An accidental bargain is made. A lover's quarrel ends poorly.
|As it turned out, Emperor Koschei was quite the accomplished storyteller. He had an aura that demanded all who saw him listen to his words, and he regaled the dinner table with tales of his recent battles against the terrifying invading empire of Rubama, and told them of the harrowing battle he’d just narrowly won with the savages in the Nepapan Woods, all in the service of his ultimate goal: reclaiming a stolen gauntlet of immense magical power.
Naturally, Aisling didn’t buy it for a second. The Fantasian Knights all listened with rapt ears, but she suspected that was more because they feared the man speaking rather than because they believed him. Niall seemed… especially good at pretending to be enraptured by the Emperor’s stories. If Aisling didn’t know any better, she might think he truly did idolize this monster!
Still, “this monster” clearly knew a few things the others didn’t. He thoughtlessly glanced over King Solomon’s delicious feast, only picking out the scrawniest, toughest chicken legs, the hardest bread, the greyest gruel, and smirked as the knights and ladies all gorged themselves on finer food. Thinking that there might be some method to this madness, Aisling followed suit.
It was probably the worst meal she’d ever eaten. Chewing had always been an effortless action for her, but now she was struggling with every bite. The taste was awful; she needed to magick her own taste buds into thinking they were eating something more palatable just to get it into her system! And as she finished, a strange heaviness unlike anything she’d ever felt before settled in her stomach. Aisling was… full? She’d never been full before! She’d always been satisfied, but with a strange gnawing sensation in the back of her mind, like she still craved more, no matter how much she had.
Aisling looked around at the other diners. With the exception of Lord Solomon and Emperor Koschei, all ate the food with ravenous aplomb; not satisfied until they’d had every scrap they could. It had never occurred to Aisling before, but the image struck her as one of wild animals, desperately fighting over scraps. She wondered why Fantasians ate so, when there was so clearly plenty for everyone.
Suddenly, Koschei made eye contact with her, noticing the way she stared. Realizing her mistake, Aisling decided to fake still being hungry and immediately dashed to gorge herself on the finer foods like her fellows. She worried that she couldn’t stomach another bite, but somehow everything went down without a problem. When she glanced at the necromancer again, it seemed he had lost interest and gone back to telling the story of some lost glove or whatever. Aisling honestly couldn’t care less, and merely pretended to listen for the rest of the dinner.
Eventually, the strange meal was over, and Aisling and the other ladies helped clear the table. It was demeaning that noble ladies such as her would have to do so, but for some reason Lord Solomon forbade the maids from touching his fine plates. Whatever, she’d make the most of it. She used this opportunity, her first time away from Niall, to magically “fix” her appearance somewhat, using a plate as a mirror; do away with some of that makeup first of all, bring up the neckline of her dress, make the whole ensemble a less ostentatious color. It wasn’t much; any more would be instantly noticeable. But at least now she looked a bit more presentable and less like a walking trophy for Niall to show off.
This meant she was finished with her portion of the dishes a bit later than the rest of the women. As she headed to the barracks to meet up with Niall again, she overheard from the kitchen what sounded like Lord Solomon and Emporer Koschei arguing. She pressed her ear to the door in curiosity, trying to make out what was being said.
“...seems like your secret is out!” the necromancer was saying, in a smug, self-assured tone.
“I assure you, I have no idea why that girl ate your food, but I promise she does not know the truth!” Came the flustered lord’s reply. Aisling’s face paled as she realized the two men were discussing her!
Koschei merely chuckled. “Maybe you’re right. That girl WAS paying close attention to me all throughout dinner! Maybe she fancies me and was trying to imitate the object of her affections!”
Lord Solomon tried to reciprocate the laugh, bless his soul, but it came out more like the nervous bleating of a goat. “No offense, my Emperor, but as you requested, I placed no illusion upon YOU. I don’t think it likely she, er… “fancies” you.”
Koschei hissed angrily. Aisling got the feeling that insulting the necromancer’s appearance to his face was generally a poor idea. “Well, it’s hardly like I fancy her, either! All skin and bones, just like everyone in this godsforsaken city!”
“Of course, of course,” Solomon replied hastily. “I-I just meant that… you know, with how everyone else is… made to look, any normal man would pale in comparison!”
Made to look? What did he mean by that? Sure, the upper-class citizens often used illusion magic to spruce up their appearances a tad, but she hardly thought it was so blatant! …Aside from what Niall had done to her, obviously.
“You’re damn lucky your illusory magics are so valuable, Solomon, or I’d have your head,” the Emporer said. His heavy footsteps began heading towards the door, and Aisling realized he was headed right for where she was listening! Quickly, she dashed back into the hallway and turned herself invisible. It was a difficult trick, one that had taken years of hard study and practice, but it was one Aisling was very proud of.
And just in time, too! Koschei had just opened the door and would be looking right at her if… if she weren’t… huh. The way he was looking in her direction almost made her think that he could see her…
“What are you doing, standing there like a fool?” The dictator asked, looking down at her contemptuously.
“Wait… you can see me?” Aisling asked, looking up at him in apprehension.
Koschei squinted at her before his eyes widened in realization. “Oh, you’re trying to turn invisible! I see! Solomon, it appears this little thing was spying on us!”
“Wh-what? No! No no no!” Aisling said, throwing her hands up in fear as Solomon came to see what the ruckus was about. “I… I wasn’t sp-spying! I was…” she desperately searched her mind for an excuse, before settling on the first thing that popped into her head. This man thought she fancied him, was that it? Hopefully she could pull this off.
“I… was actually coming to see you,” she said, letting a small blush creep up onto her face. “I was… intrigued by those stories you told. I… like a good storyteller.” She fidgeted with her hands and shuffled her feet, trying to act flirtatious. She was glad for her experience as an actress, as she didn’t think she’d be able to pull it off otherwise.
Koschei looked at her in surprise, seemingly taken aback by her interest. “Those stories were all lies, you know. Told for the…” he made a rattling noise that could have been an attempt at laughter. “‘Knights’ benefit!”
Aisling decided she should probably laugh along. “Of course! Far more inspiring to claim it was a great battle against the transfiguration tribes instead of a one-sided thrashing! I’m sure the “noble” knights of this land hope for a battle just as valiant one day!”
Another laugh from the necromancer’s helm. “Very well put! These fools have never seen a day of real action in their lives!” He patted Aisling on the shoulder with a heavy, armored hand, her transgression seemingly forgotten. “You’re smarter than you let on, girl!”
Real action? From what Aisling had been told by Niall, at least a few of the knights of Lord Solomon’s court had slain great beasts and overthrown rebelling cities! What could he possibly mean by real action if not that? “Thank you, Your Majesty. I only wish I wasn’t betrothed to one of those so-called ‘knights...’”
Koschei looked down at her, helm tilted in an almost comedic pondering fashion. Oh Spekter, why had she said that? She was honored to be engaged to Niall, she had to be! It was a great honor to be his bride! And yet, as she looked back up at the necromancer, she realized she’d never been as honest as she had in that one moment.
“Alright,” the foreign emperor finally said. “It has been many years since someone appreciated my stories for what they truly were. I shall do you a favor and grant your wish… so long as you swear fealty to me in return.”
“Wh-what?” What was this man saying? She couldn’t just break off her engagement with Niall! And she CERTAINLY couldn’t swear fealty to this monster!
“Solomon! Come in here and cancel this lady’s engagement!” The Necromancer seemed heedless of her stuttered protestings, and Solomon rushed out to accommodate him.
“Right away, Your Majesty!” He practically shrieked, quivering like a leaf and digging out a scrap of paper. “Er… Miss Aisling, was it? I hereby cancel your engagement to… who was it you were engaged to, again?”
“Sir Niall.” Aisling could hardly believe what was going on, it was all happening so fast!
“Sir Niall?” He chuckled darkly. “It would figure, face like yours.”
Aisling blushed again. “I’ll have you know I NEVER wear this much makeup!”
Solomon nodded his head dismissively. “Yes, yes, I’m sure. He made you wear it, right? Every lady Niall brings makes the same excuse.”
Every lady? As in, he’d brought others? Aisling trembled with rage. After all the loyalty she’d shown her betrothed! For him to have taken another lady to a court dinner was tantamount to a spit in the face!
“Right then: I, Lord Solomon, being the ultimate authority of the country of Fantasia, do hereby cancel the engagement between lady Aisling and Sir Niall.” Solomon handed the finished document to the necromancer, then bowed his head and scurried off.
Koschei smirked as he looked down at Aisling. “Now, then. I believe you were to swear fealty to me, in exchange?”
“What? Oh! Uh, right, it’s just-”
“Excellent.” The necromancer held out his hand, and Aisling shook it hesitantly. A burning sensation suddenly shot through her body, and she pulled back her arm painfully. “I shall get your address from “Lord” Solomon, and pick you up tomorrow. Be ready to leave by then.”
“But I didn’t-” but Koschei was already striding away, his long legs carrying him far and fast. She looked down at her hand, where the faint outline of a skull was fading away. What had the Necromancer done to her?
The carriage ride home with Sir Niall was a bit more tense than the one up, were that even possible. Niall had noticed Aisling’s change in wardrobe, and was clearly displeased with her executive wardrobe decisions. For her part, Aisling dreaded how her betrothed would react when he learned of the Necromancer’s intentions with her. Oh, she wasn’t worried he’d take it out on her, not at all. After all, he was a noble knight, and she, his lady. She fully expected a healthy amount of righteous fury… she just didn’t want to be the only person around to experience said righteous fury.
Eventually, after an hour-long, tense carriage ride through quiet countryside, the two of them rode into the city and returned to Niall’s home. “Would milady like to come in, we could watch the servants reenact the Comedy of the Twelve Knights?”
“I’m more of a romantic tragedy sort, myself,” Aisling admitted. “The Divided Dignities and such.”
Niall pursed his lips. “Divided Dignities is a little… somber for my tastes.”
“Well… maybe a somber mood would be better right now?” Aisling asked delicately.
What’s that supposed to mean?” Niall asked, suddenly looking a little more concerned.
Aisling took a deep breath. They were out of the carriage now, so maybe it was time to tell him. “Look, Niall… you’re a wonderful man, and the times we’ve shared are some of the most… memorable in my life.”
“This sounds like a breakup,” Niall warned. “You know that we’re betrothed, right? You can’t break up with me.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” said Aisling, looking anywhere but at the knight’s steadily-darkening face. “Lord Solomon has ordered our engagement undone. He left it to me to tell you.”
Niall stared at her, shocked. “Wh-what? Lord Solomon himself?” He took a step back. “Impossible!”
Aisling nodded her head gravely. She handed him the document with Lord Solomon’s seal. “I wish I could change things.”
Niall’s eyes narrowed as he scanned the document. “I… I can’t believe this!”
“Don’t worry!” Aisling said quickly, trying to perform damage control. “W-we can still be friends, and I’ll always be close by!”
Niall’s eyes narrowed. “No. I know what this is about: it’s that Emperor, isn’t it? I saw the way you were looking at him during dinner! You took one look at his huge army and just couldn’t help yourself, and you BEGGED Lord Solomon to call off our engagement so you could chase him!”
“Okay, seriously, why does everyone think I was into him?” Aisling asked. Sure, maybe she’d been staring a little too much, but it was obviously a suspicious stare!
“Well, good luck chasing that warlord!” Niall apparently had stopped listening by this point. “It figures: the ladies always go for the rich, powerful men, and never give noble heroes like ME a chance!
“What are you talking about?” Aisling asked incredulously. “You’re rich and powerful! And we’ve been betrothed for four months, ever since our mothers met at that gala! I’ve been giving you chances since the day we met!”
“If you’d ACTUALLY given me a chance, you’d have seen what a loyal, caring, humble man I was and fallen in love with me!” Niall retorted. “But you don’t care about that, do you? All you care about is-”
“I’m going to stop you right there,” Aisling interrupted Niall for the first time since their betrothal. Women in Fantasia were always supposed to let the man finish talking, but Aisling was just so sick of Niall’s attitude by now! “If you really were as “loyal” as you claim, you wouldn’t have brought other ladies to Solomon’s other feasts! If you were as “caring” as you say, you wouldn’t have made me dress up in that ridiculous dress for the dinner! You tricked me into dressing up like… like some sort of doll!”
Niall’s face was bright red from her blatant interruption and his lack of a good retort. “Any other man would have been a thousand times worse than me!” He managed. “I bet those other knights treat their ladies horribly at home!” He stormed into his house. “I hope that necromancer leaves you after a week! Have fun chasing that “perfect man” that doesn’t exist!”
And with that, he slammed the door in her face. Aisling stood on the doorstep in shock, the realization dawning on her that maybe her new life in service to Koschei would actually be an improvement over marriage to this man.
Hey guys. This is my first ever novel. I'm not so arrogant as to think it's done yet, but I will be uploading it here to get feedback. Please feel free to give whatever constructive criticism you feel is necessary!