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

 

Chapter 18 - Silver in the Springtime

Winter in Achaiea can be harsh. Even if you have laid in enough supplies to last through the cold times, there is little to do. In the year we were conquered by High Canyon it was too cold to leave the castle from Christmas until spring. Of course it was possible to go outside for short periods, sometimes even for a day or two at a time, but to what purpose? At any time a new storm could descend, making travel impossible and life itself a desperate struggle. So excursions from the castle grounds were tentative and short-ranged.

The residents of Stalwart Guard turned their attention inward when the world outside was so forbidding. The example set by Lyonidas was sufficient justification for the other members of the High Canyon contin-gent to adopt Achaiean styles. Soon, all the warriors from his nation wore tight leggings, a soft tunic, and a tan shirt that was itself much softer than their previous attire. They would often wear a heavy fur cloak when on outside guard duty and it was soon difficult to tell a guard born in High Canyon from one of Achaiea.

The changes were not all one sided, either. I noticed that the swords worn by the Achaiean soldiers in the castle were becoming longer as the winter wore on, and lighter. When the days were warm enough for drill in the courtyard I saw our men learning the quick, light-footed style of High Canyon though their officers still required more discipline than was apparent in the amorphous flow typical of the High Canyon horde.

And on this the pendulum swung back the other way with the warriors of High Canyon finding comfort in a more structured formation, confident that the man on their right or left would stand his ground. They would be guarded in battle even as they guarded their comrades, while still maintaining an aggressive front.

The winter sun set early, so on most afternoons Lyonidas would find me on our balcony before supper. We would watch the sun set, sometimes not saying a word for long moments, content to be in each other’s com-pany. No matter how cold the world outside might be, when I was surroun-ded by his strong arms, leaning my body up against his, I never felt uncomfortable.

Those wonderful silences together did not replace his kisses. Now that I was claimed by him publicly, in our style with his unashamed kiss and in his style with the earrings I wore, he felt it was his right to kiss me whenever we were alone together. And who was I to tell him no? I went to his embrace joyously, eagerly, every time he gave me the opportunity.

I suppose it could have been considered demeaning. I had found out through Minah that wearing his earrings was a sign of his claim on me but carried no corresponding claim on him. It was a signal to other men to keep away from me, but no promise to me at all. Still, I wore them gladly, unashamedly. When he molded his body to mine, when he warmed my lips with his, when he caressed my unbound hair, I was trans-ported to a corner of heaven that knew no shame, no pride, only glorious surrender.

He would escort me to supper. There, we were models of decorum. Still, my often-disarrayed hair, my cheeks glowing with more than the coolness of the outside air made it clear what we had shared only moments before. Sunset after sunset.

After supper I would retire to my rooms for quiet studies or pain-ting. I seldom went alone. But it was not Lyonidas who came with me. Julia and I would spend evenings together, me with my studies, her with her embroidery. We would share the same sort of companionable silences that spoke so much of the depth of comfort in each other’s company. I did several paintings of her that winter. In later years I would realize they were shallow, actually, with simple love and overly-romantic images. I never apologized for the message in my paintings though, for it was true.

One evening I looked up from my studies and just watched her at her fine work for a long time. She finally noticed my attention and looked up herself.

"What are you staring at?" she asked archly.

"You," I answered with a grin.

"Why?"

"Because you are the most gloriously beautiful woman in all of Christendom," I declared.

"That’s not what Lyonidas would say," she giggled.

I giggled too, at her compliment and at the irony of it. Then I sobered and asked her a real question, "Do you think what I’m doing is right?"

"Of course, if that’s what it takes to win back the kingdom," she replied without concern.

"But what about us?" I asked.

"What about us?" she echoed, then answered. "We are honest with each other and Lyonidas is an invader. I don’t particularly like the idea of you in his embrace, but I know your heart belongs to me."

"Do you really? I wish I could prove it to you," I sighed.

She laughed, "I think you make a pretty clear statement every time we bathe together."

I blushed in embarrassed acknowledgment of the truth of her comment. Then, another sign of commitment came to my mind and I went to my dresser where I kept the betrothal hair adornment she had given me.

"Put this in my hair, will you?" I asked.

She took the small circle of pearls from my trembling hand and placed it appropriately. I was ready to return to my desk when she reached into her bag of sewing materials and drew forth the twin to the decoration that was now in my golden tresses.

"I keep this one with me," she said softly. Then, she turned so that I might put her own symbol of commitment in her fiery mane.

I could not imagine a more beautiful sight than all that glorious hair highlighted by the softly-glowing pearls. From that day on we wore out betrothal pearls every time we were alone together, and we were to-gether most evenings.

Perhaps even more than with Lyonidas, these companionable silences were merely counterpoint to greater passion. Our kisses were softer than those that captured Lyonidas’ power, but even sweeter. And even more frequent. There were many nights when she completed little embroidery and I completed little on my paintings, but neither of us complained.

As God is my judge, I felt guilty when I was alone though. Not for what I did, but for the emotions that I felt. If I could have en-sured that my dual life would continue forever, I would gladly have given up my kingdom, left my family unavenged, made all of Mother’s plans come to naught. I know it was selfish, but for the first time in my life I was liked, respected, even loved by someone of my own age; someone beside Mother. The imposed ruler of our land showed me of his passionate affec-tion nearly every afternoon. The most beautiful woman in the world showed me of hers every evening. I never wanted that winter to end.

But God turns the seasons as He wills, and the time came when the days grew longer and warmer. One day when Lyonidas and I were inspecting the sunset the guard at the castle gate announced incoming riders.

We moved to the courtyard for a first-hand appraisal of the situa-tion to see a contingent that looked strangely out of place, foreigners where they didn’t belong. Warriors of High Canyon. Perhaps eight or ten all told, but even in riding they confused their formation too much for an instant count.

I tensed at this intrusion but Lyonidas had no qualms. In fact, as the riders clattered in through the gate he laughed hugely and roared out his challenge.

"Who let you out of jail?!!"

The lead rider, still anonymous within his cowled cloak for all I could tell, pulled up and exposed his face.

"Who are you to ask? You can’t be Lyonidas. You’re entirely too pretty in those fancy clothes."

"Well, now Elgion, I’ve always been better looking than you so that’s no reason to forget your sword brother."

Actually, Elgion was not bad looking, though of course he was not as handsome as my Lyonidas. He was shorter, though still much taller than me. Where Lyonidas had richly-black hair and deep, dark eyes, this man had a dark-blond shaggy mane that covered his collar. His eyes, when I could see them, were sort of neutral, too. Hazel, but not really light in color.

I stood forgotten on the steps to the courtyard as Lyonidas splashed through the puddles and almost pulled Elgion off his horse. They clasped arms like the brothers Lyonidas had claimed and then turned back to me. When they got closer, Elgion reached out to take my hand.

"So this is her," he said, looking at me but speaking to Lyonidas. "The girl whose hair is finer than the purest gold, whose eyes are bluer than the highest sky, whose . . ."

"Yes," Lyonidas interrupted, "this is Her Royal Highness, the Princess Cherysse."

"Nice earrings," he finally spoke to me. It provoked an instant’s embarrassment, but then I stood proudly and shook my golden hair back to make them stand clear.

"Yes, they are beautiful," I declared.

Elgion was about to say something, but just then Queen Selay arrived with Julia. He dropped my hand like an old rag and flowed to them with the fluid ease that Lyonidas demonstrated, though at a much higher energy level.

He went to one knee right there in the muddy courtyard, but before Julia, not the Queen.

It was Julia’s hand that he now reached for and it was at his lips before the warmth of his touch had been forgotten by mine. His words though, were once again for Lyonidas.

"Sword brother, I am going to have to teach you how to write more clearly. You said her hair was red, but you did not tell me it glowed like molten copper fresh poured from the furnace. You said her eyes were green, but you did not tell me they were brighter than a meadow after a cleansing rain. You said she was pretty, and perhaps here you can be forgiven for surely the words do not exist to capture such beauty. If I didn’t know better, I would have accused you of downplaying your reports on Achaiean women so that you could keep them all to yourself."

"And you, sword brother," returned Lyonidas, "are still possessed of the most silvered tongue in all of High Canyon. In all of two king-doms, now."

Lyonidas offered his arm to me as we trailed over behind the high energy of our visitor. By the time we were close enough for polite con-versation Elgion was rising from his muddy knee to stare unabashedly into Julia’s eyes.

"Your Majesty," Lyonidas began the formal introductions, "allow me to introduce Elgion, my sword brother, and oh, I guess you’d say about a Count in your titles. Elgion, this is Her Majesty, Queen Selay, and the Lady Julia you have recognized."

"May God preserve me if I made a mistake," Elgion laughed, "for if there are two such beauties as you in Achaiea, then I will make a traitor of myself and stay here forever."

I wondered if anyone but me noticed the slight start Mother gave at that declaration, and then the moment of cold calculation that fol-lowed in her eyes.

The arrival of the first party from High Canyon after the long win-ter gave more than enough excuse for a party. Though I remember being tired near to death after our own muddy journey the previous autumn, Elgion needed only a quick bath and a change of clothes to reappear fresh as the spring flowers that decorated the tables.

The shapeless tan garb of our new visitors seemed oddly out of place. Once it would have been impossible, then unavoidable, then merely unnecessary. Now those anonymous outfits were back in our home, a nag-ging irritation that we were subject peoples to a foreign invader.

Not that anyone mentioned any of that. Elgion seemed to say three words for any one from someone else, yet the laughter his stories brought forth made it seem like all were equal partners in the conversation. Well, almost all.

Lyonidas was as often the butt of Elgion’s stories as was Elgion himself, and just as Elgion could laugh at himself with true humor, so too did Lyonidas. They conversed over my head with reminiscences that drew on their years together, more years than I had yet been alive.

And when Elgion was not talking to Lyonidas, he was focused on Julia with an intensity that made me desperately afraid. His smooth talking and ready compliments were a talent I had always envied yet never pos-sessed. I was only too aware of how lonely Julia had been once Tamor had died. How much of her present affection for me was simple loneliness?

Queen Selay signaled for the musicians and the party moved to an even more active stage. At least in this I would not need to feel inade-quate. Lyonidas and I had danced together many times since the time I had run out on him. We had become so accustomed to each other that we could devise wonderfully intricate responses to the music.

Yet even here I found myself lacking. Worse, Elgion’s bright energy made even Lyonidas seem, well, dull. We moved with precision and tempo, he moved with true art.

And worst of all, his partner was Julia. She had found a kindred soul in Elgion, all bright enthusiasm, unconcerned about intermittent breaks in the flow as they found each other’s rhythms. I was grateful when the musicians turned to slower tunes. That is, until Elgion took Julia into his embrace as shamelessly as Lyonidas had once done to me.

While Lyonidas and I danced quietly together, I asked him, "Did I hear you ask how Elgion came to be out of jail?"

"Oh, that was a joke. I always told him if he didn’t have me around to keep his impulses under control, he’d end up in jail."

"Perhaps that would be the right place for him," I murmured under my breath.

"What did you say, My Princess?" Lyonidas asked.

"Uh, oh, nothing," I lied, surprised myself at how much truth there was in my feelings about this intruder.

Those feelings were not improved when I retired for the evening.

Elgion was still recounting tales, each more impossible than the last. Lyonidas had long since quit defending himself against these obvious lies, just laughing at the creativity in the storytelling.

Julia stayed to listen.

I reached my room alone for the first time in many evenings and tried to lose myself in music of my own. Nothing moved me though, and my studies were no more captivating. In the end, I called for Minah to help me undress and went to bed early, clutching my unworn betrothal pearls in my hand as I worried about so many things.

The next morning was a bathing day and I reached the chamber quite early. Mother was there, already finished with her own morning duties, and helped me from my imprisoning steel embrace. I said nothing, not even in response to the most intimate relief. For once it was not significant next to the ache in my heart.

Julia entered gaily a short while later. She bounced and chattered and giggled and sighed and showed all signs of being infected with the personality of our newest invader. For the first time in a long time, I felt guilty watching as she slid into the warm water. Now it was as though I were the intruder. Mother went to the dresser to pick out the day’s dresses for us, giving us a short while to soak in the renewing heat.

"You should have stayed at dinner longer," Julia advised me.

"Elgion had so many wonderful stories about Lyonidas."

"Stories is right," I grumbled. She didn’t even hear me, already launched into a second hand rendition of one she found especially amusing.

"Doesn’t Elgion dance well?" she next asked. Like I cared.

"He certainly is uninhibited," I offered in faint agreement.

"You could do with a little less inhibition," she chuckled.

"Then why don’t you just ask HIM for HIS earrings to wear," I cried, turning away.

Julia sputtered to a stop, only now picking up on my despair.

"My love," she said softly, "you know there is only you in my life."

She slid around the tub to hold me in her arms but for the first time, I shrugged her away.

"Oh, Julia, you deserve so much more than me. You deserve someone with the bright happiness of Elgion, not some not-quite-man who will always be a disappointment."

"Do you want Lyonidas more than me?" she asked.

"No!"

"Then why should you think that I want anyone else more than you?"

Had her brains gone astray during the party last night? "But you are a beautiful woman! You deserve a strong, handsome man, not a soft weakling."

"Do you like the kisses of your strong, handsome Lyonidas more than mine?" she asked.

"No," again I answered.

"Then why do you think that I would?"

"Because you’re a beautiful woman," I repeated, "and I’m a . . ."

"The Queen has said that when you are with Lyonidas, your responses are those of a beautiful woman. Yet you still prefer the sweet tender-ness we share. Please believe me when I say that I am the same."

She kissed me softly, tenderly, and reminded me, "I told you once if I had to choose, I would choose gentle over fierce. I love you, my darling, not Elgion."

The strange situation I had found myself in for most of a year had resulted in many inexplicable responses. With the touch of her soft kiss I began to cry, though the tears were not of pain or sadness. Sometimes a woman may sob from relief and joy as soon as from sorrow.

I was unaware that Mother had returned sometime during our conver-sation. When she spoke, her words created yet a further surprise.

"Julia, it is good that you do not intend to be forsworn, but it may indeed be necessary for you to wear Elgion’s earrings."

"Forsworn?" Julia asked tentatively.

"Oh, child, don’t you think that I know you had betrothal pearls made for you both? How often do you think that happens? Amy knew about it before they were delivered. If, after all those evenings alone in her room, you had not offered them to Cherysse and she accepted, then you would not be so close right now."

"You knew?" now it was my turn to ask.

"Of course. And I approve. You will be good for each other, and more importantly, good for the kingdom. I even think you can be happy together, which is an additional positive factor."

Then she laughed and continued, "If you didn’t both wear your maiden’s lovers, I would never have permitted you to spend so much time together unchaperoned."

"Speaking of which, I expect it will be easier for Cherysse if you give her a chance to recover from that embrace before she must once again wear her armor."

I blushed, but my brave Julia just kissed me once again, and if there were less tenderness than previously, it was replaced with fierce pride I found even more satisfying.

Mother chuckled at our response, but then sobered, "Actually, Julia, what I said was correct. We need to convince Elgion to support Lyonidas in the coming confrontation, not Kragdle. You will need to be a major part of our inducement."

"Me?" she replied.

"Yes, you," Mother confirmed. "He is obviously quite smitten with you . ."

"I can understand that," I interrupted with a snicker.

"And you can show him the value of Achaiean ways just as Cherysse has shown Lyonidas," she continued.

Now Julia snickered at me, "That’s not all she’s shown him."

I rewarded her jab with the expected blush, not that I had any choice in the matter. But in the next instant I pulled one of her slen-der ankles so that she slid under the water.

She came up spluttering, but laughing. Mother, though, was not so amused.

"Girls! Pay attention. Julia, you need to arrange in a month or so what has taken Cherysse more than half a year with Lyonidas. It will not happen if you remain so focused on each other. Cherysse, just as Julia must accept the attention that Lyonidas gives to you, now you will have to accept the attention that Elgion will be paying to Julia. There can be no more of that sour attitude you showed last night at supper. Can you both play your parts?"

"Yes, Mother. Yes, Majesty," we answered guiltily, but under the water Julia’s fingers found their way to mine and twined within them.

We completed our bath and dressed for the day in bright colors. The spring air was still cool but the bright sun made any exposed place too warm for winter clothes, too cheerful for winter colors. It seemed everyone in the castle found an excuse to spend the day outdoors and the courtyard was still bubbling with activity when I stepped out onto our balcony to wait for Lyonidas and watch the sunset.

The sunset arrived on time, but Lyonidas did not. When the sun was fully down and it was clearly too late for any further hope, I de-scended from the balcony to the dining hall. Was it my sinful pleasure in the passion of Lyonidas’ kisses, followed so closely by the sweetness of those from Julia, that now denied me both?

 

(continued in Part 19)

 



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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.