Saturday, May 16, 2009

Slaves of Shebwai by Scarlett Vaughn

Within the large but modestly decorated wooden home’s foyer two soldiers waited. Eron knew that they were royal guards in disguise, so she left Corine with one while following the other deeper into the house. She studied the back of the man’s breastplate and then the backside of his breeches as he walked, realizing with a pang of regret that her sexuality had been awakened, as much by Corine’s kiss as by the fear and power that surrounded her now. Resisting the urge to comment on the long-sword slung at the handsome guard’s hip, Eron bit the inside of her cheek and silenced herself against the coming meeting.

In an office of deep oak, behind a desk littered with the brass tools of ocean navigation, sat the most prevailing man in the Five Kingdoms. Henrick, monarch of Capriana, was an attractive if slightly overweight man. His beard had been peppered with gray in recent years and he had let his hair grow, much to the chagrin of his wife. His robes were of the finest weave of gold and red.

King Henrick II was by definition the most powerful man in the world, as his seat held sway over the lesser, smaller kingdoms. This man and the land that he ruled stood for the things that Eron had come to believe in, so in a strange way she loved him. It was neither a father figure nor lover she saw in him, but an ideal within herself that the king represented. She had been so star-struck the first time they had met, but their relations had always been of Capriana business, which sometimes included pleasure. Ultimately it had all resulted in respect and what Eron called friendship, and it had given her position and power, though in truth she longed for further stability even in a land as fertile as hers.

“Eronica,” the guard quietly announced, “Lady of Tibeth.”

Eronica bowed and her king smiled, excusing the guard with a simple wave of his hand.

“Beautiful, as always, Lady Eronica,” the King said. He openly appraised the ample portion of cleavage that her bodice afforded him, then sat back to study her from behind steepled fingers. “Eron,” he began, dropping any pretense of protocol between them for their conversation. “You still have this chance to stay and not involve yourself in such dangerous matters. You could always become the lover of myself and the queen.”

He offered it with seriousness and a welcoming nature that nearly shook the Lady’s resolve. The king was giving her one last chance to say no, she knew, but Eron was aware of the importance of this mission and the trust he was secretly placing in her for the sake of his realm.

Capriana was the largest and richest of the Kingdoms, and the ornate marble castles and cities and the richly carved woods of its ports and towns could attest to that. Henrick’s monarchy had birthed, built and expanded since antiquity, and the line of kings could still be traced to Henrick’s blood. The First Kingdom enjoyed the imported riches of the other four it had settled as well, leaving few within Eron’s homeland in any true state of poverty. Tragedy could befall anyone, as well she knew, but still she had been able to rise to a point where, had she chosen, she could have become the concubine of the king himself. As the queen still lived and commanded Henrick’s attentions, Eronica passed on this idea. But still, she had risen to a state of importance, and for all it had given her, she would defend her nation and its ideals to the death.

Now a shadow from the lower provinces loomed over Lady Eronica’s beloved homeland. The fleets and armies of the province of Shebwai, that strange desert land far to the south, threatened Henrick’s dominion. Already, the sultan of Shebwai’s greed for conquest had swallowed two Kingdoms: Granelayde and the Grey Isles. Shebwai’s power had consumed them and enslaved each quickly, yet so much of that powerful desert nation was still a mystery to Eron. She had heard tales of its debauchery and cruelty, that women and men both were made unwilling slaves to the nobility or the sultan, and that torture and foul magic was practiced with regularity. The sultan lived in opulence, conjuring black spells with his necromancer in a bid to rule the world while his slaves were forced to pleasure them both. The whole place sounded prickly and dangerous. Despite this, she felt a strange attraction to its mystery and peril, as well as the wonder that its treasures must truly hold to keep men of such power there in oasis palaces surrounded by a wasteland and a growing army.

Eron had to push such darkly enticing thoughts from her mind before the king noticed the quickening of her breath. She realized that a moment of silence had passed while she had pondered her fate, and she became determined to look as well as sound resolute and brave.

“My lady?”

“Thank you, Your Majesty, but I have already given you my word. Just as I promised myself long ago that I would find a husband of importance to take as my own.” Eron smiled as warmly as she could muster for her king, but the butterflies in her stomach were positively buzzing now. It was a sensation that she had been trying to ignore until now, but it was impossible to do so any longer. As with all important decisions, it felt somehow wrong at that moment when you actually signed the dotted line. Eron suddenly wished desperately that she could sit down or loosen her corset, but protocol demanded otherwise until the king commanded it so.

“And we thank you for your perseverance, my lady. When you return, you can name your prize. The simple Lady need not be your title much longer.”

“Yes, Your majesty.”

The King’s countenance became serious at last. “What you are about to undertake is treacherous in the extreme. I need not remind you that there is always the possibility that you will not even make it to Shebwai—that pirates with no loyalties still prowl the waters you shall be crossing. Should you not be picked up before reaching what is your documented, official destination, make your way to Shebwai however you must. You will have only a limited time to find your way into the sultan of Shebwai’s graces before my agents make your escape route apparent to you.” He shook his head, but told her, “I admire you, Lady Eronica. This is a very brave thing you are doing. I am not even certain that I agree with your choosing this task. As I have told my spellweaver, so much could go wrong.”

“Your Majesty, I understand the risks. It will work out, you will see.” Eron looked up, smiling genuinely for but a moment at Henrick III, prince and only heir, as he entered through a side door. She continued, “If your harbormaster has done his work properly, then my ship will drift into waters smart merchants avoid, knowing that the privateers there are in the employ of the sultan. Within a week, I’ll be on the block, and my beauty and skill will put me on our enemy’s lap within a month.” Even as she said it with what she hoped was confidence, Eron thought the words were strange and hollow in her own ears. How could she take on this task? What was she doing? Putting herself in this enormous amount of danger was insane! But she kept her chin up, said the words, impressed her royal masters, and prepared to march out of the office in glorious homage to her duty as a Lady of Capriana, the most civilized nation in the world.

“We both sacrifice much,” the king said finally. “Even though the Black Kettle is a foreign ship, I am loathe to do this to her crew. With luck, they will escape death and simply be put off and robbed by whatever ship meets you all out there. But you must not concern yourself with such matters. Just do your duty to the crown, and you will survive this and help to end the tyranny that threatens this nation and her people.” Eron nodded, swallowing down the lump of pride and fear that threatened to bring tears to her eyes or bile to her mouth—she knew not which. King Henrick II rose from his seat and kissed Eron’s cheeks, bidding her farewell. Eron turned on her heel to leave, and it was all she could do to stay balanced on her shaky legs.

Even as the door closed behind her, she was again contemplating what had led her to this task. “Mother, Father,” she whispered to the heavens, “I only want to honor you and the legacy you gave me. Please understand.”

Eron’s parents had been rich, but their deaths had left her orphaned at the age of fourteen. Fiercely independent, she had used her relatively meager titles to associate herself with those who could get her into the palace. Whispers here, advice there, and blind desire for elevation no matter what the cost had made her decide to attend at the Chateau, so that she would be a more appealing prize when her time within the palace came. Eron spent two years locked away in a den of indulgence and expensive tastes, both carnally and esthetically. Then, with her faithful new servant Corine in tow, she had left, rising quickly from the depths of the Chateau De Shaines to the center of her realm. But with the king’s palace and the proximity to royalty had come knowledge and time-consuming experience. Suddenly Eron was part of a world where the prince himself was within her grasp, but she was too busy doing her part for king and country for either party to notice until it was too late. The prince had become arranged in the last month, and as usual Eron was left doing the paperwork and spending nights with lesser men with smaller ambitions and mundane desires. As always, Eronica wanted so much more.

Eron’s mind was frozen with the staggering prospects now laid out before her. She let her feet carry her forward, placing one step before the other as though in a trance.

“Eron!” The prince caught her in the halls leading back to where Corine waited. Turning her bodily, he pinned her to the wall, letting his size keep her from escaping any longer. Eron gasped when his mouth came down on hers. They had never before had the chance to kiss, but she was too nervous and he too impatient to gauge the chemistry of the joining. Besides, Eron thought, he was a betrothed man now.

“Your Majesty, please,” she said, turning her head away. It only left her earlobe open to attack. She tried not to smile, then pushed him away at last. “Please,” she said again.

“You would deny us?” Prince Henrick III asked, his blue eyes serious and scrutinizing. He was ever so much more handsome and less boyish in this close proximity. “I may never see you again.”

“And now you want me?” she admonished. “You have had years to make your feelings known. This is not a land of secrets and scandals, Your Majesty. You had your chance, if I may be so bold.”

“And I was always too afraid of your beauty.” He sounded genuine enough. Even then, Lady Eronica was not royalty, and therefore could never have married him. Perhaps it had been she who had stayed away. “Now you’re leaving.”

“I’ll be back,” she promised. “Perhaps then you can take me as your lover for a time before I find some duke to marry, but I’ll not be your concubine, Majesty. I’m sorry.”

The Prince calmed, but he was obviously disappointed and perhaps honestly worried for her. “And tonight?”

Eron bit off a loud, uneasy laugh. “Tonight? Tonight I need my sleep if I am to have any sea legs worth a damn tomorrow, Majesty.” Enticed as she was by his offer, her mind screamed at her to let rest come before pleasure or duty, lest she no longer be able to stand. Eron smiled apologetically to him. “I would be so ill at ease, and if I drank my fears away, well, heaven and gods forefend what the consequences on the deck of that ship might be tomorrow.”

They both laughed at that. After a brief quiet, Henrick III said, “I don’t know yet what mission it is my father sends you on. Perhaps he will tell me tomorrow, when you’re gone.” Gods, she thought. How long had he wanted her? How long had the king, a man who openly wanted her for himself, known and still sympathized with his son?

“Just be careful, Lady,” he said, “For all our sakes.”

The Prince kissed Eron’s hand, and reluctantly turned away.



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