Chapter 1: Shopping
Entrow had been grinning hard enough to split his cheek muscles for days now. Ever since word came down from the palace that King Jaida had placed his clothier on the royal tour. The Maoh and his entourage would come to his shop. He would be the first clothing merchant to display his wares. If he impressed the Demon King, perhaps sold him or one of this people a suit or gown, and they wore it to the banquet, it could mean priority, possibly exclusive, trade contracts, a definite upsurge in business from Aeriemille nobility. His future would be paved in gold!
So he'd spent the last two weeks driving his apprentices and journeymen into the wee hours until every rack and dress dummy sported the very best he had to offer. Everyone else was home getting much needed sleep but he couldn't resist one final inspection and a few tweaks.
He was busy restitching a strand of seed pearls to the shoulder of a cream lace blouse when a cold shudder crawled up his spine. Entrow looked up to find himself encircled by three men wearing floor-length black capes with deep hoods that masked their features in shadow. How had they gotten in? He'd locked the doors himself.
"Is…. Is there something I can help you gentlemen with?"
"Yes, Master Entrow," the shortest one said.
The clothier could just make out the icy smile in the dark cavern of the hood. The sight sent his stomach plummeting to his feet…
"We'd like to borrow your shop."
… and the rest of him followed into darkness.
Wolfram walked beside Yuuri, making sure the enthusiastic citizens of Aeriemille didn't get too close. He had to admit that King Jaida's troups meshed well with theirs and were doing an excellent job of maintaining a safe zone around the royal party.
On Yuuri's other side, King Jaida happily explained what each shop they passed sold, which she personally favored, and which offered products that the people of Shin Makoku might be interested in as trade goods.
Unlike far too many rulers of his acquaintance, Jaida was sensible. Instead of the finery meant to impress or domineer that others had chosen in the past when giving them a tour of their capitals, she wore practical knee-high boots, breeches and a tunic all of serviceable materials and colors. Only the simple coronet she wore evidenced her status. Her long russet hair hung in a single braid that reached past the small of her back. No doubt tomorrow her dressers would spend hours transforming their king into something more elegant, but for now she was relaxed and enjoying the day with them.
Wolfram found himself liking Jaida more the longer he was in her company, starting with their initial meeting. Seeing how nervous his fiancé was, struggling to remember the formal greeting Gunter and Gwendal had tried to drill into him for the moment, she'd smiled brightly at Yuuri, reached out, and took his hands in hers.
"Welcome, Majesty, to Aeriemille. I'm sure you and your people must be exhausted. Let's set aside the formalities until tomorrow. You rooms are ready, hot baths waiting. When you're refreshed, and if you're willing, I will give you a tour of my capital. We'll get to know each other a bit before protocol ties us into knots."
And her eyes and smile had included him. Most of the other monarchs meeting the Demon King tired to delegate his position to guardsman. Not surprising. They had candidates of their own for consideration as mate to the Maoh. To them, he was an inconvenience at best, and obstacle to be rid of by any means at the worst.
Wolfram appreciated how Jaida made sure he was part of her conversation with Yuuri. Pointing out shops she thought he might be interested in, asking for his take on the topics they were discussing.
Most of all, he noticed that Yuuri was… Yuuri with her. Over the years, his wimp had become more aware of ulterior motives behind the smiles of the dignitaries he had to deal with. Not to the point where he could play the game on his own yet, but enough to be miserable over the innuendos sent his way and the sly insults aimed at his fiancé.
Yuuri was truly enjoying King Jaida's company, and because of that, so was he. Wolfram sincerely hoped that the talks would work out between their nations. Yuuri could use more close friends of his own rank.
Feeling watched, Wolfram blinked out of his thoughts to see Yuuri's black-black eyes peering into his own. The Maoh's lips rose into a smirk when he realized he had Wolfram's attention.
"Earth to Wolfram."
"Never mind, I'll explain it later. Jaida says this is her favorite clothing shop. I want to see if I can find a gift for Greta here. She's growing up so fast."
One of her guardsmen opened the door for them and Jaida led the way inside. "Oh, I'm sure you'll find something to suit your daughter. Master Entrow is the best clothier in the kingdom. His designs have filled my wardrobe since I was old enough to choose my own clothes. I'll be wearing one of his creations at tomorrow night's reception. Entrow!"
"My King! I welcome you and your guests to my shop." The short, slightly rounded man gave a courtly bow, exposing the bald spot crowning his gray head. "Please, look around. Ask any question that comes to your mind. I and my apprentices are at your service."
Yuuri gave the man his trademark smile, the one that said you were his new best friend. "I'm looking for a gift for my daughter. She's twelve, about this tall but growing fast. It should be a grownup dress. But not too grown up…"
Wolfram tuned out the conversation and wandered the shop, browsing the racks. When they'd first walked in, he'd felt as if he'd stepped into an explosion of cloth and color. But the more familiar he became with the set up, the more he appreciated the master clothier's madness. Once in his lair, a shopper couldn't help but take a closer look. And when the slightest sign of interest was displayed, one of the sales clerks, all of whom wore unadorned silver-gray suits that made them easy to spot amidst the riot of colors that made up the clothier's shop, was ready to assist in any way they could.
He was about to move on to the next stand of clothing when his eye caught a deep green sleeve. Reaching for the attached hanger, he pulled out a velvet waistcoat. An incredibly realistic pattern of ivy stitched in ribbon and beadwork twined up the sleeves, across the shoulders, and around the Nehru collar to arrow down in a V over the chest.
"It suits your coloring, My Lord," Entrow commented, impressing Wolfram with his ability to keep track of multiple customers simultaneously.
Yuuri turned to him from the selection of gowns the master clothier had selected and grinned from ear to ear.
"Master Entrow is right, Wolf. It matches your eyes. Try it on. If you like it, it's yours. My treat. And I'll explain that later too."
Wolfram thought he should say no, but it was a very nice jacket. And Yuuri liked it. One of the salesclerks, a tall, reedy man with intense blue eyes, stepped forward and pointed to the back of the shop. "Alphonse, at your service, my Lord. Dressing rooms are through here, my Lord. If you will follow me?"
He didn't need more encouragement. The clerk led him through a maze of clothing racks and stands to a small room in the back that had been divided into three stalls with curtains for privacy. It smelled of fresh sawdust.
"This is a new idea of my Master's. He had it built for the Maoh's visit. Unfortunately, contractors being what they are and everyone having special projects they wanted completed for your visit, the workmen aren't quite finished yet." Alphonse took the coat from Wolfram and held open the curtain of the center stall. "I will serve as your valet. Let me know when you're ready to try it on."
Wolfram thanked him, stepped into the dressing stall and began to undo his uniform jacket, resisting the urge to snap at the man who, with a captive audience, continued his one-sided conversation in an overloud drone that could drive a saint to mayhem.
"In time, the curtains will be replaced with imported aromatic woods. Each stall will have three floor-to-ceiling mirrors to allow our customers to see the full effect of Master Entrow's creations, dress hooks for their own garb, and a bench for sitting when needed."
His attackers chose their moment with coordinated precision.
One grabbed him from behind, one massive hand clamping over his mouth and nose, the other twisting his jacket, effectively transforming it into shackles. The second emerged from the left booth to grapple his kicking legs before he got in a decent blow.
As Wolfram fought them, he caught glimpses of the beanpole clerk whose rambling monologue never faltered throughout the assault, masking any sounds he might have gotten past the suffocating hand. His face was empty, the eyes were glassy and unblinking. Spelled or drugged. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn't what was in front of him.
Then a third man stepped out of the right booth garbed in a dressing gown and wielding a long needle dripping with a sickly yellow ichor. The one behind him forced Wolfram's head back and his accomplice drove it into the exposed side of his neck.
In three heartbeats, Wolfram felt himself losing the ability to move or speak. No! He had to warn Yuuri! Desperate, he called fire, only to sense it surge then fizzle to nothing.
Panic rising, he intensified his struggles, but the two men holding him easily overcame his failing resistance. It wasn't long before he lay limp in their arms, fighting now just to remain conscious.
Two of his attackers wrestled him to the floor and began stripping him of down to his underwear, tossing his clothes to the smallest of them who immediately slipped out of the black robe he wore and proceeded to don them.
It didn't make sense. The man was his build, but with his dark skin, pale gray eyes, and brown hair, there was no way he could pass for Wolfram long enough to get close to Yuuri before the Maoh in him woke to defend him. The fire demon knew a moment of relief.
But it didn't last.
Smiling like a predator, the man in his clothes crouched beside him. He held his left hand in front of Wolfram's face. On his third finger, he wore a double ring. It was shaped like two intertwined serpents, one of yellow gold, the other of red gold. Exquisite in detail with layered scales and cabochon garnets for eyes. Wolfram would have admired the artistry of the jewelry, but even with his magic blocked, he felt the malevolence imbued in the bands.
The three men began a whispered chant in a language Wolfram didn't recognize as if with one voice. The sensation of evil coming off the ring intensified. And red cabochon eyes blinked at him, trapping his gaze.
Wolfram stared in horror as one of the other men raised left arm and laced their fingers together. Coiling and pulsing with the chanting, the serpents raised fanged heads. Frantic, Wolfran tried to pull his hand free, only managing a faint twitch that caused the spellcaster to arch an eyebrow and tighten his grip.
The red-hued snake separated from its golden twin and slithered onto Wolfram's hand, encircling his ring finger, jaws agape, waiting. Its mate took the same position on the other man's hand.
They bit down simultaneously.
He would have screamed if he still had the ability. Searing pain literally blinded him. It drove into him through his entire body even as his blood mingled with his captor's. The spell crawled into his nerves, convulsing his body, and piercing his mind in a violation more intense than he had ever thought possible.
It tore open every thought, every memory, and fed back through the ring and into…
"…urry up, Wolfram. How long does it take to try on a jacket?"
"Be patient, wimp. I'll be out in a minute!"
That was … his voice! But he wasn't speaking. What…?
A brutal grip on his wrist pulled him off the floor and onto unsteady feet. In the seconds before he was slung over the big man's broad shoulders, Wolfram saw himself making final adjustments to the drape of the waistcoat he had admired. His own emerald green eyes stared, blinked at him, and a stranger's voice ghosted into his head before the imposter left to rejoin his fiancé.
Check. Mate in two.
Then he was carried out the back door of the clothier's shop and bundled into a waiting delivery wagon that unhurriedly left the walled city, unnoticed and unremarked.
As he lost consciousness, Wolfram realized to his dismay that the entire snatch and switch had taken less than ten minutes.
Holding a frilly burgundy party dress against his hip, trying to decide if it would fit Greta, Yuuri looked up as Wolfram returned from the dressing room area wearing the green coat that had caught his eye. He spun briefly like a model at the end of a runway and raised a sardonic brow. Behind him, the skinny clerk who'd attended him bore his blue uniform jacket over his arm and a very self-satisfied smile on his face. Sure of a sale and the commission no doubt.
And seeing how well it fit and looked on his fiancé, Yuuri had to admit the man had reason for his expectations.
Wolfram looked… magnificent. Okay, that may have been a bit over the top. But Yuuri had always seen him either in uniform, the much simpler disguise of peasant garb when they traveled incognito, or that inappropriate nightgown he chose to wear at night. This was how a prince out of a fairy tale must look. He half expected Cinderella to come sweeping into the shop to entrust him with her glass slipper.
"It's perfect. You ought to wear green more often. It suits you. Let's buy it."
Wolfram traced the edge of a leaf at this wrist. "You do fine work, Master Entrow. I appreciate the compliment, Yuuri, but we are shopping for our daughter, remember?"
Yuuri opened his mouth to argue him into it but then had a better idea. Instead, he said, "Okay. So which of these do you think Greta will like?" and held up the burgundy dress and a deep blue one with an empire waist and pale blue satin insets.
Removing the waistcoat and exchanging it for his own, which the clerk had been holding for him, he missed or ignored the disappointment on the clerk's face. The fire demon draped it over his arm and strode over for a better inspection of the dresses from close up. Just for an instant, Wolfram's face went blank, as if there was no one at home in his head. Yuuri blinked and Wolfram's usual thinking scowl was back.
"The blue. Greta's getting too old for frills."
"Blue it is." Yuuri turned to the clothier. "How much?"
The pure glee on Master Entrow's face as he wrapped the dress himself, was almost embarrassing. "Why don't I set up an account for Your Majesty and your party. I'm sure you have many more stops to make on your tour and don't want to spend all your cash in one place. The climes of Aeriemille are vastly cooler than you are used to in the Demon Kingdom. If you find a need to supplement your wardrobes during your visit, it will be most convenient for you, yes?"
And increase the chances of our doing business with you. Yuuri totally understood that he was a businessman first and foremost so had no trouble with taking his suggestions. So Jaida had advised him before they set out on their shopping trip.
"Sounds good. I'll have someone come down from the castle tomorrow to make the arrangements and pick up the dress." He followed Master Entrow to the payment counter. Making sure Wolfram, back in his own coat and standing impatiently at the door, was out of earshot, he added in a whisper, "Add the waistcoat to the order, have both ready for pickup tomorrow."
Master Entrow gave him a conspirator's wink, "Of course, Your Majesty."
Yuuri winked back and turned grinning to Wolfram and Jaida. "Okay, where to next?"
The sun was setting spectacularly behind the mountains to the west in an intense array of oranges, pinks, and purples dancing behind the peaks when they returned to Jaida's castle. His feet hurt and all Yuuri wanted to do was go to bed. But Gwendal, Gunter, and Conrart were lying, or rather, standing, in wait for him. And by the scowl on Gwendal's face, he guessed they'd been waiting for some time.
"Uh, hi, guys. What's up?"
His chief adviser frowned down at him, "If might behoove your Majesty to keep his itinerary in mind when traveling on state business."
Yuuri just stared, clueless to what he was talking about.
Gunter explained, "We were to meet this afternoon to review before tomorrow's meetings. Wolfram, part of your duties to our Maoh is to keep him on track."
Turning to his fiancé, Yuuri fully expected to head off a snide outburst, but to his surprise, all Wolfram did was give a defacing nod.
"You are right. I have no excuse, I should have kept better track of the time."
Jaida chimed in, "I am to blame as well. I tried to showcase all of my city's attributes in one day. Blame pride of country."
"Guys, you have to go yourselves," he endorsed her opinion. "It's like a mall back home. Only it's all outside. And the food at the different inns and booths. You've got to try everything! There's this pastry place that…"
"Wolfram?" Conrart's worried voice interrupted him. He was frowning as he leaned forward to look more closely at his little brother. "Are you alright? You look a little pale."
Looking back at his shopping buddy, Yuuri had to agree and felt a twinge of guilt that he hadn't noticed himself.
"I'm fine, just tired." Wolfram covered his eyes with his right hand, massaging his temples with thumb and ring finger. "If you don't mind, I'll pass on tonight's session and get a few extra hours of sleep. I'll be the better for it in the morning."
"Of course, go ahead," Yuuri approved before Gwendal or Gunter had a chance to argue that, as fiancé to the Maoh, he needed to be part of all strategy sessions. "This is just to be sure I have all the names and customs of the other dignitaries we'll be meeting tomorrow, right? Wolfram already knows all that stuff."
"Very well," Gwendal grumbled, but Yuuri didn't miss the concern in the glance he sent his youngest brother's way. "I'll go over anything new that comes up with you over breakfast."
"I bid you all good night, then." Wolfram bowed to King Jaida. "I thank you for a very pleasant day, your Majesty. I'm looking forward to spending more time with you in the days to come."
Yuuri arched his eyebrows as he watched Wolfram ascend the staircase with his escort for the suite of rooms assigned to them. Now why couldn't he pull off the Lord thing half as well as that?
Jaida's smile included them all when she spoke up. "I too will part to retire to my chambers. I pray you do not stay up too late, my Lords. Tomorrow is bound to be a busy and eventful day."
"Be sure we will not be long." Taking her slender hand in his, Yuuri bowed over it and brushed the knuckles with his lips, just as Gunter had grilled into him for days before their departure from the Demon Kingdom. "May your dreams tonight be pleasant and leave you refreshed and renewed."
The lovely king of Aeriemille smiled gently. "You are most gracious, Majesty. May the same hold true for you and yours." The she too left them.
With that, Yuuri turned to his companions. "Alright then, let's get this over with so we can all go to bed."
Once alone in the room Wolfram shared with King Yuuri, the imposter gave a shuddering sigh and supported his weight with the door at his back. Sweat beaded his forehead and he had to fight the urge to vomit.
Something was definitely wrong.
The demon prince, even with the drugs meant to keep him quiescent, was resisting, trying to fool him with false memories and struggling to block him from vital information. That was to be expected, it was the bouts of dizziness and nausea that worried him. They had not been included in the list of symptoms they'd been warned to watch for.
His impersonation of the youngest had to be perfect. These demons were too sharp, especially the elder brothers. He had to get control or they would be scrutinizing his every move out of concern for Wolfram's health. He dared not let anything compromise their assignment.
A fire had been laid on the hearth of the bedroom. He had a few hours before Yuuri's return. Settling in one of the leather chairs in front of the fireplace, he sparked a flint over the tinder. The well-cured wood was soon blazing, and he settled in to wait for his comrades to contact him.