A Royal Sacrifice Ch. 12byslyc_willie©
Muriel nodded slowly, understanding. "Of course," she said, then turned and stepped from the balcony.
"My Queen—" Rebecca began.
"Rebecca," Evelyn said in a firm tone. "Do not say what you are thinking. I know you wonder as to your loyalties, as to what others think of you. I admit, I do feel a bit leery in your presence."
Rebecca blushed in shame. "I wish I could answer your questions," she said in a mournful voice.
"But you cannot. It is not your fault. The wizard charmed you, of that I am sure. I know little of magic, but from what I understand, there are few minds that can resist it's effects. There is no shame in being seduced by a man like Bagdemagus."
Rebecca trembled slightly, her eyes swelling with tears. "But I . . . I dishonored my station. A handmaiden is to remain chaste for at least as long as her Queen."
Evelyn felt a sympathetic stirring in her heart. She took Rebecca's hands and gazed into her handmaiden's eyes. "There is naught that can be done about the past," she said. "The wizard took you, and for that I am truly sorry. But, as I am your Queen, I say this with all conviction . . ."
Rebecca breathed in, waiting . . . hoping.
"I trust you," Evelyn finished, her words emphatic. "You are my handmaiden, and you will stand beside me, at all times. Is that understood?"
Rebecca fought back her tears. Pride swirled through her. Pride, and affirmation. Her hands squeezed Evelyn's. "Yes, my Queen," she said with a shaking voice. "I shall not fail you again."
Evelyn smiled. "You didn't the first time."
Rebecca smiled, sniffled, blinked away a few tears. "You have no idea what that means to me, milady."
The Queen beamed. This is what my station means, she thought. "Now, buck up," she said with a smile. "I'll need you to help fend off some of those stuffy old lords who seek to woo me."
Rebecca laughed, and quickly wiped her eyes. "Of course, my Queen. Although, if I may, I suspect there is one you do not wish to see fended off."
Evelyn blushed briefly. "Perhaps," she responded coyly. "But then, he is neither stuffy nor old."
Rebecca smiled knowingly, gestured to the archway that lead from the balcony. "After you, my Queen," she said.
The cacophony started from the rear of the crowd that filled the ballroom. Evelyn stood, Rebecca on one side, Muriel on the other, within a circle formed by the crowd. All about the Queen were grinning faces and applauding hands. Nobles stood shoulder-to-shoulder with those they ruled. Evelyn could not think of a finer moment in her life.
The crowd parted before her, and a large cart was revealed, topped with the most immense cake Evelyn had ever seen. Pushed by a doughty woman clad in a white apron over her dress, the cake blazed with candles that cast a golden glow in all directions. Reflexively, Evelyn clasped her hands over her mouth, touched, awed, and chastened by the display.
"My finest work, my Queen," declared the middle-aged woman with beaming pride. "I have awaited this day all my life."
Evelyn's face contorted with emotion, touched beyond measure. "Oh, Mrs. Goldfield," she managed to say. "It's beautiful!"
Mrs. Goldfield grinned. "I suppose it goes without saying that I now forgive you for stealing all those pastries from my shop when you were a child."
Laughter filled the room, not the least of which was Evelyn's. The Queen approached the baker and hugged her tightly. "Thank you," she said.
Mrs. Goldfield looked the Queen in the eye. "You do us proud, Evie," she whispered, then kissed the young woman's cheeks in turn.
Evelyn pulled away, looking around at the faces that surrounded her. Some she recognized from the village, others were lords and ladies she had come to know. Nearly all were smiling, even if some such expressions were plainly forced. Not all the nobility had come to accept a peasant queen, after all.
Then came a voice, deep, commanding, rich and filled with purpose: "'And within the great garden, the first mother bore forth the first child, and the world rejoiced.'"
All laughter, applause and conversation stopped as heads turned and the sea of bodies parted for the arrival of Alistair, Lord Chamberlain. His luxurious robes swept the floor with each step as he approached the Queen, stopping several paces before her. He held an ancient book beneath his left arm.
"My Queen," he said with reverence, his weary eyes smiling. He gave her a nod, then raised his voice and addressed those around them.
"On this day, nineteen years ago, a miracle was born into our midst. Every birth is a miracle, just as is every sunrise and every flutter of a sparrow's wings. But this birth . . . the day our Queen was brought into the world . . . is truly a miracle. Her radiance, her wisdom, her skill will guide us all." He faced Evelyn with a reverent smile. "Hail to the Queen. Hail Evelyn."
Evelyn touched the base of her throat, meeting the eyes of friends and strangers. For a moment, at least, thoughts of the wizard and the dangers he posed were absent from her mind. For a moment, she was not the Queen, but just a happy young woman.
"Thank you, Lord Chamberlain," she managed to say, her voice choked with emotion. "Thank you, everyone."
Muriel touched her arm, bringing Evie's attention back to the cake. Evelyn laughed, beckoned to her handmaiden. Rebecca understood right away, and bent over beside her queen. Taking deep breaths, the two young women blew out the candles to the applause of nobility and commoners alike.
Drest stepped from the crowd, extending his hand to Evelyn. "May I have the honor of my Queen's first dance?"
Evelyn smiled broadly, demurely taking the Prince's hand. The crowd moved back, and music began to fill the air. Evelyn smiled sweetly upon her Prince as he swept her about the room. Other couples quickly paired off, inspired by the obviously blossoming romance between their Queen and the future King of Ural. While there was many a sour look upon a lord's face, few could deny that Drest and Evelyn made a dashing couple.
"Enjoying your birthday, my Queen?" Drest asked as they moved gracefully across the floor.
Evelyn beamed. "Immensely," she declared, conscious of her breasts rubbing against the Prince's torso. The low hum of arousal she had been enjoying all day began mounting, eliciting a flicker of heat within her. "Especially since, as it is my birthday, I am entitled to a wish."
Drest smiled, holding her close as he carried her about temporarily lifting the Queen off her feet and making her giggle like a girl. "And what would that wish be?"
Evelyn was quiet a moment, staring into Drest's eyes. She could easily see herself spending a few hours within those deep blue pools, her fingers entangling in those thick blonde locks . . . she shuddered, feeling the blush rise in her cheeks. "Perhaps another taste of what you offered the other night?"
Despite his attempt to remain composed, Drest faltered a bit in his steps, nearly stumbling. He was blushing as well as he caught himself, keeping them both from tumbling to the floor. "Evie," he said, captivated by her glittering hazel orbs. "I very nearly went too far. I would think it best if we waited for marriage."
Evelyn grinned. "Is that your proposal, then?" she kidded.
Drest's eyes bulged. "Wh-what? No! Of . . . of course not!" he stammered. "I could certainly do better than that!" He stopped as he realized Evelyn was laughing. Slowly, he shook his head with a rueful smile. "Mayhap that is enough dancing for the moment."
Evelyn tittered. "As you wish," she said, gesturing to a circulating steward. The young man approached with his tray of champagne flutes, and the Queen took two from the tray. "Perhaps a toast, then."
Drest chuckled and accepted the flute. "To what shall we toast?"
Evelyn lightly touched the rim of her glass to Drest's. "How about . . . new experiences?"
Drest took a breath, controlling his burgeoning arousal, and said nothing as he and Evelyn sipped. Nothing needed to be said, not with the way their eyes were speaking.
Near the buffet table, Cedric and Rebecca were both keeping an eye on the Queen as well as indulging in pate and roasted boar. Rebecca felt more than comfortable beside Cedric; aside from being her hero, the young knight was now her lover as well. She found that she could not be close to him without touching his arm, his side, or settling a hand to his back. The more she spent time with him, the less she thought of Bagdemagus . . . even though she was aware that, for some reason, she still desired the wizard.
"I think they look good together, Cedric," Rebecca whispered as she watched the Prince and Queen stray from the dance floor.
Cedric smiled with a nod. "Aye," he agreed. "We may be calling him King before long."
Rebecca swooned as images flashed in her mind. "Oh, it will be such a beautiful wedding," she said. "I can just see this entire hall bedecked in silken curtains and flowers of all colors . . . the finest brass pitchers and vases, everyone in their finest linen . . . ."
Cedric watched Rebecca's beautiful face as she spoke, watched how her eyes glazed wistfully. "Perhaps your own will be as splendid," he said.
Rebecca lowered her eyes with an admonished look. "I may live and serve within the castle, but I am still just a peasant."
Cedric touched her chin, lifting her face until their eyes met. "You are not 'just' anything, Rebecca," he said meaningfully. "As far as I am concerned, you are everything the Queen is."
The handmaiden swallowed nervously, at the same time feeling a quickening of her heart. "Cedric, you shouldn't say such things," she warned, looking around nervously. "Not out loud, at any rate."
Cedric smiled, and leaned in. "Then perhaps I should whisper it to you . . . ." his lips brushed Rebecca's cheek, then suddenly moved to her lips. The kiss was brief -- anything more would have been scandalous -- yet pulled a soft moan of longing from Rebecca's throat. Impulsively, she touched Cedric's arm, pulling him closer.
"Um, excuse me, sir knight."
Cedric instantly looked away from Rebecca, seeing one of the castle guards before him. The man -- a few years Cedric's senior, at least -- noted the way the handmaiden clutched the knight. He wondered as to the young knight's loyalty, but only for a moment; his duty was to serve, not question.
"There is a matter which the Captain believes you might be needed for. Will you follow me?"
Cedric nodded slowly, gave a quick smile to Rebecca. "Rejoin the Queen," he said, then stepped away, his left hand automatically falling to the scabbard of his sword. He addressed the guardsman. "Lead the way."
The man at the castle doors was handsome and distinguished, clad in the tell-tale dark blue coat of a lord of Ural, homeland of the Prince. He appeared none too impatient, and was even joking with the guardsmen as Cedric approached him. The lord was tall, and something about him bespoke either confidence or nefariousness. Cedric was not sure which.
The man smiled approvingly upon Cedric's appearance. "So the rumors are true!" he exclaimed and bowed slightly. "The Knights of Vix have returned."
Cedric suppressed his pride. "And you are?"
Captain Stephano stepped in before the man could respond. "He claims to be Lord Dorr, of Ural—"
"I am Lord Dorr," the dignitary replied, giving Stephano a curt look.
The Captain bristled slightly and held out a sealed letter for Cedric. "Considering your . . . station, and how close you are to the Queen," he said. "I thought it might be prudent for you to see this. Lord Dorr claims to have important information for our lady."
Cedric frowned, feeling more than a little out of his element as he turned over the letter in his hands. He was a soldier, a knight, a cobbler's son . . . he knew little of the ways of nobles, even if he was, technically, one of them now. Yet, he understood that this was his world, now.
"May I?" Cedric asked the lord.
Guy nodded. "Of course."
"He insisted that only a noble be allowed to open the letter," explained the Captain with noticeable disdain. His lips curled in a sarcastic sneer. "Naturally, I thought of you."
Cedric let Stephano's comment go. He knew little of the man, and what he had learned painted the picture of a petty, domineering, spiteful man who had reached the pinnacle of his station and envied those above him. Instead, the young knight focused upon the letter. He slipped his finger beneath the seal, severing it, and unfolded the parchment. His eyes darkened instantly as he read, his jaw tightened.
"You have evidence of this?" he asked at last, not looking up.
"I do," said Lord Dorr. He kept his eyes trained upon the young knight, ignoring the confused looks of Captain Stephano and the other guards.
Cedric folded the letter closed and rested his gaze upon the Uralian lord. "You couldn't have picked a worse day," he commented.
Guy gave a small, apologetic smile. "I had wished to arrive yesterday," he said. "Alas, the road was a bit treacherous."
Cedric nodded. "Follow me," he said simply, and turned back toward the doors.
Guy smiled. "Of course," he said, and stepped in behind the knight.
Stephano watched with suspicious eyes as the two men entered the castle keep. He tapped the hilt of his sword restlessly.
"What's going on, Captain?" asked a young guardsman.
Stephano fumed quietly. "I intend to find out," he growled, then started after the two men.
Cedric hated what he was doing. This was Evie's time, her one moment to enjoy simply being herself . . . yet, here he was, about to ruin that with 'official business.' But that was his job. And Evie's, as well.
He found her, standing with Drest and Rebecca amongst a group of other nobles, some of whom flirted with her even as she stood close to Drest and touched him casually. Cedric's expression was dark and foreboding, which the Queen noticed right away.
"Cedric, what is it?" she asked, instantly feeling dread enter her heart.
The knight stopped, bowed before his queen and friend. "Milady, I have urgent news," he said, holding out the letter.
Evelyn frowned, looking to the folded parchment. She was afraid to take it. She knew something like this was going to happen, she simply knew it . . . .
Recognizing Evelyn's reticence, Drest reached for the letter. "Allow me, my Queen," he said.
Cedric snapped the letter back, giving a short, glaring look to the Prince. "It is for the Queen," he said firmly.
Drest frowned. "But it is open. Have you read it?"
Cedric said nothing, but his eyes betrayed a sudden dislike for the Prince. He looked to Evelyn. "It is for you," he said.
Steeling herself, Evelyn took the letter and opened it. Her features colored, and her lips quivered as she read. A thick swallow betrayed her fear, as well as the sudden swelling in her eyes. For a long moment, she said nothing, even after she had finished digesting the contents of the letter. At last, she folded it closed, her movements slow and deliberate.
"Evie?" asked Drest, concerned.
Her jaw worked a moment. "I . . . I need to be alone," she said.
Drest's concern grew. "Evelyn," he said, touching her shoulder. "Tell me what it is."
"She cannot, my Prince," came a new voice. All eyes looked to see Lord Dorr as he stepped around Cedric. His eyes flickered to Drest's for a moment before settling upon the Queen. "I wish I had not come at such a time. But this news could not wait, Queen Evelyn."
She shuddered as she nodded. "I understand," she said. "Forgive my rudeness, sir . . .?"
"Dorr. Lord Guy Dorr," he said, kneeling and bowing with reverence saved only for queens and kings.
Evelyn sighed, mildly flustered at the display. "Please, rise," she said impatiently. "I . . . thank you for this news. Forgive my rudeness, Lord Dorr, but I feel I must retire."
Drest looked back and forth between Evie, Cedric, and this newcomer. While he recognized the coat and trappings upon Lord Dorr as being from his homeland, he did not recognize the man. Not that he felt he should. There were many nobles and vassals in Ural whom he had never met, nor heard of.
But what bothered him was the suddenly suspicious look in Cedric's eyes, and the abrupt coldness of the Queen. He felt instantly that the contents of the letter had something to do with him . . . but he could not imagine what it might have been.
"Evelyn—" he began as she stepped away.
She shot him a look. "No," she said simply, reaching for Rebecca. Her eyes lingered upon Drest's for a long moment, conveying pain and disappointment, before she turned away and let her handmaiden lead her away.
Drest watched them retreat for a moment, then whirled about, facing Dorr. "Who are you?" he asked forcefully. "And tell me what was in that letter!"
Guy stood impassive, regarding the Prince as he would any common soldier or laborer. "I cannot do that," he said. "And if you understand anything about the Office of the Magistrate, my Prince, you would not question me further."
Drest gritted his teeth. The Magistrate . . . always at odds with the dictates of the King, always meddling, always . . . confounding things. Drest suddenly understood, and straightened, giving Dorr a haughty look. "Very well," he said. "Enjoy your games . . . sir."
Guy smirked. "And you, yours, my Prince," he responded with the same level of sarcasm.
Cedric watched the play between the two men, then as Drest stomped off. He turned to Dorr. "Would you care to share with me what that was all about?"
Guy pursed his lips around a self-congratulatory smile. He had fulfilled the first part of his mission for Bagdemagus with relative ease. His dark eyes settled on Cedric's. "Do not be offended, young lord," he said. "But you have already seen too much. This is a matter for the Queen."
Cedric stepped close, choosing his words carefully. "The accusation in that letter . . . you said you have proof of it?"
Guy said nothing. He simply stared evenly into Cedric's eyes.
Cedric looked away with a disgusted sigh.
Evelyn's distress overwhelmed her once Rebecca had lead her to the hallway from the ballroom. With an anguished cry, she fell against the wall, beating her fists upon it. Rebecca stared at first, not knowing what to say or do as her Queen moaned and wailed. But, as Evelyn's legs gave way and she began to sink to her knees, Rebecca was quick to act, wrapping her arms around her Queen and keeping her upright.
"Come, my Queen," Rebecca urged. "Not here. Not where you can be seen—"
"I don't care!" Evelyn cried, her face streaked with tears, eyes swollen. "To Hell with them! All of them!"
"My Queen! Please!"
Evelyn stared at her handmaiden a moment, seeing the curious faces of nobles and commoners further down the hall. Though she hated it, she was aware of the need to 'keep up appearances.'
"Fine," she hissed, and stormed toward the stairs, gathering her skirts as she did so. Rebecca ran to keep up, and their heels clicked and clacked upon the marble steps. Torches in sconces flickered and wavered, coating the halls and steps in an ochre-like glow.
Evelyn faltered at the deep-voiced cry, and stopped halfway up the steps. She looked back, just as Rebecca reached her. Her handmaiden also looked back.
Stephano, Captain of the Guard, stood at the foot of the stairs, his face stoic and almost alien. He gripped the scabbard of his sword with his left hand, slowly reached for the hilt with his right. The gesture was quietly intimidating, and filled Evelyn's heart with dread.
"There is one other matter we need to discuss," he intoned, setting his foot upon the first step.
"Um . . . perhaps it could wait," the Queen said, feeling Rebecca's hand squeeze her own.