The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 14

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

A chilly reception in the Great Hall leads to a bloody challenge. The fight for the palace commences, and Tyra faces the King in a final showdown. Could there possibly be a second queen in Tulem? Could a serum girl queen ever be confirmed by the nobility? And would she have the power to stop the war?


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The Legal Stuff: The Warrior from Batuk  © 2004, 2007 Aardvark
 
This work is the property of the author, and the author retains full copyright, in relation to printed material, whether on paper or electronically. Any adaptation of the whole or part of the material for broadcast by radio, TV, or for stage plays or film, is the right of the author unless negotiated through legal contract. Permission is granted for it to be copied and read by individuals, and for no other purpose. Any commercial use by anyone other than the author is strictly prohibited, and may only be posted to free sites with the express permission of the author.
 

This work is fictitious, and any similarities to any persons, alive or dead, are purely coincidental.

 
Photo Credit: 3.bp.blogspot.com


 
Chapter 14
 
 
The ruined dress burned in the fireplace while I scrubbed myself clean in the bath, removing Angel’s blood and some of the feel of death. Afterwards, I chose one of my nicer tear-away dresses to replace it. Standing before the mirror, I looked normal, the black hair pinned-up in my characteristic simpler style, the aquiline nose complimenting the high cheekbones in a Borodin face with the black eyes of the Giovannis. It was a beautiful face in a fine body, one of the finest the Slaver’s Guild could find to duplicate.

It would not hide it behind a veil any longer. On this day, those who would follow, those who had come to know me, had the right to see me as I was. If there were rumors, let them take wing and spread; it didn’t matter. It was the least I could do for men who would die before the morning light. I gave my hair a final brush and left my apartments without a backward glance, stepping down the stairs quickly, and striding across the courtyard to the Great Hall. It was the appointed hour.

Urban had been standing outside, by the Hall’s gilded doors, and so saw me first.

“It suits you, Lady Dana. It is the right time to reveal yourself.”

“You knew? Is it common knowledge?”

He shook his head. “I doubt it. I had only guessed. The men will understand why you veiled yourself and why you chose to remove it tonight.”

“I hope you’re right. Much depends on what we do this morning.” I smiled, glad to let that expression free, and tossed my hair. Holding my arm out to my chief of staff, I asked, “Would you escort me inside, Urban?”

He smiled and took it. “I would be honored.”

The hall seemed large and empty with only the dozen or so clustered around the central table. To the side was Alfredo, his hulking figure loosely configured in a comfortable chair with a drink in his hand. His face bore a reddish tinge. Franco positioned himself by his side, embarrassed by Alfredo’s drunkenness, but showing loyalty to his older cousin. Just to the rear of them stood two of Alfredo’s guards with heavy spears.

The three Borodins stood around the table. I only knew one, Alexander’s son, Nikolai. He was one of the lucky two or three in the room who had survived my darts, and appeared shaken.

Next to him was Katrina, the Lady of her own castle now that I’d killed her father and brother. She looked lost, a woman who had thought of her future as a lord’s wife, thrust now into a command. The last was Lugar, Ivan’s last surviving son.

They had brought their own guards, two each, and they loomed behind each of them, alert in a Giovanni castle after the worst massacre in Tulem’s history.

Malchor joined Urban and me as I entered the light of the lamps set close to the table, where maps of the palace had already been spread and pinned.

I nodded to them all. “Thank you for coming. Does anyone doubt what we must do tonight?”

Alfredo burst out laughing. “So, that is why you concealed yourself, ‘Lady’ Dana. You have the face of your slave, and soon you will join her on her back, sweating like the slut you are beneath anything with a twyll!” He laughed again and regarded me contemptuously. “You aren’t ready to lead anything, serum girl. Nothing will happen tonight, so go find an owner.”

I sighed. This was even worse than I thought. The Borodins looked to Alfredo and me in confusion, their resolve shaken.

I pointed to the door. “Leave my castle immediately! You will not disguise your cowardice among the brave with insults!”

His face, so full of laughing glee a second before, constricted in rage. Being called a coward by a woman had stung. I waited for him to move. Either he would leave or he would not.

Alfredo rose to his feet slowly, tightening his muscles to expand them, and flexing his hands, his version of the unstoppable force, I imagined. “I will not be spoken to that way by a lowly serum girl,” he rumbled dangerously. He practically yanked off his leather jerkin and rolled his shoulders, like loosening them for battle.

I would have laughed if it were not so deadly. Alfredo made every indication of wanting to fight me, a woman. He may have looked like a buffoon, but it was a clever game he played. For whatever reason, he didn’t want us to attack the King. I was the focal point; without my leadership, it wouldn’t happen. He wouldn’t challenge me: besides being scandalous, if challenged, as a woman, I could designate a champion.

On the other hand, the rhadus didn’t have to fight to stop me. He only needed to diminish me in the Borodins’ eyes. I supposed that I was supposed to cry, or rage in frustration. After all, as a woman, I was helpless. It was unheard of for a woman to challenge a man. Lacking size, strength, and skill-at-arms, it would inevitably be suicide.

I smiled and crossed my arms. “You’re drunk, Alfredo,” I declared magnanimously, “and words may be spoken in haste. I will allow you to stay if you apologize.”

“That, I will not do,” he replied, grinning uneasily.

I turned to Malchor. “Bring guards and escort this flatulence from my castle. His welcome is over!” Malchor bowed and strode towards the entrance.

“Afraid to remove me yourself?” he laughed.

I regarded him levelly. “Alfredo, don’t make it worse than it has to be. In your condition a child could beat you. Leave peacefully, and you will live to consider what you do another day.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t care to substantiate those words with action?” he sneered.

Malchor stopped a few paces from the door and turned, his eyes ablaze with fury. “Lady, if he makes challenge, I would be honored to accept in your place!”

I examined Alfredo closely. The slur to his words was not as pronounced as before, and I doubted that he was as drunk as he appeared. All he had to do was keep this sideshow going for a few more minutes until the Borodins had second thoughts. I had to end this now. Damn you, Alfredo. You leave me no choice.

“I won’t allow you to leave after all. You didn’t come to insult me. You came to stop the attack. If you leave now, I believe you would just warn the King.” I nodded towards my Captain of the Guards. “Malchor, bring back chains and a gag with the guards. Lord Alfredo will be staying with us tonight.”

Alfredo’s guards sprang to full alert, separating and leveling their spears. Alfredo stared at me, confused and startled that things had progressed so far and fast.

“You will not put me in chains, Lady Dana,” he snarled.

I noted his newfound respect for my position.

Urban stepped close to me very quickly and whispered in my ear, “Lady, what in Hades are you doing? I advise you to back off!”

I whispered back, “I’m afraid that I must reject your sound counsel twice in one night, Urban. I know what I’m doing.” I think. “Very well!” I shouted. “I accept your challenge, Alfredo. I choose the spear.”

“I don’t recall challenging you.” He laughed nervously, looking towards Malchor, who had stopped in mid-stride to stare at me.

“I am no master of semantics, but asking me to ‘substantiate my words with action’ sounds close enough to a challenge to me. Alfredo, don't bother to look to my Captain of the Guards! I'll fight you myself. Either apologize and shut up, or we will fight. In any case, I won’t allow you to leave before we are finished with the King, you ugly son of a slave girl.”

Urban blanched and rolled his eyes at this unforgivable insult. The Borodins looked as if they wished to be elsewhere. Alfredo nodded slowly and his eyes glared at me through narrowed apertures. “Very well. You have a challenge.”

I nodded. “We will fight immediately.”

“Lady Dana!” Malchor shouted.

“This shouldn’t take long.” For the moment, my womanly instincts were forgotten in the flush of hot blood. I went to the wall behind the high table where weapons were displayed and selected several short spears, judging them, spinning them to ascertain their balance. I chose one of the smaller, lighter ones, about six feet long, more of a child’s spear and close to a javelin. Alfredo chose a long heavy spear. He tilted his head back and loosed a throaty laugh at my choice.

“Is that the best you can do?” he chortled, but there was little real bravado. It was obvious that I was at least competent handling my weapon like a staff. A staff against a long spear is a mismatch, but not necessarily a fatal one. Once past the long head of a spear, the shorter, more maneuverable weapon can be deadly.

I motioned with my spear to a spot on the marble floor away from the green carpet. “Blood is difficult to clean; we will fight there.” Malchor appeared to be equal parts aghast and furious with me; Urban was more thoughtful. The Borodins stood to the side, from their expressions, certain they witnessed Giovanni insanity.

The gray marble was too slick for women’s slippers, so I put them aside. The stone lay cool beneath my feet.

I held up my hand and looked to those present in the hall. “All here are witnesses to a lawful challenge and acceptance. We fight to the death.” I waited until each nodded, grunted, or made some other acknowledging sign.

I turned my attention to my opponent and leveled my gaze from about twenty feet away, holding my short spear like a staff with two hands, forward and diagonal. There was a good chance that what I had planned would work, but nothing was certain except that Alfredo had to go.

“I’m ready. Are you ready, Alfredo?”

He lowered his spear to point at me and braced his feet. I noted his form and the positioning of his hands. He no longer smiled. Even if he won, he would be known forever as a challenger of women.

“I am,” he replied.

I tore my dress and whirled, hiding what I was doing behind the swirl of fabric. I threw the spear as hard as I could, sidearm, straining my elbow. It was an all or nothing move. Once the short spear was beyond the head of Alfredo’s heavy spear, a matter of several feet, it was too late. The spear flew the short distance too fast for Alfredo to block and lodged deep into his chest.

“You…” he managed. The shock in his eyes as he beheld the shaft through his heart faded quickly. His heavy spear clattered onto the marble, echoing in the cavernous hall, and he was dead before he hit the ground

The dead noble leaking on my tiles was just another life among the many I had taken that night. I was more concerned with Franco, who stood rigid in disbelief.

“Franco,” I said. He tore his gaze from Alfredo’s corpse, and looked at me. “I regret that I had to kill him.”

“I don’t think he would have told the King, but he should not have insulted you either -- and you did give him a chance.” He looked deeply into my eyes. “You have changed. That move you made…”

“It was legal. A spear is made to throw as well as block and stab.”

“I don’t question that. Concealing the movement with your dress was also legal -- legal, but too clever.”

For some reason that bothered me coming from him. “I didn’t want this fight, you know, and I could have lost. Franco, will you follow me and bring down the King?”

He nodded reluctantly. “Yes, my father must be avenged. You will have my men at your disposal.”

“Thank you, Franco.”

“I do this for the Giovannis, not you. I see that you’re in line to become Queen if King Bruno dies.”

I laughed; the idea was so absurd. “A queen? I’m a serum girl. Would you like to trade places with me?” I poked a finger into his handsome chest. “While you’re in a mood to consider my every act as part of a conspiracy, have you given a thought to your own rank? With all the recent deaths, you’re next in line after me.”

“I’ve never wanted to be King,” he declared indignantly. “I’ve never even thought about it.”

“No one did until a few hours ago, and a few weeks ago being a queen was surely the furthest thing from my mind.” I took his arm and pulled him towards the table. “Come, let’s plot strategy. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“No, we do not.”

As the servants wrapped Lord Alfredo’s body, the rest of us huddled over the maps and diagrams on the table. Taking Ketrick’s advice, I encouraged others to take the lead, and I learned much of the salient points as they argued.

Long ago, less than two hundred years after Tulem was settled, the founding Giovanni aristocracy spread out in the valley and built castles, true fortresses, not the comfortable domiciles of the day. Even then, the rich land was limited, and jealously guarded. Small wars occasionally stirred the valley into bloody turmoil. Personal armies of several hundred or a thousand were common for a holding of only several square miles. Battles were fierce and fast, and the survivors were constantly on alert.

It wasn’t until a true King of Tulem emerged and conquered the valley, did a semblance of calm settle onto the populace. From that day forward the massive, dangerous armies that ruled the valley ceased to be. The King reserved for himself a force of personal guards of about one thousand and restricted the castles to one hundred each. Over time, as the valley was pacified, and the rule of the aristocracy became absolute, this number dropped even more. It became the norm to settle nobles’ differences personally. Involving commoners or ‘mundanes’ to settle vendettas was discouraged, as it might give the commoners ideas. For centuries it kept the affairs of leader and follower separate, to the benefit of all.

With the murder of the Borodins and Giovannis, that long-standing policy was being tested. Two of the three Borodins, especially Nikolai, wanted to use the existing invasion forces to overrun the palace.

“No,” I said, the first word I had spoken in ten minutes.

Nikolai whirled to face me. “Lady Dana, you cannot throw away strength like that. It’s our best chance for victory!”

I observed the respect I enjoyed with some amusement, the unquestioned authority from killing Alfredo had settled upon my narrow shoulders.

“Is it, Lord Nikolai? Nearly half of those in the field are under the King’s command. And are you so sure of the men’s loyalty? You would order men pledged to the crown against the King himself.” I shook my head. “We’ll keep the warriors and levies out of the fight. If we plan this correctly, we won’t need them anyway.”

“She’s right, Nikolai,” Lady Katrina said. “The commoners would never understand if we involved them in this. If they killed nobility, the gates to barbarism would be open. It would be best if they stayed out of it.”

“I have a plan,” I announced, and explained what we'd do. “Ring the gong,” I told a guard. “I will speak to the nobles in fifteen minutes.” “Franco, we'll rendezvous at the northeast gate just outside the city in exactly two hours. Bring as many as you can.”

“I will, Lady Dana,” he said, and departed the hall. A moment later, the castle gong shattered the early morning calm for the first time in over a century.

All noblemen were taught the arts of war to a greater or lesser degree as part of their upbringing. Some excelled with a variety of weapons and practiced regularly; a few only learned enough to make competent swordplay. Regardless, it was ingrained in every nobleman to protect his castle.

I waited in front of the great hall with Urban, Malchor, and the three Borodins as few, at first, and then more nobles ran into the yard in various stages of dress, with swords or spears. Seeing nothing to fight, they walked towards us. Shortly, all the lords of my castle appeared in the courtyard, with the exception of Marco, who had a good excuse. Curious and frightened women opened windows and doors to see what was going on.

I looked the men over, standing behind a torch to give them a good view of my face. “The King attacked the Borodins tonight, killing twenty-five noblemen, one noblewoman and ten guards. This was done in an attempt to start a civil war between our families. Niccolo Giovanni was one of the dead.”

Most believed: with the recent spate of murders, anything could have happened, but it was not unanimous: I heard several mutter variations of “impossible!” and “ridiculous!”

I stepped aside while the Borodins confirmed the story in bloody, explicit detail. Katrina sobbed uncontrollably when she told of finding her father and older brother dead of shalimar poisoning, their bodies contorted with their eyes frozen open. It was a grim tale, and brave men wept in sympathy.

“It also solves the mystery of who killed my father, Mario, Lord Ivan, and his wife,” I said.

One of the younger nobles, Paoli, interrupted. “Lady Dana, how do you know this is the King’s work?”

Nikolai spat on the ground. “Because we found one of them! It was Heydar, the King’s creature. He died with a Borodin bolt in his back in the woods. The others got away. Gods curse them! Who in Hades else could it be? It wasn’t us; it wasn’t you. If the fools in Batuk had somehow found out about our plans, we would have known about it.”

I continued: “The King has reason to fear a strong Giovanni family after the Borodins leave, Paoli. Some of you know why already. Those who don’t can reason it.” I looked every man in the eye. “Get your weapons and armor ready. We attack the palace in less than two hours.”

Most nodded and began to move off, but an especially handsome man lingered. “Where is Alfredo?” he demanded.

“I killed him in a challenge, Malfree. Now get ready to go to war.”

Urban coughed politely to gain attention. “What she says is true, Lord Malfree. Lady Dana defeated Lord Alfredo in single combat with the spear. We were all witnesses.”

Nikolai didn’t even take that long. He nodded. “S’truth.”

Malfree stumbled and his face went a shade of pink. “But, Lady Dana, that would make you the successor! You would become Queen!”

I nodded coldly. “It would, for the time being. Unless you are applying for the position of King, I suggest you leave now.” He moved off gratifyingly quickly.

“Lady Dana.”

I turned to Malchor. “Yes?”

“Now that you are senior, you rule the Giovanni castle in Tulem. Does this mean that Lady Gina rules here?”

I shrugged. It was a detail I hadn’t thought of. “I suppose so, for now.”

“Very well,” he said, smiling strangely.

I looked at him curiously, but let it go. Whatever machinations he was thinking of wouldn’t concern me.

We rode out eighteen strong, leaving the guards behind to keep their role as defenders of the castle. As much as the guards were valued for their skills, in a place where nobles fought nobles, they could only be used defensively. We rode past Franco’s castle and then past Alfredo’s castle, now ruled by his younger brother.

After the rains, the air was crystal clear, wet, and cold. Tonight, I preferred it that way. I rode in the lead, Paoli and another noble, Klaus, to either side, but slightly to the rear. My riding cloak protected me from worst of the chill, but I left my hood down, allowing my hair, bound up in my usual way, to fall and dance behind me as it would, and the wind in my eyes provided the excuse for my tears.

I couldn’t face either Paoli or Klaus just yet. They were my enemies, but I knew them as decent men, loyal to the Giovannis and me, in that order, willing to lay down their lives in what they thought was a good cause. I had chosen them to lead two teams for the mission, hoping that neither might survive.

As I rode alone, crying silently into the wind, I searched for another reason to murder men. Drago’s philosophy on the subject mirrored most of Zhor: the strong would win out; the weak and inferior would fall. If we defeated Tulem’s plans for Batuk, most would say that Batuk’s cleverness had outwitted the might of Tulem, and thus had proven the stronger. The priests might interpret the event as the will of the Gods or Overlords.

My father’s thoughts were less transcendent. In war, according to him, it was comfortable to pretend that one’s belief or city was invariably superior to another, and to bury all thoughts or questions behind the wall thus raised, but that it was rarely so simple. There were still hard choices to be made, and there was scarcely a weighty matter that didn’t have consequences beyond those intended.

He would have approved of what we did, as did I. In naked numbers, it had cost almost nothing, and directly punished those who would dare invade our home with few innocent lives lost. Between the two of us, we had killed half the Borodin men, who would have ruled us. The Giovannis and the King, equally complicit in this enterprise, would hopefully be similarly chastised that morning. In the ways of Zhor, this justice would scarcely be enough — we would have been excused much more.

If we were successful, Ketrick would leave Tulem confident that he’d done the right thing. Tyr, I knew, would have felt much the same, perhaps thinking longer and praying for the souls of the dead, especially for the innocents like Tam, and Alanna, and for Dana’s understanding when we met again in the hereafter.

I longed for the clarity I once had. Ever since I'd come to Tulem, it had been difficult to separate my role from who I was. I’d become more a part of the world around me than someone on the outside looking in. These were my men with me, men whom I knew. One or two had even taken me in The Queen’s Cup.

They haven't done anything yet! They're misguided, raised that way — they follow the ways of Zhor! How d they have be the enemy? Why do they deserve to die?

A voice in my head, distinctly Tyr, answered, You know damn well why. You can't afford to be less than completely committed. Now do it.

The torches and great arch of the city gate came into sight. I wiped my eyes and waved Paoli forward.

“What time is it?” I asked him.

After a close look at the chronometer in the poor light, he replied, “Ten minutes before the rendezvous, Lady Dana.”

I nodded. “Very good.” I turned and raised my arm to slow our advance. Through the trees lining the lake, I saw a hint of movement in the reflection on the calm water, an image of a band of riders moving swiftly in this ridiculously early hour. That would be the Borodins. The others from Franco and Alfredo’s castles would arrive behind us. As the gate grew larger I halted the column and waited. A moment later came the distant clatter of men riding hard. From the darkness under the trees, I recognized Franco at the head of two columns, all in green.

I waved quietly, a subdued greeting for a morning of revenge. I estimated his numbers at twenty-five, an excellent figure, probably all of his nobility and half of Alfredo’s, an impressive accomplishment considering I had just killed their Lord.

He rode forward, looking uncharacteristically fierce, his hair pulled back into a topknot and heavy cloak pulled up at his left, revealing the long hilt of a war sword.

“Well met, Lady Dana.”

“And you, Lord Franco. Thank you for bringing as many as you have, they'll be need of them.” I pointed towards the gate. “We gather at the west side. There, I will give final instructions.”

He nodded, then twisted in his saddle and brought his force forward. We rode together, a mass of forty-three with Franco riding by my side.

We met the Borodins a hundred yards from the gate. A quick count showed all living Borodin Lords, and a surprise, Lady Katrina rode between Lords Nikolai and Lugar at the head of the three columns.

Nikolai, as the most senior Borodin, approached me. He looked like a man who had seen carnage and sought full recompense. “Lady Dana, we are here. Command us.”

I sent five Borodin and ten Giovanni Lords who held commands in Tulem’s army to return to their units and take charge. Their only objective was to keep the King’s forces from getting involved.

The palace grounds took up an entire city block: the exterior wall had four gates set next to observation towers and guard posts at each of the four corners. Just inside the wall were four roads that ran the circumference, each named for directions of the compass. Just inside that lay a ring of gardens, fountains and commemorative statuary. Within that, behind and separate from the palace, stood the Library complex, the Great Hall, and the Guards quarters and mess.

The Palace was shaped roughly like Alexander’s castle with an appendage to the west, the administrative wing. The King lived on its northern face occupying the entire top floor, with a view from a balcony of the north city and on across the lake. Getting there would be the hard part. His quarters were protected at both entrances with guards, heavily reinforced doors and steel bar barricades that could be dropped at an alarm.

Our greatest weapon would be surprise. The towers were granite cylinders fifty feet high. The two guards stationed in each could crank an alarm at need. When the alarm howled, unless we were already past the inner doors of the King’s apartment, it would take a battering ram to get inside.

We moved out a few at a time, laughing past the city guards, just a raucous group of nobles celebrating the Borodin’s departure. As we moved a block inside, we took our positions. Franco and his band of Giovannis rode to the southwest gate by the Guards’ Quarters. Paoli and Klaus with the other Giovannis had the northwest gate, and I had the northeast gate with Nikolai and the Borodins. The main problem was in the towers. Any overt attack would be seen and answered with the alarm.

My plan had been to create a diversion outside with the nobles, but since Lady Katrina had insisted on coming along, to offer moral support to her eight remaining nobles, I had a better idea. I called her to my side.

“Lady Katrina, I have a proposition…” Her hands shook as she listened, but she leaped at a chance to strike back at the man whom she thought had killed her father and brother.

The Borodins waited across the street in shadows. Katrina and I walked by the gate. The two guards, out of sight on the other side of the metal bars couldn’t help but hear us.

“Borodin bitch!” I screamed at Katrina. “You didn’t think you could just leave, did you?”

“Giovanni serum girl slut, brolls with dogs and pigs!” she shouted back.

I shattered the bottom of a bottle on the pavement. “Now you’re going to die, Borodin monkey.” I hissed.

Katrina cackled with laughter and pulled a knife from behind her back. “Try it, slave girl. I’ll have you for breakfast!”

The two guards on the inside appeared by the gate an instant later and watched us in disbelief. They recognized Katrina, and knew me by the broad green band on my dress. It must have looked like a murder was imminent; we were certainly trying. Hopefully, we had the attention of the nearby tower as well, for they were well within range of our voices.

“Hold, Ladies!” The larger guard shouted. He dropped his spear and held the bars in his hands. The other stood next to him in dismay, shaking his head as if to dispel a nightmare.

I observed him contemptuously. “Watch me kill this Borodin, guard. She’ll drop, her nose ripped off and eyes blinded. Then I’ll slit her lying throat.” I crept towards her until she backed away, just out of sight. I rushed her with a cry, and she screamed.

“Help me! Help me,” she cried. “She’s killing me! Ieeeee!”

“By the Gods!” The guard snapped the gate open and two bolts flashed from across the street, burying themselves in the guards’ chests. I leaped to the gate and leaned against it, countering the force of a dying guard expending his last strength trying to shut it again. A last bolt finished him.

I looked worriedly to the tower, but there was no alarm, which meant that the men inside were dead. While Katrina and I had been playing the death scene, three men had hauled on a cable attached to a pulley hooked to the tower parapet, yanking one of the lighter nobles over the wall and against the tower. When they’d pulled him to the tower window, he’d shot them down with a pair of crossbows. Ironically, they had used the same pulley and hook we’d used earlier that night in Alexander’s castle.

When the hero touched ground, several men pounding his back. Others dragged the guards who had died at the gate behind a bush. A moment later, two new guards with Borodin faces guarded the northeast gate.

“Magnificent, Ladies!” Nikolai said. “For a moment I thought you would kill each other.”

Katrina beamed under his praise. I shrugged modestly. “Thank you, Nikolai. Your men performed splendidly as well. And now for the other gate, it needs the same treatment. Katrina, are you ready to die again?”

“I am, Lady Dana.”

“Right. Let's go.” We did a repeat performance at the northwest gate with nearly identical results. It wasn’t too surprising. Few men would allow women to die in front of them, orders or no orders, especially noblewomen, relatives of the King himself. One of the guards on patrol saw the dead guards being hauled away but was shot down quickly. So far we had been very lucky. I suspected Ketrick's hand finding only a single guard on patrol.

Paoli knew the odds, too. “We must move now, Lady Dana, before the rest of the patrol finds us.”

By all rights, I should have let the men take charge and waited patiently from safety. No one would have objected. “I’m going with you, Paoli. I’ll try to stay out of the way.”

“Lady Dana!”

I understood his instinct to protect me, a woman, agreeing with the principle, yet not enough to dissuade me. “I might be useful. It may be that you could see fit to use a woman to distract a guard.”

“You have command,” he said, although it was clear that he thought I should hold command from a safe place. “If you insist on going, I can’t stop you.”

“I’ll do my best to stay out of danger.”

He grunted noncommittally. I took two javelins and followed Paoli’s team as they entered the gate, and slipped into a garden, staying low. Nikolai’s team moved out at the same time three hundred yards east of us at the first gate, and together we moved across the northern avenue. We ran into a pair of guards patrolling the garden we were sneaking through almost immediately. We must have seen each other at about the same time. One of the Giovanni men died on a long spear about the same time his killer was struck down with a sword through the throat. Unfortunately, the second guard yelled, although it was not long-lived.

At the scream, we abandoned stealth. Klaus rode through the gate with his team of twelve heading for the Guards’ Quarters, to bottle them up, and to let Franco and his men in the gate there. We didn’t worry about that. Our job was getting to the King before the inner gates fell.

Paoli dashed ahead of me and ran a man through who was about to lock the heavy doors of the palace. In the meantime, the Borodins swept around to the administration wing through the outdoor audience area. I heard yells from far off at the Guards’ Quarters, and soon the entire palace was fighting.

Paoli jabbed to the right and left, the two stairways, splitting his two teams. I went with Paoli, tearing my dress on the way. We kept running. On the third floor, the wail of sirens pushed us even harder; now there were only seconds before it was too late. To punctuate that point, the barriers, a massive set of bars, fell from the ceiling just behind us, slamming into slots in the floor, blocking our escape. We could only go forward, now, and we sprinted down the King’s gold-trimmed corridor towards the end, one of the two entrances to the King’s quarters.

Paoli shouted as he ran. Both guards at the King’s quarter's entrance abandoned their positions, and slowly pushed the massive door inwards. In a few seconds, the way would be closed!

I threw one of my javelins, but it lacked the hard, flat power of a warrior. It struck the floor, bouncing harmlessly off the steel to clatter noisily on the floor. I threw my last in desperation, but it was even worse, not even making it to the door in the air, sliding the rest of the way.

And then, a break! Just as the door was about to shut us out, my slim spearhead rolled into the gap. As we closed the distance, the guards tried twice to close the door, not realizing the problem in time. Paoli struck the door a tremendous blow just as the spear was kicked clear, an instant before it could snap shut. His momentum opened a small gap. Two more men slammed their shoulders against the door and the space increased, one more and the door opened wide enough to slip a man through with a sword. He was killed almost instantly, a sword thrust through his chest, but he managed a vicious cut to a leg bracing the door on the inside. The injured guard howled and fell away, and the door swung free!

We broke into the room in a rush, me dead last after collecting my spears. It was well I did; the first two Giovannis inside were killed quickly, the two guards from the other entrance having joined the fray. I slid on the floor; bottom down and spears up. When I passed a dark figure to my right with a gleam of steel in his hand, I threw towards his chest. With my weaker arms, it barely penetrated his armor, bringing forth an angry yell, but not much more.

The next guard almost had me then. It was little more than a feel that brought up my last spear to block a blow that would surely have split my head, and almost split the spear in half. Then I was by them, rolling to my feet.

The last guard nearly killed me again, but I skipped around his attempt to skewer me and started running across the room towards the other entrance, in the glow of the night lamps, getting a glimmer of royal opulence: rugs, curtains, tapestries, and stately furniture. The guard had to follow me if there were any men from the other half of Paoli’s team trapped on the other side of the door. If they were there, then I would be letting in an overwhelming force.

The guard ran after me, cursing, leaving only three guards for Paoli and the other noble to overcome. A scream of a man who had just realized his mortality pierced the night. I didn’t recognize the voice, so I figured the odds were even.

A motion ahead and to the side distracted me. It was the King, his majestic, naked profile a certain indicator of interrupted ardor. He wielded a sword. There would never be a better chance. As I passed through shadow, I used all the momentum and every ounce of muscle in my slim body to launch my spear. It flew straight and true, passing effortlessly through the diaphanous curtain surrounding his bed, running the King through the stomach. He staggered backwards with a gasp, and the woman in bed beside him screeched like a she-demon.

I had no time to admire my work; death was on my heels and gaining. I had few advantages. In the torn dress I was free to run, but the warrior behind me was as fast. With no weapon, I would have to slow him down somehow, or I would be dead the instant he caught me. There was no hope of reaching the door in time. Frantically, I looked around for something to use. I dove over a couch and rolled, he vaulted it. I passed by a chair and toppled it in his path, but he kicked it aside contemptuously with a steel-toed boot and gained a foot. I tore through a hanging tapestry, hoping to dodge around a heavy table, but he cut me off. The end of the room approached far too quickly!

An ornate wooden stand against the wall held a decanter of yellow liquid. I picked it up and threw it at his face. He ducked it, but it gave me enough time to pick up the stand and hold it in front of me. It was a poor shield and a couple of whacks cut deep into the sides. I saw my opponent’s face for the first time. His visage was all hate and agony. I had speared his King, his responsibility, and he was determined that I would die for it. I respected his devotion to duty. Yet, until that final blow ended my life, I would use whatever I had.

I tossed the hair out of my face and batted my eyes sweetly. “What’s the matter, weakling? Can’t you kill a defenseless girl?”

Taunting him would have been suicide if he had been thinking straight. His brows narrowed and he stabbed the nearly destroyed stand in front of my body. I twisted to avoid the worst of it as the blade buried itself almost the hilt, slicing a furrow along my ribs that I barely felt. Dropping the stand, I ducked past his sword arm as he struggled to free the blade.

I ran again, this time towards the King’s bed. The wound under my breasts made it painful, not that I cared a fig for it then. I dove over the bed, the slave or consort under the covers still screaming. I gasped as I hit the floor. I had hopes of finding the King dead and his sword free, but the point of his blade faced me, and amazingly, he was almost to his feet, the spear still through his body.

I admired the King’s fortitude, but there was no time for niceties. I dodged left, a move that brought more pain, but the King, who had to follow it, tightened in breathless agony. I kicked the end of the spear in his stomach and he dropped to the ground with a paralyzed gasp, releasing the sword. There was no time! I yanked the bloody spear from the King’s collapsing body just in time to block a thrust from the guard’s sword.

I could never have parried more than a few thrusts. The deep cut had impaired my mobility. The woman on the bed decided to get involved, and tossed a pair of pillows at my head. There was only a chance if I threw the spear, but the slice across my chest had split muscle I needed for power. I thrust, but he pushed my javelin aside as if it were a reed.

“Now you die,” smiled the guard toothily and moved forward.

I shuffled backwards and the King, still on his back and groaning, somehow managed to trip me. I fell, and lost the spear with a flick of the guard’s sword. From my elbows, I looked up to a blade hovering above my breasts, and beyond, to a confident smile. It seemed that it was not my day. And then, from behind me, a well-thrown long spear flashed in the lamplight, penetrating the guard’s breastplate and mail with a metallic “snick!” The spear’s power compelled him backwards to fall across the shrieking woman on the bed, where he passed from the world with a shuddering groan.

His sword, an instant earlier aligned to invade my heart, merely dropped, cutting a gash in the valley between softness. I caught the blade between my palms before it could do more damage. Reveling in my pain, I mumbled a tribute to the fickle God of Luck with the breath I didn’t think I’d have. Rolling over slowly, I crawled to the King on my knees. Yanking the spear from his stomach had done him further injury; it was all he could do now to hold his insides in place, but still, his wound, although very serious, wasn’t necessarily fatal with prompt attention, and I couldn’t allow him to survive. Grabbing the King’s jewel-encrusted sword, I held it under his chin, poised for a thrust into his brain. He was too weak to protest, but he was aware, and I bent to his ear.

“You are a brave man,” I whispered. “You deserve to know why you are going to die.”

He glared at me through eyes glazed in pain. “You Gods-cursed Giovannis came early,” he rasped. “I expected you after the Borodins left.”

I shook my head. Grinning, I met his glare. “I’m from Batuk.” I waited a few inches from his face until I saw the light of understanding, and then thrust the sword upwards. The point, designed to penetrate plate armor, had no problem with soft tissue. He collapsed and voided in death, fouling the air around me.

I stood slowly and leaned against the bloody blade, at the same time watching the terrified woman on the bed, a pretty girl with auburn hair and blue eyes. She appeared to regret throwing those pillows at me. When I smiled, she screamed.

I heard a footfall behind me and turned. The sudden movement made me dizzy, and I stumbled, grabbing a bedpost to steady myself.

“Lady Dana, you’re injured!” It was Paoli. Looking past him, I saw no one else who wasn’t supine or sprawled.

“Is anyone else alive, Paoli?” I hated the double role of the question. I needed dead lords to prevent the invasion of my home, but we had been through battle; I thought of them as the closest of brothers.

He gave his head a sober shake. “No. Geordi died after he threw the spear that killed the guard on the bed. He had no more weapons at hand and the last guard killed him before I, in turn, ended his life.”

The tears flowed, aching at his loss. He had been an enemy, yet had proven himself among the bravest of men, and I had barely known him.

“Geordi knew I was a serum girl! Why did he sacrifice himself for me?”

Paoli held me as I staggered, and my blood and tears stained his tunic.

“Most would say that you aren’t the usual serum girl. Honor his death by being strong for as long as you can.”

“A man who does not honor a hero’s death cheapens life,” said Herth Tarr after the battle of Detbow Field. So be it. I relinquished Paoli’s chest and stood up straight. Geordi’s memory, as would the others who perished in this brave fight, would be dishonored if it were known why they had died. In my eyes, they still died heroes, and as hateful as it was, I hoped that there were many more dead heroes, enough to save my city.

When I left this valley, I vowed, I would disappear into the mists, an aberration in Tulem’s long history, but not as the foul assassin demon-bitch who tricked men to their deaths. If we were successful, then no one besides a very few would ever know. If it meant that I would have to play this charade longer and better than I’d planned, then that was the price I’d pay.

Paoli looked down into my face, accepting what he saw there. “Come, you’re soaking your dress with blood.”

I held on as long as necessary. The barriers still blocked the corridors, so I rode a loop on a rope from the balcony to the ground to the accompaniment of raised weapons and cheers, and a guard of Giovannis and Borodins escorted me to the King’s infirmary. Paoli discovered the Royal Physician in his apartments next door and rousted him from his bed to treat me.

There is an element of civility to violent overthrows in Tulem. The ministers, nervous and appalled at their new monarch, presented themselves to me in the infirmary, and I insisted on taking their knees at my feet in the same bloody dress. When that was done, The Minister of Protocol rang the solemn Bells of Succession, and the valley awoke early that morning to wonder. To its surprise -- and to my own chagrin -- Tulem had its second queen.

***

As I lay in bed early in the afternoon, resting after surgery to repair torn muscle and flesh, I considered what had happened. In the only way that mattered to Batuk, the operation to kill King Bruno had been a failure. Paoli’s team had lost five; Klaus, two; and Franco, only one.

The Guards’ Quarters had been barred when Franco made it there, and the guards’ breakout had therefore been easily contained. I strongly suspected Ketrick’s hand in that as well. The Borodins hadn’t lost anyone, although there had been several casualties.

I had hoped for three times that number. A castle and its environs could be efficiently held and managed with five nobles. There were thirty-nine Giovanni lords, still far too many for three castles, twenty-five Borodin lords, and almost one hundred ladies.

I would have laughed if it wasn’t so damned painful. All the killing, and it still wasn’t enough! But Ketrick and I were alive and the invasion still had to be stopped. My wounds were healing well. In the meantime, I would not be an invalid. I decided to find out how much power I had as the first serum girl queen.

“Physician!” I yelled.

Assistant Physician Beti Kane answered the call immediately, rising swiftly from her attendant’s chair. Her slender body filled the tan physician’s dress well, the purple trim along her hem defining her as a part of the royal staff. She curtseyed low, twin tails of wavy blonde riding her back gracefully. “Your Majesty?” she inquired brightly.

“I will leave the infirmary now.”

She curtseyed even lower, her skin taking on a pinkish tinge. “Majesty, Physician Lees’n cautions most firmly against this. Your Majesty’s delicate tissues must remain completely stable for at least an entire day, and recover slowly for a week.”

She was probably right; every time I moved my chest muscles, I felt a twinge. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do anyway; there was no way to contact Ketrick without suspicion. It wasn’t necessary anyway; he knew where I was -- everyone in Tulem did. Nonetheless…. “Move me to my quarters and set up a reading stand in my bed.”

Deep blue eyes widened in puzzlement. “A reading stand, Your Majesty?”

I gave her a royal glance. “A device that I may use to read safely, without jostling ‘delicate tissues,’ Beti.”

She curtseyed again. “Instantly, Your Majesty. But your rooms are not ready. They still exude the stench of death and almost everything is being cleaned.”

That was surely true enough; it had been only a half-day since the attack.

“Very well. The infirmary will do nicely. Partition the bed from the rest of the room. Send for a carpenter and the Librarian.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” She smiled, and left to comply. I lay back and rested while underlings scurried to obey. I suppose it won’t be too bad to be the Queen, at least until Batuk is saved.

It was my duty to honor those who died with me, and of those I had killed. As I tried to honor King Bruno's death by remembering his life, a single feature of his naked profile kept returning to prominence in my mind. The urges were retuning. Being in the midst of strong men doing manly things had impassioned my desires.

The Librarian arrived silently while my eyes were closed. He interrupted my mental asides with a discreet cough. He was a medium-sized, unexceptional in most ways, and his short hair and trimmed mustache were a nondescript brown. He held himself well enough, but there was a hint of fragility about him, odd, considering the medical wonders our Overlords had given us.

“Your Majesty.”

“Librarian Merton, I’d like to know the true history of Tulem. I also need a study of the King’s -- and Queen’s -- rights and obligations.”

“Majesty? That’s a large subject,” he replied, looking at me strangely.

“I have a free day or two in the infirmary. I never expected to be King, much less Queen, and I find my knowledge deficient.”

“I have some solid texts and studies of the early days that I can vouch for. As for rights and obligations, I can offer some historical perspectives. If you desire, I can provide you with enough material for a day or a year.”

“Two days would be enough.”

He bowed, but didn’t move towards the door.

“Yes, Librarian?”

“I could assign a scholar to teach, or to answer any questions you have.”

I nodded slowly. Its advantage was saving time. But whom could I trust? “That might be adequate, Merton -- depending on the scholar.”

He stiffened, grasping my meaning. “All scholars in the Library are dedicated to your service, Majesty.”

“I cast no disparagements, Merton. How long have you served the monarchy?”

“I have served six kings and a queen.”

I added that up in my head from my sketchy knowledge of Tulem history. That was over two hundred years, an extraordinary achievement. If he had survived so many reigns, it was because he was trusted. “A very long time. Did you know Queen Prudence well?”

“Majesty, I knew her as well as anyone, but it’s not customary to speak personally of past kings and queens.”

Queen Prudence, or Queen Prue, was the namesake of the Queen's Cup. I knew something of her. She had ruled for about four years after her husband, King Walker, had died in a hunting accident. She was unlikely to have remained celibate for all that time, yet there had been no scandal attached to her. I wanted to know how she did it. There was no way of knowing how long I would have to remain as Queen before our mission was accomplished, and I would need a man on occasion.

“Let me put it another way. If you can tell me something specific to queens that would help me, Merton, then please do.”

He bowed very low. “There is nothing I can tell you.”

I shrugged; it was possible that he knew nothing. “Very well. I commend your two hundred year discretion. Send a scholar to me as soon as possible.”

He bowed for a last time before he exited. “Yes, Your Majesty. I'll send Scholar Jillian.”

I sighed as he passed through the door. Even Merton, hardly the most attractive man I had seen in the palace, looked desirable. These were the times I hated the most, when my natural slave side ruled me.

It was well that the scholar was female.

Scholar Jillian curtseyed nervously when the guard ushered her inside. Gold trim on her gray robe indicated her seniority. Her black eyes were marginally too close together for true beauty and her coiffure followed no discernible fashion. She blew a lock of light brown hair away from her forehead as she struggled with a thick column of books.

“Majesty!” she exclaimed.

“Scholar Jillian, Librarian Merton recommended you.” I nodded towards a desk in the corner. “You won’t need the books, at least not right away. Pull the chair beside the bed.” She did so, then sat.

“I’m not sure what you want,” she said, biting her lip.

“I want three things: Give me an overview of Tulem, the real history, not the ones tinged with Giovanni or Borodin views; the history of King Bruno’s last year; and I want to know what Queen Prudence was like.”

“Majesty?”

“Indulge me, Scholar.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

After a few minutes, she warmed to her subject, the early history of the valley.

“… So you see, there was no original ‘source material’ until almost two hundred years after the first settlement. It’s certainly possible that Luigi and Angela Giovanni led an expedition to the valley, but it could also be that several families, including the Borodins, as they claim, settled the valley together. A DNA analysis of the valley shows at least five distinct families, including the Giovannis and Borodins. Interestingly, there is evidence of an earlier settlement…

“… There are two competing stories of the Borodin ascension to the aristocracy: Borodins celebrate the day as acknowledgment of their rightful status in the valley. Giovannis present a darker tale of assassination and usurpation. Who has the right of it is hard to say; the precise details are lost behind an iron door and thick walls in the late Lord Barzan Giovanni’s castle. Most scholars think that elements of both were at work. The mere fact that the Borodins could become nobility fairly proclaims their worthiness to become nobility, according to Zhorian time-honored standards. King Stefano remained neutral in the matter, more interested in peace than continuing the near-constant warring …

“… As the nobility perfected its craft, the ruled realized their role in life’s mosaic and eventually settled to a happy existence, abandoning violence for productive pursuits. Expulsions of those who would disrupt the established pattern dropped as the people of Tulem accepted rational order over chaos, peace over strife …

“… King Fiorello threatened the normal alternating Giovanni-Borodin line of succession by favoring the ascension of the senior Giovanni. Alarmed, the numbers of Borodins and Giovannis doubled, anticipating a war in the valley. When he was assassinated fifty years ago, Lord Bruno, a Borodin, of course, assumed the mantle, but the damage had been done; unrest grew as a class of itinerant nobility competed for honors and fought for slights real and imagined. The peace of the valley had ended. A year ago, Lords Niccolo and Marcus met with King Bruno and finalized the plans to attack Batuk, to give the Borodins a city of their own to rule.”

She hesitated. “You know more than I about the events of this last month. You yourself have witnessed much of it and have played a major role.”

Her brief history of the valley sounded like a fair assessment of what I knew, and quite a bit of new information. I liked the way she judged and weighed events. “Scholar, you are not to repeat what I say now.”

“Of course, Majesty.”

“That was a good, brief version of Tulem’s history; neither Giovanni nor Borodin could quibble very much. But is it complete and accurate in all its particulars? My slave was a raid leader in Batuk before an enemy gave her Ruk’s Serum. She thinks the key to Tulem’s peace and success is not the aristocracy’s natural leadership. She thinks it’s because, for centuries, Tulem has culled men and women with spirit, leaving only weak for us to rule.”

“Majesty, this is an old slur against our city. Your slave is wrong.”

“This isn’t an idle question. Whatever has happened in Tulem isn’t important. Time has written the past with an immutable pen. It’s Batuk I am concerned with.”

“This — theory contradicts Tulem’s heritage,” she said slowly.

“I don’t believe a word of it either, but I don’t have proof. I want to know, without question, that when the Borodins rule Batuk, they will be accepted as natural rulers, that they shall prevail because of our enlightened way of life.”

She frowned, scratching her cheek with her index finger. “There must have been studies.”

“Good. Find them and present them to me, Scholar. I want to be completely convinced. You have a week. In the meantime, come back in two days for a detailed history of King Bruno’s last year.”

She curtseyed. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

I closed my eyes when she was gone, but the long day wasn’t over. A knock on the door returned me to the world. My physician’s deep voice abolished any thoughts of sleep. “Majesty, may I enter? I need to examine you.”

“I sighed. Yes, Physician.”

It was the slut urges that made a medical examination feel so good. Standing naked, I held my breasts in my hands up and away so he could inspect his handiwork between and below. His head bent a few inches away from nipples that swelled compulsively, and even injured, my body prepared itself for a visitor.

Lees’n was a well-structured man with a neat goatee, and was confident enough to see me as a woman, as a bulge below the belt proclaimed.

“You're healing well,” he said when he was finished. “Tomorrow you will be able to leave the bed if you’re careful.” He turned awkwardly to conceal the signs. There is no shame in appreciating a woman, but proclaiming readiness to mount his sovereign so overtly -- especially as her physician -- conceivably had crossed some boundary. I smiled to show I was not offended.

“I am grateful, Physician.”

“It’s my honor, Your Majesty,” he declared smoothly, like a courtier.

Next to visit was the nattily dressed Minister of Protocol, Selmin, who discussed in precise detail what to expect for the coronation the next day, and finally, the head seamstress, a woman named Teresti, who measured me for a dress.

Even my urges couldn’t keep me awake that night, and I slept like the dead, dreaming of Dana, and wondering how fast I could get away from the palace and into Ketrick’s arms.

Beti Kane woke me with that morning with a nudge and a bright smile. “Majesty.”

I regarded her blearily, but there was no give to her relentless cheerfulness. “The Queen should be able to sleep late, Beti.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. It’s time to check your dressing. The Minister of Protocol asked me to assist you today; there is much to do in little time.”

She was right, so I rolled out of bed. Once I passed Beti’s inspection, a coterie of three slaves in thin purple tunics arrived, curtseying together. They were more beautiful than most slaves, although I doubted any were serum girls. I looked to Beti for an explanation.

“Your bath girls.”

I chuckled, understanding King Bruno a little better. The King had been something like Ketrick; he had required three girls to bathe him. “Of course. Lead the way, Beti.”

I left the infirmary in a thick robe and slippers, entering a hall of white marble and high arches carved in the vigorous Morovian style popular several centuries before. Mythic beasts crouched in recesses built into the walls, judging all who passed with eyes of blue and green jewels. In one section, paintings of past kings hung in shallow alcoves in various poses, all with Giovanni or Borodin features.

I stopped at the exception, a seated woman in a purple dress of some thick shiny fabric. The white hem named her: she was Tulem’s only queen. Prudence had been a Giovanni; the incisive nose and lustrous black hair made that clear enough. She clutched the rod of authority in her right hand, the same staff I had once seen in Bruno’s fist. The background was the same balcony in King Bruno’s apartment. The picture showed it in daylight, overlooking the northern part of the city with the lake and, dimly, the mountains in the distance.

It was an impressive scene, but Queen Prue seemed to occupy another place. Her dark brown eyes looked past the artist, distracted. Other paintings often showed a wife or favored concubine, but she sat alone. She thought of loss. Her husband had died early enough in his reign that she had succeeded him. Prudence hadn’t been a shade of her husband; her husband’s death had not destroyed her vitality. Her grip on the rod was solid. She knew its importance and took her rule seriously. Across the gulf of centuries, I understood a part of her and thought that I might have liked her.

“Majesty?”

I realized that I’d been standing there for minutes. There would be time enough to look at the painting later. “I’m ready, Beti.”

Beti and the slaves escorted me through an ornate entrance to the bath, an airy room of blue and white tile. Narrow columns of gilded marble supported a six-sided dome over a walk-in steaming pool easily large enough for several women. I suspected that King Bruno had spent some time there.

My bath girls were surely disappointed that I wasn’t a man, but they showed no sign of it, washing my hair, bathing me, and applying scented oils. Two were twin beauties with long burnished hair and green eyes, a rarity, unless they had been altered to look the same. The other was a very dark woman with smoldering black eyes in a face of high cheekbones and generous lips that practically demanded a man’s use.

I could appreciate them only objectively; it was a waste of their full potential to serve me. But they were more than toys for a king. Their hands were experienced and strong. They squeezed the length of my flanks expertly, and kneaded the corded muscles in my shoulders well enough to push away thoughts of the Borodins, Giovannis, and war for a while.

I returned to the infirmary relaxed but not indifferent to the challenge ahead. It was possible that in the light of day, the lords and ladies would rather not confirm a serum girl as their queen. Waiting for me within stood a group of three women with Teresti in the center. All of them looked tired, as if they had worked all night.

“I understand that you’ve made me a dress,” I said.

“Yes, Majesty,” Teresti replied, pressing her hands together nervously. “I hope that you’ll be pleased with this. It’s very close to the original dress Queen Prudence wore on her inaugural.” She stood aside and uncovered a wonder on a clothes mannequin.

It shimmered white with thick purple trim down the front and along the hem. My tastes as a man had gradually become their female equivalents over the months. I could be fashionable, and had easily worn several styles in Batuk and Tulem, from plain and rugged to extravagant and daring, but I knew what I liked.

I ran my fingers down the side. The fabric was soft, thick, and heavier than most. It would flow with every movement, and would hang straight at rest, a dress of solidity, grace, and great beauty. Queen Prudence had been no prude, the cut was unabashedly female but not so much that I would be self-conscious. It was a dress that I could be proud to wear, one that I might have chosen myself.

“Teresti, this is magnificent,” I breathed.

“Thank you, Your Majesty. May we start soon?”

I handed my robe to one of her assistants, and stood naked before her. “Yes. We shall do it now.”

They fussed around me for minutes, adjusting the dress over a thin linen shift. Thankfully, it fit very well, requiring only a couple of minor alterations. While the dress was away, the hairdresser arrived, a slight woman with perfect auburn hair done-up in an elaborate ringed affair. She curtseyed and smiled. “Majesty, I’m Sherry. I will be styling your hair.”

“How long will this take?”

“No more than an hour, Your Majesty,” she said cheerfully.

“This would be the routine every time I went out?” I said, frowning.

She no longer looked so cheerful. “It is the style.”

“I’ve been using a simpler technique.” I showed her the quick knot and where the pin would go.

She blanched. “Majesty, that sort of thing is done in other cities, and is rarely used in what passes for the upper classes -- even there. It would be recognized eventually.” She curtseyed very deeply. “Please, don’t do this. It would be a scandal.”

I shrugged. “Very well, then show me a simpler way that would not cause a scandal.”

For a moment I thought she would cry.

“Sherry, this will be done.” I said, vaguely appalled at her response. “If you can’t do it, then I will have another hairdresser.”

Then she did cry. “Majesty, it is a grave responsibility to make fashion,” she pleaded, holding her hands like a prayer, “especially for a queen -- far above my station. Please do not ask me to try!”

“Fine!”

I thought back to hairstyles I had found attractive. One came instantly to mind: A rich virgin priestess from far Wauwatosa had visited Batuk some years past. She had chosen not to hide her disdain for the admittedly unrestrained behavior our freedom occasionally allowed. Just before the tavern fight, I remembered a wide circlet holding her up her tail, with the Goddess of Pleasure inscribed in relief in a few of her more popular aspects. It was a handsome device, and I recalled a fleeting urge at the time to separate the arrogant woman from her retainers and her clothes, unclip her hair, and watch its richness tumble over her naked shoulders. Something that elegant would be suitable for Tulem’s Queen, given a modification or two. I drew a diagram of what I wanted as Sherry sniffled.

“Observe!” I said, shaking the paper under her nose. “It will be made of polished silver in a distinctive pattern. It will represent Tulem, with three blue sapphires on one side and three green emeralds on the other, signifying the six main castles in the valley, with a diamond on top.”

Her sniffles ceased, and she nodded slowly, grudgingly admitting its beauty and fashionable aspects. It was just enough; if she had done any less I would have dismissed her.

“It is an attractive object, and there is some precedent for it outside the valley among the upper classes, but it could never be made in time for the ceremony!”

“Well, make it as soon as possible, then.”

She leaped to her feet and curtseyed. “Majesty, allow me to bring your design to the smith. I know just what is needed!”

“Order two for me, Sherry. I’ll need one as soon as possible — tonight, or at the latest, tomorrow morning. The smith may use colored glass on the first; it doesn’t matter. The second should be done with greater care.”

Teresti returned with the dress as Sherry finished coiling my hair and slipping the tail of it through the top. It was time to try it on.

Once the hooks of the dress were in place, Sherry and Teresti fussed briefly, fixing every hair and smoothing every possible line. The dress fit perfectly. From their nods and looks of satisfaction, it was special. When they were through, I moved to the mirror.

It had been long since I'd awoken starting at breasts and a mass of hair. I knew what I was and what I looked like, a woman in black hair and deep brown eyes.

It was still me but changed. Sherry had dusted my cheeks lightly with something soft, colored my eyelids subtly, did something that enhanced my eyelashes, and glossed my lips, all small changes, but the difference! My hair was immaculate, shining with the lightest touch of oil and falling perfectly straight down my back. Sherry had even added thick silver rings between the black coils, giving it the look of the circlet I wanted.

It was more than just expertly applied make-up and superbly styled hair. The dress was incredible. The rich materials would have been ostentatious except for simple design. The way it fit me was like an extension of myself, hugging every line and curve. It made the statement that I belonged in it. I moved slowly, twirling the skirts, getting a feel for the fabric, the marvelous softness against my legs.

The Queen had life and death authority over all the commoners in the valley; the nobles were her vassals. It was greater power than the entire council in Batuk.

This isn’t real, the back of my mind kept screaming, but it would have to be. I had to be the Queen, and be a good one, if I were to have any credibility and finish the job. The dress and the look they’d given me showed me the way, forming a regal base for my behavior.

I was a serum girl, which would earn me no latitude. To the contrary, I would be looked at critically with every eye. Still:

By the Gods, what woman would not be confident looking like this?

I turned to my hairdresser and dressmaker, again feeling the soft swell of fabric against my legs, flowing almost as if it lived. “Sherry, Teresti, you’ve worked a miracle.”

They curtseyed, flushing with pride. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” Teresti said. “It is a joy to serve the Queen.”
 
 

To Be Continued…

 
A little less action than the last chapter, but I couldn't keep the pace up. :) Tyra and Ketrick have little time left to stop the war, and have to play all their cards, but first, there is a small problem called the urges....

Thanks for the comments. I love to hear what you think. ~Aardvark



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