Iskander awoke to the familiar sensation of Nancy’s body pressed against his and her scent of vanilla and honeysuckle. Though only a few days had passed since the attack in the Shumkarja Outlands, Iskander couldn’t remember what it felt like not to wake up next to Nancy. The thought of waking up alone or beside another woman left him feeling cold and empty. He caressed her shoulder and nuzzled her neck, taking in her aroma with a healthy sniff. He felt her stir and, as she twisted herself around, he felt himself begin to stir as well.
Nancy smiled as she looked up into his grey eyes. The expression of contentment on his face squeezed her heart and she felt compelled to kiss him. He wrapped his arms around her and pressed her to him, deepening the kiss. Instantly her body was flooded with warmth and her belly filled with butterflies.
“Well, good morning to you sir!” She giggled when she came up for air.
“Tis an especially good morning, A’Janae.” He smiled.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you. What does A’Janae mean?”
“Tis a term of endearment in our native Delrunian tongue, it means ‘first beat of my heart.’”
Nancy smiled and laid her head on his chest. “Do you love me, Iskander?”
“I do.” He replied without hesitation.
“Then marry me.”
She felt his body stiffen and looked up to see his eyes closed and his jaw clenched.
“What’s wrong? You wanted to marry me before and you just said you loved me.” Nancy sat up then, feeling foolish and angry. “Or was this just to score another notch in your bedpost?”
Iskander opened his eyes again. “If memory serves, it was you who did not want to marry me or was that to score another notch in your bedpost?”
“Of course not!”
“Then why?” Iskander sat up, growing angry himself. “Why the sudden change of heart? Is it because you pity the blind man?”
“Oh for God’s sake, if you thought that was pity sex then you must not sleep with many women!”
“I have not actually.” Iskander paused, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “Truth be told, you are the first.”
Nancy was taken aback. For a man as handsome, rich and powerful as King Iskander to be a virgin was not something she expected. She suspected Prince Alaric and the rest of the blue bloods all participated in some kind of locker room talk when they were together and the king probably did his share of boasting. It seemed to be the norm in her world and was probably a necessity in a world as backward as Baelcrest. She saw the embarrassment and even shame on Iskander’s face and realized that the loss of his sight might have put a sizable dent in his self-esteem. She refused to coddle him though, much as she wanted to throw her arms around him and cover him in kisses, he was too proud for that.
“Well, you could’ve fooled me!” She chuckled and folded her arms across her breast. “And what kind of tramp do you take me for, going around sleeping with some fool because I feel sorry for him and then proposing marriage? I happen to love you, you big ape!”
Iskander grinned from ear to ear and suddenly pulled her to him. “Then you will marry me?”
“Didn’t I just say I would?” She giggled.
They kissed deeply and Nancy grew flush as he started to kiss and caress her again. Suddenly there was a flash of red light and Nancy saw a pedestal appear beside the door. On the pedestal sat a large overstuffed satin pillow and it was from that pillow that the red glow winked in the growing sunlight.
“Wait Iskander.” Nancy said, hesitating to stop the wonderful things he was doing to her.
He looked up, slightly perturbed. “Is something amiss?”
“Something just appeared by the door, it’s glowing.”
Iskander rolled off her and the pair crossed the room to the pedestal. Sitting on the pillow was a strange looking ring. A large ruby was clutched in the jaws of two golden dragons with diamond eyes. Their wings were spread open and their bodies and tails interweaved to form the band of the ring itself. When she peered closer, she thought she could see movement within the ruby.
“That’s impossible.” Nancy frowned.
“It’s a huge gold ring but I could swear there was something moving inside the ruby.”
Iskander drew a sharp breath. “Is the gem cloudy?”
Nancy looked at the dark stone and turned her head to different angles. “I can’t really tell.”
“Put it on.”
Carefully she lifted the ring from the pillow, slipped the cool metal on to her finger and gazed into the gemstone. Suddenly the color of the stone brightened as if the rays of the sun had burned through a cloud bank.
Nancy gasped and Iskander nodded with a smile. “Ah, a scrying ring. This is how the gods themselves spoke with the ancients. Tis your birthright, Nancy, it will show you anything you wish.”
Nancy looked up at him. “Can I get it to show me my parents, the King and Queen of Rune?”
The ring flashed brightly and a scene came to her out of the fog. A beautiful palace lay under siege. The air was filled with the fire and shrieks of dragons wheeling through the air, locked in combat. Vicious ogres cut through lines of foes like a hot knife through butter. Bloodthirsty manticore swooped down upon their enemy, their feasting accompanied by the screams of their victims, while gremlins swarmed the fields like locusts. The scene changed to a vast chamber whose walls were covered with pieces of reflective glass. A beautiful armored woman, her ruby locks falling down her back in an elaborate braid, held a bundle close. Nancy gasped. This must be her mother! Tears pooled in the woman’s bright blue eyes and rolled down her delicate cheeks onto the bundle as she lowered her head. Nancy’s father, a sandy haired man, who was armed to the hilt, stood beside his wife. His strong arms cradled the woman as she sobbed, resting his head against hers. Tears flowed from his emerald eyes and down into his beard as he too gazed upon the bundle.
“Oh Gavan, will we ever see our child again?” The woman sobbed.
“If the gods will it, A’Janae.” He responded softly.
“The gods!” She spat. “If the gods still cared our kingdom would not be falling to evil forces now!”
She looked down at the tiny pink face, sleeping soundly and kissed the crimson fuzz forming on her head. “I only hope our daughter never falls into the trap of deity worship!”
King Gavan looked stricken. “Kaela, you cannot mean what you say!”
Queen Kaela’s eyes blazed. “I always mean what I say, you know that. How could you still be so devout? We are about to lose our kingdom, our home and now our daughter. The gods have abandoned us!”
Gavan shook his head violently. “No, I refuse to believe that. Not while Valeska still lives. She shall be safe from harm and some day, whether we are here to greet her or no, she will return to unify our lands. She and Iskander hold the key to making the Delruniun Empire a reality.”
Kaela sniffed. “I care not for prophecy and magic! Shayn’del already fights beside Rune against a common enemy. As far as I am concerned, our nations are already one. I just want our daughter to be safe.”
A slim young woman, her red curls cascading to the shoulders of her blue robe, turned away from a large mirror on the wall. Its depths were swirling and flashing.
“My apologies, Majesties, it is time.” She said solemnly.
Nancy blinked. If she didn’t know better she could have sworn the redheaded Mirror Mage was Millie, a waitress at the diner she frequented with her father growing up. The much younger but unmistakable robust figure of her guardian, Zenaida, stood beside the mage and approached her king and queen.
“Zenaida,” King Gavan said, placing his hands on her shoulders, “your loyalty to this family for generations makes you our most trusted Guardian. Please, keep our daughter safe.”
The woman’s brown eyes filled with tears as her king’s voice cracked and he looked away. Her jet-black hair bounced as she gave a brisk nod. “You can count on me, sire. No harm shall come to this child so long as I draw breath.”
Kaela gave the baby a final hug and kiss before passing the bundle to Zenaida. Without warning she squeezed the Guardian in a brief but fierce hug and whispered, “thank you” before stepping back again. Gavan placed a kiss on his daughter’s forehead, causing her to give a soft mew in her sleep. He also embraced Zenaida before stepping back. The Guardian bowed to her sovereigns, drew the hood of her brown cloak over her head, and disappeared into the mirror.
The couple held each other, sobbing for a moment before a large explosion rocked the palace. Wiping their tears away, the expressions of the king and queen grew hard. The sound of steel rang out as Gavan and Kaela drew their swords.
“Now,” King Gavan said, “let us take back our kingdom!”
Nancy was sobbing by the time the scene faded from the ring. Iskander held her close, kissing her hair and forehead softly as her body shook.
“My parents loved me. They sacrificed themselves for me, for my kingdom. We have to win this war, if for nothing else so that they didn’t die in vain!” She looked up at Iskander and dried her tears. “You said this ring is my birthright. Now that we’re pledged to each other, do you think it will show me where we can find the Book of Sen?”
In answer, the ring flashed brightly before displaying the image of a massive leather bound tome with foreign symbols burned into the cover. The book flipped open past many weathered pages until it stopped on two pages filled with more symbols.
“My God, the book is in the ring!”
Iskander chuckled, “No, my sweet, the book is said to be tremendous and heavy. I think although we have fulfilled the prophecy the gods may feel it is not yet safe to give the book to us with half the kingdom still in evil hands.”
“Maybe we can ask the Mirror Mage when we see her.”
The ring glowed and the pages flipped again though when they stopped the symbols didn’t look any different.
“Damn, I reckon it’s trying to tell us something but I don’t understand the writing.”
The ring glowed once more and suddenly the symbols swirled before settling back on to the pages in English.
“When the Mirror Mage ye see, journey by prism light to thine ancestral hall. Recover thy companions imprisoned within to vanquish thine enemy. Beware of traitors in thy midst.” Nancy read.
“So we ask the Mirror Mage to send us to your palace in Rune, find Alaric, Isabel and the Shumi and ambush the Goblin King from the inside. We cannot fail!”
“Except it said to watch out for traitors.”
“Right, we already know she is in Abiloth.”
“Yes, but the book says traitors, as in more than one.” Nancy looked up from the ring. “Can the Mirror Mage be trusted?”
Iskander set his jaw with a thoughtful expression. “Mayhap insofar as to ask her to send us to the palace. We need not tell her anything she does not need to know.”
A short time later Nancy and Iskander were standing in the modest home of Xuxa, Ardingstoke’s Mirror Mage. It was a wooden hut about the size of Nancy’s quarters in the Duke’s castle with a thatched roof and polished wooden floors. The walls were impossibly white, as if they had been bleached, and contained rows of small drawers. Other than a large freshly scrubbed wooden table and a tall screen adorned with a single golden eye there were no other furnishings in the home. Xuxa herself was a very tall woman whose graceful movements reminded Nancy of ripples in a pond. Her hair was short and cropped close to her head and her smooth skin so dark she could slip into the shadows unnoticed unless she smiled. Her arms and legs were adorned with several large wooden bracelets and linen the color of a prairie sunset hugged her lean body. Her features were young and beautiful though her eyes seemed to convey wisdom beyond her perceived years.
“Thank you for your assistance, Xuxa.” King Iskander said. “We have two requests.”
“Only two?” Xuxa spoke in deep clipped tones as she raised an eyebrow with a hint of amusement on her face. “Name them.”
“We need to speak with the Dowager Empress of Lothiari.”
Xuxa gave a single nod.
“And we need to travel to Queen Valeska’s Palace in Rune.”
“Undetected?” Xuxa barked a laugh. “Indeed, just as soon as I pluck the moon from the heavens!”
Nancy began to mention the Book of Sen but stopped herself short of uttering the words. “Is there no way to travel through the mirrors?” She asked instead. “Say by using the light of a prism or something?”
Xuxa looked at her sharply. “How did you know about that?”
“It has been an age since mages traveled by prism light. It is a dangerous practice older, than time itself, now mastered only by the oldest and most powerful of mages.”
Nancy held her gaze. “Can you handle it?”
Xuxa’s eyes narrowed for a moment before she nodded. “I can.”
Xuxa drifted over to the wall of drawers and filled a basket with pieces of glass that varied in size, shape and color. She took the glass to a plain wall across from them and began to arrange the pieces in a strange pattern. She then stepped into a deep indentation in the floor, almost like a bowl, that Nancy hadn’t noticed before. Xuxa sat cross-legged facing the mirror, closed her eyes and slammed her hands together with a crack that made Nancy and Iskander jump, rubbing vigorously. She began to mumble in a singsong manner gradually growing louder. The glass on the wall trembled and suddenly started whizzing past each other in a crazy traffic jam. Finally their movement slowed and when they formed a series of spirals, they radiated light and fog like Nancy saw in the Outlands. Ilythia appeared before them looking older than Nancy could remember seeing her.
“Valeska, Iskander, you are safe!”
“You know of the attack?” Iskander asked.
Ilythia nodded gravely. “Temani contacted us again once the goblins left.”
“Empress, we mean to infiltrate the palace in Rune and lead an attack from within.” Iskander informed her.
A look of concern and disbelief crossed the old woman’s face and Nancy was glad Iskander could not see it for the question blazed from her like a neon sign. How is that possible? You’re blind!
“We need the Alliance forces to be ready to take the borders and move in.” Nancy added, grasping Iskander’s hand.
Ilithya noticed the gesture, smiled and nodded. “It shall be done. Godspeed to you both.”
With the communication at an end, two small boys as dark as Xuxa and dressed in the same attire appeared. One collected the glass while the other helped Xuxa out of the bowl and handed her a large white pitcher. The first boy put the glass away and approached the mage with several small sachets on a tray. Nancy watched as Xuxa tipped the pitcher and an impossible amount of water poured into the basin. Both boys sprinkled the contents from the sachets into the water as the three of them sang and swayed. The water changed from one color to another and when it reached the top of the basin it began to swirl like a rainbow whirlpool.
“What is wrong?” Iskander asked and Nancy realized she’d been gripping his hand with white knuckles.
“I think our ride is here.” She mumbled.
Xuxa looked at the couple expectantly and Nancy guided Iskander toward the swirling psychedelic vortex. She glanced at Xuxa and the boys who stood there smiling assuredly. Nancy tamped down her fear as best she could, reminding herself of the necessity to enter the whirlpool. As soon as she and Iskander placed a foot in the water they felt themselves being swept towards the center of the pool and were back on firm ground again before either could draw breath.
“What was that?” Nancy blinked and looked about her in astonishment.
Xuxa’s home was gone. Instead they found themselves standing in a cavernous room whose walls were covered in pieces of glass of various sizes and color, winking in the sunlight that beamed through the large stain glass windows. The sound of tinkling drew Nancy’s attention to several chandeliers of glass spires hanging from the ceiling. Beneath the thick layer of dust and cobwebs that blanketed the furnishings and marble floors, she recognized it as the room she had seen in the ring.
“Iskander, what happened to Rune’s Mirror Mage?”
“I know not, but in order to keep you safe during your escape, I assume she went with you to close the portal.”
Nancy frowned. “Then how was Xuxa able to use it again?”
“Simple,” came a voice from behind, “I came back.”
They turned to find an older woman, with tired looking eyes and unnaturally bright red hair done up in a bun, standing behind them. The overly painted face, short faded pink dress and snapping of gum were the only aspects of home Nancy had experienced since arriving in Baelcrest and it tugged at her heart. She thought back to the many weekends she and her father had spent at the rustic little diner on a dusty road in the country when she was growing up. Millie the waitress and her father would shoot the breeze while Nancy enjoyed a large banana split that would’ve sent her mother into convulsions if she knew. Many times, when he thought she wasn’t looking, Nancy would catch her father patting Millie’s behind as she left to tend the other tables.
“Millie,” she smiled, “what are you doing here?”
“Well, I couldn’t miss out on your big homecoming, dumpling.” She smiled back and stepped to one side as several goblins rushed into the room. “Welcome home!”