Sharp fumes assailed Giele’s nostrils and he jerked awake.
A Palace Guard stepped away from him and closed a bottle of smelling salts. Giele shook his head to try to clear it. Despite the powerful inhalants, he still felt groggy. Dried blood caked the inside of his nose, making it difficult to breathe past it. He tasted more blood in his mouth, although his tongue was swollen and dry. He sat in a high-backed wooden chair with his wrists bound tight behind him. His hands were numb from the cut circulation and his shoulders ached from his arms being stretched around the chair back. Stone walls rose around him, and beneath his bare feet lay a hard-packed dirt floor littered with old straw. No brilliant gaslight there; the light came from a pair of flickering torches against one wall. The smoke curled upward to disappear against the shadowed ceiling.
A beardless Dwarf with long black mustaches stood atop a crate so he was at eye level with Giele. He had a simple leather skullcap over his shaved scalp, and a badge of office pinned to his chest; he was Melanus, the Chief of Palace Security. He stared at Giele from beneath beetled brows and picked at his teeth with a silver pick.
“You’re in a lot of trouble, Army. What’s your name? And don’t lie to me because we’ll find out the truth.”
As Giele was still naked, Melanus could see the tattoo on his chest that identified him as part of the King’s Army. All recruits got them upon graduation from Basic. It was their rite of passage from untrained civilians to the commissioned elite. He’d begun with a single oak leaf, done up in great detail by a skilled artist who lived among the teahouses and bordellos of Lower Morningstar. He’d added to it with each promotion from Leaf Archer to Branch Lieutenant, Bole Major to Grove Colonel. The tattoo spread across his chest like a copse of proud, ancient trees. It had taken an entire week of leave to complete the intricate forest decorating his skin following his last promotion. Now, with it gleaming dull platinum under the flickering torchlight in the windowless stone chamber, Giele had never been so ashamed to bear that mark.
Despite feeling dizzy from blood loss and the blow to his face, Giele raised his head with what pride still remained within him. “Giele Stillwater, Grove Colonel, 136th Regiment of the King’s Army.”
Pain exploded in his face from another heavy blow from the Dwarf’s gnarled fist. “You’re nothing now, Army. You understand that? You’re only alive at the King’s request.”
Giele tasted coppery blood and spat to one side, careful to avoid striking Melanus with his spittle, despite an overwhelming desire to mar that badge of office with a crimson stain. Jigan forces in the First War had captured him once. Splinters under the fingernails, knotted ropes, even going so far as to paint him with honey and dump ants on him—nothing had been out of bounds for his captors. And even under circumstances as dire as those, he’d resisted giving up any more information beyond his name and rank. They tortured him like professionals; this Dwarf was but a dabbler, surrounded by amateurs. Even so, Giele knew that any moment, Melanus could summon the Royal Torturer, and then he’d be in for it. “I presume,” he muttered, “that the King said nothing about me being damaged.”
Melanus struck him again, straight on. Giele turned his head at the last moment to avoid having his nose shattered, and instead took the blow on his cheek. He felt he deserved the punishment, but no officer of the Army could accept such treatment without a spark of resistance. At that moment, he realized his feet weren’t bound to the chair.
Amateurs, he thought.
He lashed out with one foot and caught the Dwarf in the side. The impact sent Melanus flying one way and tipped Giele over the other. Palace Guards leaped forward with guns leveled, their fingers quivering on the triggers, eager to unleash death.
“Hold!” Melanus got to his feet and nodded at Giele once, as if acknowledging he’d gotten a good, fair shot in. Then he stalked over to the guards. “Which of you horse’s asses secured the prisoner?”
“I did, sir,” said a tall, rangy Elf whose pointed ears stuck out like wings from the sides of his head. He gulped and stiffened to full, nervous attention.
Melanus drove a hard uppercut into the guard’s crotch. The man groaned and collapsed with a stream of vomit leaking from the corner of his mouth. “Next time you’ll remember to secure all of his limbs, won’t you?”
The guard gurgled and blubbered and the Chief took it as acquiescence. He turned back to Giele, twirling his finger in one side of his mustaches. “You got that shot for free, Army. Don’t think the next one won’t cost you a finger, toe, or testicle.”
Giele didn’t respond. He’d given his name and rank, and displayed his resolve to remain uncooperative. Nothing more was required of a prisoner.
“Get him up,” said Melanus “Hobble him. We’re to bring him to the King.”
The guards kept close watch over Giele as they untied him from the chair. His hands prickled as blood flooded back into them. Less for his own modesty than for decorum, they pulled a robe over his head and tied it at the waist. They bound his hands behind him once more and stuck his legs into cuffs separated by an inflexible length of iron. He’d be able to walk in an awkward, stumbling gait, but would be unable to run. Thus accoutered, they marched him through the Palace. Staffers stood aside and whispered to each other as he was paraded past them. He kept his head down; this was no time for haughty pride. The guards moved around him in a close phalanx, keeping him well-covered from all angles. He thought at first they would bring him to the King’s Hall or Office, but soon he realized they were escorting him up a familiar tower.
They brought him back to Terika’s chambers.
Terika herself laid on her bed, dressed in a gown and clutching a stuffed bear to her chest, a relic of childhood. Tears of humiliation streaked down her cheeks. The Royal Physician knelt between her legs, various brass scopes attached to articulated arms on the leather harness over his shoulders. With all the devices attached to his head, he looked less like an Elf and more like a giant spider. He swung one away from his face and turned to the King. “I’m sorry, my Lord. She has been despoiled.”
Distant thunder rumbled in counterpoint to his mood as King Teirol Morningstar of Aelfland drew up to his full height. Giele had never before seen him up close. Normally he stood behind a balcony during troop reviews. He was tall, with the shoulders of a warrior, not yet hunched by his age. Giele would have given him even odds in a battle against a man half his age. He’d ruled Aelfland longer than Giele had been alive. His image graven on the coins of the realm didn’t do justice to his stately jawline and nose sharp and slender as a bird’s beak. His features remained youthful thanks to the efforts of the Court Physician. His hair flowed in great silvery curls to fall past his pointed ears and around his shoulders—the sign of nobility. Only commoners and the military kept their hair shorn to keep lice away. The wealthy bathed regularly and the soap shops and perfumeries in Upper Morningstar always did a brisk business. He had been roused from sleep, and wore a heavy dressing gown against the chill of the evening.
The King’s philosophy of benevolence through strength had made Aelfland an expansionist nation. Hence, Giele had fought three wars, quelled one uprising, and done so all with great pride. He’d been willing to die for this man, the leader of Aelfland, and stood before the King expecting that would be his fate. A son confronted by a disappointed father could not have been more ashamed than Giele.
“Is this him?” demanded the King. “Is this the man who dared spoil my daughter’s purity?” His fair skin turned an ugly shade of crimson as he turned to a skeletally-thin Elf who was wrapped in layers of dark blue silks. The Elf’s countenance was darkened by a hood which sloped down over his forehead. Only his predatory eyes gleamed from within that shadow. Giele knew him by reputation and description: Iago, the Court mage.
Terika had lied to Giele. Her intention to make him her paramour had been a sham; she’d known full well that revealing him as her lover would land him in chains. What court game was she playing with him as the pawn? Anger flooded through him, but he was too exhausted to nurture it. He’d been a fool, and knew it now, far too late to do anything to change his fate.
Iago raised a bony hand and verdant energy crackled between his fingers. His measured motions betrayed not the least bit of fear or concern at the King’s wrath. No mere ruler of Elves could stir him after he had commanded demons and entreated with spirits. Giele flinched as the energy leaped out to surround him. His hair stood on end and queasiness wracked his gut, as if the energy sapped his very life force.
An answering green glow arose from beneath the sheet covering Terika’s legs.
Iago turned to King Teirol. “Yes, my Lord. It was he,” he said in a smooth, oily voice which seemed to seep right past the King’s fury. “But… he did not take her flower this eve.”
“What?” The King’s eyes widened.
“They have lain together several times. At least a dozen, I should think, my Lord. I sense no trace of another man’s energy. Only he has placed his mark upon her.”
“Can you repair the damage he’s done?”
Iago lowered his head with an unfriendly smile under his hood. “Not now, my Lord. Perhaps if tonight had been the first time. Now I fear she has been permanently spoiled.”
A vein pulsed in the King’s temple. He held out a hand to one of the guards. “Sword.”
One of the guards drew his rapier, bowed, and handed it hilt-first to the King. Teirol yanked the weapon from the man’s grasp and shoved him backward.
Giele prepared to die at the hands of his liege. He bowed his head. He had wronged the throne, and deserved to die for it. He hoped at least the King would be merciful and make his death quick
“Father, wait.” Terika had set aside her stuffed bear and sat with her head held high despite the embarrassing invasion into her chambers. At that moment, she looked every bit the princess with whom Giele had fallen in love: beautiful and innocent.
Hers was the solitary voice that could have stayed the King’s vengeful hand. “What, Terika?”
“I have never asked you for anything before today,” she said. “But I ask you now to grant my request and spare this man’s life.”
“You dare to petition me after this?” Teirol slashed the sword down in fury, cutting into the mattress. A cloud of goose feathers burst out and floated in the his wake as he stalked back and forth. “Breath and Bones, you have a lot of nerve to make demands after this. You must have known this would make you impossible to marry.”
She bowed her head, but did not lower her eyes in deference. Instead she glared at her father. “Yes I did, father, and I am prepared to accept the consequences. But what will it serve to slay this pawn?”
Giele winced to hear the word come from her lips.
“It will settle my mind somewhat to take the life of the man who dared rut with my daughter. For shame, Terika. A commoner.”
A spark of prideful anger lit in Terika, and she raised her head again. “My mother was a commoner, Father, lest you forget. And Giele isn’t a commoner. He’s a decorated officer in your Army.”
The King turned away from her. “Your common blood shows with your behavior, Terika. You should be ashamed to be so thick-headed. I care not what you do after you are wed, but your whoring with this… this peasant.” He spat the word like it had been poison in his mouth. “You’ve ruined any chance for me to forge an alliance through your marriage. He shall pay for his offense against you and against the throne.”
“Father, please! I am the one who has defied your wishes, not he. If nothing else, spare his life”
In that moment, Giele realized how he’d been used. When Terika told him she could make love to whomever she wanted, she neglected to add the most pertinent detail: not until after she wed.
For months rumors had floated about Terika’s possible union with some powerful Jigan warlord. Giele had done his best to ignore such talk, for it made him sick with jealousy. Terika told him she wouldn’t allow herself to be used for political gain, and the proposed marriage arrangement would never occur. She had her eyes on a larger prize: the throne of Aelfland itself.
The many times she and Giele met and made love ensured that she couldn’t be made whole by magic, and thus made herself undesirable as marriage material. Her betrayal made him dizzy. He was nothing more than a tool to her, a cockerel with legs, as they would have said in the military.
Except… she had fought to keep the King from slaying Giele where he stood. Maybe somewhere in those eyes into which he’d spent so many hours gazing, a spark of affection still burned for him.
Teirol glanced back at his daughter’s earnest expression. His fury wavered. Nobody in the room dared to even draw breath. “God’s Blood!” he roared. “You devious little whelp!” He hurled the sword to one side where it stuck quivering in the masonry, and raised his hand to strike Terika.
The Princess lifted her chin, ready to take his blow. The corners of her mouth twitched into an almost-imperceptible smile. She knew she’d won, and so did Teirol. If her common blood had made her choose so far beneath her station for a lover, her royal blood showed now in her political savvy. Someday, she would be a powerful ruler in her own right.
Giele would never live to see it. Of that he was certain.
The King lowered his fist. His teeth were clenched so his jaw muscles stood out in sharp relief. “Very well. Conduct the prisoner back to the dungeon while I decide upon a suitable punishment.” He pointed at Terika. “I give you my word that he shall not be killed, but nothing more.”
Terika nodded, keeping her triumph well-hidden. Only a slight twitching at the corners of her mouth indicated her pleasure. She’d bested the King with her court game, and both knew that in doing so, he lost power and she gained it. “Your rule is benevolent as always, Father.”
He frowned. “You may not think so in a moment.” He turned and grabbed his Physician, hauling the man to his feet by his collar. “You will perform whatever medical procedures required to restore my daughter’s maidenhead.”
Terika’s carefully-composed expression of studious victory began to crack and her eyes widened in horror.
“M-my Lord,” stammered the Physician. “Even with surgery, such a correction would be detected instantly.”
“Perhaps an accident, my Lord,” said Iago. “Unusual calisthenics or even horseback riding have been known to prematurely split a maidenhead.”
The King stamped his foot. “Do what you must. I so command you. My daughter will be married as a virgin. I will not see my treaty dissolved because of her indiscretions.”
The Physician bowed and swallowed hard in fear.
“It shall be done, my Lord. We will bend our heads to research immediately.” Iago turned to Terika. “My Lady, please lie back, raise your gown, and spread your legs apart.” He smiled in a smarmy way that made Giele shudder despite his temporary reprieve.
The King whirled and stalked from the room, leaving Giele kneeling helpless and wondering what Teirol meant by promising nothing more than not to kill him.