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Escort Duty – Part 20

Erika sat on a stool before a bronze mirror as a girl brushed her hair out. The soldiers had handed her over to the Duke’s guards late the night before, and the marks on her wrist showed how she had struggled against her bonds as she rode. She felt some satisfaction in knowing that her resistance had slowed her captors’ return to the city. The captain of the guards, a man with one eye who introduced himself as Gabor, had instructed several servants to assist her.

Now, she was thoroughly scrubbed, dressed in a silk gown the color of dragon’s fire, and sat having her hair and jewelry gone over by two servants. She looked about in disbelief, half expecting to see Greta’s smile reflected in the mirror as she fussed with the princess’ hair.

“Now, lady, you are beautiful,” the matronly woman who managed the servant girls said in a thick accent, “The Duke will be happy to see you in such a state.”

Erika looked at her sharply, but said nothing.

The servants finished their work, then helped Erika to her feet. The shoes they had put on her were too tight, and they pinched as Erika walked to the door of her chamber. Two guards, their clothing black with a bronze dragon embroidered on the chest of their tunics, escorted her down the stairs. Late-morning sun streamed through windows as she was led to a large meeting hall below.

A man, tall, stout, with grizzled gray hair clipped close to his scalp, sat in a chair at the end of the hall. Next to him stood an older man, wearing a woolen cloak dyed the color of ripe wheat. He held a wax tablet in one hand and a stylus in the other.  He scribbled rapidly as the seated man talked.

“Tell him that payment for his curse will come when I have taken Pesht. Butter him up a bit and tell him the plague is working better than expected, and there will be plenty of open lands to reward him with once the campaign is….” the man said, looking up and smiling as he saw Erika walk into the hall.

“Ah, my lady, so good to meet you at last,” he said as he rose with a dismissive gesture to his servant. The scribe bowed as she approached, then turned and left the hall, his scroll and stylus in hand.

The man stood and walked toward the princess. He was half a head taller than Erika, and wore a tunic of soft, heather-gray velvet across his broad shoulders and protruding belly. The silk slippers on his feet made no sound as he took a step closer to the women, and amethysts twinkled from his ears.

“Duke Kyrali, I presume,” Erika said, affecting her most imperious tone.

The duke bowed dramatically, “At your service, my lady.”

“If you are at my service, then why did your men kill my servant and drag me here against my will?”

“Ah, but that was just a misunderstanding. I’m sure they meant no harm.”

“No harm? Greta was a loyal maid whom I have known most of my life! And to bring me here as a prisoner, to force me to appear before you, that is outrageous!” Erika said as she raised her wrists up to show the bruises and marks from her bonds.

Kyrali acted as if he did not notice, instead taking Erika by the hand and leading her to a small table laid out with food and drink. A servant poured yellow wine into a silver cup for Erika, while the duke offered her a plate of cheese and grapes.

“Come, my lady, accept my hospitality,” he said in a silken tone, “It isn’t often that such a beautiful and noble woman graces us with her presence.”

Erika glared at him over the top of her wine, but took a piece of cheese from the plate. She nibbled on it for a moment, then looked at Kyrali with a shrewd expression.

“And what exactly do you want with me?” she demanded.

“Why, only to be of service to you and to offer you a rest from your long journey, fair lady,” he replied.

“If you wish to be of service to me, speed me to the borders of your lands so that I may return home!”

“Now, there’s no need to rush. I know of your father’s death, my lady. Such a pity, for such a beautiful woman to be without a protector and lord.”

This woman has no need of a protector or a lord, and how dare you speak of my father, you cur!”

“Ah, but I know that you are unwed, my lady,” he said, clucking his tongue, “How shameful that your father did not take care of that before his untimely demise.”

“What business is that of yours?” she retorted through clenched teeth.

“Why, since I plan on joining our kingdoms through marriage, it’s surely my business, Erika. May I call you Erika?”

“No, you may not, and if you think I’m going to….”

“Oh, I know of your betrothal, too. Really, your father was terrible about ensuring that his people stayed loyal to his house. But don’t worry your pretty little head about that, my dear. I’ll deal with Prince Jorgen as soon as I have united Booda and Pesht once again, and the resources of the Western Islands are mine.”

“My people will never…”

“Never let a gossamer hair on your head come to harm, my lady,” the duke interrupted with an oily smile, “even if that means providing me with ships and soldiers and whatever else your new husband requires. No, I think that we shall make a fine pair, and you shall give me good sons to rule both kingdoms.”

“You are no king, and I will not be your brood mare,” Erika said defiantly.

“Ah, but you see, I soon shall be. The little country of Pesht is being ravaged by a horrific plague, as I’m sure you saw on your way through that poor land.”

“I saw empty villages and farms turning to wasteland, if that’s what you mean,” she replied in an icy tone.

The duke shook his head sadly. “Yes, horrible, isn’t it? I’m sorry to say I’ve had to close my border with our neighbors to keep the contagion from spreading here. More wine?”

“I heard what you were saying when I came in. How can you kill all those people?”

“Ah, you are a sharp young lady, aren’t you? No matter. You see, a land depopulated by sickness can’t stop my army from crossing the border to… assist our neighbors. Of course, after we’ve garrisoned troops there to bring comfort to them, they’ll be happy to be ruled by such a benevolent master as me. And once I rule both lands, why, what else can I call myself but ‘King’?”  His smile widened as he took a sip from his cup.

“Benevolent?” Erika snorted, “You evil little snake, you’re murdering children so that you can steal from your neighbor!”

“Well, I guess it just depends on how one looks at it, doesn’t it, my dear?”

The duke took another drink from his wine, then smirked at Erika as he put his chalice down on the table.

“And since you had the bad manners to eavesdrop while I spoke to my advisor, I’ll just have to make sure you never have an opportunity to spread such things around. You’ll make a fine lady in the high tower, won’t you?”

His teeth showed white against his beard as he grinned at her and lifted his cup to drain it.

Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

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