Revised July 09, 2010
THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, CHAPTER 3, Part 1
A story of Necromantra
Edited by Christopher Leeson
King Q’zon grasped my hair and threw me against a granite wall.
“Deceitful witch!” he growled. He was holding his fist bunched for a killing blow. Maybe it was only an afterthought that induced him to merely give me the hardest face-slap I ever felt. In the aftermath, he stood back, enjoying the sight of me sprawling at his feet. I got up as soon as I was able, not sorry that I had been only been moderately punished by Darkuran standards. He was physically and psychologically prepared to tear me limb from limb. I thought that my magic would be a match for him, but if I fought back I would be giving the Tradesmen an excuse to carry out their threat against Airelle.
“I beg your pardon, Majesty,” I feigned to plead, “my magic is mighty but my body is not. If I am beaten to death, I cannot serve you!”
He flared his large nostrils. “You’ve been serving poorly enough, human cow! And now you are caught intriguing behind my back!”
“It wasn’t to challenge or defy you! I went seeking news of my daughter, the Princess Arielle!”
“No excuse is tolerable. You have no life, you have no family. Your only duty is to excel in your slavery.”
“I did not act against you” I said. “When they told me what I wished to know, I withdrew!”
“Vigon came seeking alliance,” the king said. “Now he seeks to have me send you back to Ulik to become Viscount Armand’s puppet. So be it. These humans’ petty scheming fits into my greater plan. Ulik, rotten with internal dissension, is a ripe plum to fall into my fist. It would make a strategic vassal, and you may be the perfect cat’s-paw in subjugating it.”
“I live to obey,” I told him.
He grabbed my hair again. “The day you cease to obey is the day you die,” he reminded me unnecessarily. “Now, get out. Your bleeding is befouling my rug. Be prepared to attend the next council held with our human “allies.”
“As my lord wills,” I muttered. In the way of dismissal, he shoved me out the door, skinning my shoulder against a fluted pilaster. The scrape did not much concern me, since, overall, I felt encouraged. I had put into Vigon’s mind into a new mode of thinking, one to benefit me. Now I had nudged Q’zon’s convoluted scheming onto the right track also. All in all, matters were going very well.
Later that day, I was summoned into a conference room occupied by King Q’zon, his aides, and most of the human emissaries from Ulik. The Darkurans ignored me, but the humans rose and bowed, as if to a queen. I knew, of course, that they saw me as nothing more than a valuable tool. I wondered if any of them were the least concerned about me living under continual threat from a monster. I doubted it. And why should they care? After all, I had not ruled Ulik with a light touch.
“Marinna,” rumbled Q’zon in way of a greeting. This was the most gallant address was he had ever used. Usually, “whore,” “slut,” “slave,” or “bitch” much more easily off his thick tongue. “These are my commands. You will accompany the emissaries back to the war camp of Viscount Armand. He will announce that your are his intended bride. With the former queen together with the viscount, Erhan’s faction might weaken and collapse. If not, Armand’s hand will even so be strengthened. You will apply your magic howsoever Armand commands you to.”
His general plan, I guessed, was be to back Armand until he removed Erhan. Then he would use Ulik traitors to push Armand aside or kill him. No doubt he had a some pliant human puppet waiting offstage to ascend the throne of Ulik. I doubt that he wanted to outright annex the kingdom. That would antagonize his Aerwan enemies, who had their own interests in the kingdom. Q’zon, by his caution, was demonstrating his weak hand – namely, he was not prepared for a general war.
“Say something!” the king told me. “If you have no use for your tongue, you may be deprived of it!” This was what passed for a joke in Darkur and, to be fair, it was about the funniest that I ever heard a member of his race utter.
“I am content and ready to serve,” I said with lowered head.
In a month’s time, Viscount Armand had deployed in full force against Erhan’s stronghold. The latter was the city-fortress of Roch, a stronghold more defensible than had been the former seat of High Lord Tavon.
The viscount’s was being widely supported by the landed magnates, while Erhran was the choice of the courtly party. These groups were two kingdom factions that were always at odds. When High Lord Tavon’s daughter fell into his hands, Erhan had thrown caution to the wind and announced his intention to marry her, which would allow him to rule in her name. Because of this powerful move, Armand had been compelled to make overtures to an outside power, the Darkur.
As intended, my public betrothal to the viscount was serving as a check against Erhan's intentions. In fact, spies reported that some of Erhan’s adherents had shown signs of faltering as soon as I had been put forward as a playing piece. Also, personages who had stood aloof previously had increased their flow of gifts and engaged in more serious negotiations with Armand. The lesser fry, the minor claimants to power, were falling away. The struggle for the throne was becoming more and more a two-man match. The final test of strength was fast approacing.
The Darkur contingency, by the way, was encamped several miles Roch, waiting for Armand to call upon their magical power and their force of arms. Because the Darkur were so feared and disliked all through Ulik, Armand little wanted to flaunt the fact of his alliance with them. While chess pieces were being moved and available forces were jockeyed, I was left to my own devices.
Fortunately, I had not been ordered to kill anyone lately; my role was still diplomatic. I used my downtime to watch and learn. My eventual course of action depended on what was going on around me. I wanted to make contract with Arielle, but I was waiting for the right moment, lest I put her into danger.
My main function at this stage was to receive delegations, both from the enemy and from nonaligned nobles. I was under orders to be lavish in my support for the statesmanship and integrity of my “betrothed.” The more hostile of the delegates sought to prove me an impostor, since Erhan’s propaganda was maintaining that I was dead. Those less blatantly partisan generally accepted that I was Queen Marinna returned. I met each new delegation with the hope that Princess Arielle was in it, but that hadn’t happened. On one hand, I wanted her to stay safe. On the other, I wanted to assure her that I was not a willing participant in this civil war.
But I had so far seen little room for maneuver, mainly because I was alone, without allies. The scoundrels in the main factions were happy enough with either Erhan or Amand. What I represented was a third force, but so far I was not seen as such. I was still keeping watch for the kind of person who didn't like either usurper, someone who cared about his country. But, thus far, no real altruist had shown up. No one, that is, until a young captain unexpectedly came calling at my pavilion.
One morning, my aides – jailers, really – put me on notice that another delegation was calling on me. “Let them in,” I said blandly. It wasn’t that I cared to meet even more petty intriguers, but I had a role to play to everyone’s satisfaction.
The new visiting party having been admitted, I beheld up front a fair-eyed youth amid the graybeards and senior warriors. He didn’t fit in that company and I wondered if he were here due to some sort of high rank. As the youth’s eyes met mine, I froze. This was no princely boy! It was my own teenage stepdaughter. What shocked me to the quick was that she had seemingly grown into young womanhood after the passage of only a few months.
What was going on here?
“Arielle!” I said bemusedly.
TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 3, part 2