Ah, to be proven worthy of their love! (LGBT themes.)
| The moonless night absorbed my careful calm, leaving me by turns jumping and grinning at nothing. The looming event, a turning point, overshadowed my life. I would soon seize the imperial signet, and with it--my family name.
The drumbeat inside my chest called out to my enemies as I waited under that tree.
Drensen called out, "Hello?"
"Hush!" I whispered.
All at once the veil passed over my eyes, revealing Verdenten and Drensen, standing inside a conjured black bubble.
"I see no reason for stealth." Drensen shrugged. "We are hours from the Aldredge lands."
"It helps to be too cautious." Verdenten shook his finger at no one in particular. "Above all, a wizard relies on planning."
"The charms and potions make you useful."
"None of which can be ready in the critical moment without foresight, or," Verdenten huffed a bit from keeping up with Drensen's stride, "a good deal different measure of talent than I possess."
I rolled my eyes, and recited, "Wizardry is craft and knowledge, little more."
"So he always says." Drensen stretched. "Training, rather than birth, removed this talent."
An old argument, well worn. For some, magic answered their simplest call; others had to carefully gather the arccane forces. A young warrior like Drensen had yet to learn the truth behind Verdenten's protestations--or his own. I shook my head in amusement.
"Yet, we do not come for debate." Verdenten drew out a bag. "Are the horses ready, my good woman?"
Embarrassing, that. It made me want to giggle.'My good woman,' indeed. What would I do, if people began to recognize me as a royal? 'Your highness?' I couldn't imagine. "They are; all tied by the tree."
Verdenten checked the war-stallion's calming bridle, then bent over the horse's right front leg and blew a pinch of dust at his foot. Then, working right to left like the sun, treated each foot in turn. Finally, he worked around my horse and his own mule. When all had been enchanted, he led them around to test his work. Like phantom steeds--nightmares--they made no sound and left no mark in the dirt. Verdenten stood, pushed his glasses on his nose, and nodded. "That will do."
Drensen leaped astride the first horse, a majestic charcoal stallion with the slightest streaks of red. It seemed nobler than a horse could be. Verdenten climbed a rope ladder to mount his mule.
I leaped astride my pride: the red-brown pony with a limp in her walk. I loved her, not only because of the beautiful shade of hair that nearly mirrored my own. She, too, had descended from a line of champions, only to fall. When she had been hurt, it had taken all Carolie and I had, to convince the Duke to let her live.
"Are you sure we weren't seen?" Verdenten asked.
"Sure as I can be." I caressed my horse's shoulder. "Which, Father tells, is not at all."
"Indeed." Verdenten's gaze asked another question that I refused to make out.
"Nothing for it but to lay ourselves on the judgment of fate," Drensen said, urging his horse to move.
Naturally, we followed suit.
When we arrived, I went in the castle alone. I slipped past the sentry, silent as a memory of the Wraith, subtle as a shadow in the absent light of the blackened moon. Good enough to make father hide his proud smile. The ease of it bothered me as I found my destination.
The flickering shadows stopped at the entryway, a line on the tiles. Pale blue glow, an eerie twilight, bathed the room from all directions. The family signet sat in a small, open box. In spite of myself, I whispered, "There, precious one."
A young man's voice came from behind me. "Wouldn't do that."
How had I alerted him? I spun on my toes, flicked a dagger from my sleeve like a carnival charlatan and looked upon my enemy.
A weasely rodent, the mocking shadow of all that I was. Though my cousin, Freder looked more like he belonged in my bedroom mirror.
He smirked and whispered, "The ring of Kel-Elde the Wraith possesses a very demanding dwoemer, not for the unworthy."
The waifish boy clearly wanted to deal with me himself; I would make that cost him. I sneered at him and edged toward the door.
He knocked his nose back. "Even His Excellency Aldredge cannot master it."
"I'll try my luck, little rat." I snapped the ring box closed and, wishing I had time to safely slip the ring from the box, secreted it in my clothes. "You see, I have the blood."
"Oh little girl!" The boy produced a dagger from nowhere, passing it inches from my throat. "We are not worthy of Grandfather's gift."
I wouldn't give him another chance at my throat. As if fainting, I fell back. The aura of the dagger at my neck brought on the mask of fear, disguising me as the scared little child he feared himself to be. I fell to my hands, then lurched to my knees, landing with my shoulder in front of his shins. I slashed the backs of his ankles then pressed forward, shoving his feet out from under him. As he tumbled over me, I charged out the door, spun the befuddled guard's helm to block his sight, and sprinted down the hallways.
The guard called out the alarm as I got half to the end of the hall.
In the distance, chains clattered, and a gate fell. Boots pounded through the halls.
My victory had not been decisive, so much as easy. I had counted on stealth, not on being caught by my own reflection. Freder had been caught all but flat footed. Once aware, the guards would be well armored, physically and mentally. My eyes rushed about, catching no clue where to go.
"This way!" a voice hissed. A servant girl stood behind me, beckoning me into a closet.
Could I trust this woman? She could alert the guards in an instant. Yet, my lone hope lie with her, in her heart and in her closet.
I ducked inside. "Why are you helping me?"
She tore her shirt and cut at it with a jeweled dagger worth ten year's servant's pay. "Here for the Dark Lord's signet?"
What else, but the truth? I shrugged. "Yes."
"Serves Freder right. Bragadocious twit." She cut herself several times, and spread the blood about her body. The mess would look random, but I saw my father's influencein the pattern.
I searched through the clothes. On my way in, my disguise worked, but I needed something a little more local. One like my new friend's uniform.
Then she cut a gag and, ripping cloth like spiderweb, tore bonds for her hands.
"Sure they will buy it?"
She cocked her eye brow and flashed a proud sneer. "I'm a washerwoman. You think maybe, they expect a little woman like me to fight back?" She slipped the dagger into a hidden pocket in one of the jackets.
I took her hand in mine and admired the grip that so easily cut these shirts. Wringing the clothes gave her hands like a hawk. "But they'd be wrong. You could break a soldier's arm."
She smiled and winked. "But, they don't expect it." Her hands flashed the secret signal of the Brigade of Sorrows-- my Father's guild.
More than palace jealousy moved her to save my day. I gave her the countersign. "Will Freder tell the—?"
She shook her head. "Not even a thousand shields could protect him. I can handle him."
Of course. Scores like this must be settled one on one, without involving the overlords. That still left me wondering how to escape. I grabbed a basket, emptied my climbing tools into it, and covered it with odd clothes.
"Keep your head down." She motioned for me to tie her hands behind her back. "Act like you know where you are going. You'll be fine."
"Thanks for the pointers." Especially those tricks she didn't mean to spill.
"Most of all, tie my gag. I don't want anyone to ask why I didn't call for help."
I raised her chin with my finger, pausing to admire the fire in her eyes and the luster in her lips before I tied the gag. With a wistful sigh, I put my ear to the door, then slipped out.
Our escape plan worried me. The guards knew everybody, and even over Freder's moaning and cursing, their footfalls thundered. Though they might be too distracted to identify this servant girl, I kept to the shadows and peeked around every corner.
Lost in a maze, I wandered from shadow to shadow, down more corridors than the palace could hold. Had Freder cursed me to run in circles?
At long last, I found the stairs to the roof. Though I had hardly mastered second-story work, I counted it better than hacking through gate guards.
Freder's whining voice cut through the silence. "Oh, look, it's Kel-Elde's lost granddaughter." He gulped and tossed the glowing flask in a pile with the others.
I tried to make my way around him, toward the crenelated wall overlooking the field.
"Trying to make off with my legacy? How rude."
"You're not worthy." I shrugged. "Yield your burden."
"But I am. Worthy, I mean." He stepped forward, chest out.
This twisted image of myself trying to be like Father sickened me.
"I'll pass Grandfather's tests, you'll see." He winced from the pain as he walked about. "I will be dog food before I let you take it."
"Why not? You let the Count hold it." I circled him, trying to get to the wall
"Only until I had proven—"'He caught himself. Frustration twisted his face, and he growled. "Oh, ha! Do keep trying to stall me. But, give me the ring, before I slice you open, delicious little cousin."
"Not til you ask me nice!" I jockeyed further to the right.
"Perhaps I should leave you alive for the guards. They tire of my attentions." A dagger flew from his empty hand toward my face.
He knew the tricks, as well. I caught it, inches away from my eyes, with the edge of the basket. I didn't have time to ponder where he had hidden it, or how many more he might have—let alone what he did for the guards. My taunt fell flat: "Best you can do?"
"Not going to tell you again!" He stamped his feet and got red in the face, despite his graceful movements, like a crying baby. "I am the rightful heir. I am! Give me the blasted ring."
"Of course! That's gonna happen real soon!" I rushed past him.
He flung a dagger at my forehead, telegraphing his move so I would duck. I could not sidestep the oily parchment he threw under my foot, sending me sprawling. The basket, with my rope and climbing gear in it, went sailing over the wall. I fumbled for the ring and managed to get it out of the case.
In that instant he was on top of me, hands everywhere, pinning me down where I least expected it. The weird girl-boy proved heavier than I imagined. Then his hands gripped the pouch that held the box. I grabbed it with both hands, struggling as if it contained the ring.
With a forward thrust that raked against my belly, he tore the pouch from my fingers.
"No!" The oily parchment clung to my shoe as I struggled to get up. I kicked the boot aside. "Never let you keep that ring!" I sat against the ledge.
"Try and stop me," he said, looking down his nose at me.
He bought it; fellow thieves are among the best nicers to con.
He lorded over me, as if an actor playing the villain. As if daring me to try something.
"I've proven myself the rightful heir."
I heard boot steps: his reinforcements marching up the stairs. Time to make my exit. I rolled to one knee and launched myself head first over the end of the roof. I grabbed the ledge and flung my back against the wall. As I hung by my fingertips, my ribs and the back of my head throbed against the wall.
I blinked away the stars and looked down. With nothing to slow my fall, I shuddered. I could see a spot nearby, a dark shimmering. Verdenten's bubble? That, or some useless old pond. I wished I had scouted more. "Mazes below," I cursed.
If they saw me, my friends would scoop me up, broken legs and all. Otherwise, the Count's men would capture me. I looked above.
Freder or the guards would soon have me anyhow. Only wishful thinking and its desperate gamble might save the day. Drensen will save you, Kissla. I let go.
The thorns grabbed me before Verdenten's feynet took hold.
"Inspired tactic, the way you stopped yourself," Verdenten said.
Drensen grabbed me and threw me on my horse.
Verdenten continued, "I knew where you must be, from the basket, but the net spread too thin. You might have been injured."
As I grabbed the reins, victory washed away the worst edges of pain. "Acceptable losses."
Verdenten frowned and nodded.
Freder would ignore me only until he checked the box. For a victory like this, I could take the pain. I nudged my pony forward even before Drensen moved. "No time to compare stories."
Drensen pulled his stallion next to mine. "I didn't catch what this was about. Did you get anything?"
"Yes, milord." I fingered at my heart, where the ring had caught. "I got what I was looking for."
"Fortune smiles on us, then," he said, beaming.
"I think it does."
Drensen kept his finger over his lips. "Now, remember: training."
I motioned for him to be quiet as I eyed the door. "I'm the expert in secrets."
Drensen gave me a sidelong glance and a wicked smirk.
Carolie strolled in.
I gave her an awkward smile, a shrug of my shoulders.
"Oh, my, don't you look guilty! Been careless again?"
"No, actually," Drensen quipped. "It's like you're always with us."
I tried not to giggle.
"Funny. But seriously, what would you two do without me?"
"We'd train hard, Kid." I massaged the kinks in my neck. "Only, ah—"
Drensen waited. After a few beats, he nodded. "Slower."
"And if I stopped mending your accidents, would you be more careful then?"
"Training alone keeps a warrior safe." His mood turned serious, leaving him looking so like his father, a man destined to rule. "A well-trained hand arms and guards the valiant."
"You're so cute when you echo your Father's sayings," Carolie said, looking at my wounds, "but I wish you would think. What do you train for, anyhow? Nothing ever happens around here."
If she only knew! The secrets we keep! I shrugged. "When something happens, there'll be no time to train."
"Hmm." She paused, frowned, and shook her head before putting her hand on my shoulder. I couldn't help smiling. Every time she touched me, I felt whole, destined to restore Grandfather's throne, in all its glory, but with never-before honor. "You sure you don't have some other reason to get yourselves hurt?"
I wanted to say, 'Yes! You. I love this room, the cold granite of the wounded-man's table, your touch.' She would never understand my feelings. Even I didn't. Not to mention Drensen, my charming Duke: how would he feel about my love for Carolie? My cheeks burned. I looked away.
"Are you sure you're only wounded, not ill?" Carolie said, absently. "You feel hot."
"She just likes it here." We both laughed uncontrollably. I wondered, did Drensen know my heart?
Carolie dropped her hand and looked at us, puzzled. "I don't get it."
Drensen patted her on the back. "It's okay, my dear lady." He lifted her chin, drew her in close.
For one horrible moment, it seemed they would kiss.
"We are only unwinding from our day's toils. It need not concern you."
I could not believe him pulling her in like that, could not believe her letting him. And the words: he would never call me 'lady,' not as long as I remained nameless. I had to get them apart, but how? The shriek in my throat passed unseen, unheard.
Carolie gasped for me, and grabbed my hand, willing her strength into my soul, invading my spirit, washing over me in waves of perfume and velvet. I felt strong, unbelievably so, and had a vision. Armed men, Drensen's men, lowered their head and stepped aside, as if I were someone to be respected. When I came back, her face was inches away from mine, hands clamped about my ears, eyes wide.
Clearly, she felt my distress, and thought me injured. The truth cut closer to that than I dared admit. My lips trembled with the desire to taste hers, so close to mine, but I laid my head onto the stone. "No, I'm okay. Just a thought, a bit of nightmare."
Her hands shook, her lips quivered. "You're—that was real. Terribly."
"Really, she's okay." Drensen pulled Carolie away.
"I don't like it when you lie to me." Carolie looked up at him, eyebrows drawn up in the center. The ache of seeing them so close to one another joined the pain of them going away from me. Smaller now, though, after the healing session. Or, no: I think the pain remained the same, but I felt larger. Whatever. At that moment, I had to protect my Carolie from the truth.
Drensen shot me a look, then returned his attention to Carolie. "Kissla needs rest. Go ahead. I'll be out in a moment."
Carolie nodded, a sad look in her deep, green eyes. "I'll check on her later. She'll be better then. Everybody gets better." Carolie nodded and smiled, secure in the truth of her statement.
"Around you, they do." Drensen let go of her hand.
As he did that, a weight fell from my chest.
After she left, Drensen whispered, "What in the mazes below was that about?".
"It's, oh." What could I say—admit how I felt? Never! "Nothing. It was nothing--you wouldn't understand."
"Right you are! I would not." He shook his fiery blonde head. "Hey, can I see the spoils of our mission?"
I reached in my shirt and produced the signet: symbol of all that I could ever hope to be. Forged of stone, it changed with my breath from blue to red as I inhaled, and red to blue with the exhale. I had yet to put it on. I feared to do so.
"May I see it?"
I nodded, holding it up with both hands like a gift for a king.
With a flair he put it on his finger, and my heart began to race. The stone still kept time to my breath but looked so gorgeous on him.
"May I have it?"' His voice resonated like the kings in the old tales. I imagined him sitting on his father's throne, above me and to my left. I thought of him walking me down the aisle, carrying me off like the spoils of war. In that moment, I understood my vision, and knew which lover to choose.
Breathless. The ring shone purple, color of kings. Unable to speak, I merely nodded.
He slipped the ring into his pocket and my moment ended. "I owe you one."
Then it came, whether out of the afterlife or only my sickened mind, I did not know. The shade spoke with power that vibrated in my lungs. "How could you give the signet to him so easily? I had hoped for more from you."
I had never seen my grandfather, the Emperor Kel-Elde. Even the paintings had been destroyed. Yet, it could be no one else. "Grandfather? Forgive me. I will--"
"No. You have chosen."
"I don't understand."
"All moves according to plan."
"I've lost him."
"Yes, my child. You have lost your suitor and gained your champion."
"I don't get it."
"In all his days, Freder would never understand. One day, you will. Those of my line do not belong in their world."
"Of course I belong! I am trueborn."
Grandfather laughed. "Let the overlords drape themselves in our gold."
All my life, I had dreamed of my rise to nobility, only to be told my dream would betray me? "No. I want what they have."
"Emperors come and go, but we last for all time."
"You are mad, Grandfather."
"It is you. You wear the folly of youth. In time, you will know better."
Continued..."Part 3. The Flavor of Apocalypse"