Lest There Be DragonsBy Cami
Page 1 of 4
|//Once upon a time there was a beautiful ruler. She had power and wealth, but happiness eluded her. So she built a private refuge and filled it with splendorous things. Then she selected the two most fascinating men in the known universe to be her companions. They should have lived happily ever after...//|
Relaxing in the elegant comfort of his tower room, the Lord Avon wasn't immediately aware of the stirrings in the castle below. It was only when he set aside his reading to pour a glass of wine that he noticed the soft hum drifting up the curving staircase. There could be only one reason for the end of the languid, complacent days when you could hear a pin drop on the weathered wood floor--the Queen was in residence.
A tingling shivered through Avon's nerve endings in response to the return of the Queen. It wasn't a particularly pleasurable sensation, more a mix of excitement and fear. The excitement, he could understand. The castle was a lifeless hulk when the Queen was absent; a perfect place for concentrated research but...lonely. Almost too lonely--even for someone like himself who preferred a solitary existence.
The cause of his fear was not so obvious. It was a fleeting whimsy that could be likened to a vague whisper on the wind or a drift of vapor on an otherwise cloudless day--there without rhyme or reason.
Pushing aside the puzzle, Avon set his mind to the more practical matter of sorting through his wardrobe. He would dine with the Queen tonight, as he did whenever she was in the castle, and he must needs dress in full court regalia for the occasion. Studies and wine forgotten, he strode purposefully into the large closet where his garments were stored. There were all manners of styles and fabrics, the finest of cloths, decorated with jewels and thin threads of silver and gold.
He fingered the simple white tunic with the family Avon crest embroidered on its chest. It was one of her favorites. Should he please her this night? Or should he wear the somber black that she said made her nervous? He wasn't sure if she was serious or teasing when she voiced that claim. Why would the colors of his clothes upset the Queen?
It had been almost two weeks since he had seen his monarch. Avon had missed her, a little, and that decided him on the white tunic. Calling for his personal squire, he directed the man to draw a bath. There was soon a welcoming cloud of steam wafting from the cleansing chamber. Slipping out of his comfortable room togs a small smile tugged at Avon's lips. The Queen was in residence!
Entering the great hall, Avon nodded approval at the gracious table setting, where freshly-polished metal goblets gleamed in the soft light. The scent of fresh-cut flowers mingled with the more robust fragrance from the mulled wine simmering on the sideboard. Avon helped himself to a cup while trying not to grow annoyed at the one irritation in the otherwise perfect dinner arrangement. There were places set for three--the boy must have returned as well. Had he been with the Queen then, these past five days when his tall, thin shadow had been absent from the castle?
Avon preferred the Queen to him, though the boy was hardly more than a garish ornament, normally as unobtrusive as the flickering candle flames. He usually sat quietly through the meal, allowing the other two to carry the conversation. Occasionally, he would address a simplistic remark to the Queen, but rarely did he speak directly to Avon. Avon had judged that fitting, or as the Queen was like to proclaim, "The way things are."
That was one of her favorite sayings; she used the phrase to explain all manner of idiosyncratic royal decrees. For instance, Avon had once questioned her about the strange accessory that all of the serving class (footmen, cooks, ladies-in-waiting, squires, etc.) wore. It was a black belt with an odd type of scabbard dangling from one side. Now, if the leather had held a dagger or a sword, Avon might have understood its purpose, but the bulky metal object it housed didn't seem to have a practical purpose, and it certainly wasn't aesthetically pleasing.
The Queen had patiently listened to Avon's perplexity regarding the belts then had blithely answered, "That's not for you to mind. It is simply the way things are."
"The way things are," Avon quoted in a soft whisper as a servant entered the room. His face lit when he saw the gaily wrapped packages in the man's arms. The footman deposited a half dozen of them at Avon's place, then moved towards the other side of the table. Avon's smile turned sour as the remainder were set by the boy's utensils. It was hardly fair that he should be getting gifts when he had also had the luxury of a trip away from the castle.
Padded footsteps sounded behind him and Avon turned to see the object of his aggravation walking into the room. "Good evening, Lord Avon," the boy greeted. Avon ignored him.
The Lord Tarrant wasn't really a boy in the strictest sense of the word. He was physically mature...and fully functional if Avon's suspicions were correct. But there was an air of childish innocence about him that made him seem even younger than his admittedly youthful years.
Avon grimaced with distaste as the boy all but pounced on his stack of presents, handling each as if he was trying to guess at its contents. It made Avon a bit embarrassed about his own eager reaction on seeing the packages. He'd have to remember to keep his emotions under tight control if he didn't want to appear the simpering child that the boy now resembled.
"I love gifts," Tarrant declared ingenuously, looking shyly to where Avon stood frowning. It was then that Avon noted the paleness of the youth's face the blue smudges about his eyes. Before he could speculate on their cause, a soft trumpeting sounded.
He pivoted about and assumed a dignified stance as the Queen glided across the marble floor. She wore an unpretentious white gown that flattered her perfect figure and blended with her alabaster skin. The only colors one saw were the gleaming cap of ebony hair, golden eyes, rouged cheeks, and scarlet lips. It was simplistic perfection.
"Lord Avon." She extended an elegant hand. Avon bent to one knee and brushed his lips across it. "You may stand. Have you missed me?"
"As the summer day is long, my liege."
A soft laugh twinkled from her throat. "That is delightful. You've been reading the books that I got for you."
Avon shrugged. "They were all that I had for company during your long absence."
"Even better," she approved. "And Lord Tarrant..." She reached her hand to the boy, who swept gracefully down, his long limbs cooperative and obedient.
"I've missed you, my regal lady," he mumbled dutifully. So they hadn't been together, Avon determined with unrestrained satisfaction. He need not begrudge the boy his presents after all.
The meal proceeded with pomp and circumstance. Dishes were served, consumed, and replaced with additional courses. Though enchanted by the Queen and her lively wit, Avon wasn't so preoccupied that he didn't notice that their dinner companion was barely picking at his food, which he normally attacked with gusto. Perhaps he had a touch of the flu? That would account for his blanched complexion and his lack of appetite.
When the dessert plates had been removed, the Queen asked, "Would you like to open your present now?"
Tarrant tore into his before the echo of her last word faded from the chamber. He pulled a gold circlet from the first box. It was some sort of head adornment, with three gleaming stones that would rest in the middle of his forehead when he put it on. The center one was a huge rectangular sapphire that matched his eyes. It was flanked on either side by rubies of the deepest red. "It's beautiful," he whispered.
The Queen smiled indulgently at the youth. "Try it on." Tarrant eased it onto his head and fluffed his copper-colored curls about it. Avon couldn't help feeling a small stab of jealousy at the boy's resulting appearance. He was fair of face to begin with, and the jewels seemed to emphasize the sparkle of his eyes, the glinting highlights in his hair.
Resolutely, Avon turned to his own gifts, steadfastly ignoring the crinkling of paper, the "oohs" and "ahs" from the other side of the table. The first object was a set of book tapes on the Norman conquest. He was momentarily mollified since the Queen had remembered his brief mention of interest in that. The second gift was even more impressive. Avon ran his hands over the rich leather binding of a real book.
"You like that," the Queen noted, sounding pleased.
"Yes, Your Majesty." She well knew how he treasured his meager collection of print books. They were rare and extremely valuable. According to the Queen, most books were in museums or public collections. Seldom did an individual citizen own one. Avon had twelve...thirteen now.
"Would you like me to play for you?" Tarrant asked, having long since finished displaying his stack of gifts.
The Queen turned back to face the younger man. "Not tonight. You need your rest." He looked disappointed, his stringed instrument drooping in his hands. She noticed and added, "But I shall stop by later to say goodnight. Wear the turquoise loungers for me. I'm curious to see what they look like on you. Now get to bed."
"Yes, Your Majesty," the boy said, flashing his brilliant smile that set Avon's teeth on edge.
Tarrant gathered his presents in his arms, and Avon saw the shimmering green-blue material that could only be the pajamas that the Queen had referred to. She never came to say goodnight to him!
"You look disgruntled," the Queen surmised as Avon's eyes followed the boy from the room. "Let me guess. You're jealous."
"Why should I be?" Avon shot back, disturbed that she could so easily read his emotions.
"You shouldn't," she said, resting her hand on his wrist. "You wouldn't want presents of trinkets, toys or silk." She put her other hand on his gifts. "It's knowledge that you want. And that's what I've given you."
That was true enough. Avon smiled wryly. The Queen never failed to amuse him; she was so perceptive, a royal monarch who could never be equaled. And he wasn't truly envious of the boy, even if he did share her bed (though he was obviously beneath her), because Avon didn't want that kind of relationship with the Queen. If truth be told, he wasn't at all physically drawn to her, despite her flawless beauty. It was her mind that he coveted. He wanted to suck out its seemingly limitless knowledge and make it his own. He found his face relaxing and his lips spreading in a genuine smile.
"There, that's better," the Queen approved. "Now come, Lord Avon, for you have another gift. The servants have been installing it in your quarters while we dined."
He followed her up the narrow, twisting staircase, marvelling at how easily she managed the route, despite long gown and stilted heels.
The present was sitting on his desk. He had no idea what it was--nothing he'd ever seen before. Curious, he brushed a hand over a rectangle that was covered with little buttons marked with letters, numbers and symbols.
"It is a computer," the Queen explained.
"I've never heard of that." Avon bit back his disappointment at the rather inexplicable gift.
"Not in this life." Her voice was wistful. "But you will come to cherish it. I promise you that."
Avon wrapped his pale suede cloak tight over his brocade vest. The wind was brisk across the battlements this afternoon, but he was enjoying the fresh air. Next to him, the Queen was laughing softly as Tarrant tried to sail a folded piece of stiff paper into the countryside. It kept floating back to him no matter how hard he threw it.
"I'm afraid you'll have to save your toy for another day," the Queen said, "unless you walk to the west side where the breeze is blowing away from the castle."
"I can wait." He let his hand drop to his side and met her eyes. "I was wondering, Your Majesty..."
"Go on," she urged when Tarrant hesitated.
"What is the name of your country? I've been reading of queens and their lands. Catherine the Great, Queen of Russia. And Elizabeth of England, Mary of Scotland. What do you rule?"
"Those queens," she said, "were in the long ago past. Their queendoms were minuscule compared to mine."
"But what is yours called?" he prodded.
She thought a moment then answered, "I am Queen of the Universe. I am more powerful than all of the ancient queens put together. At the snap of my fingers, I can order the destruction of an entire planet." Her voice softened, "Or I can create a world of my own fantasy."
"Oh." Tarrant's eyes were confused. Avon felt a moment of pity for him as he went back to trying to launch his paper construct.
"I want this to be free," Tarrant said, disappointed, when his efforts continued to fail.
"I told you..." the Queen began, then sighed and shook her head. "What else is bothering you?" she asked him, showing the same depth of perception that made Avon think she could sometimes read his mind.
Tarrant glanced timidly at her. "Will I ever be free? How can I leave the castle?"
"Is it so terrible here?" she asked gently.
"You needn't say more." Her hand reached out to drift down the length of cheek. "I'll answer your question, Lord Tarrant. You may leave the castle when the dragon is slain."
His eyes went large with disbelief. "Are there dragons in our land?"
"You used to slay them."
"I did?" Distracted, Tarrant began to jog along the wall walk, pausing every ten feet or so to peer over the side to the moat below. Looking for dragons?
"There is something I don't understand," Avon said slowly when the boy was out of hearing range.
"And that is?" Her tone was brisker with him than with Tarrant; her mouth curled with amusement rather than indulgence.
"What he said about leaving the castle--he just returned from a trip."
"He was ill and doesn't remember that." Her eyes filled with a sadness that melted through Avon's well-maintained reserve. The Queen rarely showed vulnerability. "It's best that he doesn't know. I'm afraid that he still isn't well. He shouldn't even be thinking of..." Abruptly, she cut off the words. "It doesn't matter." She eyed him sharply. "Tell me, Lord Avon, do you want to leave the castle?"
"Only if it meant more time to be spent with you," he replied gallantly. "You are all that matters to me, my lady Queen."
"Now that is the right answer. If I only knew whether you were serious or merely flattering."
"Would I lie to my monarch?" he asked playfully. "I don't know and that is one of the things that makes you so very fascinating."
More fascinating than the b-- Lord Tarrant?"
"You fret too much over Tarrant," the Queen admonished. "He is not your rival. However, I suppose it is only natural for you to think that. There are only the two of you for now."
"They would never be your rivals."
"That's true enough," he agreed without boast. They were mindless, obedient creatures, not-quite human. There was no sense of life or emotion in their demeanor; no sign of amusement or distress.
"You and Tarrant are as night and day," she continued. "And both very important to me. He is my...my devoted admirer. And you are my intellectual tempest." The Queen paced briefly and thoughtfully, then confessed, "All of my power wasn't enough to give me exactly what I wanted. My physicians could only manage devotion or intellect. I wanted both. Are you pleased that you received intellect, Lord Avon?"
A coldness, not caused by the wind, bore into Avon's spine. It was at moments like this that the fear he felt in the Queen's presence seemed reasonable and natural. She spoke as if she could bend a man to her desires. And Avon was reminded of the blankness in his past. He could remember his time at the castle, which had only been a matter of months, but nothing before that. Usually, his limited memories didn't bother him, and he didn't understand that either. Everyone had a past, didn't they?
"You don't look relieved," the Queen chided, misreading him for once. "Let me show you why Tarrant shouldn't concern you. "Tarrant," she called, raising her voice. He loped back along the stone flooring. "Get me one of your books."
"Any, a favorite."
Avon stayed silent until the younger man returned. He handed a book tape in a display unit to the Queen. She nodded that he should give it to Avon instead. Dutifully, Avon took it and browsed through the pages. The print was large and the vocabulary simple. Moreover, there were pictures distracting from the text. They were beautiful to be sure, but a waste of space.
"It's a child's book," the Queen explained. "That's all he can manage."
Avon handed Tarrant back his viewer while his mind swirled in a confusion of thoughts. //Devotion or intellect?// There were so many things the he didn't understand. Perhaps his new computer would have the answers.
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