Part 3

by Shane (

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    This story is posted for the exclusive enjoyment of readers of the Nifty Archive. While you are free to make a personal copy, no copy of this manuscript may be published, copied, posted to another web site, or otherwise disseminated without express permission from the author, who retains copyright.

    The contents of this story are fictional. Any resemblance of characters to persons living or deceased is strictly coincidental. Certain characters engage in sexual acts which may or may not be legal in the state or country in which a reader may reside. Any reader with objections to graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between males who may or may not have reached the legal age of consent, or whose local, regional, state or national jurisprudence prohibits such descriptions, should not read further.

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    A pale dawn forced its way through a sky that hung heavy with pregnant clouds. The fierce rains from the previous night had leveled off, but that low-hanging ceiling of gray promised yet more heavenly tears to anoint the damply glistening stone of Vel Tama. Indeed, an occasional cloud could no longer seem to bear its weight in water, and would release a light, brief shower here and there, all while the air misted in wet, rolling patches of fog throughout the four islands of the city.

    The southeast of the nation of Velledore was marked by gently rolling, fertile plains through which coursed the mighty Tamadyn River. In the middle of these plains rose a series of low, rocky hills that the Tamadyn had seen fit to cut through ages ago in its rush to empty into the Sea of Miowa some sixty leagues to the east. Right where these rocky hills thrust up, another river—the smaller, less forceful Loryus—flowed into and was swept away by the deep and swift Tamadyn. Although the meeting of the two rivers had carved away much of these hills, four large and rocky ones had proven too resilient to give way to those rushing waters. The result was a group of four islands clustered together amid the swirling waters of the gentle Loryus and the unforgiving Tamadyn.

    These four islands had always been the heart and soul of Vel Tama, although the city had eventually grown, and grown again, until more of its people lived in the New City on the shore across the Loryus rather than in the Old City of the actual islands themselves. But the largest island, called Tama, home to the original Citadel, was the political and commercial center of the city. The second island, called Velleya, home to the Eight Temples, was its religious center. Like lovers about to embrace, these two large islands thrust up against each other, almost touching at points, and were connected by three, wide bridges.

    In the center of each of these two most important of islands was a huge plaza, each a twin of the other, each in the shape of an eye. A major thoroughfare connected these two eye-shaped plazas—White Street—a wide avenue laid with broad, even paving stones and a tree-lined meridian, although the trees were bare this time of year. If one stood at a strategic point on White Street midway between the two plazas, one could see the tops of the mighty stone sculptures that dominated the center of each plaza. During the spring and summer, when thick foliage offered protection from the easily vexed city patrol, impetuous boys and girls were known to scamper up to the tops of the trees at that strategic midpoint, so they could gaze in awe on those representations of two of the most powerful women in Velledore’s history.

    In the center of the Velleya Plaza, also called the White Plaza, stood Velya the Good Mother. Wearing a simple robe and a benign, peaceful expression on her noble face, the White Lady carried in one hand the heavens and in the other the earth. She looked out across her domain of Velledore, her White Temple behind her and smaller statues of her Seven Daughters arrayed around the edges of the plaza, each Daughter in front of her own temple.

    In the center of the Tama Plaza, also called the Queen’s Plaza, stood Haelhya Soronerys, legendary founder of Velledore. Called Haelhya the Warrior, she wore a rich robe flowing over her armor. She stood nobly in the misting dawn, hand resting on the pommel of the greatsword at her side. Her other hand was outstretched in front of her, and in it rested a glowing diamond, the Light of Velya, which legend stated the White Lady had given to Haelhya as a divine sign to go forth and conquer. The Diamond Crown of Velledore rested on Haelhya’s brow, which bowed slightly in deference to the Good Mother.

    Near that strategic midpoint on White Street was a large townhouse. Not quite a mansion, it was nevertheless spacious and well-appointed. Its balconies afforded very good views of both plazas and their statues, and those views were the reason the townhouse had been purchased. The woman who stood on that balcony had found it amusing that properties midway between the plazas were smaller and less expensive than those closer to the statues. In their rush to be closer to power, the foolish occupants of those rich mansions had missed out on a fine view.

    Well-born and vastly wealthy, she could certainly have purchased a more opulent residence, but the relative simplicity of her home in Vel Tama pleased her. And the views pleased her more, although she frowned slightly as she remembered the bit of difficulty she had to go through to obtain the view she was now enjoying.

    White Street was lined end-to-end with the fabulous and luxuriant residences of the extremely affluent. Originally, its mansions were the exclusive domain of the nobility, particularly the visiting nobility—like herself—who liked to keep a separate residence away from the Citadel. This was because, apart from the Citadel itself, there was no better address in Vel Tama than on White Street. Recently, however, some of the residences had been bought by rich merchants. The fine mansions on either side of her townhouse were still out of the range of a common merchant, but she had actually had to outbid a lowborn peasant to obtain her views! It had been quite distressing.

    In the end, she had gotten her way, although she had spent more than she had intended, especially for such a tiny hovel. There had been some small satisfaction in keeping the riffraff out of a good neighborhood, but she still needed to work out some way to destroy the livelihood of that uppity peasant who had dared bid against her. Her factor had sullenly informed her that the merchant had no idea she was bidding against a duchess, but that was of no import. The important thing was to keep the lowborn in their place. It was bad enough that these newly rich dullards were snapping up the properties along Queen Street, the second most desirable address in Vel Tama, but to have them move onto White Street was unacceptable. It had to stop somewhere!

    She took a deep, calming breath, and the chill of the air refreshed her. It was still not cold enough to snow, but at last this southern city was getting some bite to the air. She shook her head at the natives of Vel Tama who complained—complained!—that it was getting too cold. She wondered how they would handle one day in her high and beautiful home of Vel Eddya, which at this time of year would already be digging its way out from under at least four feet of snow.

    Thinking of her lovely, mountain home calmed her further, and she took in the view from her third-floor balcony once more. Seeing the two statues, it was as if she stood midway between the two powers she knew she needed to keep sight of. Being in the middle of the Citadel and the Temples gave her a sense of balance she sought to maintain as she moved forward with her plans.

    Already she had broken her fast this morning with a small group of nobles who she knew she had in her pocket. It grated somewhat to continue to have to wine and dine them after they had already declared their allegiance to her, but it was necessary. The boy brat did have a slightly better claim to the throne than she did, even if it was by the tiniest margin, and she needed to gather her support wherever she could. And when she did gather that support, she had to continually firm it up and keep it strong. It was exhausting, tedious work, but, again, quite necessary.

    Now she was to have tea with three very important nobles. Her sources of intelligence had informed her that these key three individuals, all high ladies of their respective houses—and one of them a duchess like herself—had shown some evidence of being leery of having another male king. That they had accepted her invitation confirmed this.

    She had to be careful, though. Oh, so careful! Having these powerful women behind her could start a domino effect of noble houses tipping her way, but one wrong word could send these proud women to the other side. She had to be on her best behavior. She steeled herself to put on her finest and most gracious face. If she played her cards right, then she, the Princess Klieda Samoryn, Duchess of Vel Eddya, Guardian of the Northern Heights, Overseer of the Vyassa Falls, and Baroness of the Tamyr Marches, would be the next Queen of Velledore.

    Looking down, she saw the first coach pull up. She noted the leopard sign of House Miyallin on the door, and knew that the Lady Seroya had arrived. Indeed, the coach door opened, and Seroya’s graying head stepped out. Underneath her voluminous fur cloak, she was primly dressed, as always, in a high-necked gown twenty years out of date. Klieda could barely keep herself from smiling. That ancient, feeble-minded creature should be her easiest catch.

    Klieda’s smile turned into a frown when she saw another graying head step out after Seroya. That second head belonged to the Lady Hellyn du Talliere. What was she doing arriving with Lady Seroya? True, du Talliere was one of Klieda’s invited guests, but she had not expected them to arrive together. Klieda pursed her lips. So, the hens were clucking their heads together while they pecked around the barnyard, were they? Klieda tried to read meaning in their arrival together, and could find none. It was known that Seroya and Hellyn were friends, although how they could get along, Klieda did not know. The only similarities they shared were their age, their widowhood, and their exalted status as the heads of powerful houses. Beyond that, they were as different as a crabapple and a tiger. Seroya Miyallin was a prim, overly religious wet blanket who dressed in absurd, outdated clothing of the most conservative cut. Hellyn du Talliere was a living scandal who wore the most fashionable dresses, no matter how disastrously they appeared on her sagging skin, and who gleefully paraded her latest, muscular plaything young enough to be her grandson!

    Klieda shook her head. Nobles were strange.

    But she couldn’t resist a small smile. The Lady Hellyn did have exquisite taste in her boys. It was almost too bad that she hadn’t brought one of them for Klieda to admire. Klieda shook her head to clear her thoughts. She knew she didn’t need a distraction like that right now!

    Klieda turned to go back inside and meet the two ladies. She hoped to have a little bit of conversation with them and gain some glimmering of where they stood with the succession before her last—and most important—guest arrived. The Duchess of Vel Shroya was the third most powerful noble in the country, after the Queen and herself, and Klieda had been thrilled when the High Lady had accepted the invitation to tea. With the backing of the ruler of the most powerful duchy in the queendom—yes, Klieda was a realist who had to admit that the mighty seaport of Vel Shroya was richer and more powerful than her beloved Vel Eddya—then Klieda’s ascension to the throne was practically assured!

    Klieda caught a motion below from the corner of her eye and returned to the parapet. Down below, a stately coach drawn by a team of four, fine horses was pulling up. Klieda immediately recognized the sign of the kingfisher on the carriage door of that richly appointed, lacquered vehicle. Ah well, the Duchess had already arrived, and so Klieda wouldn’t have her private moment with the other two. The Duchess was right on time, however, a courtesy that pleased Klieda, for the Duchess of Vel Shroya was certainly a woman who could fearlessly keep anyone waiting, except the Queen.

    Klieda watched the footman open the carriage door. To her surprise, a long, muscular, and well-turned calf appeared, followed by the long, muscular, and overall well-turned form of an exceedingly handsome man.

    The Duchess had brought her husband the Duke-Consort! Klieda frowned. She had not invited the Duke-Consort, but to say anything would risk offending the Duchess, and Klieda could not afford that. So she prepared to swallow her pride. She would bend over backward to have the Duchess on her side!

    She took a deep breath. And anyway, she told herself, the Duke-Consort was an impossibly good-looking man. No wonder the Duchess liked to tow him around! If Klieda were married to such a delicious morsel, she would make sure she kept him in her sight at all times, if only to make sure other women—and men!—kept their paws off him. Yes, she told herself, everything would be all right. She looked down to catch sight of the Duchess.

    But wait! The carriage was pulling away and her houseman was leading the Duke-Consort into the townhouse. Klieda froze in shock.

    The Duchess hadn’t come! She had sent her husband in her stead!

    Klieda gripped her skirts fiercely, almost tearing them in her fury. The effrontery of that strumpet! That thrice-cursed sow! That fish-mongering, diseased little trull! Klieda felt her anger rise to a fever pitch. She wanted to shake that hussy until her teeth rattled! She wanted to smash that harlot’s head against a brick wall! She wanted to splatter boiling oil across that smirking whore’s face! She wanted to see that disgusting bitch scream in an endless litany of pain! She...

    Breathless, nearly gasping, Klieda realized she was only getting herself more worked up. She leaned forward and gripped the cold marble of the parapet, willing its iciness to spread into her blood.

    Her temper had always been her downfall. It was one of the main arguments against her. She knew there were many whispers that a woman prone to such rage was unfit to be Queen.

    Klieda forced herself to breathe deeply. She lay her cheek against the freezing marble to cool her rage. She stayed there for moment to get herself under control. Slowly, slowly, she felt the beating of her heart slow. The deep breaths came easier and she knew she was calm again.

    She had to prove them wrong. She had to show them that she was a woman fully possessed of herself—a woman who was in control.

    Now that she was thinking clearly, Klieda realized that the Duchess of Vel Shroya was testing her. The Duchess certainly knew that sending her husband in her stead without notice was an act of sheer effrontery. She was testing Klieda to see how she would react.

    Klieda’s eyes opened wide and she felt her heart beating quickly again. That little bitch sought to test her?

    Klieda clamped her eyes shut and thought of her beloved Vel Eddya, nestled in the foothills, sparkling like a jewel. She thought of the magnificent Vyassa Falls, cascading down in a mighty roar that drowned out her anger, washed away her rage. She breathed deep of the exhilarating mountain air...

    Once again under control, Klieda opened her eyes. Yes, it was obvious that she was being tested. Now that she thought about it, those two gray-haired little trollops were probably testing her, too, arriving together like that. Klieda wondered if this whole tea appointment was a test. What waited for her down in her drawing room?

    Well, there was no backing out of it now. Not that she would want to back out of it, now that she was under control. She prepared herself to act graciously and sympathetically, no matter the cost. Oh, the Duchess has developed a cough and was unable to attend at the last minute? I am so sorry she’s feeling unwell! But I am so pleased she has sent her noble consort to entertain with his witty conversation. Do you make yourself comfortable, Your Grace. She steeled herself to become the epitome of grace.

    And now that she had calmed herself, Klieda had to admit that she was thinking more clearly. She had been incredibly wise and lucky to stand up here and view her guests’ entrances. It had allowed herself to become prepared. She feared to think what would have happened if she had been sitting with the ladies and had the Duke-Consort storm in on her. She knew it would have been very ugly, which was exactly what the Duchess had intended to happen.

    Klieda decided to try to figure out how she could turn this near-disaster to her advantage. She could think of nothing except something vague having to do with the Duke-Consort’s stunning good looks. Maybe Hellyn du Talliere would be distracted by him. Sweet Mother! When a man looked as good as the Duke-Consort did, even a crone such as Seroya might be distracted.

    They would be expecting her by now, so she smoothed her dress, patted her hair, practiced a smile, and headed back inside.

    She was grace.

    She would do whatever was necessary to become Queen.

    But, in the back of her mind, she promised herself that, someday, somehow, the Duchess of Vel Shroya would pay.

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    The world shimmered in a soft, white glow, like looking outward from the inside of the purest pearl. In this womb of warm, sparkling pearlescence, occasional bursts of color appeared: a dash of blue or brown, a spot of yellow or black, a streak of red or green, and mysterious spirals of gray. Like the encompassing white glow, these bursts of color appeared lit from within, but they glowed brightly, turning the pearly white into a background upon which they danced.

    He watched them with a sense of wonderment and delight. He knew not what they were, but in the way the mind seeks to understand by comparing to that which it has seen before, he attached the label of lights to these strange and unearthly shining things around him. Some were slivery streaks, some were cascading showers, and they all shone with the luminescence of the divine: a black so deep it could only be called infinity, a red so strident all the world fell into line, a yellow so sensual it contained all the love in the cosmos, and more. Above it all arched that essence of pearly white that was not of any color, and at the same time contained them all. He felt tears come as he realized that this essence was beyond his mortal ken. Touched by the divine, it would remain in him forever, but he could never truly know it..

    Each color was the purest expression of itself, yet each one streaked and shimmered, merging with another then becoming one again. All of them moved and slid and oozed and zipped about him in an impossible, inhuman jumble, a jumble of which he was somehow part, drifting in the middle, buffeted by these divine winds.

    Yet, there was order in this chaos. Paying close attention, he thought he could catch the drifts of thoughts, pick up snippets of words. They weren’t words that could be heard. They certainly weren’t words that could be read. But they filled his mind:

    “Infinity awaits.” This from the Black that stretched forever.

    “Yet, need is great.” This from the Blue that gently cradled him.

    “Order requires it.” This from the Red that hemmed him in.

    The other lights danced about him but did not seem to be participating in the conversation. Then, an oozing, spiraling gray mist swirled about him.

    “Let’s play,” it seemed to say.

    And he saw everything. He saw all possibilities in one instant. He saw every choice he could ever make and what it would lead to. He saw his life as a thousand mirrors all shattering at the same instant, each crack a decision he had made, each tiny shard the result of that decision. He felt his mind shattering like those mirrors into a million pieces of insanity...

    Then the gray, glowing mist swept away and was replaced by a pulsating blue that was neither warm nor cold.

    “Need is great,” it said.

    All the glowing lights began to grow dim. His moment of insanity became like a bad dream poorly remembered, then forgotten. His whole memory of the magical, glowing lights faded away.

    But, in the background of his mind, he dimly heard laughter.

    Mikyl opened his eyes and saw blue. Bleary eyed, he focused and realized he was looking at a pair of blue eyes. He felt dazed and disoriented, and had a strange memory of laughter. He tried to shake his head, but the slightest movement felt like a sharp-edged saber rattling around in his head. He clenched his eyes and groaned.

    A warm, strong pair of callused hands gently cradled his head and held him still.

    “Shhh...” a familiar voice said. “Hold still, my friend. The worst part is over, but we need you to lay there quietly for a little while longer.”

    Mikyl followed the voice’s advice and stopped moving. He slowly opened his eyes once more. This time he was able to see that the pair of blue eyes not too far from his face belonged to a young woman whom he had never seen. Though beautiful, her eyes and face were expressionless, and she seemed to stare at him. Still disoriented, Mikyl quickly became uncomfortable in her gaze and looked around. He was rewarded by seeing the ruggedly handsome face of Vander, the source of the familiar voice. Vander gazed at him with concern and, Mikyl thought, with something more. Mikyl smiled wanly at him and Vander flashed a quick, tight grin in response.

    “Look at me,” a bright, musical voice commanded.

    Mikyl’s eyes snapped back to the beautiful woman, who once again regarded him without emotion. She leaned very close to his face and looked directly into his eyes, her brow crinkling ever so slightly, as if in concentration. She used her hands to feel all around his head, then gently poked and prodded him, particularly in certain spots on his arm, chest, gut and legs. Mikyl had had women fall all over him before, and even had some lay their hands all over him, but her touch was eerily impersonal, as if she were examining a bolt of cloth for imperfections in the fabric. She laid the warm blanket back over him, and he realized with dismay that he had been unclothed and was displaying his nakedness to her! Feeling his cheeks flush bright red, he seized the top of the blanket and pulled it down around him.

    But the petite woman had already turned away, completely dismissing him. Mikyl couldn’t decide whether to feel embarrassed or irritated.

    The woman spoke, “His wounds will heal well, although there will be some scarring. He must lie in bed for three whole days, with two, evenly spaced one-hour periods of light exercise each day to keep his muscles limber. He may gradually work up to his normal active regimen after that. He must eat—and eat well: five hearty meals a day for one week. He is forbidden to touch his sword until the end of that week.”

    She glanced at him sternly, and he marveled at her seemingly contradictory juxtaposition of sprightly beauty and emotionless demeanor. It hardly seemed possible that a beautiful woman with a voice like tinkling bells could look and act so coldly and speak so flatly. Mikyl had finally fully woken up, and he knew now, of course, that the woman was a Blue Healer. Inwardly, he shook his head. Only a Red Guard could be colder than a disciple of the Blue Sister. Even a Black Priest would show some pity, but a Child of the Blue could turn a spring day into winter.

    Mikyl looked up and took in everything around him. He was lying on a straw-filled pallet in a tiny, sparse room filled with himself, Vander, Kalder, Marian and the Blue Healer—and very little space left over. Straw was also spread across the rough, stone floor, but it smelled fresh and sweet. White-wash covered the unevenly laid brick, but the wash was new and bright. The single, small table and bench were rude, but sturdy and well-maintained. There was no window, but a single low doorway was covered by a clean, drawn curtain. He vaguely remembered something about a house being commandeered and suspected that this had been done, and he was now lying in a citizen’s bed. By his surroundings, the occupant was a person of little means, but proud and tidy nonetheless.

    Mikyl realized the Healer was still speaking, and focused on her words: “He must drink plenty of clean water, ten cups per day. And he may not touch brown water for one month!” At this, the Healer’s face became, if possible, even more stern.

    Mikyl knew he probably wouldn’t have a problem with that last command. “Brown water” was a common name for liquor and other intoxicating beverages, such as ale or wine, all of which he would have just as soon done without, anyway. Nobody seemed to know precisely what it was about those beverages that caused drunkenness—although they knew how to make them well enough! But the story went that the Brown Sister, goddess of greed that she was, had grown frustrated that the Good Mother had created so much and was just giving it all away—especially things like air and water. So, the Brown Girl took it upon herself to create her own air and water that people would be willing to pay for, and passed these secrets on to her disciples. Thus, pipe smoking and whisky were born.

    Marian spoke, “Can he walk or ride to the Guardhouse, now? We cannot stay in Citizen Challana’s abode indefinitely.”

    Mikyl looked up at that strong, stern woman with the bluff, plain face. Nearly as old as the Queen herself, Captain Marian should have become Commander after Kercham’s passing—not that toady du Balry!

    Marian’s question seemed to remind the Healer of something, for her eyebrows went up slightly and she kneeled to fish in her capacious bag of blue-dyed leather. “He may ride in a covered carriage to the Guardhouse, well-wrapt in warm blankets, but he certainly may not ride a horse or, worse, walk,” she said severely. She found what she had been looking for and stood up, holding a package wrapped in oilcloth, which she held forward. “He is already going to have to fight a severe head cold. I sense that chaotic vapors have already used the weakness from his wounds to invade his body. I forbid him further exposure to the wet and cold until he has lain three solid days in a warm bed!”

    Marian accepted the package with a grimace. She flicked her eyes to Kalder, who nodded and ducked through the curtained doorway, most likely to summon a carriage.

    Eyeing the package, the Healer continued, “This contains specially prepared tea bags. He must drink this tea five times a day for the next two days. After each bag is done steeping, he must lay it aside his nose for one hour, one bag on one side and the next on the other, until all the bags are used. This should expel the evil vapors, stop the head cold, and allow him to rest.” She glared sternly at all in the room, “And rest he must!”

    Marian said, soothingly, “And rest he will, Child of the Blue. You have my assurance that your instructions will be well obeyed. Furthermore, the Queen and her Guard thank you and the Blue Daughter for your timely assistance, without which our dear brother would have passed to the final embrace.”

    Mikyl felt an involuntary shudder at those words. Pass to the final embrace? He had not paused to think about why they were there in this room, but it seemed it was all because of him and his adventure with those black-clad murderers. Remembering that dark episode from such a short time ago gave him further pause. The assassins! What had become of them? Looking about, it was obvious that they, or at least their bodies, were not present, and he hesitated to speak of it in front of the Healer.

    Appearing somewhat mollified by Marian’s reassuring words, the Healer nodded and bent to gather up her herbs and implements. To his shock, Mikyl saw needle and thread—and scissors!—among those implements. Furtively, he felt around under the blanket to see where he had been stitched up.

    “A final boon, Child of the Blue,” Marian said in a tone of hopeful deference.

    The slight woman did not pause as she packed away her herbs. “Shaya does not grant favors. She listens only to the need of Her children.”

    Marian forced herself not to grimace, and said as ingratiatingly as her character allowed, “Yet our need is great. Dark assassins stalk the very streets of blessed Vel Tama—blessed itself by the Eight. Lurking ears seek out secrets to undo us. Our brother lies wounded, yet he would have passed to the final embrace if not for the blessing of the Blue Daughter and the miracle of your art. We must await our transport, and would speak among one another in this place. But here, the walls are thin and the enemy may lie without. We crave a silent warding, for only a short while, to protect our secrets—to protect the Children of the Daughters. We beg of you to speak our need to your Mistress, that we may have this warding.”

    Mikyl was impressed with Marian’s flowery speech. Usually, the captain was brutally blunt; it spoke of another facet of her character previously unknown to him. Since he had been elevated to First Sword—was it really only a month ago?—he had begun to gain small insights into the circles of power in which the officers of the Queensguard moved. This was the first time he had seen dealings with a priest, and he paid close attention.

    The Blue Healer had stopped her packing and seemed to be regarding Marian calmly. Mikyl realized after a moment that she was in fact looking at nothing at all: her eyes had taken on a peculiar, distant quality. After several seconds of silence, her eyes snapped back into focus and she looked at each person in the room. Mikyl couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to him that her eyes lingered on him for just a hair of a moment longer than on the others.

    “It will be so,” she said, simply.

    She reached into her bag and withdrew a tiny velvet pouch with a silken drawstring, the pouch nestling in her palm like a dark jewel. The velvet and string were both blue, of course.

    She held the bag forward, “Within lies a crystal blessed by Shaya. When need is true, clasp the crystal to your heart, and speak Her name.”

    Mikyl watched Marian, who seemed to appear slightly puzzled. After a moment’s hesitation, she said, “The Blue Daughter is generous beyond all measure, Child. On behalf of Her Majesty, Queen Koryma, second of that name, and Blessed by the Good Mother and Her Seven Daughters, we of the Royal Queensguard thank you.”

    Marian reached forward to accept the pouch.

    The Healer wrapped her hand around the pouch and looked coldly at Marian. “It is not for you,” she said. She pointed to Mikyl, “It is for him.”

    To Mikyl’s dismay, every head in the room swiveled to him.

    Mikyl goggled. “Me?” he said.

    The seemingly small, delicate woman leveled the full weight of her imperious stare upon him. “Shaya blesses thee once, and twice, boy.” She held the pouch toward him.

    Under his breath, Vander muttered urgently, “Take it!”

    From his recumbent position, Mikyl reached hesitantly for that darkly shining pouch, and the Blue Healer gave it to him. It felt very warm in his hand and seemed too heavy for its size, being barely bigger than his thumb. He realized as he held it that it was not velvet, but a supple suede. He looked at the Healer in confusion.

    “When need is true, clasp it to your heart, and speak Her name,” was all she said.

    The Blue Priest picked up her bag and went to the doorway. Vander rushed over to push aside the curtain for her. “Shaya’s blessing on you,” she said, perfunctorily, and walked through the doorway. Vander held the curtain open a moment and Mikyl caught a narrow glance of another room beyond the doorway. He saw a small head peek through the opening, a child’s head with a wide, curious face, then Vander pulled the curtain closed.

    “She has left,” Vander said.

    Marian looked thoughtfully at the closed curtain, then rounded on Mikyl.

    “Well?” she said.

    Mikyl immediately thought she was going to ask about the pouch he held in his hand and began to formulate his declaration of innocence in the matter, but instead she finished with, “How are you feeling?”

    Backpedaling on his thoughts, Mikyl blurted out the first thing that came to his mind.

    “Tired,” he said.

    Vander chuckled and looked knowingly at Marian, who said, “Hungry, too, I expect. Healing will do that to a person. You do know, of course, that you will be following all of the Blue Child’s instructions? I know how young bucks like you can be, and I would be most displeased to find that you had a relapse.”

    Mikyl nodded quickly, then remembered he was talking to his commanding officer. “Yes, sir,” he said with as much confidence as he could muster.

    “Glad to hear it, soldier,” Marian answered. She looked down at the package of tea bags in her hand, seeming to realize just now that she still held it. She thrust it into Vander’s hands, who accepted it without comment. She continued, “It seemed a near thing there, for a while. The ice princess apparently decided to live up to her clan’s reputation, however, and pulled you back from the Black Sister’s doorstep. A good thing, too, since I need you to tell me all about those assassins who attacked you last night.”

    Mikyl’s mind reeled with the unexpected tack of Marian’s conversation. He had been fixated on the crystal he held in his hand, but she had not even mentioned it! Did she think it unimportant?

      As if she were reading his mind, Marian said, “But first, I would like to examine the Blue Daughter’s second blessing. Take it out of the pouch and hold it up for me.”

    Mikyl did so, and they all stared in awe at the sparkling sapphire in the palm of his hand. Cut in the shape of a three-sided pyramid, it gleamed with an inner blue light. It seemed more jewel than crystal, as if it should be dangling from a gold chain around the neck of a noblewoman—nay, the Queen herself!—rather than resting in the callused palm of a guardsman. Looking into it, Mikyl thought he detected a pearly quality to the blue sparkles. There seemed to be shimmers of other colors slipping around in the depths of that shining jewel. They seemed familiar, somehow, but Mikyl could not place it.

    Suddenly, he felt lightheaded and dizzy and slumped back on the pallet, his hand closing around the crystal and falling to his chest. Marian and Vander looked on in concern, especially Vander, who cupped Mikyl’s head in his hands.

    “Ah!” Marian said. “And to think I would have been happy with a quickly muttered spell to deflect prying ears. Instead, we get this!” She looked at Mikyl’s wan face. “But we must get some food in you. Where is Kalder and his carriage?”

    Now that he wasn’t looking into the depths of the crystal, Mikyl felt the dizziness pass. “No, I’m fine, sir,” he said. “I am hungry, and tired, but I’ll be all right until we get back to the Guardhouse.”

    Marian nodded approvingly. “Good man,” she said. “Well, perhaps, we’ll give that crystal a go while we wait, eh?”

    Before Mikyl could answer, a clap sounded outside the curtain.

    “Come!” Marian barked.

    The curtain opened and Eddar came in, his face grim. He looked toward Mikyl, and, seeing that the young guardsman was alive and awake, the grimness of his face lessened. He saluted Marian.

    “It lifts my heart to see that First Sword Mikyl has lived through the rigors of the night, Captain, but I returned forthwith to share ill news,” he began.

    Marian raised a hand and nodded to the curtained doorway as she said, “I am, as always, pleased to see you, Lieutenant-Captain, whatever news you bring, but the Queensguard has been blessed by the Blue, and soon you may give your full report with an assurance of secrecy.” She looked down at Mikyl and said, “Continue, First Sword.”

    Eddar appeared surprised, and, upon seeing the blue crystal, appeared doubly surprised, but he remained silent and looked on expectantly.

    With everyone looking at him as he lay on the pallet, Mikyl felt nervous. He was surrounded by three top-ranking officers of the Queensguard, including the legendary Captain Marian du Malvey herself, and had only a rough woolen blanket between them and his nakedness. Fighting a ridiculous urge to stand and salute, he recalled the words of the Healer: When need is true, clasp it to your heart, and speak Her name.

    When need is true? What did that mean? Did it mean he had to think about their need for secrecy? Was it a true need? He looked up at Marian’s stern face and suddenly had no doubt. If Marian said it was needed, then it was, and that was the end of the matter! But that was not even the worst part. He gulped. Speak Her name? Unbidden, his mother’s words at his boyhood bedside came to his mind: Speak the Blue? That will never do! It was part of a child’s rhyme to teach good children never to say the names of the Eight. It ended with, Speak the Black? You’ll never come back! Except on very special occasions, only clergy could say the names of the goddesses, and Mikyl knew he was no clergyman.

    Marian’s face softened slightly. “I know how you feel, Mikyl. But we have—or I should say—you have a special dispensation from a Child of the Blue to speak the Blue Daughter’s name to activate the power of Her Gift. Now, I want you to clasp the crystal to your heart... That’s right. Now, think about our need for secrecy—no one outside this room will hear us. Got it? Good. Now—say Her name!”

    “Shaya!” Mikyl said, somewhere between a whisper and a croak.

    As he said it, Mikyl thought he felt... a pulsing? A surging? Something seemed to emanate from the crystal he held against his heart. He could not see it, and as soon as he thought he sensed it... it was gone. He looked up at the officers. “I thought I felt...” he began. But he did not know what he had felt, and his words trailed off.

    Marian nodded in satisfaction. “Well done, soldier,” she said. “Now, we may speak in earnest! Eddar, report!”

    With one last curious glance at Mikyl, Eddar reached into his scrip and took out a small, metal box that gleamed dully in the candlelight. “As you instructed, I had the corpses of the assassins gathered and transported to a Black Temple. There, the priests of the Black Sister searched the bodies and found these.”

    He still wore his riding gloves and handled the box gingerly—Mikyl would have said with distaste. Mikyl now could see octograms and other Black symbols inscribed in the box’s gray-black metal, which was most likely lead. Mikyl had only seen these types of boxes a few times before, and never so small. It was a ceremonial container that Black Priests used to store items of questionable intent found on the deceased, particularly on the deceased who had led questionable lives. Usually, items deemed necessary to go in these boxes were clear evidence of the deceased’s evil intentions or activities, such as weapons used to murder the innocent, documents proving involvement in nefarious activities, and the like. The Black Daughter was the First Judge of the Dead, but Her priests prepared the evidence that She would see. Evidence of a life well-lived would be stored in gleaming bowls of polished onyx, strewn with the petals of fragrant flowers and anointed by precious oils, so that the First Judge would smile on the dearly departed and allow them to continue on their journey to the Final Embrace of the Good Mother. Evidence requiring storage in those lead boxes usually meant the First Judge would damn the soul to an eternity of pain in the fiery depths of hell.

    The boxes could only be handled by Priests of the Black, or so Mikyl thought. He fingered the crystal he still held in his hand. It seemed other clergies besides the Blue were giving special dispensations today.

    Eddar spoke as he opened the hinged lid, “Obviously, the Priests want their box back, but they have agreed to keep things quiet for now.”

    The interior of the box was lined with rich, black velvet. Resting on that fine material were three necklaces of intricately wrought gold. Attached to each necklace was a small bone. Vander’s eyes narrowed, Marian’s lips tightened, and Eddar stared at them in open disgust. Mikyl looked on in puzzlement.

    “Pashdin,” Vander muttered.

    “There is more,” Eddar said. “There have been other bodies delivered to the Black Temples. Four of the bodies were more of the black-clad fiends.” He paused, his lips tightening. “One of the bodies was Second Sword Davyros.”

    Shocked silence met this statement, their faces registering horrified dismay. Davyros! Mikyl thought. It can’t be!

    Davyros and Mikyl had joined the Guard at the same time. They had mostly been friends, sometimes lovers and always competitors. Despite his competitive nature, Davyros had been the first to salute when Mikyl was raised to First Sword.

    Eddar still had more to say, “Davyros killed two of the assassins before they overcame him. I have also learned that Lieutenant Camylla was attacked as well, although she survived. The Black Priests were buzzing in their robes. I fear this is only the beginning of more dark tidings.”

    “What evil is this?” Vander cried. “Do you know if anyone besides a Queen’s Guardsman was attacked?”

    Eddar shook his head, “I only learned of the attacks on Camylla and Davyros, and, of course, Mikyl.” He glanced at the box he yet held in his hands. “As soon as I discovered the Pashdin sigils, I returned here to report.”

    “And well you did,” Marian said. “Why would the Pashdin fanatics be attacking the Queensguard, I wonder. I do not know if I can bear another mystery stacked atop the pile we have gathered since the heir was slain.”

    Vander and Eddar murmured their assent while Mikyl’s mind spun. His attackers were Pashdin Heretics! He recalled his rather dry classes back at the palace. The Queensguard develops young minds as well as young sword arms, the Queen liked to say. Mikyl had never read a word in his life before being placed in the ruthlessly accelerated learning environment of the Queensguard Academy, but now he remembered his lessons on the religions of the continent. At the time he had been shocked to learn that the Good Mother and Her Seven Daughters were not worshipped uniformly across the twelve lands, especially in the south. Even here in Velledore there were two main variations on the worship of the Eight. Called the Heresies, one of these had caused a bloody civil war over a hundred years ago—and that one was a stroll along the river bank compared to the evil Pashdin Heresy. The Pashdins believed that the Black Daughter was the true supreme entity who had been usurped by the Good Mother in an ancient battle eons ago. They called her the Black Mother and sought to reestablish her rule in heaven and earth, usually by performing the most evil of deeds.

    The Pashdins were small in number, however, and furthermore were divided up into opposing clans and societies, all competing among themselves for supremacy. As such, they had never been a real threat, mostly killing themselves in their endless internecine warfare and rarely bothering the outside world. They believed that bones, especially human ones, were the favored symbol of their Black Mother. Each clan or society had a special bone that was its unique symbol and was used as identification. The largest and most troublesome society—Mikyl struggled to remember its name—was supposedly based in Velledore’s chief port city of Vel Shroya on the Miowa Sea. That clan used some finger bone or another as its symbol. Mikyl looked at the bones in the lead box. Were those finger bones?

    Eddar cleared his throat and said, “I’m afraid I must share news that imparts greater mystery yet. The Black Priests discovered these on the bodies of the assassins who attacked Mikyl and explained where the bones came from and their significance.” He pointed to two of the necklaces. “These two bones are from the second joint of an adult male’s thumb. As you probably know, this marks the Shroka Cult from Vel Shroya.” He pointed to the remaining necklace and its slightly smaller bone. “And this is the third joint of a child’s small finger. This cult calls itself the Gi’Thuzza and is based somewhere in the west of Howonda.”

    Mikyl shuddered. A child! Who would murder a child? Mikyl looked at Marian and Vander and saw shocked understanding dawn across their faces.

    “Sweet Daughter protect us,” Marian said.

    “They have united,” Vander whispered.

    “Yes,” Eddar said. “Based on this scant evidence, it appears the Pashdin Cults have united. Furthermore, they have united in an effort to kill the members of the Queensguard. I know not why, or what it could mean, but it fills my heart with foreboding.”

    Marian gripped Eddar’s shoulder, “And mine also. But now is a time for planning and action. Our slinking about in Vel Tama is ended. We have gathered as much information as we could—and that game of politics looks bad enough—but this news of the Pashdin cannot wait another hour. Vander! Eddar! Gather your men and meet one mile from the Samoryn Gate. I must await Kalder to give him instructions and then will join you there, no later than noon. Today, we officially return to Vel Tama. We shall see how the city will greet us!”

    Vander and Eddar saluted. “Speed your recovery, First Sword,” Eddar said. “I feel a time of trials descending on us.” He turned and ducked through the curtained doorway.

    Vander knelt down beside Mikyl and clasped the young man’s hand. “Be you well,” He said, softly. “I will return.” He brushed Mikyl’s cheek with a finger, then stood and saluted Marian once more. Then he was gone.

    Marian sighed and sat down on the bench. She regarded the solemn-faced youth for a moment. “A time of trials, indeed,” she said. “A night and morning of trials for you, my friend. If not for your battle cry last night, we would not have come. Indeed, it was Vander who insisted that he had heard something and went dashing off. It must have been a most impressive performance, First Sword. You took down all three of the Pashdin Assassins by your own blade...”

    “But...” Mikyl interrupted. “But, sir! I only took two—and they had wounded me grievously. I wasn’t good enough! I knelt like a prisoner for the third to take me!”

    Marian raised her hand and Mikyl fell silent. “‘Not good enough’ has always been my personal motto,” she said, “and I’m pleased to see that you have adopted it for yourself. However, that motto is only useful when it is used to improve oneself—not as an excuse to wallow in self-pity. Could you have been better? As I wasn’t there, I couldn’t say. But, you were apparently good enough to deliver them all mortal wounds— yes, even the third one was dead from your blow even if he hadn’t known it yet. Vander’s knife was simply the final argument to convince him. You were also apparently good enough to survive the whole affair. Mind you, you had a knife protruding from your chest and your entrails were thinking about sneaking out and catching some night air! I am, quite frankly, amazed that you’re still here, so don’t be quite so hard on yourself.

     “Besides which, you most assuredly would not be here if they had been real Pashdin Assassins...”

    Mikyl gasped in indignation, effectively interrupting her. He sat up straight, or tried to, and groaned. “Not real assassins!” he sputtered. “But you just said they were! Their bone sigils prove them to be assassins...”

    The warning look on her face caused him to trail off, although he added a final, lame, “Sir.”

    “Now,” she said, “As I was saying, it’s a good thing they weren’t real Pashdin Assassins,” she looked meaningfully at Mikyl, “because you would be dead.” She paused, as if waiting for another outburst from him. When none came, she nodded and continued, “You would be dead because real Pashdins almost always coat their weapons with poison—one scratch can cause death. And by ‘real Pashdins’ I mean those assassins from the city of Pashdi far to the southeast of Velledore, on the other side of the Miowa Sea.”

    Mikyl finally nodded his head in understanding. “The birthplace of the Heresy,” he said.

    “And the center of its worship,” she finished. “I assure you that the antics of Velledore’s little homegrown Pashdin cults are child’s play compared to the atrocities real Pashdins have been known to commit. Let us pray that the dark deeds we have learned of today do not have their point of origination from across the Miowa Sea.”

    Mikyl could only nod his head.

    Marian gave him a narrow glance, and said, “Now, as to your... second blessing.”

    Mikyl looked up. “Yes, sir?” he said.

    “Do you know anything about Divine Crystals?”

    Mikyl hesitated in answering. He had certainly heard of them, and he figured he knew as much as any commoner, which probably wasn’t very much. He couldn’t recall them being mentioned in any lessons at the Queensguard Academy. He knew each goddess had her sacred symbol based on her Divine Number. The Good Mother was One, and her symbol was the circle. The Yellow Daughter was Two, and her symbol was a pair of wavy lines. The Blue Daughter was Three, and her symbol was the triangle. And so on.

    Acolytes created crystals according to each goddess’s symbol, a sphere for the Good Mother, a three-sided pyramid for the Blue daughter, a five-sided pentahedron for the Brown Daughter. Then, in some special ceremony, the power of the goddess was imbued into her Divine Crystal.

    As far as Mikyl knew, the crystals were for the exclusive use of the clergies, although he did not know what use that might be. He had absolutely no idea why the Blue Daughter would have given him such an important, divinely blessed object.

    Mikyl said as much, and Marian nodded her head. “It is not quite true,” she said, “that the crystals are used only by their clergymen. These divine gifts have been granted to special people from time to time in history, and it appears the Eight have decided you are one of those special people.” She paused, thoughtfully.

    “That is to say,” she continued, “at least the Blue Daughter has decided you are special. Tell me, did you dream just before you awoke in this room?”

    The question caught Mikyl by surprise. He wanted to say he had not, but he had a strange feeling he had dreamt of something. He had a memory of a pulsing, or shining, something full of...

    A wave of dizziness swept over him and he slumped on the pallet, hands on his head and nearly dropping the crystal.

    Marian was beside him instantly. “There, there,” she said, smoothing his brow. “Don’t think about your dream. Just look at me—there you go. Don’t worry, we’ll have some food and water in you soon.”

    Listening to her words, Mikyl felt the dizziness pass, and he sat up again, clutching the blanket around him. “May I dress myself, sir?” he asked.

    “Of course,” she said, and politely turned the other way. “Your clothing, such as it is, lies next to the bench. I’m afraid it’s a bit roughed up, but it will have to do.” She continued talking as he dressed behind her. “I can see that now is not a good time to prod you. We will discuss your gift after you’ve had some rest. In the meantime, I want you to consider it In the Queen’s Bosom. You may tell Kalder, but that is all. Do you understand?”

    “Yes, sir.” Mikyl did understand. In the Bosom of the Queen signified vitally important information that must be kept secret at all costs for the good of the Queen and her nation.

    “For the time being,” Marian said, “know that this is a special thing you have. I believe the last person to have been granted a Divine Crystal was Queen Amyla the Great 150 years ago. Additionally, you have a Blue Crystal. The Priest said, ‘When need is true.’ I’m not sure what that means myself, but the Blue Daughter does not look favorably upon frivolity. For now, you should avoid using it until I can find out more about this.”

    “Yes, sir. I am ready,” Mikyl said, and Marian turned around. Everything she had said had made sense to Mikyl and he would gladly keep it a secret. Except...

    “Sir,” he said. “What about the Commander?”

    Marian gave him a level look, “I would not presume to order you to lie to the Commander or deny him information, should he ask for it.”

    Mikyl believed he knew what the Captain was talking about. What the Commander didn’t know he couldn’t ask about.

    “Yes, sir. I understand.”

    A clap sounded.

    “At last! Come!” Marian said.

    Kalder entered the tiny room, immediately taking everything in with his cool, blue eyes. His face remained, of course, expressionless, but Mikyl knew him well enough to know that the man was at least slightly surprised with the absence of Vander and Eddar.

    “It’s quiet as a titmouse in here,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if anybody was there for a moment.”

    Marian smiled, “The Blue Daughter has blessed us in surprising ways, which the First Sword here can tell you all about on your way back to the Guardhouse. We have new information and our plans have changed. Listen carefully.”

    Marian detailed everything she wanted Kalder to do and to think about. When she had finished, she had Mikyl put the crystal back in its pouch, which she believed was the way to interrupt its power—she called it ‘putting it back to sleep.’ She swept aside the curtain and stepped through, calling out, “Mistress Challana? We have finished.”

    Mikyl gathered up his gear and followed Kalder and Marian into the adjoining room, where he saw a small, woman with a wide face bowing to the Captain. A worktable under the window held a heaping pile of sewing work and two small children had ceased their cavorting and stood regarding the soldiers with expressions of wide-eyed wonder.

    “...ah, it is my pleasure to have been of service to the noble Queensguard, your honor, ma’am,” the woman was saying. She turned and saw Mikyl, “And, I’m happy indeed to see the young sir up and about.” She took a step toward Mikyl peering into his face. “Although he do look a little pale, if you don’t mind my saying so, your honor, ma’am. There’s a lad who needs a bite to eat!”

    Before anybody could do or say anything she had retrieved a reasonably fresh winter apple and tossed it to Mikyl, who caught it nimbly. “Just a nibble to tide you over ’til you get back to your Guardhouse, young sir. ’Tis my pleasure to assist the noble Queensguard.” She nodded vigorously, “My pleasure, indeed.”

    Marian clasped Mistress Challana’s hand and discreetly deposited some clinking coins there. “And you have been a most gracious host, Mistress. If I could beg of you a small favor?”

    “Oh, yes! Yes, indeed! Anything to serve the noble Queensguard, your honor, ma’am!” Challana interjected with shining eyes.

    Marian smiled on the woman. “If you would be so kind as to not mention our stay here for, say, two days?”

    “Just two days! Why, your honor, ma’am!” Challana made a silencing motion across her lips. “Mum’s the word!”

    Marian saluted the woman. “I thank you, citizen! Now, we must away!”

    Marian, Kalder and Mikyl exited the woman’s small rooms and stepped into the gray, misting dawn, followed by the joyful exclamations of the citizen as to the nobility and honor of the Queensguard.

    Marian smiled when she saw that Kalder had brought her mount. She looked at the two men, and said, “Remember what I have said!”

    Mikyl and Kalder saluted her as they said, “Yes, sir!”

    Marian mounted her horse and stepped away at a quick trot.

    Mikyl looked over his shoulder at the door from which they had just exited. “How long,” he asked, “do you think the good citizen will keep mum?”

    Kalder answered, “I’ll give her two hours. This, in fact, is all the time Marian needs, something of which the Captain was of course aware when she made her request.”

    Mikyl nodded his head. The carriage stood in front of them, a small, unadorned affair with a single horse. Mikyl had but taken a step forward when his stomach grumbled loudly. Then, the events of the previous eight hours decided at that moment to catch up with him, and he stumbled.

    Kalder immediately stepped beside him and helped him into the carriage, with a promise that Mikyl would get plenty of food and rest soon, exactly as the Blue Healer had ordered. Mikyl adjusted his blade as he sat in the carriage.

    “Better not grow too fond of that,” Kalder said as he stepped forward to remove the hobble from the horse.

    “What are you talking about?” Mikyl asked. But as soon as the question was out of his mouth, her recalled the words of the Healer.

    Kalder answered anyway, “Because you won’t be touching it for a week!”

    Mikyl groaned and his stomach chose that moment to grumble again. He feared it was going to be a long week.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The end of Part 3. To be continued in Part 4

Author’s Note: I realize sex is conspicuously absent from this part, but it didn’t flow naturally into the story line. I also realized that I needed to get the plot moving along if there is to be any hope of finishing the story. I ask you to fear not, however. There will be more sex, but only when it makes sense. I’ve had some indication that readers are groovy with this concept, but please let me know if things start getting too tedious. This is the first story I’ve ever attempted to write, and comments and suggestions are appreciated. –  Shane (