

"I had not noticed," I mused. "Does anyone else know of this coin-cidence?"

"Not that I know of. Only your apartments are down this hall now, among the Achaiean women. All the other lady’s attendants use the other stairs."

I stood up and started to pace about the room. A part of me wanted to ask Mother for guidance, or Hugh. But a bigger part of me just wanted to get back at the intruders from High Canyon. I had already known that Drayson was not a terribly bright person. It was unlikely that he knew of Yvina’s actions. She, on the other hand, was quite sharp. Yet if she were betraying an Achaiean because she thought her prospects were better with someone from High Canyon, she was sadly mistaken. In some respects, correcting her betrayal was even more important to me than getting back at them for my own tribulation.

"Minah," I said judiciously, providing a rationale for what might soon be a very important conflict, "it has been some time since Yvina has been checked on by her fiance. Would you go and tell Drayson I am concerned about her? If you know where she might be, you could tell him that, too."

Minah’s eyes had a shrewdness that made it clear she knew exactly what I intended to happen. With a nod at her orders, she left. I sat down to my studies, waiting patiently now that the wheels were in motion.

It was perhaps a half an hour later when I heard the commotion in the hallway. Minah knocked on my door and entered breathlessly.

"Sir Drayson has just killed Olrin of High Canyon! He found Olrin with Yvina, his intended, and killed him in a fit of rage! Milord Regent has imprisoned Sir Drayson and intends a trial tomorrow."

"Imagine that," I said quietly.

 

(continued in Part 11)

 



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Milady's Wiles 1998 by Brandy Dewinter. All Rights Reserved. These documents (including, without limitation, all articles, text, images, logos, compilation design) may printed for personal use only. No portion of these documents may be stored electronically, distributed electronically, or otherwise made available without express written consent of the copyright holder.