As Valeria, Albrecht, Wirt and Torvan approached the entrance to the Tavern of the Rising Sun, they heard a scream from within. Seconds later, a man raced out the door, holding his crotch. Inside, Nova shook the cold from her fingertips.
"He asked for something that wasn't on the menu," Nova explained in answer to the questioning looks of the Prince and his party.
"You have got to teach me that spell," insisted Valeria, her eyes full of admiration.
Nova showed them to a table away from the heavy traffic around the door and the bar. "Mrs. Ogden just closed the kitchen, but I'm sure..."
Albrecht held up his hand to stop her. "Mrs. Griswold prepared an outstanding and very large meal for Torvan and me. Valeria? Toby?"
Valeria and Toby both shook their heads.
"Just a pitcher of beer and a little something to keep it settled then," said Albrecht.
"Albrecht, I'm shocked at you," said Mrs. Ogden, when she brought their order. "I saw you coming out of that immoral little peepshow. What would your father say?" Behind her, Nova wore a helpless "don't blame me" expression.
"I doubt he'd approve, but then he doesn't quite approve of me being here in town either," answered Albrecht with a smile. "The truth is, we didn't realize what kind of show it was until we got there."
"I didn't see you come out before the end of the show," observed Mrs. Ogden.
"It's not his fault," interjected Gillian, who had been passing by with a tray full of empty mugs. "They cast some sort of spell on you in there." She hesitated, her face flushed. It was clear to Valeria that Gillian would have preferred not to volunteer the information she was about to give, but felt it important in defending her prince. "You know I've always loved dance, so I went the first night," she said. "When I saw what was going on, I turned to leave but then the black-haired dancer caught my eye. I couldn't move and I lost all track of time." She looked at the floor and shook her head. "All through the next day, I had the strangest thoughts running through my head."
Mrs. Ogden looked at Gillian sympathetically. "That's all right, dear," she said. "I'm sure no one here thinks any the less of you." She turned to Albrecht. "You're not off the hook quite so easily. Regardless of whether you were misled into that tent..." She spared Wirt an accusing glance. "...as our future ruler, we're counting on you to have the force of will to resist temptation."
"I know," said Albrecht. "And you're right. I'll try harder in the future."
Mrs. Ogden finally favored him with a broad smile. "I know you will, My Prince." She set their order on the table and bowed.
Nova joined them as Mrs. Ogden returned to the kitchen. "Sorry about that," she apologized. "You know how she gets."
"If someone had spoken to me like that in Riparia, I'd have had her cleaning the stables with her fingernails for a month," said Valeria.
"Our friend it the heir to the House of Halla in Riparia," explained in response to the questioning looks Gillian and Nova exchanged. "Anyway, Mrs. Ogden has the best interests of the kingdom at heart," he continued. "Her concerns, whether I entirely agree with them or not, are valid. But even if I thought she was a crazy woman, I would have still given her my full attention while she spoke her piece. Part of it is simple good manners, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that anyone can come up with a good idea or insight from time to time. You just have to listen."
|"If I was bewitched or enchanted, then that's a weakness that could endanger the entire kingdom. I'll go see Lazarus after Caravan leaves. Maybe he can show me some way of protecting myself better."|
Albrecht paused thoughtfully. "For example, Mrs. Ogden got me thinking: If I was bewitched or enchanted, then that's a weakness that could endanger the entire kingdom. It might not have occurred to me if she hadn't pointed it out. I'll go see Lazarus after Caravan leaves. Maybe he can show me some way of protecting myself better."
Valeria nodded. Taking the time to listen. That was his secret. Mrs. Ogden had walked away from that table beaming, knowing that she had made a difference. If that was the way everyone felt after talking to Prince Albrecht, it was no wonder Khanduras was so crazy for him. Valeria doubted she'd ever be able to develop the kind of patience that Albrecht used to such advantage.
While they were talking, Gillian had taken her dishes to the kitchen and returned to the table. She was about join her friends when she spied a young woman sitting alone at an adjacent table. "Oh no," breathed Gillian and excused herself.
The woman at the table was the same one who had been with Tommy Farnham the night before. She looked to be about Valeria's age, perhaps a year or two older, and was pretty in a mousy sort of way. Her makeup had been heavy-handedly and inexpertly applied though. A tear had plowed a canal through it as it rolled down her cheek. She sat, head resting on hand, and elbow resting on the table, staring into a glass filled with a blue liquid.
"Glorianna Lester, what are you drinking?" Gillian asked.
"Blue Whoopee," said Glorianna without looking up. A Blue Whoopee contained wine and spices, but the key ingredient was extract from a Full Mana Potion. The blue potions that spellcasters used to restore their magical energies were well known for the slight side effect they had on the imbiber's libido. In a Blue Whoopee, the aphrodisiac effect was magnified five to ten times.
"Who served you that?" Gillian asked, and shot a glance at Nova who shook her head.
"Mixed it m'self," replied Glorianna. "Was busy. No one was behind the bar."
"Glorianna," said Gillian gently. "Don't you know you're only supposed to drink those with someone you love?"
"I know," said Glorianna with a sad sigh. "It's just that I thought I would've found somebody by now."
Valeria found it a little odd that a relatively attractive young woman would have trouble finding a companion in a tavern where the barmaid had to just about freeze the balls off of unwanted suitors.
The tavern door opened and Hector Gorash entered. There was a knot of men gathered at the end of the bar near the door, so he stepped around them and strode up to the far end of the bar. He was just about to order a drink from Ogden when Glorianna spotted him.
"Hector!" she called.
Even through his cloak and armor, Valeria imagined that she could see his shoulder blades tense as he recognized the voice. He did not turn around.
"Hector!" she called again, this time rising to her feet. Her voice was clear over the surrounding conversation. "Come on, don't be like that."
Gillian and Nova both tried to get her to sit down again, but Glorianna was having none of it. "Oh, Hector, I'm all alone. Won't you take me home?" pleaded Glorianna, and then giggled at the half-rhyme.
"No," muttered Gorash firmly. "Go away."
Glorianna came up behind him and tried to wrap her arms around him. "Won't you take me to the barn and teach me the Fleshdance again?"
Gorash pulled himself free, shoving Glorianna the other way. "I said no!" he snapped. "What the hell do you want from me anyway?"
"I want you to take me in your arms and dance the Fleshdance with me again," breathed Glorianna.
|Gorash stepped back a pace, reaching for his sword. His hand lingered near the hilt for a long moment, murder in his eyes. He took a deep breath. "We are through," he told her finally. "I want nothing more to do with you. Ever."|
The tavern had fallen silent to watch the unfolding drama, and Valeria could see the heat rushing to the Ranger's cheeks. "Damn you!" said Gorash, backing away. "Thanks to you, I got demoted and Farmer Lester's got a lien on everything I own for the next five years. Isn't that enough?"
The demotion explained why Valeria had never heard him addressed as Captain Gorash even though he commanded the Khanduran Rangers. The proper title for his current rank would have been Sir Gorash. No doubt Albrecht had introduced him by his first name at the opening ceremony to spare the man from having his dirty laundry aired in front of strangers. Unfortunately, Glorianna seemed to have her mind set on making a public spectacle.
"You said you would love me forever," accused Glorianna.
"And you said you were Farmer Lester's niece!" Gorash shot back.
Glorianna shrugged. "I lied. You lied. Let's lie together." She giggled.
Gorash stepped back a pace, reaching for his sword. His hand lingered near the hilt for a long moment, murder in his eyes. He took a deep breath. "We are through," he told her finally. "I want nothing more to do with you. Ever." He turned his back on her to leave.
Glorianna screamed and hurled her drink at him. She missed.
Gorash looked down at the pool of blue liquid and broken glass and shook his head. Then he spoke loudly enough for all the patrons in the silent tavern to hear: "I'd advise the rest of you to have nothing to do with this madwoman either. She's poison." He stepped around the mess and made for the exit. As he reached the door, it opened and Farmer Lester stepped in.
Farmer Lester assessed the situation with those cold, calculating eyes that Valeria remembered from her encounter with him at the docks. "Come to bang my wife again?" he asked Gorash in that deceptively folksy voice. "That could cost you."
The temperature in the Tavern of the Rising Sun dropped many degrees. "Don't," said Gorash, "push it."
Farmer Lester, apparently unperturbed, stepped aside and allowed the Ranger to leave. As he did, he touched the brim of his straw hat and nodded politely. "Sir Gorash."
Farmer Lester waited until the door had swung fully shut behind Gorash. "All right then. Come along, Glorianna," he said. "Your chores aren't getting done while you're wasting time here."
"I'm not going," said Glorianna sullenly. "I'm going to stay here until I find someone to do the Fleshdance with me." She looked around the bar. Not a man met her eye. "What's the matter with you people? Isn't there a man who'll do the Fleshdance with me?" She looked at Valeria. "How 'bout you, Red? I've never done the Fleshdance with a girl before."
Startled, Valeria just shook her head. After her experience with the dancers, the proposition made her skin crawl. Besides, there was something wrong with Glorianna that went far beyond too many Blue Whoopee's and a broken heart.
Farmer Lester strode across the floor and gripped her by the arm, his strong fingers digging into her flesh through her sleeve. "Now that's enough," he told her, the warm folksy facade momentarily gone. "You've caused more than enough commotion for one evening."
The look in Farmer Lester's eyes was all it took to banish the drunken rebellious teenager and reveal the very sober, very frightened child underneath. Valeria froze, half-standing, half-sitting. She wasn't sure what to do, or what she could do.
It was Albrecht who interceded. "Perhaps," he ventured cautiously, "she does not wish to go with you right now."
|"If girlish foolishness is a problem for you, perhaps you shouldn't have married a thirteen-year-old," muttered Nova.|
Lester looked startled for a split-second. "Oh, I didn't see you there, Al." He smiled. "No need to bother with us. My wife is full of girlish foolishness. Nothing that can't be disciplined when we get home."
Glorianna paled at the loosely veiled threat.
"If girlish foolishness is a problem for you, perhaps you shouldn't have married a thirteen-year-old," muttered Nova. She had spoken louder than she probably intended and Farmer Lester pierced her with a baleful glare.
"Now, now," said Lester calmly and smiling again. "Our marriage is perfectly legal and Glorianna herself consented to it as a way of settling her family's debt to me. Didn't you?"
"Yes, My Husband," said Glorianna miserably.
"And didn't you consent to be an obedient spouse and helpmate?"
"Yes, My Husband."
Albrecht stared pointedly at Lester's hand gripping his wife by the arm. "Why don't you let go of her?" he suggested.
"Oh, I couldn't do that, Al," said Lester jovially. "The last time I let go of her, that Ranger of yours defiled her. We can't risk that happening again, now can we? After all, The Wisdom of Zakarum says that a man's wife is the greatest of his possessions."
"Actually," said Albrecht, "The Wisdom of Zakarum says that 'The love of thy spouse is a greater treasure than all thy possessions.'"
"I'm a working man and haven't had time to do all the reading you've done," said Lester. "So I'm sure you're right, Al, but that's the way my pap taught it to me and it was always good enough for my ma."
"I'm sure it was," said Albrecht. "But I asked you to release her." He waited a beat. "And call me 'Your Majesty.'"
A startled murmur rippled through the room. "He never tells anyone to call him 'Your Majesty,'" Nova whispered to Valeria.
Lester let go for an instant, changed his mind, and finally let go again. "Well, Your Majesty," he said, touching the brim of his hat politely. "Glorianna has been my wife for almost five years and, by law, that gives me the right..."
Albrecht shook his head. "Glorianna is one of my father's subjects. That gives her the same rights you have." He looked at Glorianna. "Do you want to go home with him?"
Glorianna gave a barely perceptible shake of her head.
"Of course she does," answered Lester, ignoring her. "No one else will have her. Even Sir Gorash can't stand the sight of her anymore."
"He wasn't asking you," came a new voice.
Lester looked around. The tight crowd of men at the end of the bar had parted to reveal the two dancers at its center. It was the red-haired dancer who had spoken.
"We'll be glad to look after her for tonight and for as long as she wishes to stay with us," volunteered the black-haired dancer.
"We know what she's going through," added the other dancer.
Albrecht looked a little surprised at the new twist. "If you prefer," he told Glorianna, "I can have Lazarus grant you sanctuary. He can help you find your way and, if you want..." He glanced up at Lester as he played his trump card. "...my father can grant you a divorce. As early as tomorrow morning."
It amazed Valeria how Lester seemed to cling to his kindly old farmer guise despite all evidence to the contrary. "Now you know that a divorce would render our contract with your family null and void," he told Glorianna gently. "That might make things hard on them. Unless, perhaps, your little sister is willing to take your place."
"You know the law well enough to know that any agreement entered into under duress isn't valid. So I hope that wasn't a threat," said Albrecht softly.
"Of course not, Your Majesty," said Lester. "I was just talking about a simple business arrangement."
The two dancers had moved on either side of Lester. "We think you should take your business elsewhere," said the black-haired one. Her voice was almost a purr. Lester looked her in the eye and the blood drained from his face. He took a step back and stumbled slightly. He tried to turn away, but only succeeded in being caught in the green-eyed gaze of the other dancer.
She smiled charmingly. "Sometimes a girl just needs a little space to work things out," the red-haired dancer told him. "I'll bet you just about anything that your Glorianna will be back for you before you know it." Something in her tone made it more a threat than a reassurance.
Lester touched the brim of his hat. "Well, I'll hold you to that, young miss," he said weakly. He was backing toward the exit. He nodded to the Prince. "Your Majesty. It's always a pleasure," and then he was gone.
Albrecht looked confused. "Thank you, ladies," he told the dancers.
"I'm Scarlett and this is Jade," said the red-haired dancer.
"Well, thank you, Scarlett and Jade," said Albrecht. He turned to Glorianna again. "Would you like me to take you to Lazarus now?"
|"We want a happy and prosperous kingdom. Lester seems to prefer dealing with people who are miserable and indebted."|
"No offense," said Jade, placing a comforting hand on Glorianna's shoulder, "but the last thing this girl needs is another man telling her what she should do. Let her stay with us for tonight. We were planning on going to see Lazarus tomorrow anyway."
"Is that what you want?" Albrecht asked Glorianna.
"I-I think so, My Prince," she said. "I'll be all right now."
"Very well then," said Albrecht. "If there's anything I can do for you, come find me or let one of the Town Guards know to come find me." He nodded at Torvan to make sure the order got passed on.
"Thank you, Al," said Glorianna. She managed a smile. "Thank you for everything."
Scarlett and Jade followed Glorianna out the door. As they passed by Valeria, she heard Scarlett whisper to Jade: "Such Hatred."
"Delicious," agreed Jade.
"Mr. Ogden," called Albrecht. "Serve everyone a drink, on me."
A cheer went up and business and conversation in the Tavern of the Rising Sun quickly resumed.
Albrecht exhaled and sat down heavily. Valeria noticed that his hands were shaking a little.
"My Prince, you were magnificent," enthused Wirt. "You stood up for Glorianna just like you stood up for me against the Goblin King."
Albrecht smiled, drained from the confrontation. "Farmer Lester and my parents have been at cross-purposes from the very beginning. We want a happy and prosperous kingdom. Lester seems to prefer dealing with people who are miserable and indebted."
"People are just cows to him," said Nova. "He milks them and milks them until they have no value to him anymore."
"Then he has them butchered and eats them," added Wirt brightly.
"Toby!" scolded Gillian.
Wirt just smiled. "No one here can prove that he doesn't."
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