Tom had no idea how it was supposed to work. Fighting enemies, whether they were members of Sexton's Protectors Guild, shape-changing druids, or hordes of Crescen soldiers was easy compared to what he was about to do. If he screwed up fighting, the only penalty was death. This time the odds were different, the stakes higher. He was more nervous than he would have been if he was about to go into battle.
He was on a beach outside the living quarters of Benecala, the Mage of Sexton. If he was in America, he might have a better idea of how to proceed. He would walk in, disregarding the man's position—or the deadly destructive power of his magic, of which there would be none—and talk to him man to man. He would tell him of his love for his daughter and announce they were going to get married. Quaiva was no help, but that was probably his fault. He hadn't asked her how to proceed, and she couldn't or wouldn't read his mind.
How long had she been in there? He wished he still had his watch. At least then he would know how long he'd been waiting. He was trying not to think about Andy—in captivity somewhere in Crescens. On the other hand, thinking about Andy's troubles made his nervousness seem trivial. Benecala probably wouldn't turn him into anything that slithered or oozed. On the other hand... He cut the thought short. The other hand was that he had no idea what was going to happen when the door behind him finally opened. It had been nine days since Andy was captured. Nine long days and he was no closer to rescuing his friend, and no closer to marrying the woman he loved.
The door opened and he all but jumped to his feet. Quaiva smiled at him without saying a word, turned her back, and walked back into the room. He walked in and closed the door behind. Benecala was sitting in a chair with a high, padded back. His black and gray beard appeared to have been combed recently, and his long black hair wasn't as greasy as usual. Must've been time for his annual bath, Tom thought. Quaiva was on a padded bench on his right. He couldn't help but smile when he looked at her. This was a rare occasion—seeing her as a daughter—and she looked much younger than she was. Her brown hair was tied back in a long braid with a red ribbon on the end that matched the color of her dress. Her ankles were together on the floor and her back was straight. She smiled back at him, but only with her eyes.
“Sit next to my daughter,” Benecala said. He steepled his fingers. “I want to see how the two of you look together.”
Tom's nerves got the best of him. He blurted, “Sir, there's something I have to discuss...”
Tom did. It didn't lessen his nervousness when he realized he followed the order without thinking about it. To sit, he had to take three steps and turn. The old fart must've used magic, he realized, or I would still be on my feet. His fingers wanted to twitch. To hide the nervousness that would show, he crossed his legs and clasped his hands over his knees. He wanted to speak but knew better. Benecala's tone made it clear who would speak next, and he wasn't going to do that until he was good and ready.
“My daughter has asked for permission to wed you.”
Tom's eyebrows went up. He glanced at Quaiva and saw her blush. “Excuse me?”
Benecala chuckled. “She did not discuss this with you?”
“Of course! Sir, I'm just...surprised...she asked your permission.”
“A father has some say in these matters. It is a tradition I do not wish to see broken. Is that not how it is done in your world?”
Tom laughed. “Where I come from, the man asks permission from the father of the woman he wants to marry. ...Sometimes.”
“Silliness. The man needs no one's permission save that of the woman.”
“That was my thought, but I'm willing to bow to tradition.” he wanted to look away from the wizard and look at her, but didn't quite dare. He had the sense she was wildly amused by the whole thing.
“She,” Benecala continued as if Tom hadn't said a word, “belongs to the father until he decides otherwise.”
He met Benecala's gaze; he wanted to see every nuance. There was something there, and although he'd known him a long time, he couldn't tell what it was. “What have you decided?”
It seemed like a long time before the reply came. The wizard stood. He turned his back on the couple on the bench and looked at the sun and clear sky through the open window behind him. Somewhere nearby, a bird sang. When he turned to face them again, he was smiling. “I have decided to welcome you as my son-in-law, Thomas. Quaiva, dearest girl, he is an excellent choice.”
She clasped Tom's hand and squeezed. He didn't look at her. He was afraid he'd join her if she was crying.
“If you wouldn't mind waiting in the hall again, Thomas, I would like a few words with her.”
Tom didn't try to hide his surprise. He looked at Quaiva and nodded when she smiled at him and glanced at the door. She wasn't crying. That helped. “Okay. I'll wait outside.”
Her palms were sweating, but she wouldn't wipe them on her dress like a cook's assistant. This wasn't part of her plan. There should be nothing further for the two of them to discuss on this matter until after he had a chance to become accustomed to the idea and was prepared to plan the ceremony. She knew him better than anyone else living or dead, and she could see there was something on his mind.
He crossed to her and caressed her cheek. When he released her, he took a step back and looked at her. “How proud your mother would be,” he said in a whisper. “And I am proud as well.”
“Thank you, father.”
He looked at the door, then at her with a scrutiny she didn't know how to interpret. “Does he know you carry his child?”
Her heart all but stopped. She had no spittle in her mouth, and her tongue felt swollen. A hard swallow made it easier. How could he know such a thing, when she wasn't sure herself? How would he feel about it? That he knew was beyond question. She chastised herself for not being forthright about her suspicion.
He seemed to read her every thought and allowed her to play them through her mind. There was a pitcher of water on a table next to his chair. He poured some for her and handed her the cup. With a laugh he said, “You are not thinking clearly, my dear. If you were, you would have known I would see it in you. These things warm my heart.” He smiled with as much warmth and happiness as she had ever seen from him. “We return to my question. Does he know?”
She stood. “I only suspected it myself...and apologize for not thinking you would see it as clearly as you see light.” Her apology was waved away. She swallowed and glanced at the door. “No. He does not know. He must focus his attention on the rescue of Andy from the Crescens. To ask otherwise of him would tear him apart. He will not know about my...”
“Don't try to stop me! Please.”
“I was not stopping you.” He chuckled. “I was but finishing your thought.”
“I was going to say 'pregnancy.'”
“I am telling you that you will have a daughter.”
The devilish twinkle in his eyes was much closer to the look they normally carried, but she didn’t like that it was aimed at her. “You were saying...?”
She aimed a finger at him. “You will tell no one I’m pregnant. And I will not tell him until he comes back safely with Andy. Then and only then, if he will still have me, will we marry. Agreed?”
He embraced her. “I will do as you ask.”
John was waiting at the door when Tom finally got to his room. He was leaning against the wall with his arms folded over his chest and a big grin on his face. There was a sack on the floor next to him. “How did it go?” he asked. “I see you’re not a toad yet.”
Tom rubbed his chin. It had been a long day, and he was tired. “Not yet anyway.” He glanced at the sack in John’s hand. “Did I lose a bet with you?”
“No. Why would you ask that?”
“That looks like a sack of laundry, and you’re waiting outside my door. Is it a welshing if I don’t do your laundry because I don’t remember the bet?”
“It would be.” John laughed. He picked up the sack and nodded at the door. “Benecala said I had to bunk with you. These are my clothes.”
Tom was too tired to ask, and too tired to argue with any response asking might have brought. He shrugged and reached for the door handle. “You get the couch. There’s only one bed.”
“You have a couch? How do you rate?”
“Academy grad. There aren’t a lot of perks that go with that, but this is one.” he smiled. “Rent is due daily...a silver. I get the bed and the first shower in the morning.” He opened the door.
“You have a shower?” He wasn’t sure if Tom was kidding or not. The last thing he expected was Tom stopping in the middle of the doorway. He walked right up to him. His eyes bugged when he saw the room was lit. Candles on the table in the middle of the room gave enough light for him to see the bed, the couch, the doors on the balcony, and what made Tom stop in his tracks.
His royal majesty, King Rolof of Sexton, was sitting in the chair. The candles were burned half down, and there were little puddles of white wax on the table. He’d been there a while. They hadn't seen him since they got back. Not that they expected to see him. Kings had better things to do than wait for a couple of guys to come back from a failed mission. John smiled at him. He liked the king... They liked the king. He looked healthy and vibrant. His red hair shined in the candlelight and his teeth looked white under his beard when he finally smiled.
“No,” Tom said.
“No?” Rolof repeated. “I haven’t said a word, and you start with a no?”
Tom sat on the bed. “I’m very tired, and John probably is too. No offense intended, your highness, but every time we see you, you want us to go on a mission that could get us killed. I figured I’d save some time and just say no.”
Rolof stood. He crossed to the bed and clapped Tom on the shoulder. His grin was infectious and both men joined him. “I came to ask no favors, nor to send you on a mission. “He shrugged. “I reserve the right for that at a later time, of course.” The smile faded from his face. “Let us not forget that I’m the king.”
“It’s good to be the king,” John said. He was thinking of a Mel Brooks movie and almost laughed. His brain pictured Rolof telling all the pawns—living people in lawn chess—to jump the queen. It almost made him giggle. Sleep. He needed sleep, and soon.
Tom yawned. “What brings you to my room in person in the middle of the night?”
Rolof let go of his shoulder and extended his hand and shook hands with Tom. “Congratulations are in order. I understand you and Quaiva are engaged to be wed!”
Tom’s eyebrows rose. “How did you know?”
“Why do I have to keep saying it? I’m the king.”
Jon said, “And people tell you everything? The only people that now are the folks that were on the boat, and the sailors on Quarick’s ship, and Quaiva, and me, and Benecala. Who told you?”
“Know you nothing about rumors?” He glanced at the expression on John’s face and let loose a booming laugh. “Yes, I suppose you do. What you do now know is that my people have a habit of assuming I neither listen nor care to listen to comments not directly addressed to me. If I sit long enough in one place, with a royal and ponderous expression on my face, the people around me assume I’m thinking royal thoughts...governing from the limits of my skull, or some other nonsense.” His next laugh was almost a giggle. “You should hear what the chambermaids prattle about when they give me baths.”
John shot Tom a look and saw laughter in his eyes. “Do they give you baths too?”
“Do I look like a king?”
“A little...around the eyes.”
Tom shook his head. “You came to congratulate me? Thank you, your majesty.”
Rolof’s expression turned serious. “I will stay out of your wedding plans, of course. Still, you must know this: I have no wife and no daughter. The closest persons in this castle to royalty other than myself are Benecala and Quaiva. She is not now, nor can she ever be a princess, but when she weds no one by appearances will know the difference.”
“A royal wedding?” Tom asked. His expression was almost comic. “You’re kidding. Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“Do I look like I’m kidding?”
John leaned forward and put his face close to Rolof’s. He turned to Tom and smiled. “He doesn’t look like he’s kidding.”
“I see that.”
Rolof turned to leave. He stopped next to the door. “One more thing, gentlemen. I know your friend Andrew was captured. I count him as one of my personal friends. Nothing will stop you from affecting a rescue, I know. You probably plan to leave soon, correct?”
Jon looked at Tom. He couldn’t read anything in his face, but he knew his friend would want to leave at first light and ride hard for Crescens. He was all for it if that was the plan. They were already nine days behind him and it would take several more for them to reach Crescens and start looking.
“Soon,” Tom answered.
“You need to rest for a couple of days before you go. I can see the exhaustion in both of you and I am—according to most—not an observant man. Three days will not make a difference in your mission. Stay and rest.”
“We’ll take that under advisement, sir.” Tom smiled. His yawn was real.
The king nodded. He looked at John and smiled. “Benecala asked me to give you this.” He reached under his belt and pulled out a small pouch. It rested in his palm.
“What is it?” John asked.
Rolof closed his hand over the pouch and squeezed. He threw it to the floor. A cloud of orange flew into the air and he backed out the door covered in haze. In the hall, he continued to hold his breath until he could hold it no longer. That damn wizard could pack a lot in a small package, but he didn’t say how fast the dust would work. He felt sleepy himself, but knew he didn’t breathe much of it in. If he had, he would sleep for a long time.
There was no noise from within the room. John and Tom would sleep for three days. Resting would arm them better for their mission than anything else he could give them. For his part, Rolof decided a hunting trip to his forest in the north would be in order. He would return to the palace in five days...two days after the Americans woke up and left for Crescens.
Andy opened his eyes. Bright light. Hurts. He closed them again, but stayed awake. Groggy. He was, but could feel himself growing alert. The last thing he remembered was getting the crap kicked out of him by a mob of Crescens in the tunnels under the Fortress Balfour. After that things were a blur: captivity, chains, getting carried—probably drugged, but maybe under that damn druid’s spell—on a land route to somewhere. How long ago was that? He had no idea.
He opened his eyes to slits and tried to get used to the light. Prisoner of war. The term rattled around in his head for a while. But why? They didn’t hesitate to kill everyone that got in their way. What’s special about me? Other than coming from a world they couldn’t imagine existed, he couldn’t think of anything. It wasn’t like he was a great warrior, or a prince, or a general in the Army of Sexton. As a hostage he wasn’t worth much. He had no rank, so they wouldn’t think he could give them enemy plans.
He moved his hands, which were untied, over the mattress under him. It was odd they put a mattress in a prison. The place didn’t smell bad either. No stench of sweat, no reek of urine, no odor of moldy straw. What the hell was he lying on? He wriggled his hips and didn’t hear the crunch of straw. If he didn’t know better, he would think he was on a feather bed. His eyebrows went up when he opened his eyes. The light was sunlight filtered through sheer curtains. There was a pillow under his head. A nice, soft pillow. Nice digs. Too nice. He wondered if he should be alarmed. Could he move? His ribs hurt when he sat up, but it was an aching pain rather than the stab of broken bones. His lips felt funny. Swollen? He moved his jaw around with his hand, remembering a few punches to his face while they were in the tunnel. He was dressed in something that looked and felt like silk pajamas. He ran his hands over his thighs, enjoying the feel of the fabric, and grinned when he realized he wasn’t tied up in any way.
The room was small and clean. Very clean. The floor was some kind of tile: green with flecks of gold. The walls were white, and the window did indeed have sheer curtains over it. A warm dry breeze blew into the room and fluttered the curtains. To his right was a door with a peaked arch at the top. There was no handle on the inside and he figured it was locked. It was a prison of some sort, but what kind of prison? If he was in Crescens, and he had no reason to think he was anywhere else, why was he in a nice place? There was plenty of poverty in the country. He was sure they didn’t have money to treat all prisoners this well.
He looked to the right and saw a table against the wall. On it was a pitcher and a plate with some kind of bread on it. His stomach rumbled at the sight. His legs wobbled when he stood, probably from lack of use. He couldn’t remember the last time he stood up or walked after the beating in the tunnel. Five or six steps took him to the table. He spilled a little of the water when he gulped it. Rather than waste the spilled water, he smeared more on his face. There didn’t’ seem toe any bruising, but there were a few tender spots that were probably pretty banged up for the first few days after the beatings. There was a lot of stubble on his face. Maybe he’d grow it into a beard.
A knock at the door brought a chill to his spine. He put the cup down and looked at it without saying a word. It opened, and a woman entered. She glanced at the bed, then looked deeper into the room and smiled when she saw him. A word whispered over her shoulder, and the door closed behind her.
It took him a second to realize who she was. The blond hair and blue eyes, the ready smile over white teeth, and the shape of her hips and breasts under the black dress did the trick. It took another second to get his lungs to work well enough to push breath and words out. “Sarah?”
Sarah was on of the wives of their friend Raj—an exile from Crescens who became their friend and got them into the spice trade, which was illegal in both countries, and who—Andy remembered with a gulp—went on to become King Rajahd’een of Crescens, the man responsible for starting the war. “Is that you?”
She smiled. “I am quite happy to see you awake. Are you well?”
He blinked and grinned. “Am I well? Um...I guess. How long have I been here?” Before she could answer, he held up a hand to stop her. “I mean. Where am I and how long have I been here?”
She shook her head and looked away. “I came only to see that you are well. I am so sorry, my friend, but I am not authorized to answer any of your questions. Is there anything in the way of food or drink I can get for you? The bread and water are here only to break your fast. Other foods are available to you. Perhaps you would like fruit or wine?”
She smiled. “What, pray tell, are tacos?”
“Ground beef heated until brown, served in flat bread with tomatoes, and lettuce, and cheese on top. A little spice added to the meat would be great.” his stomach rumbled loud enough for her to hear and make her giggle. “Four or five of ‘em should do the trick.”
“Yes, please.” Hot damn! I just invented tacos!”
“I will see what I can do. In the meantime, you should rest. You have a meeting in a few hours. I will wake you when I bring the tacos.” She knocked once on the door. It opened and she smiled at him as she backed out.
“Wait! Who is the meeting with?”
Her head poked back in. “Why...with the king. King Rajahd’een. Who else?”
The door closed. He heard a bolt click. Feeling tired again, he looked at the bed and sighed. “Tacos on the way, brought by a hot chick in a tight dress, a feather bed, and a king coming to see me. Things could be worse, I suppose...” The bed felt good. He was asleep in minutes.