A Royal Sacrifice Ch. 12byslyc_willie©
The rogue licked his lips slowly, gave a rueful smile. "I suppose you have me, literally, by the balls, then."
Bagdemagus chuckled darkly. "Don't feel ashamed," he said. "I do that with everyone. Even kings." Abruptly, he jerked open the door and stepped through, disappearing from Guy's sight.
Guy shrunk back in his chair with a heavy sigh. There was a part of him that was intimidated, worried, even frightened by the wizard. But if Bagdemagus' word was to be trusted, then Guy had been offered an opportunity that comes nary once in a lifetime. If he played his part -- and kept an eye out for suitable openings and opportunities -- there was much he could learn . . . and earn.
Not to mention the advantages with the ladies that being a Lord would provide . . . .
Like a thief in the night, I come, thought Bagdemagus as he slipped from the hidden passage in the castle's kitchens. The air was still warm and humid from the ovens; the aromas of roast pig and duck, of venison and vinegar, lingered in the large chamber. All sounds of revelry had long faded from the castle; the second night of the Queen's week-long birthday celebration had already come to a close.
I wonder how that makes you feel, Evie, all this doting and posturing, all the false praise heaped upon you by so many horny old lords. Do you think they truly care about you, beyond the fact that you rule a kingdom you know little about, and that sweet young body beneath those perfumed dresses?
Bagdemagus paused, tearing a piece of bread from a large loaf, dipping it within a concoction of olive oil and herbs left behind by a kitchen servant. He popped the morsel in his mouth, dusted his fingers as he headed for the doors.
Not that you will really have to worry about it for long, my sweet . . . .
The manor of the castle was largely reserved for the Royal Family and whichever important officials the regent deemed important enough to always have on hand. But a few officials earned their chambers in the castle manor through their station. Men like the Lord Chamberlain, for instance, and Benedict.
And Stephano, the Captain of the Guard.
The route Bagdemagus took through the ground floor of the manor was a practiced one; for days now, the Captain's door had been a regular visit. And, as with all those previous visits, no one -- not even the sentries in the corridor -- noticed the wizard's presence. Confidently, Bagdemagus took the key he had crafted from his belt, turned the lock in the Captain's chamber door. He closed it quietly behind him once he was within.
The room -- small, spartan, typical of a soldier -- reeked with the odors of alcohol and unwashed flesh. The burly Captain slumbered upon his bed, still clad in the fine crimson coat and dark leggings he had worn that night to the ball. His mouth hung open beneath a thick mustache, and the rumbling snore curling out from his throat filled the air.
Bagdemagus wasted no time. He slipped a glittering crystal, affixed to a chain, from the pouch on his belt and snapped his fingers. "By the dragon's breath, awaken," he intoned.
Abruptly, Stephano's eyes snapped open. He smacked dry, alcohol-burned lips, then sat up, staring blankly forward, ready to receive commands. Bagdemagus grinned. Such an easy mind, he thought, then dangled the crystal before the Captain's face.
"You will respond only to my voice," began the wizard, watching Stephano's eyes following the crystal. "You believe my word to be that of God, and you will obey."
"Yes, my Lord God," muttered Stephano, his speech slurred.
"You have learned well," continued Bagdemagus. "As such, you have earned a reward. The greatest glory a warrior of God could earn."
Stephano grinned drunkenly. "I have waited for this, O Lord."
"I know you have. So here is your mission, and you will not fail save for the breath leaving your body. Tomorrow night, on the Queen's birthday, you shall make a very special gesture . . . ."
Evelyn's arm vibrated under the strain as she held the bowstring back, sighting along the slim, straight shaft of the arrow. The straw target, formed to resemble the silhouette of a man, stood upon a pole a good sixty yards down the range.
A slight breeze stirred Evie's hair, making a strand fall over her eye. On the first day of her archery training, she would have flinched; now, she remained steady and focused. The leather strapped to her first and middle fingers crinkled slightly in her ear. Sweat beaded on her forehead, her upper lip. Then—
Twang! Faster than her eye could follow, the deadly shaft was released, arcing in the air toward the target. She watched the target shudder amidst a small explosion of straw.
Beside her, Prince Drest grinned, eyes narrowed as he peered down the range. "A fine shot, my Queen," he said.
Evelyn lowered the bow with a self-satisfied smile. She worked her arm, clenched and unclenched her fist. "I just may be getting the hang of this," she said, following Drest as he marched down the grassy slope toward the trio of targets.
Cedric and a pair of guardsmen were on watch off to the side, the young knight looking perfectly at home within the saddle of the roan mare he had named Justice. His new station had many perks;: rooms in the castle manor, armor, and a horse. With his chainmail shirt and studded leather gauntlets and boots, Sir Cedric struck a respectable figure indeed.
How knighthood suits you, my friend, Evelyn thought with a smile. She returned her attention to Drest as they reached the target. For whatever reasons, she felt safe with these two men -- perhaps the most important in her life -- watching over her.
Especially Drest . . . .
Her heart fluttered a moment, looking upon him, once more recalling the feel of his hands, the taste of his lips, the sweet, delicious pleasure he had evoked from her when his mouth had touched her nipple . . . she shuddered, feeling her cheeks flush. The idea of sexual arousal had always been academic to her. Yet now . . . she'd had a brief taste, and now was keenly aware that she hungered for more.
At the moment, however, Drest was admiring the placement of the Queen's arrow, which had nearly penetrated through the straw dummy's neck. Only the feathered end was protruding. The shaft had neatly split the wood of the post holding the construct up.
"An excellent shot," Drest commented. "A bit high, though."
Evelyn wrinkled her brow. "I was aiming for the head," she said.
Drest raised an eyebrow in interest. "From that distance . . . you aimed for the head?"
Evelyn shrugged. "Why not?"
Drest smiled in wonderment. "The chest is a larger target, especially from sixty yards," he said. "Master archers never aim for the head at such a distance."
Evie's face soured. "So . . . that was wrong?" she asked.
Drest laughed. "Look at the placement, Evie! I thought you had aimed for the heart, and the shaft fell five inches above! But you aimed for the head . . . the arrow fell less than three inches below your target. That is astounding, milady."
Evelyn smiled slowly, feeling her chest swell with pride. "So much for the idea that a woman cannot be a soldier."
Drest chuckled, rolling his shoulders. "Perhaps those ancient stories about shield maidens have some basis in fact," he remarked.
Evie frowned. "Shield maidens?"
Drest took a breath, silent for a moment as he thought. "There are . . . myths," he said. "Stories, really, that the most renowned of the ancient kings were guarded not by men, but women. Fierce warrior-women called Shield Maidens. Loyal in the extreme, chaste to all men, their only desire was to serve and protect their liege unto death."
Evie smirked, catching Drest's eyes. "'Chaste to all men?'" she asked. "That does not sound like fun."
For a moment, Drest simply enjoyed the attentions of this beautiful woman. His mind drifted back, two evenings before, remembering the sighs and moans, the needy whimpers . . . and the meeting with Bagdemagus afterward. His face fell.
Evelyn was quick to notice. Impulsively, she touched the Prince's arm. "You're thinking about him," she said, her tone almost accusatory.
Drest ground his teeth, looking away. He reached for the shaft of the arrow lodged within the straw dummy. "It bothers me, what he said," he growled, then jerked the arrow free. "Why . . . why would he care that you remain . . . pure?"
Evelyn sighed heavily. Her anger spiked, faster than ever before. "And I wonder why I cannot have a conversation with anyone without that damnable bastard being brought up!"
Drest snapped his attention back to her. "Because you are the Queen," he said simply. "And duty often brings more grief than comfort."
Evelyn seethed, trembling as she tried to control her emotions. The intensity was frightening to her. "I never asked to be Queen," she said, her voice quivering. "I never wanted it. Curse me for being King Richard's only—" she stopped as Drest suddenly loomed over her, clasping his hand over her mouth.
"Don't say it, Evie," he said firmly, warningly. He brought his face close, so that his own breath warmed the hand that covered Evie's mouth. "Don't even think it. Would you really give up everything? The castle? The lands? The people?"
Evelyn angrily slapped the Prince's hand away, yet her ire was already fading. "I'd never give up my people," she snapped.
Drest smiled slowly. "Only a true Queen would see them as 'my people,'" she said. "Blue blood runs through your veins, Evie. You cannot deny that. Becoming Queen was your destiny."
She stared fiercely into Drest's eyes. "Destiny?" she quipped. "And was that destiny forged by God, or Bagdemagus?"
The Prince frowned. "I don't understand."
Evelyn sighed heavily, turning away. She took a few steps, feeling the grass tickle her partially-exposed calves beneath the dress she wore. The quiver at her hip slapped gently at her thigh. She plucked on the bowstring as she turned about and faced Drest once again.
"Benedict," she said, then paused, searching for words.
"What about him?" asked Drest.
Evelyn breathed in. "He told me some things . . . things that make sense," she said. "I am my father's only child. And of six wives, at that. Doesn't that seem strange?"
Drest frowned, thinking. "I . . . I mean, we always assumed that other children were stillborn, or succumbed to crib death, or other such—"
"No," Evelyn said, her voice firm. "King Richard never sired anything, not even a still-born corpse, after me. Bagdemagus did something to him, he made him . . . invirile. Some blasted spell or potion or whatnot. This is all his design. My entire bloody life has been his design!"
Drest watched her, his tortured Queen, at the same time absorbing what she has said. He stepped forward and took her in his arms, feeling her folding against him. His arms were tight about her as Evie shuddered, crying into his shoulder. He kissed her temple, ran his fingers through her long, sun-kissed hair.
"It's not the truth, Evie," he whispered. "You know it isn't."
"But it is," she lamented, digging her fingers into his coat, clutching him.
Drest smiled despite the circumstances. "No. No, it isn't. Think about it. If your life was already planned, why is the wizard taking so many chances? There is salvation for you, my Queen. Together, we will find it. I promise you."
Evie rubbed her face against Drest's coat, then lifted her swollen, red-ringed eyes. "Tell me again," she whispered.
Drest touched her cheek, gazed into Evelyn's captivating eyes. "Which part?" he asked with a smile.
She managed a slight smile. "The 'together' part," she responded.
Drest only smiled, and canted his head, bringing his lips toward hers. Evelyn whimpered softly, and gave in readily to the kiss, pulling herself more tightly against the man who had become so important in her life, so needed and trusted. Within the depths of her mind, Evelyn prayed that trust was being well-placed.
With some effort, Drest broke the kiss and settled his forehead against hers as they recovered their breath. "'Twould be unseemly," he said.
Evelyn suddenly laughed. "Then . . . mayhap we should return to the castle . . . and my chambers."
Drest caught his breath, feeling uncomfortable in his breeches. "For a Queen," he said breathlessly. "You are quite a vixen."
Evelyn grinned, and nipped at his chin. "It is my birthday," she breathed. "I am entitled to a wish."
Drest struggled to control himself. His hands wandered across Evelyn's back. "And what do you wish?"
Evelyn pushed back abruptly, her face glowing, eyes almost glazed with arousal. "Come to my chambers, after the ball," she said, then licked her lip. "And perhaps I shall let you know."
Drest watched after the virgin Queen as she headed back up the slope. He could not help but admire the shape of her body, the hidden pleasures beneath those few layers of linen. But the Queen of Vix, he knew, was nothing like a scullery maid or wanton country girl. Despite her humble beginnings, Evelyn possessed natural grace and poise. For all her complaints, she was more a regent born than even Drest's own aged father.
A woman deserving of respect, thought Drest, starting up the hill behind her.
There was only one person in all of Vix who would enter his chambers without first knocking, Drest knew, and she came calling just as he was fastening the topmost button of his coat.
Viviane slid up behind him with a sultry smile and a faint purr in her voice, reaching her arms around her half-brother to help affix the last silver button. Her face sat upon his right shoulder in the mirror, smirking as always, her impressive bosom pressed to his back. She had a glow about her, suggestive of a recent coupling. Drest wondered who the lucky man had been.
"Do you remember, little brother?" she cooed softly, slowly smoothing her hands down his toned chest. "That first night, when I came to you?"
Drest ground his teeth. "I try not to," he said.
Viviane's smile faltered for a moment, then returned. Her hands wandered further, toward her half-brother's waist. "You cannot deny the past, you know."
Drest closed his eyes, feeling a surge of arousal running through his veins. He fought against it. He knew of Viviane's strange power, her ability to goad even the most uninterested of men into her bed. He attributed her ability to the questionable circumstances of her birth. It was popular rumor in the Kingdom of Ural that King Oren had entertained a sorceress as a lover . . . and that their union had resulted in Viviane. Not much of a stretch to think that Viviane may have inherited something from her.
Drest reached for his sister's hands and pulled them away, then turned to face her. His eyes bore into hers. "Funny you should say that, sister," he said with a wry smile. "Ever since arriving here in Vix, I have learned that one's past is not a measure of their true self. A person's actions define who they are, in the here and now."
Viviane's eyes darkened. "Do not forget who brought you here, baby brother."
Drest suddenly laughed. "If it had not been you, it would have been another," he said. His smile vanished. "Now, if you don't mind, I have to make an appearance for my Queen."
He stepped away, and Viviane watched him, feeling jealousy stab at her heart with razor-sharp edges. "Do you really think she is 'your' queen?" she called. "Watch your steps, and your heart, little brother! And don't forget who and what you are!"
Drest did not respond, though the struggle within was telling upon his face as he jerked open the door, then slammed it closed behind him.
The page's voice was muted amongst the book-lined shelves in the library. The smell of age and wisdom was as palpable as the dust, making the young man wrinkle his nose. He hesitated before stepping deeper amongst the stacks; very few were allowed within the royal library, and while he had official business, the page felt that he was somewhere he did not belong.
"Lord Alistair?" he called again, using the Lord Chamberlain's name this time. Still no response. Taking a breath, hoping he would be forgiven for any transgressions, the page entered the library.
This place is a maze, the young man thought, peripherally looking at the gilded titles on some of the leather bindings. He peered at one more closely as it caught his eye. "The Collected Works of The Fool," he read, then stepped back with a frown. "Why would someone read a fool's work?"
"Not a fool, but the Fool," responded an aged, deep voice. The page gasped, startled, and slapped a hand over his chest. "One the most celebrated poets of all time."
The page looked upon the jowled, bearded face of the head of Vix's clergy. He was not a tall man, but he had presence due to his age, wisdom, and station. The spiritual advisor for King Richard, and the king before him, Lord Alistair now served Lady Evelyn. He was one of the few who did not seem either impressed or irritated by the new Queen.
"Forgive me, Excellency," the page said with a short bow.
"Ignorance is not to be forgiven," growled the elder. "Rather, replaced with wisdom."
"Er . . . yes, of course," replied the young man as he straightened. "I was sent to inform you that the birthday celebration is soon to begin."
The Chamberlain worked his thick, pale lips a moment and grunted in assent. "Good, good," he said. "I have uncovered something that the Queen must see, at any rate." He clutched an old, tattered-looking libram to his body. He gestured to the page. "Lead on, good man."
Violins, cellos, clarinets, horns and drums filled the air with sound that mingled with the hubbub of a hundred different conversations. While there was not enough space in the ballroom for all of Vix -- and it seemed that few villagers had refused the Queen's unprecedented invitation -- it certainly seemed as if the entire kingdom had turned out in honor of their Queen, to celebrate her birth.
Evelyn smiled, truly touched nearly to the point of weeping, at the sight of lords and ladies mingling with blacksmiths and butchers. There had been quite a bite of rancor at first, but now, three days into the week-long celebration, acceptance had taken hold. Still, it was obvious that nobility kept to one side of the room, commoners to the other. But that was little matter. They were all there, and that was important.
"It seems you have decided to accept the love of your people," Muriel commented as she stepped up beside her Queen in the balcony that overlooked the ballroom.
Evelyn rolled her eyes and gave her mother's handmaiden a wry smile. "If, by that, you mean am I ready to enjoy being the center of attention, then yes."
Muriel returned the smile. "About damn time," she remarked, then glanced past the Queen. "Rebecca."
Evelyn's handmaiden stepped from the crimson folds of the curtains that flanked either side of the balcony. The young woman was well aware that many in the kingdom did not now trust her, and despised their scrutiny. Of all within Vix, there were only two she was truly comfortable with: the Queen, and Cedric. But others, like Muriel, she at least respected.
"Muriel," the girl said, then curtsied for her Queen. "Milady."
"Inform the Chamberlain that the Queen is ready to bask in her glory," she said, giving Evelyn a smirk.
Rebecca's cheeks colored slightly with anxiety. Since her interrogation at the hands of Benedict and his goons, and her resulting pardon from the Queen, Rebecca had been reluctant to go anywhere on her own. However, it was her station to follow instructions, and she accepted that.
"Hold," Evelyn said. She gave Muriel a look as she spoke. "I want Rebecca beside me all night. Find a page."