Iskander closed his eyes but couldn’t sleep. Though he hadn’t let on, the loss of his sight greatly disturbed him. He had spent most of his waking moments trying to determine the best candidate to succeed him. Most of his relatives were either old, feebleminded and decrepit or too young with guardians too ignorant, bullheaded, or sneaky to trust on the throne.
Every kingdom had lost good strong men and women to the war and the royal lineage was beginning to suffer greatly for it. The sooner this war ended the sooner they could replenish. Nancy had been right, of course. Being blind did not affect his reasoning or intelligence. Still, he would have to be dependent on others. He would not be able to walk through the castle unassisted. He could not ride alone and as pleasant as it was to feel Nancy’s body against his own as they rode, such was not a viable solution for a king. He would be seen as weak and helpless and lose the respect of his people. Of course, with Nancy as his queen no one would think anything amiss of the woman leading him about the castle would they?
Still it was not the dignified life a queen should lead. Nancy was young, vibrant and beautiful. She deserved better than a man who needed to be attended to like an old man. She had insisted on staying to help, but he knew she was adamantly against marrying him. The idea that she now wished to stay with him out of pity filled him with shame and disgust.
At first light, Nancy and Iskander rode off through the forest. There was still no sign of the enemy and they hoped the giants and goblins had been called off.
“Our enemies already have an iron grip on Rune. The Prince of Lothiari and Isabel’s control over the Silver Fleet are far more significant to them than we are.” Iskander frowned.
As they rode Iskander instructed Nancy on the making and setting of snares so that when they established camp for the night she was able to retrieve several rabbits to sustain them on their journey. In turn he, reluctantly at first, accepted Nancy’s direction in locating wood for the fire.
“You’re no invalid, Iskander, but you should realize there’s no shame in asking for help.” She said to him.
At night, before bed, Nancy would cleanse Iskander’s wounds and reapply the Shumi priestess’ salve. He sat quietly as he always did when she tended to him. He noticed with the loss of his sight his other senses had heightened. The feel of her cool soft hand on his cheek as she cleansed his face with the other made his stomach clench. The sound of her laughter, like the tinkling of glass bells, and the slow lazy way her words dropped from her lips made his heart flutter inside his chest. Unlike Lady Isabel, who spoke in quick clipped tones, Nancy’s speech sounded as if she would burst into song at any moment and was more preferable to the king’s ear.
More than once he wondered how her voice would sound while in the throes of passion. He banished the thought from his mind knowing it was never to be, though his body never got the message. The feel of Nancy’s slender form as it moved against his own when they rode brought to mind images of their first meeting in the library. Her lovely hair shimmering like flames, her brilliant green eyes, the smile that seemed to light up the room, her alabaster skin, the way her bosom rose and fell just above the daring cut of her gown. Mind and body both betrayed him with memories of her softness pressed against him, the sweet taste of her lips, and he found himself near desperation trying to focus on anything else before Nancy could detect his tightening groin behind her.
“This stuff is amazing!” she said one night while washing his face. “Your wounds don’t look nearly as angry and the swelling has gone down.”
He placed a hand on the one that held his cheek and said, “I am sorry.”
Nancy stopped for a moment. “About what?”
“You should not have to do this. Tis the duty of a servant.”
He heard her sigh with frustration. “I’m not doing this because I have to, Iskander,” she replied patiently. “I’m doing this because I want to.”
His revulsion returned and he turned his face away from her. “I will not be pitied.”
“Well, quit having yourself a little pity party then. I happen to be helping a friend in need. Is that so terrible?”
She turned his face gently towards her and continued to apply the salve. His wounds showed dramatic improvement and Nancy doubted there would be any scarring. Her heart fluttered as her eyes roamed his handsome face and Nancy realized with a start that she was either in love with the man or she had a heart problem. She closed up the pot and tucked it back into the pouch at her hip. He took her hands in his and seemed to almost gaze into her eyes.
“Do you not find me grotesque?” He asked.
Nancy almost barked a laugh. Grotesque? When by day she reveled in the feel of his arms about her, grew almost giddy when his arousal pressed into her back though she knew that had more to do with friction than physical attraction? By night she would dream about him taking her into his arms, kissing her passionately and setting her body on fire with his caress. Although they always fell asleep apart, the last few nights she found herself being spooned beside the fire. His body seemed to line up perfectly with hers and lying there wrapped within his massive arms just felt right. She would close her eyes, sighing as his breath tickled the sensitive spot on her neck, and drift off again. Of course in the morning neither addressed the fact they were still in this position when they woke.
Nancy giggled and rubbed his cheek. “Grotesque, no, but you could do with a shave.”
Iskander’s smile took Nancy’s breath away.
They rode for the better part of a day and reached a large fortified city just before the gates closed at nightfall. Upon identifying themselves to the captain of the guard, they were presented to Duke Gedeon of Ardingstoke who welcomed them with open arms. He was an older man with dazzling blue eyes and silver peppering his mane and closely cropped beard. He was a large man like Iskander only he was clad in chainmail and leather rather than doublet and hose. He dropped to one knee as Nancy and Iskander slid off the horse then rose and clapped arms with his king.
“Tis a terrible thing what happened to you in Lothiari, Your Highness,” he said in a thick brogue, “but ye look no worse for wear.”
Iskander smiled. “Thanks to a good friend who has nursed me to health.”
The Duke’s eyes roamed Nancy’s form appreciatively as she approached the king’s side. “Well, any friend of His Highness is a friend of mine.”
“Have a care, Lord Gedeon, tis the Queen of Rune you address.”
Duke Gedeon blinked then bowed, taking Nancy’s hand and holding it to his lips. “Apologies, Queen Valeska.”
Nancy smiled and gave a nod as Iskander placed an arm around her waist and pulled her close. Their host glanced from one to the other and his smile deepened. “Ye shall have rooms and baths before dinner.”
“Thank you, my friend.” Iskander replied. “We also have need of a Mirror Mage.”
“Of course,” the Duke responded. “I shall send for her at once.”
There was a flurry of activity as servants escorted the pair to their rooms and prepared their baths. Nancy had stripped down to her shift when a flustered servant burst in.
“Apologies, Your Majesty, but there is a problem.” She stammered between curtsies.
Nancy waved her hands and ordered the girl to stand still. “What’s the problem?”
“Tis His Highness, he willna let us bathe him.”
Nancy turned her head to hide a smile. “Does he need you to bathe him?”
“Tis customary, Highness. He is a king.”
Nancy looked at her own servant standing beside the tub, scrub brush in hand, and sighed. “Very well, I’ll talk to him.”
Another servant draped a silk robe about Nancy’s shoulders which she closed as she strode out of the room after the flustered young woman. Standing outside the door were two more women looking equally nervous. Nancy shook her head. She knew Iskander to be a stubborn man and understood he was loath to accept assistance, but surely the man was used to being bathed by servants even if she was not. She realized he was probably self-conscious of his blindness and the scars on his face. Still she didn’t like the fact he’d scared the poor creatures out of their wits.
Nancy swept into the room and stopped short, startled at the sight of Iskander sitting waste deep in the tub. His hair was darker, having been wet, and rested on his thick muscular shoulders. His broad chest bore a small scar just above his left nipple and another at the top of his abdomen. Tufts of dark hair were plastered to his chest and ran down to a stomach rippling with muscle. Sinew ran down his brawny forearms which rested on the edge of the tub. Nancy’s pulse quickened and she had to swallow though her throat was far too dry. King Iskander was the most man she had ever encountered and she was both relieved and dismayed that his bathwater was cloudy.
The door closed behind her and when she turned Iskander called out, “Who goes?”
Nancy steadied herself and folded her arms. “Who do you think? You terrorized the Duke’s poor staff so they came and got me.”
Iskander started and straightened. “Nancy?”
She unglued her feet from the floor and took a few steps closer even as her heart pounded in her breast. “I’m here to tell you to behave yourself and let these poor girls do their job.”
Iskander shook his head. “I cannot.”
Nancy drew closer. “Why not? I reckon you’re used to be being bathed, the girls told me it’s the custom.”
“Yes but,” he hesitated looking uneasy, “I do not trust them to tend my wounds and as you said I need a shave. Would you do it?”
Nancy drew a shaky breath. “I’ve never shaved a man before.”
Iskander smiled and Nancy’s heart contracted.
“I will teach you. If you have no objection,” he added.
Nancy approached and sat on a stool behind the tub. Upon his instruction she lathered her hands with a brick of soft soap sitting on a table next to her and smoothed it along his face, caressing his cheeks and jawline. She glanced in the mirror at the far end of the tub and her stomach flipped when she saw the serene look on his face in the reflection. She picked up the straight razor and followed his direction, taking care not to reopen his wounds.
Iskander could barely contain himself. He’d halted his bath because the touch of the servant girls’ hands on his person had begun to arouse him and oddly he felt as if he was betraying Nancy. It was true, he didn’t trust them to shave him without incident, but he thought if he could get Nancy in to shave and bathe him it would feel less wrong. Then again the shave had become an unexpectedly erotic experience and he knew he would have to bathe himself. The feel of Nancy’s gentle hands on his face, neck and shoulders was exquisite and though he could tell she was nervous at first, she followed his instructions to the letter, using sure firm strokes.
He hadn’t known what she was wearing but the sleeves that caressed his neck and shoulders as she worked felt like silk. She was so engrossed at one point that he could feel her robe slip open and her bare skin brushed against his back and shoulder. Mercifully, she stopped to close her robe while he struggled against the urge to pull her into the bath and take her. Once she had finished shaving him he heard her rise from her seat quickly.
“I trust you can bathe on your own so I’ll tell the servants to leave you be.” She said in a tight voice. “After dinner I’ll come treat your wounds.”
He heard her scurry out of the room and leaned back against the tub, chuckling.
Nancy ordered the servants from her room and sunk into the tub. Her entire body felt weak and on fire. What was wrong with her? She only shaved the man and he didn’t even touch her, yet her body thrummed like a tuning fork. She needed to get hold of herself. Iskander isn’t attracted to you. He needed a companion to help him adjust to life as a blind man. Once the war was over she’d have her hands full getting the kingdom of Rune on its feet while taking a crash course in how to be a queen. In the meantime they would go to Shayn’del as soon as possible to find him a dependable caretaker.
Their kingdoms would be forever linked whether they married or not. She would be his closest companion and strongest supporter and maybe someday, if he ever did fall in love with her, she would marry him. She realized then that her earlier objections to marrying the man had completely dissolved. In the time they had spent together Nancy had found the King of Shayn’del to be strong, brave, loyal and kind, as well as proud but then so was she. It wasn’t just that Iskander was rugged and handsome that made her pulse race but that he seemed to care about her well being and afforded her the same respect he expected in return. Whether he’d intended to or not Iskander had begun to pick up skills to compensate for his newly acquired blindness and Nancy admired his wherewithal to not succumb to self-pity and depression. Still Iskander had felt obligated to marry her and she had made it abundantly clear that she wouldn’t accept that. If they were to ever marry it would be for love not duty. Nancy never wanted to make any life altering decisions based on duty ever again.
Duke Gedeon laid out a magnificent feast and all the gentry within the city had turned out. The servants had dressed the couple impeccably for the impromptu party, their own garments having been torn and dirtied in their escape. Iskander looked glorious in a forest green doublet and boots edged with gold and cucumber colored hose. Nancy was also stunning in a shimmering red and gold gown and bodice. Her hair had been brushed until it shone and Nancy insisted it be left loose. The servants had argued that it wasn’t the fashion but Nancy waved them off. She’d always worn her hair loose whenever she could, since the latest fashion always seemed to pull too tight and gave her a headache.
Ardingstoke’s Mirror Mage had left the city before sundown to assist with a complicated birth in the countryside and would not be expected back before the gates rose in the morning, leaving Iskander and Nancy with nothing to do but rest and enjoy their company. Nancy relished the dancing, games and entertainment immensely and even Iskander began to laugh as she described the scene to him. To the unknowing eye, the betrothed couple was becoming very chummy, huddling close, whispering and giggling to each other throughout the night. No one could have guessed that Nancy was simply relaying information to the king and answering questions. Still the expressions on their faces were unmistakable. To the knowing eye, this was a couple that was deeply in love.