Inca had been in heaven for half an eternity. The waves crashed gently on the white beaches every day. The white linen dried softy in the sun every day. The white noise of creation hummed benevolently with the dawning of every day. Waving palm fronds and servant-fed grapes were starting to get a little dull.
“Elzoarah! Bethelbar! Fetch some spring water. I need to think.”
Her servants curtsied and bowed and wordlessly went down the hedged dirt path to do as she bid.
“Abrazek! Limizhad! Lower me and stop the caravan. We will wait and rest here for the others and eat. Thaedrus—tell me a story, and I will fill your dish.”
She had Thaedrus’ full attention at this.
“Y—yes—as you wish, m’liege,” he stammered.
“Tell it swiftly,” marked Inca, “or I might not fill your dish after all.” Her nose wrinkled and she smiled without her eyes. It was more of a snarl, really.
Thaedrus cleared his throat to gather himself. “As you bid, m’liege,” he said, and took a breath.
“Once upon a time, in days long past and in lands long since conquered, a king lived with his two daughters.”
It was Abrazek who spoke, and he was hushed quickly by Limizhad. The two were arranging pillows around Inca’s eternally youthful frame. She looked at Abrazek sharply, who averted his eyes and mumbled, “Sorry, m’liege.”
Thaedrus lowered his brows, cleared his throat, and spoke again.
“The daughters, twins, had been born with a rare disease with no cure. Their mother died during labor. The fields were dry and barren that year, and the crops had meagre yields.”
This time it was Limizhad. He looked horrified by his own utterance, throwing a furtive glance at Inca with wide eyes.
“If you two don’t stop interjecting,” she hissed with a sickeningly sweet smile, “I will cut your tongues out of your head, broil them, pulverize them into a paste, and make you swallow said paste one miserable spoonful at a time.” She leaned back in her seat with satisfaction as her two attendants shivered. “Now,” she said, looking at Thaedrus, “continue.”
“W-well,” Thaedrus faltered, “well—the king, in his grief, decreed that his two daughters be locked in a stone fortress built over a reflecting pool, in order to keep them safe from any threats the gods might bring forth. From the time they were weaned off their handmaid’s milk, they were kept in solitude but for a host of guards, two maids, and a cook. The king solicited witches and shamans, inventors and chemists, doctors and nurses and healers of all sorts, employing anyone who knew anything about medicine in the hopes of finding a cure for his daughters. But as the girls’ seventeenth birthday approached, their strength began to wane—they were losing the battle against their unusual disease, an affliction which caused the skin to roll back from the fingertips and toes to expose tender flesh and white bone beneath. The girls wore elbow-length gloves made of softest silk and knee-high elk skin boots to protect their fragile extremities; but it is exhausting to grow fresh tissue every day, especially for lonely princesses. The two sisters clung to each other like seaweed on damp skin, but their isolation gradually consumed them until they shriveled into nothing more than a pair of invalids sporting crown and royal attendants. That is, until the day Warlock van Sputten rode into their midst…”
“Warlock van Sputten?” Abrazek echoed, but was silenced by a sharp throw of the elbow from Limizhad. If Inca heard, she paid them no mind. The story was lulling her into a gentler state, dulling some of her spikier edges. If she indeed heard the remark, she wanted more to hear the story than to hear her subservients’ screams.
“And Mr. van Sputten,” Inca bellowed confidently, “Was he a knight?”
“Indeed, your grace,” Thaedrus said, “but a fallen knight, at that. He’d spent the best years of his life serving and protecting a distant king, a great distributor of maize and cattle. But when his master changed industry to war and pillaging, he could not, in good conscience, carry out his bidding. He exiled himself from the kingdom to a life of eternal wandering, folding himself completely into the natural landscape, foraging for his meals, hand-crafting arrows for hunting, and never building shelter in the same place twice.”
“I knew he was a knight,” Inca said loudly, “A knight. I knew it.”
“A keen insight, your excellency,” Thaedrus said glibly, doing his best to iron any sarcasm out of his voice. “If m’liege wishes it, I’ll continue the tale?”
“You may stop when I tell you to stop,” Inca said, a saccharine note of benevolence snaking its way through her voice. She tossed the loose hairs from her elaborate crown of braids out of her eyes and fluttered her lashes modestly.
“Very good, your grace,” Thaedrus said. He took another deep breath, and then continued. “In van Sputten’s endless travel, he befriended a sorceress of power so great and of such ungodly sensitivity that she could feel the earth move as it rotated on its axis. As such, she too had chosen to live outside of the social bounds to lead a life of study. She dedicated herself to medicinal herbs and flowers, and kept powerful plants dried and woven in bundles of ribbon throughout her long black hair. Van Sputten fell madly in love the moment he saw her gathering water from the wild river, but she had no use for a husband. Regardless, the two shared knowledge and experience over nettle tea, homemade, crusted bread, and butter made of goat milk and garlic; a respectful kinship grew between them. She taught him medicine magic to take on his journeys, as well as how to communicate using only the eyes. He pledged to come to her aid should she ever need it, and, though she would only ever use it for a protective charm, he gave her a lock of his hair.”
A small snore issued from the other side of the caravan. Limizhad was leaned against it and out of Inca’s eyesight, slumped over and snoozing. Thaedrus cleared his throat aggressively and the sleepy servant snapped awake, wiping drool from his chin and flying into high alert. When he realized Inca had not noticed his slip, he blinked at Thaedrus sheepishly, nodding and putting his hands in the air in an “I surrender” pose.
With one stern eye on Limizhad, Thaedrus proceeded. “Her charm kept him safe from the untamed dangers of the natural world, but the love that he carried for the sorceress gave him the heart to carry on. He vowed to let his love guide him, so that he would no longer be governed by dissent. The forest opened up to him like a friend, and he set out to explore it. Many men had wandered through these woods, and many men had died of fatigue and want.”
“But her charm held true, and the forest offered him nourishment at every turn—a fresh spring here, a rabbit there, and wild roots and camas and mushrooms and sweet berries dripping heavy from their vines. He ate like a king and for the first time in many years, he felt as though he were traveling towards something, not away.”
“A good knight, then,” Inca clapped her hands together, her lips parted with rapt attention. “A knight with a heart of gold. Mmm!” She licked her lips at this and scooted forward in her seat, resting her elbows on her knees and perching her chin atop closed fists.
“Erm—indeed,” Thaedrus said, resisting the urge to take a step back. “Van Sputten continued his foray deep into the forest where he discovered, to his surprise, a great stone fortress with a moat and drawbridge and guards posted at every turret.
“‘Hallo, there!’ van Sputten called out, raising his sword hand above his head in a salute. It seemed everything was frozen in place, from the forest creatures to the guards. A moment passed that was so still and so silent, the exiled knight could hear the blood pumping in his ears.
“‘Guards! Who is your master?’ he cried next as he stood beneath an enormous wooden drawbridge, so large and so heavy it required four men to operate it. ‘Upon whose land do I stand?’
“‘His majesty King Walden III of Umbledunn!’ came the leery reply. ‘We’ve not had a visitor nigh on thirteen years.’
“‘I am a traveler,’ van Sputten called out, stretching the truth just slightly, ‘and would enjoy a place to rest my head and taste a night’s deep slumber. I have traveled very far,’ he added, wondering how much to tell the guards so that they might let him in.
“‘No honest travelers dare venture through these woods,’ the guard called back, ‘just scamps and miscreants and thieves. That’s why his royal majesty’s got us guardfolk protecting the—I mean, that’s why we’re here!’ From somewhere within the stony edifice, someone coughed pointedly.
“The guard clearly thought he’d revealed too much. Warlock overheard what sounded like heated deliberation between two men standing above him. At last, one of them shouted, ‘Right! Leave your weapons outside. You’ll sleep in our quarters tonight, so uh—no funny business, eh?’
“‘You have my word, good sirs!’ Van Sputten held his arms out and bowed low as a sign of deference. He pulled the sword and dagger from his hip and boot and piled them with his quiver and bow on the bank of the moat; he stepped back with his hands clasped above his head as the drawbridge lowered.”
“D’you really think the guards would have let ‘im in?” Abrazek gasped, causing Inca to whirl around and slap him on the arm.
“Do not test me, peasant,” she growled, “or the lunchtime fire will serve to collect juices from your roasting severed body parts. Maybe there’s some anatomy south of your tongue I could easily remove…” She raised her eyebrows suggestively and, reaching into the folds of her toga she retrieved a small piece of charcoal usually reserved for blacking her eyes. She drew two bold lines on Abrazek’s forehead.
“There,” she said, clapping her hands together to remove any powdery residue. “Three strikes and you’ll never speak again.”
“Oof,” said Limizhad.
“Hold your tongue before I remove it!” Inca cried, swiveling in her seat and grasping Limizhad by the ear. “You now have two strikes against you as well!” She drew two lines on his forehead before throwing the charcoal back into its deep pocket.
“Perhaps if we took some tree sap, m’lady,” Thaedrus suggested mildly, “and glued their mouths shut?”
“Weak little snakes!” Inca huffed. “A cosmically small amount of self-restraint should not be too much for a master to ask. Other goddesses behead their subordinates for lesser offenses! If these nimrods can carry me around the sweeping expanse of the celestial realm day after eternal day, they can keep quiet for ten measly minutes! I mean, honestly!” She crossed her arms and glared at her footmen, both of whom were drawing small circles in the impossibly verdant, ceaselessly dewy grass with their toes.
“So…er—permission to speak, mistress?” Abrazek whispered.
“What is it?” Inca roared.
“Would m’lady like us to make a fire and prepare a noontime meal?” He looked at her from underneath a wince.
“OF COURSE, YOU DOLTS!” She really was screaming at the top of her lungs. “THAT IS THE WHOLE REASON WHY WE STOPPED.”
“Oh,” Limizhad said dimly, “I thought we stopped because you needed to think.”
“Oh, for divinity’s sake,” Inca cried, clapping her hand to her forehead. She pointed two fingers at a nearby cypress, and with a dramatic exhale, flames shot from her fingertips and the tree burst into flames.
“Just hang the rack of lamb from a branch,” she murmured, and massaged her temples as her footmen scrambled around her.
After nearly an hour of preparation, the servants managed to assemble fresh rolls and herb butter, slices of ripe tomato and soft cheese, wedges of juicy melon and pomegranate, and roast lamb with mint chutney and yogurt dipping sauce. Inca sighed theatrically and held out her empty chalice, which Abrazek and Limizhad fought over each other to fill with sweet summer wine.
“A woody red really would’ve been better,” Inca said, her mouth full of flesh. “Would’ve paired nicely with the lamb. Still,” she chewed, taking a hearty slug of wine, “it’s not bad.”
“Would it please your grace if I continued the story?” Thaedrus asked timidly.
“Finish your story and you may clean my plate,” Inca said. “Your friends are not so lucky.” She shot menacing looks at her other subordinates and tossed a lamb bone in their direction. They scrambled for it and tousled, but Abrazek, being the larger of the two, pinned Limizhad under his knee, cracked the bone open, and hungrily drank down the meager amount of marrow. A small sheen of sweat appeared on Thaedrus’ forehead, which he nervously sponged away with the edge of his garment.
“As the gracious lady bids,” he said, swallowing his discomfort. “Hm…where was I?”
“The idiot guards let van Sputten into the fortress,” Inca said, tossing another dirty look at the other two servants to pontificate her summary.
“Ah, yes,” Thaedrus said. “M’liege is as concise as she is well-mannered. Well. The—perhaps we shall say ‘simple’ guards—let van Sputten into the fortress. It was well-crafted and surprisingly warm, van Sputten thought, for being made of stone and existing deep in the shade of the dark woods. Ornate tapestries lined the walls and there was a hearth with crackling fire in every room. Kindly, the cook insisted on feeding his ‘guest’ and laid out a platter of salted ham, sour bread, and hard cheeses with a hearty mug of ale to wash it down. Van Sputten ate gratefully, cleaned his plate and drained his glass. The cook beamed at him from the hearth as he stirred a rich stew, aromas of thyme and meat and spiced wine filling the kitchen.
“‘Sir ‘as no idear ‘ow pleased Ah yam to feed a soul what wants t’ wheat,” he said amicably. ‘Most days Ah canna get ther’ royal ‘ighnesses t’ wheat but crumbs and sips o’ warm wa’er.’
“‘Your generosity of spirit is a welcome change of pace for a weary wanderer,” van Sputten said. ‘Thank you.’ He spun his empty mug on the tabletop, wondering just how nosy to be.
“‘If it pleases you to speak to me,’ he said slowly, leaning back in his seat, ‘I would like to know who you attend here.’
“‘Don’ see why Ah canna tell you tha’,’ the cook pondered aloud. ‘Ye seem well-bred enough. ’Tis my yonor t’serve ‘is royal ‘ighness’ two sickleh daugh’ers, Genevieve an’ Elizabet, or Gen an’ Lizzy, as Ah calls ‘em. Righ’ sweet girls, bu’ sicker’n sick.’ He paused here, and his brows knit together with worry. After several moments of contemplation, he seemed to completely forget his guest, lost to his fretting. Van Sputten cleared his throat gently.
“‘Ah, me! Righ’. A’ any stretch, ‘is majesteh sought t’ keep ‘is daugh’ers safe whilst ‘e looked fer a cure. ‘Igh and low, ‘e searched. Best ‘e could do was send ‘em ‘ere, with th’ fresh air. Too sickleh fer socializin’, or courtship besides. Poor things,” he added, casting a furtive glance towards the door.
“‘Hm,’ van Sputten mused. ‘This king. What is his promised reward to whomever finds the cure?’
“‘Ach! Sir, b’tween yous and me—Ah don’ fink ‘e ‘as a limit. Move ‘eaven and earth fer ‘is girls, ‘e would.’ His voice broke at this and he stared hard into his stew, blinking back tears.
“Van Sputten’s mind began to spin with possibilities. Might this king welcome him into his kingdom if he saved his daughters? Might his honor be restored after all these years? Might his endless wandering, at last, cease?
“‘The girls,’ van Sputten said at length. ‘May I see them? I have some training in herbal medicine and may be able to be of service.’ His heart spasmed slightly to think of the magic woman he wished to hold, and a shadow passed over his brow. He kept his silence, however, and let his proposal breathe. After a moment of considering the king’s good favor should he connect his daughters to their cure, the happy chef granted van Sputten’s wish.
“He whipped up two quick sandwiches from the salted ham and cheese and sour bread, filled two small glasses with mulled wine, arranged the food with a small vase of flowers from the windowsill on a wooden tray and, withdrawing a candle from a cupboard and lighting it in the fireplace, the cook lead the curious traveler through several ornately furnished chambers. White cloths were draped over the amenities and it was clear they saw little use, though van Sputten could tell the king had spared no expense on his daughters’ lodgings. The pair walked down a long, dimly lit hallway and climbed a spiral staircase, which was illuminated impressively by a single sky light.
“As they made their way to the second story, distant piano music trickled over them, growing louder as they made their way down the long passage, which was comparatively well-lit by sunlight sifting through tree limbs and onto the cobbled floor. The melody twinkled and bounced across the surface of the stone, and van Sputten thought it sounded strangely familiar though he could not place its origin. By the time the two men reached the dark wooden door at the end of the hallway, the ex-knight was humming along.
“‘Righ’,’ the cook said, turning to face van Sputten. ‘Ah’ll go firs’ an’ prepare th’ ladies. If they don’ wan’ teh sees ye, then tha’s i’, Ah’m afrai’. ’S mah duteh to do as ther ‘ighnesses bid,” he added somewhat sheepishly. He rapped curtly on the wooden door, and the piano music stopped.
“‘Cookie?’ a sweet voice called from the other side of the door. ‘Is that you?’
“‘Yes, m’ladeh,’ the cook shouted back. ‘Ah yave crusts o’ bread fer ye.’
Tune in tomorrow for the second installment!