Several days had passed since Princess Nerissa’s return to exile and the wait was killing her. She understood the need for her safety, especially with her cousin gallivanting off to see the Oracle, but she hated having to sit on the sidelines while everyone else was making things happen. Of course, she was forever grateful to Jarek for taking her in and standing by her cause and countrymen, but Rune was her country too. All right, so her stint as Princess Regent was a complete failure and nothing she tried worked. So she never got to fully liberate her people and not as many had escaped before her underground network had been discovered, but it was her people being enslaved and slaughtered and she should be able to do something besides lay in wait until the battle was over!
As she always did when she wanted to think, Nerissa ventured outside the palace, past the ruins of ancient Abiloth, and out to the caves that hid behind some waterfalls. The sound of those powerful falls had always served as a tool of humility for they reminded her of how truly insignificant she was at times when she might have grown cocky. She once brought Princess Lavinia here, years ago, but the dwarfling didn’t get it.
“Oh, how noisy it is and look at what that breeze is doing to my hair! The mist is ruining my new gown!” Lavinia wailed.
“Do you not see the beauty of the falls? Can you not feel their awesome power and majesty?”
“I am a princess. I already have beauty, power, and majesty and so do you.” She sniffed. “Or at least you would if you still had your kingdom.”
Nerissa often wondered why she called the girl friend all these years. Perhaps with no other alternative available in Abiloth the princess was as close to a friend as she would ever get.
Nerissa was surprised to find Lennox leaning against the wall of one of the caves and staring into the falls. “Lennox, are you well? I thought you would be in bed.”
The large man turned with a look of peace and awe on his face. Ah, Nerissa thought with a thrill, he gets it! Mist glistened in his auburn curls and beard. His blouse was thicker around his middle where he’d been bandaged. Nerissa always found it strange how the sight of downy legs between boots and a plaid skirt could be so alluring. No, not a skirt, a kilt, she reminded herself; smiling as she thought back to the tongue-lashing he gave her when they were children.
He smiled, his grey eyes sparkling, causing a funny feeling in the princess’ stomach. “Quite well, Princess, though if I stay in that bed any longer I shall go mad!”
“Your physicians said you need your rest if you are to heal properly.” Nerissa shook her head. “Do you think you know better than trained professionals?”
“Aye, especially as I am not injured.” He chuckled.
Nerissa frowned. “What?”
“I have been given the task of discovering the traitor. The Dowager Empress has reason to believe she may be here. With Queen Valeska having returned, our foes may decide to use ye as a bargaining chip. So I am here to find the traitor and protect ye from harm.”
“How will you do that being bedridden?”
“I am a stubborn man, as ye might have noticed, and prefer stretching my legs to lying in bed.” His eyes twinkled. “Without good reason that is.”
Nerissa ignored the warmth in her belly and the way her knees weakened at the remark and asked, “Would following doctor’s orders not be a good enough reason?”
“Aye, but there are far better reasons.”
Nerissa nodded, blushing furiously. “Such as keeping up the ruse of your injury around watchful eyes, I agree, Lennox. Time we were returning I think.”
The pair made their way back to the palace but Nerissa slowed when she saw movement near the ruins. A short figure cloaked in blue hurried toward the entrance. A flash of golden hair as the figure turned, looking around before entering, gave the figure’s identity away to Nerissa immediately. Lavinia.
“You needn’t an escort to your room, Lennox, so I will leave you to it.” Nerissa said to him. “I have a meeting with King Jarek in a few minutes.”
“Do ye? I was not aware of this.” Lennox cocked an eyebrow.
Nerissa placed her hands on her hips. “I have governed my own movements in this kingdom for the last twenty years. Must I now plot them out for you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Be off with you then. I will look in on you later.”
“I look forward to your visit then.” He grinned and Nerissa felt as if she’d turned to butter.
As soon as she saw Lennox disappear into the palace, Nerissa hurried to the ruins. She trailed along the corridor behind Lavinia, ducking into the shadows once, when the dwarf princess stopped suddenly and turned around. She held her breath for several long moments as Lavinia listened for any sound. Finally she turned to the wall and tapped an intricate sequence along the face. After a moment there was a slight rumble and a doorway opened in the rock. Lavinia slipped through and the door shut again. Nerissa hurried over to the wall but could find no hint of a door. She raised her hand to the wall.
“What are ye doing?”
Nerissa jumped with a shout as Lennox appeared out of the shadows.
“By the gods Lennox, you frightened me!” She gasped as she placed a hand on her breast. ”Princess Lavinia is up to something.”
“Aye, tis why I am here. I have seen her come and go from here many times. The question is why are ye here?”
“As I said, the princess is up to something. I intend to find out exactly what.”
“Once I get the answer I shall come and tell ye.”
Nerissa placed her hands on her hips again. “There will be no need because I shall be there to get the answer when you do.”
“Lennox, return to your quarters at once. That is an order.”
Lennox chuckled. “I take orders from exactly one female and the Dowager Empress has ordered I keep you safe from harm while I discover the identity of the traitor.”
“Be that as it may, I am under my own command and I am going after Lavinia.”
“Have it your way.” Lennox shrugged, grabbing Nerissa and throwing her over his massive shoulder.
“What are you doing?” She shrieked. “Put me down at once!”
“Just doing my duty, Highness.” He replied, as he started to walk away.
“I would never have taken you for a miscreant who manhandled women, especially one of royal personage!”
He lowered her to the floor, and she tried not to savor the feel of his hard body sliding against her soft curves. He backed her against the wall with a hand on each side of her head. His face was only inches from her own, making her pulse race.
“Ye have been entrusted to my care, Princess. Nothing is more important to me than your safety.”
His eyes were dark and his voice husky, reverberating through her body. She swallowed, suddenly feeling breathless. She reached up and traced a finger along the line of his jaw, marveling at the feel of rough stubble, down along his powerful throat to his collarbone. She felt him tremble.
“Lennox,” she whispered, “what better way to keep me safe then by helping me liberate my country? I have no doubt Lavinia is the traitor, and if we could discover her plans we may actually be able to end this war.”
“Princess…” his voice sounded gruff.
“Besides, do you know the sequence?”
“Lavinia tapped the rock a certain way to reveal the opening. Did you see it?”
“No, but I suppose ye did.”
Lennox crossed his arms over his chest. “I could easily leave ye behind once ye opened the passage.”
“Yes, but you are too much of a gentleman for that.”
Nerissa tapped the rock in the same fashion she saw Lavinia and after a moment the passage rumbled open. The corridor was dark but they could hear the distant echo of voices. Nerissa held on to Lennox in the dark, the voices growing more distinct as they got closer to a dim light. Lennox peered into the dimly lit room to see the only furnishings were three large mirrors embedded in the walls facing each other. Lavinia stood before them and staring back at her was the image of a dark creature. He stood a head taller than she, dressed in dark baggy trousers and a leather tunic. At his waist was belted a short sword with a golden jeweled hilt that he fingered absentmindedly with his bony scaled hands. His long red mane and the large ruby studded crown sitting on it couldn’t hide the fact his head was overly large for his body. A pair of golden eyes peered out of his dark scaly face and above a long pointed nose. Large pointed ears stuck out from the sides of his head and when he smiled or laughed, a long serpentine tongue danced from within the confines of rows of sharp teeth.
“Excellent, dear one, you have pleased me.” The creature was saying.
Lavinia blushed furiously and clasped her hands together with glee. “Oh and I do so wish to please you, Torquil darling!”
“And I you.” He crooned. “Once we do away with your father I shall rule all of Subtera with you by my side as my queen.”
“Yes,” she breathed. “King and Queen of Subtera, we shall rule together.”
“Tis only the beginning, of course. With the power of the Silver Fleet at my command we shall be invincible!”
“No more taking orders from that withered crone, now I will be Empress of the Crystal Palace!” She giggled.
The Goblin King’s laughter rumbled throughout the chamber. “Soon, pet, soon. Do you remember my instructions?”
“Yes, my love. Three nights hence your Mirror Mage will open this portal for your forces to come through. I will have poisoned the regimental wine casks for the Festival of Pavrak so your goblins will have no one to fight.”
“Yes, they will not be pleased but time is of the essence. The quicker we overthrow your father, the quicker we can advance on Lothiari and take down the Alliance.”
“Not even the Crystal Palace can withstand such power!” She squealed, giving a little hop as she clapped her hands.
Torquil retrieved a glistening blue rose from outside the mirror’s view, kissed the petals, and tossed it towards the princess. The mirror in front of her shimmered and the rose appeared in Lavinia’s hands. She kissed the petals and slipped the flower into the lacings of her bodice.
“Til we meet again, darling.” She smiled, blushing and hurried from the room.
She was so focused on the gift from her lover, the dwarf princess didn’t noticed anyone following her in the tunnel or two people slipping away behind her through the closing passage.
The Goblin King grinned as he rose from his throne.
“So the piglet has come through after all.” Murmured a smooth, cultured voice. “Color me surprised.”
Torquil turned as a tall, slender woman sauntered into the room. Her white gown covered her from head to toe yet was so form fitting it left nothing to the imagination. Her porcelain complexion was flawless, her eyes the color of a summer sky, and her lips were painted the same blood red as her perfectly manicured nails.
Torquil couldn’t believe his luck when he awoke from the century old slumber Jarek had cast him under to the sight of this ethereal goddess standing over him. He went hard immediately to which the mystery woman smirked. “Good morning, Your Highness. I see I already have your undivided attention.”
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” He asked, sitting up.
“I am the sorceress Phaedra and I have a proposition for you.”
“Ah,” Torquil leaned forward. “I like propositions.”
“I thought you would.” Her eyes twinkled. “How would you like to get revenge on King Jarek and take Abiloth once and for all?”
Torquil’s eyes widened. To finally get his hands on the countless gems, gold, and silver within the boundaries of Abiloth was more than the Goblin King could hope for. His last battle against the dwarf kingdom resulted in his biggest trouncing yet. Jarek had just aligned himself with the barbarian king of a newly minted territory called Lothiari and both parties seemed to gain an impossible strength from the union. Now some witch wakes him with promises of victory and revenge. What could a woman do for him? Well, besides the obvious of course. There was only one thing a female was ever good for and that would not help him defeat Jarek.
His eyes narrowed. “What could you do to bring down Abiloth that I have not already tried?”
Phaedra paced back and forth slowly; giving the Goblin King ample opportunity to admire the swing of her hips, the way the silky fabric of her gown caressed her behind, and the jiggle of her breasts as she moved.
“Abiloth has grown more powerful as you slept. It has joined with several other kingdoms calling themselves the Crystal Palace Alliance.”
“The what?” Torquil laughed. “What kind of fruity name is that for a group of fighters?”
“The Alliance has managed to bring peace to the land which has left them overconfident and distracted by insignificant details like feeding and housing the poor.” She snorted. “These distractions leave them open for attack.”
She stopped and whirled towards him. “Not a direct attack, mind you, we first weaken the Alliance from the inside. By the time they realize what is happening it will be too late!”
The Goblin King rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yes, a group that large would have potential traitors in their midst. People who have had to compromise somehow and do not like having to do so.”
“Exactly.” Phaedra sat on the bed beside Torquil. “My sources tell me Jarek’s daughter, Lavinia, has been quite upset with daddy for some time. She feels unloved and unappreciated, invisible to her family and her kingdom. Her soul festers with jealousy and hate.”
The Goblin King shrugged. “What does that have to do with me?”
Phaedra leaned forward. “Surely I need not tell you what to do with a vulnerable young maiden?”
Torquil cocked his head to one side trying to get his sleep-addled brain to work. Besides ravishing a nubile body before devouring her, what else could he do?
“Seduce the princess, Torquil.” Phaedra rolled her eyes. “Make her believe you are in love with her. You have admired her from afar in secret all these years. You dream only of her, but her father refuses to give you her hand in marriage because you are not a dwarf.”
“She would believe this?”
“If you deliver it the way I tell you she will!”
Under the sorceress’ direction the Goblin King whispered sweet nothings to Princess Lavinia via a hand mirror in her bedroom as she slept. Soon she began to sigh and stare into her mirror during waking hours and when at last Torquil began to woo her with satin words and the delicate blue roses Phaedra gave him to pass to her, she was ripe for the picking. Lavinia expressed longing for the days when she and her lover could be together at last, all the while her animosity for her father, her family, and her people raged stronger still.
Torquil had to admit he was out of his element. Seduction was a waste of time and a practice he never saw the need to learn. When he wanted a wench he simply took her. Afterwards there was no reason to keep her around except to fill his belly. The dwarf princess looked plump and soft and he knew she would be very tender. The very thought made his mouth water. Over time the chore of seduction began to come easier to the Goblin King and soon he found he no longer needed Phaedra’s instruction. He actually found himself enjoying the experience. He liked seeing the wide-eyed sap drink in his words and the blush come to her cheeks at the slightest compliment. He marveled at how her face lit up every time he tossed her one of those horrid roses Phaedra handed him. Of course, Lavinia had no idea the witch was present for their meetings, standing just out of view. Rumors of their collaboration had begun to circulate amongst the enemy. How they discovered her presence Torquil didn’t know, but the rumor was enough to make the princess incredibly hostile one day. As much as the Goblin King relished the sight of her flashing eyes and flared nostrils as she launched into a jealous tirade, he knew he had to pacify her quickly so as to not undo everything he had been working toward. Still, it was a pity to extinguish such raw illicit rage.
Darkening the doorway as always as Phaedra approached was her manservant, Kerwin, a grotesque hulking beast that made the king shudder in spite of himself. Kerwin looked as if he had been pieced together from various bits of creature. He spent most of his time hovering in the vicinity of his mistress, glaring at the Goblin King, grunting the odd word or sound and breathing.
“You have no faith in my betrothed?” Torquil chuckled.
“Betrothed, bah!” She spat. “As if you could ever marry such a creature!”
Torquil smiled, his forehead wrinkled in surprise. “Are you jealous, witch? Do you wish to vie for my affection?”
An ominous growl came from the doorway.
“Ridiculous! Jealousy is for the grotesque, the clumsy and unwanted.” She sneered. “My beauty is unmatched throughout the land. I can bend any man to my will.”
“Man is weak.” Torquil snorted.
Phaedra smiled, a glint in her eye. “His Highness feels he is immune?”
“His Highness has had better.”
The sorceress raised an eyebrow and giggled. “Is that so?”
She glided to the throne and draped herself across it like a silk scarf, her body displayed in a way that gave Torquil a full view of all her hills and valleys. “Care to make a little wager?”
The Goblin King’s eyes narrowed. “What do you have in mind?”
“Why stop with the invasion of Abiloth when we can conquer the world? We will have the Silver Fleet in our grasp and the royals of Lothiari, Rune and Shayn’del as prisoner. Your piglet has already told us of tensions within the Alliance, now they will collapse like a house of cards!”
“And you believe without the Alliance the world will be ours for the taking?”
Torquil snorted and turned to stare out the window. “Forgive me if I do not share your enthusiasm. I have no wish to conquer the world of man, and even if I did, there would be no need to fight. With the riches of Abiloth I could buy and sell any nation if I so choose, which I do not.”
Phaedra was silent for moment or two before saying. “You do not wish revenge on those who enabled Jarek to imprison you?”
Torquil shrugged. “When the fleet arrives I shall kill Lothiari’s descendant and his bride thus ending the line.”
“Do you not think the Dowager Empress would have her revenge? Do you not think Abiloth has allies even with the collapse of the Alliance? Do you think you are the only king with his eyes on the riches of Abiloth?”
Torquil started and Phaedra smiled. That got his attention.
“I will wager that using the Silver Fleet to conquer the world of man will be worth your while.” She continued, as he turned towards her.
“And if it is not?”
Phaedra rose and slinked over to him. His eyes once again drawn to the brazen way her body moved beneath her gown. She wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him close, holding his gaze.
“If, after the capture of Abiloth, you do not find complete dominion over man to be a thoroughly satisfying experience,” she breathed, “I will give myself to you.”
She placed a light kiss on his lips and ran a hand through his thick fiery mane, sending shivers through the king’s body. Waves of pleasure washed over him so intense his knees nearly buckled. Visions of the two of them writhing in ecstasy as they performed perverse acts of depravity on each other plied his brain. Suddenly he shoved Phaedra away from him shaking his head. The sorceress’ laughter echoed in his mind even as she lounged on the throne.
“Do not try to enchant me, witch, I am immune to your charms!” He snarled.
“Are you?” she smiled.
Torquil glowered at her. “We must swear Darah.”
“What is that?”
“A blood oath, the most sacred of goblin oaths. Bound by blood the goblin warrior must honor Darah or perish.”
Phaedra smiled. “I was not aware goblins had any honor.”
The Goblin King grinned, though his gaze became steely. “We are a proud race, madam.”
The sorceress nodded. “Alright then, I will take your oath.”
Torquil drew his precious golden dagger, encrusted with semiprecious stones and the blood of enemies past, and slit first his palm then hers. Clasping hands they agreed Torquil could have his way with Phaedra should he not find ruling the world to be satisfactory. If he did, she could have Quendaris with the Book of Sen in her possession.
Phaedra glided back to her chambers with Kerwin as ever-present escort. He was a beast of few words, but the sorceress could tell by the heaviness of his breathing and the occasional grunt and low whine that her slave was not happy. She knew he didn’t like the Goblin King, but at Phaedra’s command, refrained from tearing him apart any time he laid hands on his mistress. She might have found his sentiments sweet if they weren’t so damned annoying!
“Kerwin, what vexes thee now?” She demanded as they swept into the room.
“Mistress no touch nasty goblin!”
Phaedra’s eyes narrowed. “You dare give me a command?”
Kerwin instantly dropped to the ground at her feet, trembling. “Never mistress, Kerwin no worthy!”
After a moment he added, “Goblin no worthy also.”
Phaedra giggled. “Fear not, I have no intention of letting that troll have his way with me.”
Forgetting himself Kerwin raised his head, his monstrous face looked almost angelic as he smiled. Then he suddenly dropped his head again and plastered himself even flatter to the marble floor.
“But mistress swore oath.”
Phaedra laughed heartily, a favorite melody that chimed in the manservant’s ear and made him smile, even as he pressed his face to the sorceress’ slipper.
“Look at me, Kerwin.”
His heart pounded in his chest with delight and he raised his head to rest his eyes on his ladylove, his mistress.
“Do I look like a goblin warrior to you?”
“Never mistress!” He replied with utmost enthusiasm.
Phaedra smiled and placed a hand on his bushy head. “Rise and draw my bath.”