"Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla." Prince Albrecht greeted her as he and Torvan crossed the Town Square. She had been 'Val' for so long now that Valeria almost looked around to see whom he was addressing.
Valeria smiled. "You can call me..." She hesitated. She couldn't quite bring herself to tell him to call her 'Val.' "...ah, Valeria will do."
Valeria had been waiting by the fountain for quite some time. It seemed that the people of Tristram enjoyed long meals. There had been periodic pangs of annoyance at being kept waiting, but, for the most part, Valeria kept her peace. She had developed a newfound patience over the last couple of days. Plus, a town square in the middle of Caravan was never a dull place to be. She had crossed the square to Hogan Griswold's stand and tried one of his 'hoagies.' Hogan himself had been home dining with his family and the Prince, of course, but he'd left an assistant on duty. After she ate, she watched some actors perform a skit based on a "Lord Cool & Stupidhead" story. It was a quality performance that, at its climax, even featured a real cow.
The Prince sat beside her on the edge of the fountain. Torvan stood nearby. It occurred to Valeria that Prince Albrecht might have been one of the ten people in the world least in need of a bodyguard, and she told him so. "From what I've seen," Valeria told the Prince, "there's not a soul in this town who'd wish you harm. And if there was, he wouldn't last long at the hands of the other townsfolk."
Albrecht laughed. "My father insists that a guard accompany me when I leave the palace, but that's all right." He reached up and playfully punched Torvan on the arm. "I enjoy the company."
|"It's just that I've never seen the kind of loyalty you inspire in your subjects." She waved her arm at the busy square. "There's not a single person here who wouldn't storm the Gates of Hell itself for you."|
"And we enjoy yours," added Torvan. His voice bore only traces of his father's accent. "Guarding the Prince is a much sought-after duty among the Town Guards."
Valeria sighed. When she'd had guards assigned to her in Riparia, they were almost always low-ranking rookies. Anyone able to avoid the duty did. Certainly, no guard had ever invited her to dine with his family. The reason was obvious: she abused and belittled her guards. She hadn't realized just how unpopular she was in Riparia, or why, until she'd seen Prince Albrecht. Throughout their conversation, Albrecht had waved to passersby and greeted most of them by name. Valeria didn't know the name of her own chambermaid.
"Are you all right, Valeria?" asked Albrecht.
"I'm sorry," said Valeria. "It's just that I've never seen the kind of loyalty you inspire in your subjects." She waved her arm at the busy square. "There's not a single person here who wouldn't storm the Gates of Hell itself for you."
"I think you're exaggerating," smiled Albrecht. "I'm just..."
"She's right, Al," interrupted Wirt, joining them.
"One day you'll be the greatest king Khanduras has ever known," agreed Torvan.
"Well, I do the best I can," said the Prince humbly.
"My Prince," said Wirt. "You do much more than that. No one in this land knows that better than I do. I owe you my life, my identity -- my very humanity."
"Toby, I did nothing for you that one friend wouldn't have done for another," argued Albrecht.
"Before you came along, I had no friends," said Wirt. "Believe me when I tell you, if you need the Gates of Hell stormed, I'll be the first in line."
Suddenly, the sound of strange music came from a tent at the southwest corner of the square. Valeria couldn't quite identify the instruments at work other than a steady, almost hypnotic, drumbeat. In any event, the music had an eerie, unearthly quality to it.
"Have you seen the dancers yet?" asked Wirt, nodding toward the tent. "I hear they put on quite a show. I was on my way over to see for myself when I saw you here."
"Shall we go have a look?" suggested Albrecht.
Valeria nodded and she, Albrecht, and Torvan followed Wirt to the dancers' tent.
The source of the music was a small band playing near a simple wooden stage. There was a man playing a mandolin, two men playing Pan pipes of some sort and a fourth man pounding on an array of different-sized drums before him. All four members of the band were emaciated pale-skinned old men. Their eyes were glassy.
There were no seats inside the tent, and it was packed to capacity. Valeria was not able to get much further in than the doorway. The combined body heat of the audience and the non-existent ventilation within the tent was almost unbearable. Only the cool breeze from the doorway on the back of Valeria's neck provided any relief. Furthermore, a strange musky scent hung thick in the air that immediately made Valeria feel fuzzyheaded and distracted.
|There was something wrong with this scene. Such a performance should have been accompanied by hoots and cheers from the audience. Except for the music and the sound of the dancer's light-footed tread on the wooden stage, this place was as silent as death.|
No one else seemed bothered by the oppressive heat and odors inside the tent. The entire audience, which consisted of mostly, but not entirely, men, was staring mesmerized at a red-haired young woman dancing on the stage. In each hand, she held a razor-sharp scimitar and, as she danced and spun, she used them to slice pieces from her flimsy costume and fling them into the crowd.
Valeria frowned. (The outside air felt positively icy down her back and neck.) There was something wrong with this scene. Such a performance should have been accompanied by hoots and cheers from the audience. But, except for the music and the sound of the dancer's light-footed tread on the wooden stage, this place was as silent as death. Valeria felt a black dread grip her heart. She tried to speak. She wanted to shout to everyone present that they were in grave danger and that they should run for their lives, but her voice seemed to be gone again. She took a half step backward toward the salvation of the fresh outside air.
Then, the dancer looked Valeria straight in the eye and Valeria froze. The dancer licked her lips seductively. She arched her back as the two scimitars went over her shoulders behind her. As she straightened her arms, the curved blades sliced up the sides of her gossamer costume from the inside. It fell to the stage in two pieces and a soft sigh rippled through the audience.
The dancer regarded her audience with a green-eyed gaze, licked her lips again and then spun offstage behind a black curtain. At the same moment, a second dancer leaped onto the stage. She was just as lovely as the first, but that was the end of the similarities. This one had olive skin and long black hair that snapped like a whip when she tossed her head. Where the first dancer's costume had been white and delicate like mist, the new dancer wore black leather and matching thigh-high boots with four-inch heels. Instead of swords, she had a six-foot snake.
As Valeria watched the new dancer perform, she had a nagging feeling that there had been something she was worried about. She couldn't imagine what though.
After awhile, the black-haired dancer retired the snake backstage and was joined by the first dancer. The two girls slithered around each other to the music and the temperature in the tent began to rise. They twirled and spun in and out of embraces, their fingers, lips and hair dancing across each other's bodies.
A gust of cool air from outside blew against Valeria's back and she startled. Beside her, Wirt, Torvan and even Albrecht stared at the stage, their eyes glazed.
Look at them, thought Valeria in disgust. She was especially disappointed in Albrecht. They're probably imagining being with those dancers; touching their soft smooth skin and stroking luxurious black and orange hair. Fantasizing about nimble delicate fingers freeing them from my clothes, and hot wet kisses tracing across my skin...
Valeria shivered and stepped backwards to regain her balance. She found herself outside, where the fresh air broke the spell. Valeria felt disoriented and feverish. She had no idea how long she had been in the tent, but it was fully dark out now. She staggered over to the fountain, trying to sort out, or at least fully recall, the odd thoughts that had been running through her head.
When she reached the fountain, she plunged her head into the cold water.
Valeria stayed submerged until her lungs ached. Finally, she pulled her head up and gasped. The cold water dripping down her front and back helped ease the symptoms brought on by the performance in the tent.
As Valeria emerged from the water, someone handed her a handkerchief. "Been to see the dancers," he stated as she wiped the water from her eyes.
The Archbishop Lazarus sat on the edge of the fountain, a half-eaten hoagie in his hand. He was wearing a simple white robe with gray trim rather than the full ceremonial garb he'd been wearing the last time Valeria saw him.
"They've created quite a stir over the last day or two," said Lazarus as Valeria handed him back his handkerchief. "They're enhancing their performance with magic, you know. It must be fairly powerful magic to affect such a large audience of both men and women."
"Can't you stop them?" asked Valeria. On the one hand, it was good to know that her libido hadn't just charged off into the wilderness on its own accord. On the other hand, she didn't like the idea of being under anyone's spell.
Lazarus shrugged. "They're not doing anything illegal. It would be different if they were using sex magic to commit a crime or to gain an unfair advantage over someone, but as far as I can tell, it's being used strictly for entertainment purposes."
Valeria sat down and tried to wring some of the water out of her hair. "I still don't like it," she complained. "I feel like I've been violated."
"I'm afraid I can't help you much beyond advising you to stay away from them," said Lazarus. "As I said, it's perfectly legal. Believe me, nothing would make Captain Lachdanan happier than catching those dancers committing a crime and having an excuse to make them leave town."
The mention of Captain Lachdanan gave Valeria a guilty start.
"In fact," continued Lazarus, "Lachdanan tried to have such performances barred from Tristram. Unfortunately for him, he was opposed by both the United Flesh Workers' Guild and by Dashan Warriv, the President of the Caravan Merchant and Performers Association. King Leoric finally ordered him to abandon his campaign when Warriv threatened to have Caravan bypass Khanduras and make two stops in Westmarch instead."
"You sound as if you didn't share his opposition," ventured Valeria.
"Philosophically, I did and still do," said Lazarus. "But Lachdanan is a Warrior. It's in his nature to battle all evil whenever he encounters it. I have the luxury of avoiding losing battles. This one was destined to end in failure. Even without the threat of a boycott by Caravan, Lachdanan's cause only enjoyed lukewarm popular support at best. In fact, without Mrs. Ogden's very vocal support, he probably wouldn't have even done as well as he did."
"People don't like being told what to do," suggested Valeria.
|"Small temptations are good for the soul. They give us the opportunity to test the strength of our convictions and, if we find ourselves wanting, we can make improvements. Sometimes a small stumble on the Lighted Path may be what saves you from falling into the darkness."|
"On the contrary," replied Lazarus with a mischevious wink. "To a certain extent, they need to be told what to do. It's being told not to do something that really ruffles their feathers."
Valeria laughed. She'd keep that in mind if she ever got back to Riparia.
Lazarus shrugged. "The truth is small temptations are good for the soul. They give us the opportunity to test the strength of our convictions and, if we find ourselves wanting, we can make improvements. Sometimes a small stumble on the Lighted Path may be what saves you from falling into the darkness." He paused. "Hmm. Pardon me for a minute." Lazarus reached into his pocket for a notepad and a charcoal stick and then scribbled a quick note. "I might be able to use that in my next sermon."
Across the square, the music died down and lights came on inside the tent. Valeria could hear the groggy voices of the audience as the spell wore off.
"Still," mused Lazarus. "It's a pity Captain Lachdanan didn't get a chance to take his case to court. It would have made an interesting trial. I've always been fascinated by law. My father was an Advocate, and I myself was studying to be a Counselor when I answered the call of Zakarum. Ah well. 'One door closes, another one opens. We choose our paths and they choose us.'"
People were starting to wander out of the tent. They looked dazed and disoriented.
Lazarus got up. "It looks as though I'd better go man the Confessional." He held up his hand and made the Sign of Zakarum. "It's been a pleasure visiting with you. May Zakarum guide you and protect you."
"Thanks," replied Valeria. She was not of a religious persuasion and was not quite sure of the proper response. "You too."
Lazarus favored her with a good-natured chuckle and turned to leave; unaware of the path that would choose him within the next forty-eight hours.
Valeria saw Wirt, Albrecht and Torvan exit the tent and called to them.
"Where did you go?" asked Albrecht. "We looked for you inside."
"I got bored and left," lied Valeria. "You three seemed to be enjoying the show so much, I hated to disturb you."
"Well," said Albrecht, "they certainly weren't the kind of dancers I was expecting. Though, in hindsight, I don't see why not. Nobody gets that excited about acrobats."
"I need a drink," said Wirt.
"I need a cold bath," volunteered Torvan.
"Try the fountain," suggested Valeria.
Albrecht noted her dripping hair and didn't hesitate. "You're right," he said, when he pulled his head from the water and wiped his face with his sleeve. "That does help."
Wirt and Torvan followed suit.
"Now then," said the Prince. "I believe Toby said he was going to buy us all some drinks."
Wirt's jaw dropped. "But..." he began, and then finished. "Yes, My Prince."
"Oh come on, Toby. I'm just teasing you and you know it." He patted the younger boy on the back. "Drinks are on the Royal Treasury."
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