|Vladislav the son of the Dragon and prince of Valachia was not to be crossed.
Dochia smoothed her doublet and righted her leather armor. She was late for her audience with the prince, and she hated to admit it, she was afraid.
The Dragon detested deception, and she was about to deceive him. Twice. She shivered remembering the fate of another woman who tried to mislead him.
The Dragon tormented and taunted her before taking her life.
"So everyone could see where I have been."
Her deceit was different and she tentatively touched the mask on her face. Would he order her face burned when he learned she didn't hide behind the mask because of disfigurement?
The doors of the audience hall opened, and she performed a deep bow when she entered.
She gulped when she rose and noticed the telltale guard with a golden pike sitting behind the throne. It was for her; she swallowed in fear, as the Dragon reserved the golden spears only for the high ranked.
She advanced and stopped ten paces from the throne with another deep bow.
The Dragon frowned, visibly irritated.
The guard moved towards her, and she sputtered.
"Wait, your highness."
The frown between the prince's eye deepened.
"We... err... I caught a spy."
She had his full attention now.
That was the whole problem, telling him how would disclose she was a woman. She donned a dress earlier today and went strolling through the fair with Duncan. He left her for a moment and went to get refreshments. A drunken man leered and assaulted her; however Duncan noticed and knocked-out the man with a well-placed fist. She felt relief that she didn't have to attract unwanted attention by dealing with the lout herself.
A swift search revealed a small pouch containing a message at the man's neck.
She sighed and observed Dragon's eyes studying her with impatience.
"Your highness, I noticed a suspicious man earlier today at the fair. I found in his possession a message for the merchants in Hermannstadt."
She wouldn’t involve Duncan if she could help it. They tied the man, and he was under guard in her quarters. The spy wasn't cooperating, and they lost the sense of time.
The Dragon was listening with interest now and looked pleased when she handed him the letter.
"The interrogation took longer than I expected. I beg your forgiveness, your highness."
She bowed her head and waited for her sentence in silence.
The Dragon frowned although he held the unopened letter in his hands.
"How odd, I didn't see you at the fair. I remember an incident; a mercenary had a scuff with a German merchant. Over a brown-haired beauty, from what I heard."
She swallowed and clasped her hands at her back to hide their trembling. She remained quiet.
The Dragon looked at her, and she could see suspicion in his green eyes.
"Bring in the mercenary."
Dochia felt nauseous and swallowed back the bile that rose in her throat. She forced herself not to look at Duncan when he entered.
"The merchants accused him of mistreating one of their own for no obvious reason and demanded retribution. The letter could be proof but I would rather not disclose I have it. "
He handed her back the letter.
"Order this copied and return the original quietly to the merchant before you release him."
"The letter is already a copy, your highness."
"Unfortunately, if Duncan attacked the merchant with no reason, I would have no other choice but to punish him."
The Dragon pointed to the guard holding the golden spear and Dochia blanched. He then turned to Duncan.
"We could settle the complaint if the woman could testify in your favor."
He remained quiet but Dochia could see the tensed muscles in his jaw.
The Dragon turned to her and Duncan shook his head slightly, as if he read her thoughts.
She ignored him. She loved him, and she wouldn't let him die on the pike, no matter the cost.
"I know the woman; I would send her to you in one hour."
She bowed deeply and turned to leave when the Dragon's voice stopped her in her tracks.
"Boyar Stan, the guard could bring the woman if you would be so kind to give him the directions."
Then he clapped her shoulder and added.
"We must read the message and decide what to do about it. Let's go sit by the river, I sent for refreshments. The sun shines, and I feel the need for a swim. I hope you would both join me."
Refusing the Dragon was out of the question. Going to swim with the Dragon was out of the question also. Her mind worked feverishly to find a way out; however, each alternative carried a risk of discovery.
She slumped her shoulders and sighed. The prince's large eyes were watching her with interest and she understood it was folly to continue the ruse.
"I would seek a private audience, your highness."
The Dragon motioned at the guard to leave the room but signaled Duncan to stay.
She untied the strings holding her mask and removed her coif. She shook her head, and her brown hair fell on her shoulders.
"Your highness, the merchant approached me in a most insulting manner. I would publicly testify if needed, however, I cannot go swimming."
The Dragon looked from Duncan to Dochia. His nostrils flared, and his eyes darkened with anger.
"You deserve the pike for deceiving me!"
Dochia fell to her knees, and she felt her heart thumping. It was wild and born of despair, it was her last chance. She had to try it.
"You are the best judge, so do as you please as I well deserve any punishment you devise for me."
The Dragon helped her rise, and Dochia let out a breath she didn't know she was holding.
Flattery often worked.