A Royal Sacrifice Ch. 06
Another conquest, she thought as she left the chambers of one of the lesser nobles of Vix. At this rate, I should have all the men of the kingdom under my spell. Her lips curled at the corners as she exited the small manor, breezing by the guard who held the door for her. Her carriage awaited at the end of a long walk that wound through a lush garden. The moon was only half-full, casting little light through the trees and thick shrubbery.
"You are certainly making the rounds."
The Lady Viviane gasped as she heard the dark voice behind her, and spun about to see the owner of the voice. She knew, intuitively, who the man was; she had felt his presence from the moment of her arrival to the kingdom.
"Bagdemagus," she said, watching the shadows slide off the man's surprisingly youthful face. Defensively, she 'bumped' her power, subconsciously hoping it would make the wizard complacent.
He cocked his head with a rakish smile. "The one and only," he said, sweeping his arms out. He did not seem to be concerned that he stood, more or less, in full view of Viviane's carriage guards. But then, she reasoned, he was a wizard, after all.
Mustering her courage, Viviane planted her hands upon her well-rounded hips, thrust her chest out. Her considerable cleavage was barely restrained by the bodice of her dress, which she had not completely laced after her latest dalliance. "Well, I would have preferred a better circumstance in which to meet," she said. "But I suppose this will have to do."
Bagdemagus looked amused. "Are you trying to seduce me?" he asked with a soft chuckle. "Oh, that is rich. But I must commend you on your stamina." He stepped past her casually, approaching the small fountain within the nobleman's lawn. Viviane followed with her eyes.
"What do you want?" she asked him, fuming slightly.
"Certainly not you," he quipped, knowing that his words would make her bristle. Thanks to his spies, he had learned quite a bit of the prince's half-sister.
"No, of course not," she shot back, eyes smoldering with ire. "But, then, at your age, that would be problematic, wouldn't it? I wonder if the damn thing still works."
Bagdemagus glanced over his shoulder with a smirk. "It has its uses," he said. He faced her once more, leaning against the fountain and folding his arms. "Now," he said with a tone that meant business. "It seems your brother is doing quite nicely with the Queen. Very chivalrous he was, after that dreadful business the other night. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Tragic, really."
Viviane narrowed her eyes. "Very," she said dryly. "Not that you had anything to do with it, of course."
Bagdemagus simply smiled. "What motive would I have for killing the Queen's foster family? They were nothing to me . . . as are most people, I might add."
"Indeed," Viviane rejoined, stepping closer with a suspicious look upon her face. "Yet, now Evelyn has found comfort in Drest's arms. That would go a long way to cementing an eventual union."
The wizard's face was unreadable. "I suppose it would. From tragedy comes strength, and all that. It's almost . . . predictable."
Viviane's lips pouted in thought. "And just why would that concern you?" she asked. "What does a wizard care about the affairs of a kingdom? Or that Drest and the Queen be wed?"
"Oh? What makes you think I'm concerned?"
She waggled a finger at the wizard. "I know a thing or two about magic," she said. "I know which rocks to turn over."
Bagdemagus snorted softly. "Oh, do you? Do you think yourself a wizard? Being the adulterous child of a king and supposed sorceress does not give one command of the Ether. That takes decades . . . centuries, even."
Viviane's eyes blazed for a moment. "Perhaps I know more than you think," she said haughtily.
Bagdemagus arched an eyebrow. "Highly doubtful," he said patronizingly. He took a tired-sounding breath. "No, the reality is that you were somehow blessed with a bit of instinctual magic . . . the ability to play upon others' inhibitions. Useful, certainly . . . but not quite the same as knowledge of the Craft."
Viviane seethed. "I have time to learn," she said, then smirked. "Unlike you."
The wizard smiled knowingly. "Oh, if only you did know," he rasped.
Viviane rolled her eyes. "I think I tire of this game of words," she said, then began to turn away.
"And impressive man, isn't he?" Bagdemagus called out.
Viviane stopped, frowning. She turned back to the wizard. "What are you talking about?"
"That simpleton you are so fond of," the wizard said, casually regarding his lightly-callused nails. "You know, the . . . big one." He smiled knowingly, lifting his eyes to read Viviane's consternated expression.
"Don't think I haven't noticed," Bagdemagus continued. "Oh, certainly, you have gone to great lengths to spread your . . . influence. But there is always that one man to whom you return. That groomsman. Eric, yes? Yes, that is his name: Eric . . . ."
Viviane ground her teeth. "He is of no concern to you," she declared, feeling an anxious rumble in her chest.
The dark wizard chuckled. "No, but he is to you," he pointed out. He narrowed his eyes. "Curious that you keep returning to him, above all others. And that he never seems to be left like a panting dog in your wake. That vexes you, doesn't it? That there is a man without inhibitions for you to feed upon?"
Viviane folded her arms defensively. "Nothing vexes me," she spat.
Bagdemagus pushed away from the fountain, taking two slow, deliberate steps toward the woman before him. "I beg to differ," he said menacingly. He reached out a hand, touched Viviane's face. She stiffened slightly, but stood her ground.
"I could slay you with barely a thought," whispered Bagdemagus. "A powder, a potion . . . the dagger at my hip. But I think it would be more interesting to see what mischief you might make."
Her nostrils flared slightly. "You should not dismiss me so casually, wizard."
Bagdemagus smirked once more. "Oh, but I do," he said dryly. From behind Viviane came the loud sound of a twig snapping. Immediately, she whirled about, searching the garden to see who was there.
But there was no one. Not that she could see, even with her sharp eyes. She let out a breath, turned back to Bagdemagus.
She was not entirely surprised to find that he was gone, leaving no trace of his presence. Wearily, Viviane shook her head.
The sounds of swords clashing filled the training grounds of the castle. The members of the guard had been paired up, facing each other with dulled blades as the captain drilled into them the fineries of swordplay. His raucous voice echoed in the air.
"Bells! Don't swing so hard! You'll tire yourself out! Hooper, watch your flank! Greaves, you hold the blade too low when you parry! Delfs . . . ."
Beside the stables, John and Eric watched the training. Their chores for the moment were finished, at least until David came along with something else for them to do.
"Look at these idiots," scoffed John, shaking his head. "I bet you and I could take the lot of them."
Eric chuckled. "Not likely," he said. "You do well with a stick, but it's not the same as a fistful of steel."
John soured. "I know my way around a blade."
"Well, that is a moot point, since you are a stable hand, and not a guard."
John shot the larger man a look. "And we both know why that is. I could prove my mettle against any man among the guard, and it would net me nothing. Just because of my buggered heritage."
"Yes, well, being buggered didn't keep you from buggering, did it?"
John snorted as he recalled his first 'meeting' with Lady Viviane. "That was quite nice," he said. He frowned at Eric. "Of course, you got the better deal on that one. As always."
Eric shrugged with a confident look. "Alas, what can I say? The woman is infatuated with me."
"And any man in a noble's coat," John muttered under his breath. "I'm surprised you haven't gotten the pox."
"Hmm. Now that you mention it, the ol' John Thomas has been a bit itchy lately . . . ."
John winced. "Saints. Spare me the gory details."
Eric laughed, then fell into silence as the two friends continued watching the practicing guards. After a moment, he pointed. "What do you think of that one? What's his name?"
John's brow furrowed in thought. "Hmm. Cedric, I think. Supposedly a childhood friend of the Queen. Little wonder how he became a guard."
"Regardless of how, he shows promise," Eric said. "Look. He's up against Falhurst."
Upon the grounds, Cedric, newest member of the guard, squared off with the more experienced Lieutenant Falhurst. It was well known that Falhurst was a master swordsman, with no equals. He lacked the intricacy of strategy, however, which kept him at his current rank. But the man seemed content with his position, and his reputation.
"Come on, pup, show us what you've got!" Falhurst rumbled as Cedric advanced.
Cedric grinned. The sword felt natural in his hand; it was obvious he had a knack for swordplay. Strange to think that he had never aspired to more than becoming a cobbler, yet here he was, his hand filled with steel.
"Beware pups who bite," he quipped, then lunged. Steel rang on steel; both men grunted. Blades flashed, clashed again, then again.
"Not bad," muttered Eric.
John shrugged. "Eh . . . he's all right."
Around Cedric and Falhurst, the other guards stopped their sparring and formed a wide circle. Cedric had already lasted longer than any other guardsman; they were anxious to see what he could do.
For several moments, Cedric admirably held his own in the duel with Falhurst. The other guardsmen watched, some smiling in admiration, others with confidence for their lieutenant. But none could deny the natural strength, speed and skill Cedric possessed.
"You're quite good!" expelled Falhurst at one point, as blades locked and the two men were brought face-to-face.
"I could say the same about you!" returned Cedric. He shoved back, then swung, a wild strike that extended his reach and exposed his side. Falhurst swatted the blade away, then passed his own sword behind his back, exchanging hands. Swiftly, the tip of his blade shot up, stopping just short of doing damage as it pressed into Cedric's right armpit.
Falhurst grinned as his opponent froze. "Confidence is good, lad. Overconfidence is not."
Cedric's face colored with admonishment. He stepped back, lowering his blade and nodding his head in a gesture of respect. "I'll remember that," he said.
Falhurst chuckled. "You've the makings of a fine swordsman, lad," he said, clapping Cedric on the shoulder. "Keep it up."
Cedric grinned. It had only been a couple of days, but he already knew whom the other men respected. To receive praise from Falhurst was akin to having the captain himself shaking one's hand.
"My thanks," he said, feeling proud.
Weapons practice was finally done for the day. Cedric felt sore and sweaty, yet invigorated. He was reminded of muscles he had forgotten he had, and sported a few bruises here and there, but it was all worth it.
I'm a guardsman, he thought, and grinned as he stood in the relative coolness of the feed barn. He dipped his hands into a large barrel full of water, splashed it over his face. The chill water felt invigorating as it flowed down his face, soaked into the simple tunic he wore. His crimson guard's jacket lay across a wooden rail, all but sodden with sweat.
"Ho, there, boy, that water is for the horses."
Cedric looked to the origin of the voice, finding the two hulking groomsmen standing in the doorway. He struggled to remember their names. One was Eric, the other . . . Joseph? He could not remember.
"My apologies," Cedric said. "I just needed to cool off a bit."
The largest of the two -- Eric -- stepped forward. He glared upon the young guardsman. "Oh, and just any bucket of water will do?" he asked growlingly. "Never mind that said water has been purified for consumption only by the mounts of the Queen and visiting prince?"
Cedric paled slightly. "I . . . I didn't know," he said.
Eric and John faced the young man in an almost menacing way. Then, suddenly, they sputtered in laughter, doubling over and clutching their sides.
"Oh, the expression 'pon your face!" roared Eric.
John mimicked Cedric, his eyes wide and lips puckered. "'I didn't know,'" he quoted, then degenerated into laughter.
Cedric rolled his eyes. "All right, you've had your fun," he said. But he could not deny the smile that tugged at his own mouth.
Eric, still laughing, extended his hand to the guardsman. "Aye, we have," he said. "I'm Eric, this is John. And you are the Queen's boyfriend."
Cedric paled again. "Wh-what? I am no such thing! I-I mean, she's the Queen! Our relationship is completely platonic, and has always been!"
John shrugged. "Ah, well, the rumor-mongers would say differently."
Cedric frowned, instantly angered. "Any rumors to the effect of . . . of coital relations betwixt myself and the good Queen are patently, utterly, and absolutely false! And I'll see any man put to death if he says otherwise!"
John and Eric exchanged glances. "He hasn't bedded her," muttered John.
"No, he hasn't," Eric agreed.
"I certainly have not!" cried Cedric. "Regardless of any desire to do otherwise, I admire milady the Queen and would not wish any inopportune thoughts upon her!"
Both larger men blinked. Eric held up his hands. "You've made your point," he said.
Cedric seethed a moment, then backed off, snatching up his jacket. "I love her as I love a friend, or a sister," he said, donning the coat. "Nothing more. I will trust you both to keep that in mind, and not fuel any rumors."
"We are not the sort," Eric said, then smiled rakishly. "We have enough of our own rumors to worry about."
John and Eric shared a chuckle. Cedric merely huffed, buttoning up his coat. He paused as he took up the baldric to which his sword was attached. He smiled wryly. "Three days ago, I was just a shoemaker's son," he said, almost to himself. "Now I wear the coat of a Royal Guardsman and carry a blade. Life is a strange thing."
John grimaced. "For some," he said wryly.
All three looked toward the door to behold Rebecca, the Queen's handmaiden. She was dressed in riding gear, although it was well-known that the young beauty had little experience in the saddle. Her lack of experience, however, did not seem to be an issue at the moment; she looked more than delectable in her bellcloth skirt and form-fitting top. The firm mounds of her breasts were showcased admirably by the uplifting bodice she wore.
"The Queen has asked me to pick up a few things from the village," the handmaiden continued with a sweet smile. "The captain said you could escort me."
Cedric swallowed apprehensively. He was aware of the envious looks given him by both Eric and John. More than anything, those looks fueled him, inflaming his young male ego.
"Of course," Cedric said at last. "I would be more than happy to escort you."
The demure brunette smiled, batting her eyes.
Eric and John watched as the grey-flanked mare bore Cedric and Rebecca away. Both men could not help but envy the way the Queen's handmaiden molded herself to Cedric's back, clasping her hands just above the guard's waist. Her rump was inspiring as it bounced upon the saddle of the trotting horse.
"I'll say this for him: the lad's learning quickly," commented Eric.
John mused darkly. "There's something about that girl—"
"Aye, there is."
"Not that," continued John in irritation. He stepped into the sun, watching as the gates opened for the single horse and her two riders. "'Tis something else. I can't quite put my finger on it."
"Nor will you, it seems. That girl plainly has an eye for our newest guardsman."
John gave his friend a frowning look. "Aren't handmaidens supposed to be chaste?" he asked.
Eric shrugged. "Muriel was . . . still is, supposedly. But that is not to say that all are to follow in that vein."
"Still . . . don't ask me why, Eric, but there is something . . . nefarious about Rebecca. I have a strange feeling about her."
Eric rolled his eyes, slapped his hand to the back of John's neck. "Listen. I know you feel there are spies everywhere, but—"
"But what?" queried John, turning to face the older man with a challenging look. "If you were Prince Drest, and you wanted to know everything there was about the Queen, who would you employ? What better spy than the woman who spends practically every hour of every day with her?"
Eric pursed his lips in thought. "'Tis a stretch," he said.
"No more so than a supposed wizard roaming the castle and killing at will," John said pointedly.
Eric let out a heavy breath. "So, what, then? Follow them?"
John grinned rakishly. "We've nothing else to do for the remainder of the day . . . ."
Cedric beamed with pride. He thoroughly enjoyed the reception he and Rebecca received as they rode into the village. Many had known him as little more than a cobbler's son; now he was resplendent in the crimson coat of the Royal Guard, escorting none other than the Queen's handmaiden. For the son of a shoemaker, this was the highlight of his life.
"Make way for the Queen's handmaiden," Cedric announced with pompous flair, his hand at the small of Rebecca's back as they started through the market.
"Cedric, my sweet, don't make such a production of it," she whispered over her shoulder.
Cedric cleared his throat. "Of course, milady."
"And I am not a lady," she added, with a mischievous gleam in her eye.
"You certainly are in my eyes."
"Oh, Cedric," Rebecca said with a note of condescension in her voice. Yet the playful expression she bore hinted at something more.
Cedric chuckled, and left the handmaiden to her shopping. He watched as she wandered about the carts and booths in the market square, selecting various things such as candles, incense, and perfumed soaps. Rebecca was warmly received by the merchants, who recognized her instantly.
"By the saints! Cedric, is that you?"
He turned, looking upon a matronly woman and her 'entourage' of children. The little ones were all between ten and sixteen years of age, spaced about a year apart. Their ruddy faces reflected the simple life they led, the life which Cedric had followed until just a few days before.
"Mrs. Albright! A pleasure to see you!" He opened his arms to the woman, who gave him a quick, friendly hug.
"Nay, the pleasure is mine," she said appraisingly, looking the young man over. "I must say, you do make for a fine soldier."
Cedric blushed. "My thanks," he said. "I am still getting used to it."
Mrs. Albright touched Cedric's cheek with a smile. "I always suspected there was a greater destiny for you than to follow in your father's footsteps," she said. "Now I see that I was right."
Cedric's eyes dipped. "You flatter me."
The matron's eyes wandered across the market square, finding the handmaiden as she added to her basket of wares. "What a lovely charge you have," she said. "I dare say the handmaiden may be second only to the Queen in beauty."
Cedric's cheeks reddened slightly, though he tried to hide it. "I haven't noticed."
Mrs. Albright laughed softly. "Oh, of course not," she said, chiding him. "You are a guardsman. Your eyes seek out only the dangers of the world, which your fine sword shall lay low."
Cedric tried not to smile. "I suppose I cannot hide anything from you," he said.
The woman smiled back. "Cedric, you have entered a new world. It is not one like anything you have known before."
He nodded. "So I am discovering."
Mrs. Albright's features darkened a bit. "How is our Queen?" she asked. Her features softened with sympathy. "Tell me honestly, Cedric. With all that happened two nights past—"