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

 

Chapter 12 - Pulling Heartstrings

"You used me!" I accused Mother as soon as we reached her private quarters.

"Yes, dear," she sighed, "just as I said I would do."

Then she gently made the counteraccusation to which I was so vul-nerable, "Just as you used Drayson."

"How did you know what everyone would do?" I asked.

"How did you know what Drayson would do?" she once again answered my question with a question of her own. This time, though, she answered it. "Actually, I didn’t know for sure who would be involved. I just set the stage so that someone would be. I’m sorry it’s Drayson but it was nearly inevitable that Yvina would be the one to betray an Achaiean."

"And what about me?"

She looked at me with soft, sad eyes, "I didn’t set out to have you involved in this. I actually expected it would be Julia or Duchess Amity since you’ve been so withdrawn lately. But when I heard that Yvina and Olrin were meeting on that balcony, I expected you would be the one to arrange the confrontation."

"Why didn’t you do it yourself?"

"Because this is not the only time someone from High Canyon will die. If I am clearly involved in each death, Kragdle will eliminate me on that basis. Even if, like this, there is no direct linkage."

"Am I to be involved again?" I asked in sadness, yet resignation.

"I honestly don’t know. Yet, if the opportunity arises, I will expect you to do your part," then her voice softened, "as you have always done your part, and more."

She moved to embrace me to offer comfort. In moments though, she was sobbing with her own guilt. For some reason, though I was much more closely involved, this relieved me of some of my emotional burden and I ended up comforting her.

For only a few short moments. All too soon it was time to witness the will of God, as reflected in the trial by combat. It was too far for us to walk in our court dresses so Hugh had arranged for a carriage. He handed us up into the soft seats and we rode out like we were going to a picnic. At this picnic though, the only course was blood.

Drayson was already there. He had arrayed himself in armor that I knew would have prevented me from even standing upright. His sword was only of medium length, but it was heavy and I didn’t want to think of holding enough shield to stop it even if I didn’t have to wear the other armor. He looked like a fantastic dragon, all scales and heavy mass.

The High Canyon contingent had erected a pavilion tent nearby. As we waited for noon, Reynal himself came over to our carriage from the tent.

"Your Highness," he said, speaking to me rather than Mother, "Milord Regent requests your company for a moment before the trial."

I looked at Mother but her eyes held no answers, so with Reynal’s help I stepped down from the carriage. It was only a few paces to the tent and when I entered I found Lyonidas alone.

He seemed not to have dressed for the fight. His clothes were the simple tan trousers and tunic that most of High Canyon wore below their disguising cloaks. Yet he wore no armor at all, not even heavy leather. He had no shield in the tent and the only sword was a thin, light blade, albeit longer than the one that Drayson carried.

"I wanted to see you before the fight because you might not want to see me after," he began.

What could I say to that? If he were maimed, it might be more likely that he would not want to see me. Actually, considering Drayson’s size and armor against Lyonidas in his tunic and thin sword, it was likely I’d only be seeing him in his coffin. My impression must have shown in my face because his own showed a rueful grin.

"Oh, not for that reason. I will not be wounded or dead. I will execute Drayson as surely as a noose or the headsman’s axe. If that satisfies your sense of honor, so be it."

"No, it is because I will kill him that I wanted to see you now.

After, you might hate me, if you don’t already."

"I don’t hate you," I admitted quietly. I didn’t know what I felt, but hate was certainly not it.

"You’ve never let me near you since that first sunset together."

"It would not be proper," and that was an understatement of classic proportions.

"I’m not too terribly concerned about what’s proper," he said softly as he moved closer to me.

When he reached me his arms slid around my waist like entwining snakes and I felt myself pulled once again to form my body to his. He bent me backward slightly, enough that I had to look up at him and needed to put my own arms around his neck for support. His warm lips caressed mine so softly that I lifted mine in reflex to confirm the touch. Then one of his hands stole up my back to twine in my hair and the sensual feel of it combined with the warmth of his kiss to drive my traitorous heart into frantic responsiveness, clutching at him as though my world would end when the kiss ended.

It was nearly so. When he released me I had so little breath that I swayed where I stood, clutching now from physical need more than emo-tional. Somewhere in there my eyes opened (when had they closed?) and I saw his bemused grin from such a tantalizing close distance.

"Now I have an incentive to win," he smiled. "After that kiss I know that you do not hate me. Promise me that you won’t hate me when Drayson lies dead."

"Oh, Lyonidas, don’t do this. Drayson is a fearsome warrior. I couldn’t bear it if you were killed."

"Dear Cherysse, sweet Cherysse, fear only for Drayson. You have not seen me fight."

It was not bragging, the way he said it. His voice had the confi-dence that Hugh of Sandars would use to declare that the agenda for a Council meeting had been accomplished. It was a simple fact within his expertise and the entire idea of error was simply silly. Lyonidas gathered up his inadequate sword and waved me out of his tent as casually as if we were going to the picnic our carriage ride had suggested.

I was not nearly so casual. If Lyonidas had chosen to pursue a path designed to create the most possible conflict within me, he could have selected none more effective. Drayson was my vassal and I owed him my loyalty. Lyonidas was my enemy and it was my duty to repel his land’s invasion of ours. But Lyonidas was also my . . what?

He escorted me back to the carriage and up beside Mother. I was unaware of any of this, too lost in my internal turmoil to notice where I was. She saw my confusion and let me sit for a moment, but she inter-rupted my thoughts when the two men squared off.

"You had better watch this, dear."

I lifted my head to see the men approach each other, the one I owed loyalty to, and the one I owed nothing to. Right? It was that easy, simple, one was an Achaiean and one was from High Canyon. But dear God, one was Lyonidas!

Drayson waited patiently, crouched behind his shield, his broadsword cocked behind his shoulder for a slashing attack that I knew for a fact could cut through a three-inch tree. It would take a leg or arm from Lyonidas without even losing significant speed.

Lyonidas approached lightly, the leonine grace that his name promised very evident in his gliding stride. It never seemed that all his weight was on either foot, yet still he made swift progress toward his opponent.

I wanted to call out to Lyonidas, to warn him, but I couldn’t. I knew that Drayson had developed a devastating initial attack, taking an unexpected short step to allow him to reach an opponent who still con-sidered himself safe. I had seen him knock down strong fighters with that first blow. In all the times I had watched, only King Andros and Prince Tamor were strong enough to withstand the blow without being driven to their knees, and only Bareth had ever fully avoided it.

But even Bareth had fallen victim to the move the first time he had seen it.

As Lyonidas neared the deadly distance from Drayson, my eyes began to fill with unwanted tears. This man whose touch in my hair could bring my heart to my throat, whose kiss could steal my very life away and welcome to it, would soon lie dead. Yet I could not warn him. Drayson was a son of Achaiea, my vassal. I had to just watch as he executed a man my heart did not know how to live without.

Drayson launched his attack. The quick short step and powerful swing reached out for Lyonidas’ knee.

Which wasn’t there.

Lyonidas had shifted his position in a way that I didn’t really un-derstand. It hadn’t looked like a real step, more of a shuffle, though that word is entirely too graceless for the smooth flow. Instead of suffering a destroyed knee, his own sword reached out to nick at Drayson’s arm through a small gap between armor sections. It looked trivial, but I noticed a stain of blood begin to spread.

Drayson followed up his initial move with power and surprising speed. Like a spring coiling and uncoiling, his sword would accelerate toward Lyonidas, slow after it had swung past, then accelerate back. His shield covered his body well and I knew why he had survived the recent war.

Yet, Lyonidas and Drayson’s sword never seemed to be in the same place at the same time. It sometimes looked as though the sword had passed through Lyonidas like he was thick smoke, yet a part of my mind registered the fact that Lyonidas had moved back, then forward behind the stroke to make another stinging jab. None of Drayson’s wounds were serious but each drew its own toll of blood.

It might not even have mattered that Drayson was bleeding. No one human could sustain for long the energy of Drayson’s attack. Soon the very weight of armor that protected him became a deceitful trap, slowing him ever more. He tried to retreat, but no matter which way he faced, Lyonidas was somehow able to reach in from another angle to strike once more.

I knew it was over when I saw Drayson’s shield arm droop for a moment. He lifted it even before Lyonidas could take advantage of the lapse, but he would soon be too tired to protect himself. I couldn’t bear to watch it, but I didn’t dare turn away and betray my lack of con-fidence in my soldier.

Mother saw my distress and leaned over, "It is hard, dear, I know, but Drayson’s sacrifice is no less part of winning Achaiea back than was Bareth’s or even King Andros’."

And so it was. When the time finally came that Drayson could no longer defend himself, Lyonidas actually stepped back a few paces and saluted the tired soldier with an elegant flourish. But his next stroke unerringly found a hole in the armor under Drayson’s sword arm that the shield was just too low to protect. He collapsed like a falling tree, dead of a burst heart before even the pull of the earth could claim him.

Lyonidas showed no pleasure at this. He saluted the dead man once again, wiped his sword on Drayson’s tunic in a ceremony I didn’t understand but which seemed more gracious than proud, then nodded to Queen Selay and me. At her responsive nod, he turned back into his pavilion.

Mother settled back into her seat with heartbreaking heaviness, closing her eyes immediately after catching the driver’s attention to let him know to return us to the castle. I felt much the same but I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the pavilion. Did I see Lyonidas watching as we drove away, or had I just imagined it?

With eyes still closed, Mother said, "I think you need to visit our people in North Vale for a short while, before the winter snows set in."

"Excuse me?" I replied.

"I think you should leave the castle for a while," she explained.

"And leave Lyonidas alone with Julia?" I heard my mouth cry.

Convicted by my own lips in more ways than words, I knew Mother was right even as she denied the worry my heart had expressed.

"No, she will accompany you. It will be hard on you both, for you will be imprisoned in your maiden’s lovers until you return. Yet, I think you must get away from Lyonidas for a time."

"Yes, Mother," I answered, then leaned back into my own seat.

Such a simple, dutiful response. In part, I was too torn by the con-flict within me to argue, regardless of the topic. But I also knew she was wise in her decision. I definitely was not ready for more time alone with Lyonidas, no matter how much a part of me wanted the opportunity.

We went down to a less formal supper than most, yet more formal as well. The day’s trial had made everyone stiffly polite, using manners to bridge over the trust that had been lost. Even in that I saw Mother’s hand. She did not want trust between Achaiea and High Canyon. Unlike our typical practice, and this was a sign of that lack of trust, we women took our places without formal escort, arriving at the dining room by our-selves.

Lyonidas arrived shortly thereafter. I never knew if he went to our rooms looking for us or had on his own decided to allow us to come by our-selves. Regardless, as soon as he saw us already there he moved to his own seat with his accustomed languid grace.

His eyes were solemn, though. The lazy humor that he often used to conceal the sharpness of his wit was absent that evening. Julia, who had not come to the . . . execution, was the only one showing strong emotion, and her emotion was anger.

I saw her about to say something to Lyonidas, something hurtful, but I put my hand on her arm to stop her. That almost earned me the attack she had intended for Lyonidas, but when she saw my face she subsided. Instead of a loudly-voiced insult, she leaned close to whisper to me but her question was interrupted by Queen Selay.

"Milord Regent, I must beg a favor of you," she began.

A suspicious light came into his eyes. When he first arrived in our castle I expect he would have extended an open promise at such a request. Now though, he merely nodded.

"It is appropriate for a royal inspection of our new, key barony at North Vale. The trip, especially at this time of year, will be somewhat extended, perhaps even a month in duration. Princess Cherysse will go, but the recent conflict has left us without appropriate officers for her escort. I need to ask you to provide an officer from High Canyon."

"I will go myself," Lyonidas offered instantly.

"As you wish, Milord Regent," Queen Selay replied calmly, then con-tinued, "but you, yourself have asked for reports on the new forging process. Will you delay that activity until your return?"

"Oh, yes, and that involves General Reynal as well," Lyonidas remem-bered. "He will be responsible for implementing the new procedure in High Canyon."

"Very well, Strane shall lead the escort," Lyonidas decided without further hesitation.

"As you wish," Queen Selay repeated, this time offering no concerns.

"Who else will go?" Julia asked, though her eyes were on me. I nod-ded even as Mother announced the content of the party. It would consist of myself, Julia, my servant Minah, and such soldiers as Strane felt appropriate. Actually, that turned out to be the list only of those with rank or significant responsibilities. In fact, when we would finally set out the next day Julia and I each had several additional attendants.

Our impending departure put an additional damper on the mood of the evening. We soon broke up. As we left, Queen Selay indicated that both Julia and I were to accompany her.

When we reached Mother’s chambers, she caught Greyshadow up into her arms before speaking.

"Girls, I am sorry for doing this to you. I spent one extended jour-ney in my maiden’s lover when I still wore it, and it is not a pleasant memory. You will need to help each other throughout the trip in most demeaning and intimate duties that can nonetheless not be trusted to anyone else. Are you prepared to do this?"

Of course, there could be only one answer. Julia and I nodded in unrehearsed unison.

"Majesty, why are we doing this?" Julia asked.

"It is necessary for both of you to be out of the castle for a time," Mother began, but then she continued, "and there is now another reason. Strane must not survive the trip."

This dramatic order was delivered with no more emotion than Queen Selay had used to accept Lyonidas’ decision to assign Strane to the duty. It was as though it didn’t matter to her and I realized that in large part this was the case. Lyonidas had unknowingly passed sentence of death on Strane by naming him to head our escort. Once again, Mother had set up the situation through her claim of inadequate availability of Achaiean commanders without targeting a specific individual.

Yet, it was no great stretch of the imagination to recognize that Lyonidas had scarcely had a choice. His own officers were limited now that Olrin was dead. Only Julia’s face showed surprise at our new task. God forgive me but I saw the necessity even as Mother was wording her command.

"Do you have a plan for how we are to accomplish this?" I asked.

"Not specifically, but in general, yes," Queen Selay answered.

"Strane is obviously intended for Julia. I suggest you tease him and Julia can defend him. It will appear as though his approaches are finally meeting with some success. I think, Julia, you might even manage to let him kiss you, as you allowed Lyonidas. I’m sure he will report this."

Julia looked puzzled, "I don’t understand."

Queen Selay sighed and began to speak, but I interrupted her with an insight that I knew must be correct, "By the time this happens, or at least soon after, the autumn rains will come to North Vale. After Strane has an opportunity to report his progress, when no suspicion will fall on you, he will slip on a wet stair or you will find it necessary to ask him to fetch you something that requires him to go into the rain and he will become ill."

Mother nodded, looking at me. Her eyes held a greater sadness than I had seen at any time since her husband died. There was horror there as well, and guilt. Not at the death of an invader, but at the death of the innocence that had once been mine. I kept my own eyes strong with purpose to let her know I accepted this duty as I had accepted the other strange duties that had come my way. At this, the complex of emotions in her eyes became too convoluted for me to follow even with our more-than-natural closeness. I fancied I saw gratitude there, and perhaps even more respect than had been typically present.

But it may have been more sadness, or a recognition of her own duty.

The next day dawned bright and clear, as though an omen for our quest. The roads were passable for carriages at that time of year so we would be able to travel in some comfort. Mother had prepared us that morning with a most careful bathing session. We were shaved closely in all areas that would be inaccessible once our journey began. Special oils and lotions were kneaded into that soon-to-be-covered skin. I was as comfortable as I had been since my masquerade began, just before she once again locked the device behind me.

It took us four days to get there. My comfort level had fallen dra-matically. Julia and I helped each other in ways that were too intimate for sisters, let alone a man and a woman. Even lovers would not be forced to take part in necessities so basic, so crudely undignified. It was not an opportunity for closeness even as we were forced into total dependence.

North Vale was headquartered in a much more compact manor house than Stalwart Guard. We were given the best accommodations in the entire castle, adjacent rooms. I saw evidence of items recently removed when I was directing Minah in where to put my personal belongings so I knew our chamber had not been idle.

"Whom have we displaced?" I asked my servant.

Trust her to have already developed informal information sources.

"Baron Spencer and his wife, Pamela."

"And where have they gone?"

"They have displaced in turn their eldest daughter. And to answer your next question, the two daughters are now sharing a room."

"Well, at least everyone has a bed," I sighed as I tried to rub an itch that was hopelessly locked away.

"Um, your pardon, Highness, but that’s not so. The bed in young Lady Elissa’s room, the eldest daughter, is too small for the Baron of North Vale. He has had a pallet of blankets prepared on the floor. Similarly, Lady Elissa will sleep on the floor of her sister’s room."

"In this entire castle, is there only this one large bed?" I asked, running my hands over the sumptuous quilt.

"No, Highness, there are several. Milady Julia has another in her room and I am sure that some other families have larger beds as well. The Baron did not want to displace more families, though."

I looked at Minah, who looked back with innocence too complete to be real.

"Very well, Minah, go tell Julia. Then ask the Baron if I might have a moment of his time."

Never believe that you control servants. Minah knew the responsi-bilities of royalty as well as I did. I could not squander such comforts as the castle possessed on myself. Nor even allow Julia to do the same, though I knew she would not want them at the price the Baron was paying.

In fact, Julia was in my room when the Baron arrived.

"What is the problem, Highness?" he asked as he entered.

I tried to begin with pompous gravity but my grin definitely did not help the image, "Actually, Baron, I have several problems. First, you and your Lady have got to stop calling me Highness all the time. Call me Princess Cherysse, if you must, or just Cherysse."

He waggled his heavy eyebrows at that, but nodded his head as a grin to match mine appeared on his face.

"Second," I continued, "we are not satisfied with the room arrange-ments."

At this his face fell. As Minah had discovered, we had the best that the castle had to offer.

"It is unseemly for young women to take up such wonderful beds as these, while the lord of the manor sleeps on the floor, as does his daugh-ter," I went on.

"How did you find out about that?" he asked sharply.

"Really, Baron, I am on an inspection tour. I am expected to find out about things in North Vale."

"What do you propose?"

I smiled to let him know I was happy with my decision, "Julia and I will sleep in this room. You and your Lady can have the room you so gra-ciously offered to Julia, and the Lady Elissa can have her own room back."

His heavy brows waggled again. Partly, I supposed, at the depth of my information. Partly from relief, I suspected.

He smiled again, much larger this time, and nodded. "As you wish, Highness. I mean, Princess."

I sighed at his attempt to circumvent my direction, but let him go without further argument. After his contingent left, I turned to Minah.

"Go get some of the extra bedding that they were using for a pallet.

I will need some of it in here. Julia will sleep in the bed."

"Highness, it is not seemly," Minah began to argue.

Julia’s face had also clouded up when I indicated that I would give her the bed to herself. For once, though, rather than give sharp-tongued voice to her thoughts on what appeared foolish to her she just walked over and embraced me.

Her green eyes seemed incredibly bright when she said, "I will sleep with you."

I began to protest, but her slender finger tapped my lips as she continued, "After all, wearing these things, we can hardly do anything but sleep!"

I smiled at the wisdom of her words and nodded to Minah. We com-pleted our unpacking and went down to the first full meal we had enjoyed since beginning our journey.

Strane was there. Though he had a few soldiers with him spaced around the dining hall, there were no others of rank from High Canyon present. I sent a quick warning glance to Julia, then started in on him. I had been teasing or finding fault for most of the journey.

"So, tell me, Milord Strane, are your men settled in?"

"Yes, Highness. The quarters are needlessly adorned, but we will make do."

"What adornments, beds?" I grinned.

What could he say? If he claimed not to use beds, he would seem uncivilized. Yet, to defend the need for beds would seem soft.

Instead, he did as he often did and merely glowered. I had never demanded an answer to one of my teasing barbs so he often retreated into silence.

Julia came to his rescue yet again. "Oh, Cherysse, don’t be cruel. You know the men of High Canyon use beds, just as we do. I’ll bet it’s the fancy tapestries and memorial records that are contained in the barracks."

"How did you know?" Spencer, Baron of North Vale asked.

"Because there are tapestries and records in every barracks room in Achaiea," Julia laughed.

She took Strane’s arm in a scandalous show of affection and walked with him to the table. Spencer already held his Baroness’s arm, leaving me unescorted. A moment of confusion showed on his face before I took his other arm with my own laugh and we moved to our places.

The dinner was hardly joyful. Strane’s dark visage cast a cloud over the table but that wasn’t unusual. I managed a few comments about the contrast between Achaiean wines and High Canyon ale, though in fact I drank very little. Then I managed to leave the table while Julia and Strane were still finishing so that she did not have to leave with me.

It was almost an hour later when she arrived in our room. The frown on her face would have sent most who knew her running for cover but since I had no place to retreat, I decided to attack.

"What’s the matter?"

She looked like she wanted to use language unbecoming to a lady, but managed to keep the words that came out under control. "That Strane is the coldest, stiffest, most distant man God ever made!"

"What happened?" I felt like a prosecutor extracting testimony from a witness.

"I asked him to escort me to somewhere we could watch the sunset. He marched precisely one cubit from me the entire way. You’d think that a warrior from High Canyon could hardly walk a straight line as fluid as their fighting style is, but Strane never wavered. When we got to an a appropriate balcony, I leaned against the ledge, but he stood stiff. I asked him about sunsets in High Canyon, to which he replied they were much the same. I asked him about the number of stars in their sky."

"Much the same?" I interrupted with a smile.

"No," she finally started to relax and gave me a smile in return.

"Actually, they have ‘perhaps as many’."

"Ah, of course."

Her eyes took on a bright twinkle when she continued, "I mentioned that it was getting a bit cool on my shoulders."

"Scandalous!" I snickered. "Such invites a strong arm to provide needed warmth."

"Not for Strane!" she was mad again. "He suggested we go back inside!"

"And so you did," I concluded for her.

"And so we did," she confirmed.

"It appears you have your work cut out for you," I observed.

She grumped, "Well, not tonight."

I laughed and nodded. Minah was just outside the door, as usual, and in a few minutes we were out of our dresses and in our nightclothes. There was a moment of awkwardness as we thought about actually going to bed together. After that moment, though, I waved my hand over the bed and said, "Right side or left?"

"Just as long as you don’t take the middle," she grinned.

"No promises," I replied, moving toward the warm covers. North Vale was already chilly by Stalwart Guard standards and I certainly didn’t want all the steel I was wearing to get cold.

We were both chilled, actually, and it appeared that Spencer and Baroness Pamela must sleep close together, for before we knew it Julia and I were snuggled together. It must have been caused by the residual shape of the mattress left from the previous occupants.

 

(continued in Part 13)

 



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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.