Nancy was led to a series of long tables and took a seat beside Nerissa. She had so many questions and didn’t know how to handle the situation. King Jarek had named her rightful heir and took both crown and power from a woman who had been queen for two decades. She had been unable to read any emotion in her older cousin’s face, but as she appeared to be the only living relative the girl had left, Nancy hoped there would be no bad blood between them.
The feast was exquisite, the music lively and the mood joyous, yet Nancy’s head was spinning, probably from the weight of the massive crown she wore for the better part of the evening. She rose from the table and headed down a quiet, dimly lit corridor in the attempt to find some peace and quiet to clear her head. She came upon an empty sitting room. No doubt it was probably part of someone’s bedchamber but she didn’t intend to stay long and would make her apologies to the owner if they appeared. For now she yanked the crown from her head and slammed it down on the desk with a solid thonk. She flopped down on the chair and rested her forehead on the cool surface of the desk.
“Are you alright?”
Bleary eyed, Nancy raised her head again to see Nerissa standing in the doorway.
“Yeah, just taking a breather.” Nancy replied, rubbing a knot in the back of her neck.
Nerissa laughed and sat on the chaise lounge. “It can be overwhelming at times and you have only just begun to be queen.”
Nancy rose quickly. “I’m sorry, is this your room? I’ll go.”
Nerissa waved. “Sit, rest yourself, you are welcome here.”
Nancy sat again feeling uneasy. “It’s bad enough I took your crown, I don’t need to take away your privacy too.”
Nerissa smiled and shook her head. “It is not mine to take, the crown I mean.”
“So you’re not mad at me for taking your power from you? You have been queen for twenty years.”
“Twenty long hard years of fear and exile. Now that you are here, I am free.”
“Oh.” Nancy was relieved even as her heart sank. “Do you hate me for your years in exile?”
Nerissa laughed, a light musical sound. “Dear child, you have done me no wrong. You left Rune during a very precarious time. Most of our family had already been wiped out. Though I was younger than you are now by five years I understood the gravity in accepting the crown. It was my duty to our family, our people and to you, to stand in as queen until your return.”
She came over and took Nancy’s hands. “Try as I might to restore our lands and aid our people, I could not. Only the absolute queen of Rune can accomplish this and through our covenant with the neighboring kingdom of Shayn’del we may now be able to do so.”
“But what can I do that you couldn’t?” Asked Nancy. “Why couldn’t you make the covenant work with Shayn’del? Is their ruler some kind of tyrant?”
“On the contrary, King Iskander is a fierce ally and loyal friend. He is a good man who has fought with the Alliance to push against our enemies. However, he has no queen and only through the true queen of Rune can the ultimate power of our combined kingdoms be realized.”
Nancy went cold and felt the blood drain from her face. She whispered, “You mean?”
“You are to wed King Iskander.”
While the players had changed, the game as Nancy saw it, remained the same. Back in Texas she had spent her life being groomed to be the perfect wife and mother. A trophy, an asset to whichever perfectly coiffed, well-mannered, and socially acceptable goober kissed her father’s ass enough to be granted permission to marry her. Only instead of law students, oilmen, and political contenders she would be thrust into the bed of a king whose country shared borders with hers. Well, I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be a pawn in someone else’s plans anymore! I’m a queen now, am I not?
Nancy decided she would meet with this Iskander, appeal to his better nature and gain his fealty without having to lay on her back. She didn’t yet know what she would say to him but she wanted there to be no confusion. He would see her as his equal and not some delicate ornament who would sit demurely on his arm while he ran both countries. Not that she had any intention of giving up her newly acquired throne, of course. While Nancy didn’t have a clue about running a country, she had grown up watching her father run the ranch and his business empire. She knew how to garner respect, instill fear, and be firm but fair. She prided herself on being a quick study when it suited her and being surrounded as she was now by royals and diplomats, Nancy intended on getting a crash course in how this game was played.
The cousins returned to the ball to find all elements of the meal had been cleared away and everyone was gathering in the ballroom again. Despite the jovial nature of the night, the Dowager Empress looked grave as she prepared to address the congregation.
“My friends, the news is grave. Our victories in Kinfos and Shayn’del have forced the sorceress’ hand. While the kidnapping attempt on Lady Isabel of Kendra was unsuccessful, King Torquil and Phaedra appear to be making a final push on Abiloth. The Goblin King has also infiltrated The Mundane and killed the operatives hiding Queen Valeska, making her early return to Baelcrest a necessity.” Ilythia gazed at Nancy sadly. “Though we have failed her thus far, it is our hope that we can better protect her closer to home.”
When the murmurs of the crowd died down, the Dowager Empress’ expression and tone changed completely. “It has also come to our attention there may be a traitor among us.”
The room exploded into chaos with several delegates started leaping to their feet to confront each other loudly. Weapons were brandished, teeth and claws bared and Ilythia’s calls for calm continued to go unheeded. In the corner of the room King Jarek sharply rapped his staff against the floor three times. The ruby on top glowed angrily and sent a shockwave across the room. Almost immediately the intense rage, animosity and panic that threatened to overwhelm Nancy eased considerably. Once the din ceased, the glowing ruby winked out.
As the pretty dwarf girl with the blue rose spoke to the king, Nancy whispered to Nerissa, “Who’s the girl?”
“His daughter, Princess Lavinia. Though she is the middle child of 372, she dotes on him enough to be his right hand.”
“Wait, she’s 372 years old or one of 372 children?”
“His poor wife!” Nancy gasped, her mouth dropping in awe.
“Wives, my girl, wives!”
“Friends, all is not lost.” Ilithya began again. “The nuptials between the King of Shayn’del and the Queen of Rune will be an especially momentous occasion for it reunites a once powerful and ancient kingdom.”
Nancy bristled but kept silent. It was just as well, for the sea of cheers that cascaded upon her would have engulfed any words spoken. Her life was being determined for her yet again. She was tired of being a puppet with no say in her own destiny. She would not marry King Iskander. Surely the Alliance could defeat the sorceress without her being bound to yet another person who would dictate her every move for all eternity.
As the Dowager Empress made her announcement, Isabel glanced back through the sea of faces for that of her father. She saw him moving toward a door in the back of the room and decided to follow him. She tailed him carefully down several empty corridors leading to an entrance of the palace. The sound of voices in the doorway as she approached made her duck behind a fountain.
“You are late!” barked a man’s voice.
“Apologies, my lord, I got away as soon as I could.” Omar replied.
“You have provided more excuses than results of late. Methinks your Grace is beginning to outlive his usefulness.”
The voice was familiar but Isabel couldn’t see who her father was talking to yet she didn’t dare change position.
“It is lucky for us then that Phaedra does not require you to think.”
There was a grunt and Omar sunk out of the shadows to the floor, his face twisted in pain. The other figure knelt down and grasped a hunk of hair in his leather-bound fist. Isabel gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth, not daring breathe as the man’s violet eyes scanned the darkness in her direction. Her heart pounded when his gaze seemed to settle on her. I do find the sense of fear delicious, don’t you? She had to control her fear or he would find her. Isabel closed her eyes and slowed her breathing while trying to think of something on which to focus her mind. Thoughts of Prince Alaric came immediately. She frowned but knew there wasn’t time to focus on anything else. His eyes were the first thing she thought about, how they seemed to see into her soul from the first moment they met in the woods. She thought about the way his smile made her heart flutter, the urge to touch his silky hair. Isabel knew she entering dangerous territory but her fear had started to wane so she kept going. She thought about how his hand felt on hers and wondered how it might feel on other parts of her body. She imagined what it might be like to kiss him, to feel his warm lips upon her skin.
Her eyes snapped open and she realized Lord Rakad and her father were gone. Shit! She hurried to the door and saw the men leaving the garden and heading past a hedge maze. Isabel raced to a shaded sconce of trees where she watched Omar and Lord Rakad enter the woods. As she started forward again she was suddenly grabbed from behind, a large hand clamped over her mouth to keep her from screaming as she struggled.
“Quiet, they’ll hear you!” came a harsh whisper.
In the darkness a figure came around from behind and in the dim light of the half-moon Isabel could just barely make out the prince’s features. Once she relaxed her body her captor released her. She turned to find Lennox and several of the palace guards, camouflaged in black and green, hiding in the shadows of the trees.
“What’re ye doing here?” Lennox demanded. “Tis no place for a lady!”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist.” She barked back. “We need to find out what Rakad and the Duke are doing!”
“Yes, we do. Ye need to get back to the palace before ye git yerself killed!”
“That will do, Lennox,” said the prince. He turned to Isabel. “We suspected the Duke would reveal himself once Valeska was crowned so I had my men positioned to watch his movements and report back. There are scouts in the woods now.”
A bright flash lit up the sky, causing birds to sing in confusion before it dissipated. Did they have nuclear bombs here?
“It came from the center of the woods!” someone said.
“I hope Gustav and Elron are alright!” said another.
A few moments later there came a birdcall and two young men in camouflage sprinted out of the woods.
“Good to see ye lads made it out alive!” Lennox said, clapping each of them on the shoulder when they approached. “What have ye to report?”
Elron, a blonde stripling with brilliant green eyes answered, “They met with the Goblin King himself deep in the woods. He was not pleased to find Queen Valeska and Lady Isabel were in Baelcrest.”
“No surprise there.” Alaric chuckled.
“King Torquil told them if they could not retrieve the amulet for the sorceress, she would get her power straight from the source.” Said Gustav, the other blonde man. He was older and larger but with the same green eyes. Isabel guessed they were brothers.
“What source would that be?” she asked.
The men glanced at each other before answering, “You.”
Isabel gasped. Her encounter with Rakad had been frightening enough and her mother had said he wasn’t even that powerful. What would a brush with the sorceress be like? Would her nightmare ever end?
Her dismay must have been apparent because Prince Alaric took her hand saying, “Fear not, Lady Isabel, you are safe with us. No harm shall come to you while you are under the protection of the Alliance, this I promise you.”
The intensity of the man’s expression made Isabel feel warm and fluttery in the pit of her stomach. She was touched by his sincerity but shook her head and took her hand back.
“I appreciate the sentiment, your highness, but I won’t stand idly by while people attempt to kill me. I was powerless against Lord Rakad once but I don’t have to be when he comes for me again.”
She held up the amulet and knew its warmth did not come from just her skin. “This is what they’re after. My mother told me I needed to learn how to use the power it holds from my father. Once again the Duke has proven unreliable to me but I will find a way to learn how it works. Rest assured, gentlemen, when the time comes this damsel will be throwing down right beside you!”