In order for you to know my story, you must first know who I am. I am the monarch of a small principality surrounded on three sides by mountains. And although my realm is hardly a shiny pebble in regional politics, my palace seems endlessly permeated with political intrigues, and I can trust nobody.
Nobody, that is with one exception — my maidservant, Dembrosia. I hardly noticed her at first, when the butler promoted her to be my chambermaid. She’d enter my chambers whenever I left them, or whenever I called for her, which wasn’t often. She’d stand at the entrance; her hands folded before her, and cast her deep foreign eyes at the floor. With her lilting accent she’d say, “Good morning, my Liege,” and she’d bow, and her hair would tumble from behind her back and hang free like silky midnight about her face. And I’d ignore her.
Ignoring beautiful women is a privilege of kings, since so many are available to us. Yet lately, politics has eaten into even this. I have been unable to go whoring for months, ever since a night when I was incognito in a brothel, and an assassin broke in on my true-love-for-the-evening and me. It was fortunate for me that she was on top, for I was able to use her body as a shield. The poor tart. I’ll never know if she had a part in the plot. The blow nearly cut her in two. But the seconds that it took my enemy to extract his blade from her was long enough for me to roll out of bed, find my own sword, and dispatch him with my superior fencing skills.
It brings tears to my eyes to think that but for the whims of fate, my own Dembrosia might have been placed in a different vocation and been the one with me that night. And it moves me even more, now that I know her well, to realize that she would gladly have volunteered to suffer that sting so that I should not have to.
But this was not the only attempt upon my life. Just three weeks later, my valet, while administering me my bath, drew a dagger from under his tunic, and struck at me. Perhaps he did not remember that, as prince, I had been grappling champion of the kingdom. Before he knew he was foiled, I had his one arm bent behind his back and his head held under the water till the bubbles ceased.
News of such a happening travels fast in a palace. Even before the undertaker arrived to unburden my bathhouse of the corpse, Dembrosia came running up to me crying desperately, “My Liege, my Liege. Don’t trust any of them.” She dropped to one knee, sobbing, and clutched the hem of my robe.
“I assure you, my dear,” I said, “I don’t.”
She sobbed a bit more, then regained her composure and looked up. “But Sire,” she implored, “You mustn’t engage a new valet. They’ll just try it again.”
“What, bathe and dress myself? Surely these chores are so weighty that I might risk my life for their avoidance.”
“How brave of you, my Liege, to make mirth of such a situation. But you needn’t put yourself out. You may allow me to be your valet, Sire.”
“A female valet? That’s unheard of. The staff shall be laughing behind my back.”
“They are plotting behind your back as we speak, Sire. Sometimes I truly believe I am the only one in the palace who remains loyal.”
“You know this for certain? Tell me all you know, child? Who are the conspirators? Speak!”
She began to cry again. “I’m sorry, my Liege,” she sobbed. “Nobody speaks openly. But word is to the kitchen that the disloyalty is spread to the highest levels. I fear greatly for you, Sire.”
“And a mere girl like you will protect me by serving as my valet? And just why shall I trust you? Perhaps you aim to use your feminine wiles to compromise me to another assassin.”
“Oh no, my Liege. Although I could aspire to nothing more dear than to lie with you for even a single hour, Sire, should I ever do so, you may slit my throat straight away for suspicion and be done with me. I desire but to serve you.”
“My last valet, now lying dead in the bathhouse, concealed a weapon beneath his clothes. How shall I be sure you won’t do the same?”
“I shan’t wear any, Sire. Oughtn’t that be the proper attire for a maid to bathe her master?”
“And you, girl, are but a chambermaid. How will you know the skills of a valet?”
“I learned them from my mother before I was sold to the slave traders. My mother was a royal hostess in the court of the Orchid Empire, a thousand leagues from here. There a female valet is not unheard of. It is the custom. If it please your majesty, I shall treat you in the manner of that custom, and I dare say that my Liege shall regret not being born there.”
She prostrated herself at my feet, her hair tickling my toes. The thought of this morsel, naked and tending to my person with her exotic ways, was more than my good sense could bear. And so I agreed to her plan.
The next day, she came to me with a most unusual request. She prattled off a long list of fruits, herbs, spring water, and essences she would need from the market in order to bathe me properly. Some, like the fresh raspberries or the cloves, command premium prices in our kingdom. But my curiosity bade me to permit the expenditure.
I informed her that I would need a bath late on the next afternoon. This was to be in preparation for the nasty business of providing the kingdom with a male heir. The queen was demanding of my services, and it would be impolitic to deny her, as much as I wished I could. The oldest and most haggard whore in the kingdom can bring me more pleasure than this highborn cackling ostrich of a woman that my father, rest his soul, forced upon me. Even her name, Ghezylah, grates on my senses.
I arrived in the bathhouse at the appointed time. The fire was already blazing with three kettles upon it. The tub was full and steaming. Dembrosia stood beside it with her hands folded in front of her and her eyes cast to the floor.
As soon as I had closed and barred the door, she slid that frumpy chambermaid’s uniform from her shoulders and slipped out of it as gracefully as any dancer. Her skin glowed golden in the firelight. She carefully folded the uniform and set it on a shelf. Then she stood facing me. I just stared. The light and her nakedness brought forth how different she was. With her foreign cheeks so angular and her shoulders so slender, comparing her to domestic women was like comparing a leopard to a herd of cows. Unlike their great bulbous breasts, hers were like soft, ripe plums. Unlike their oak-branch arms, hers were like the tendrils of a weeping willow. Unlike their heavy gelatinous thighs, hers were long and delicate, and moved as fluidly as the legs of a wading bird. And between them, instead of a thick forest, she had but a wisp of fluff, translucent, and scarcely concealing her crevice of delight.
“I am ready for you, Sire,” she said. “Will my Liege step up to me, please?”
I did. The steam simmering up from the bath wafted over her shoulders and into my nostrils. Her scent was heavenly, so much so that I bent my head forward and sniffed deep into my head what might have been a whipped confection of fruits and flowers and spice and animal sweat.
“Sire,” she said calmly. “Please stand up straight so I might undress you.”
I became aware that I had closed my eyes. When I opened them, her smiling lips filled my vision. I obeyed her. She worked her fingers over my buttons and clasps as deftly as any magician, slipping off each garment gently, knowing so of its mechanics that she never needed to pull at the cloth or strain at any of my limbs. She controlled my arms and legs without a single spoken command. Her mere touch bent them comfortably in whatever way suited her purpose.
“My Liege,” she said softly. “In a perfect world, I should serve you fully by bearing you into your bath. But alas, I am too small for the task. So I regret to have to ask you please to do this yourself.
The water was as hot as any flesh might stand. I had to immerse each appendage with utmost deliberacy, especially those that hung between my legs. And I regret to admit that submersion of those parts in such steaming water compelled them to leak till my bladder emptied, as though I were once more a baby. Whether Dembrosia observed my weakness, I cannot know. She was busy readying soap and cloth.
My brow began immediately to exude beads of sweat. But before the perspiration had time to run down my face, Dembrosia had wrapped my head in a hot damp cloth. Then she took up the washcloth and soap and stepped into the bath with me. I started back for a moment. This was a complete surprise to me. No valet had ever entered my bath. But I grew used to the idea at once.
She stood straddling my legs, which were extended flat on the floor of the tub. She then began her work in earnest. No wrinkle or crevice was too small to escape her attention. And her every attention was as sweet to my flesh as the nipple is to a baby’s lips. There was no modesty in her touch either. To her fingers, each dab of my flesh was equal to any other, no matter how humble its location.
Nor was she modest about her own flesh, which she kept covered with a film of suds so it might slide easily against my own. As she bent over my shoulder to scrub my back, her breast pressed against my cheek. As she removed the cloth from my head to wash my hair, that luscious peach wedged between her thighs bobbed but two finger-widths from my nose. It was only with all my willpower that I was able to restrain myself from lapping at its sweet juices.
All the while, I was as one who had tarried too long at the wine. That was the effect of her fragrance, which tumbled over me again and again whenever she drew close.
When every nook of my skin had been rubbed and kneaded, she drained the water from the tub. She stood, still straddling my outstretched legs, and said, “It is my privilege now to ask whether you should like to have your wand of power scrubbed especially clean. It is the option of a man as great as your majesty to accept or decline such treatment.”
Surely if her performance thus far was any sign of what this might be, I could expect the joys of her proposition to be nothing less than celestial. But alas. My seed was marked today for my queen, and so I had to decline.
She exited the tub and busied herself first with pouring kettle water into a porcelain basin, then mixing it with fresh water she pumped from the cistern. This she poured over my head and body as a rinse. Then she entered the tub once more, saying, “Please place your hands over your eyes, my Liege, that I may avoid burning them as I anoint your head with fragrance. Lean forward if you will, please.”
Again, I obeyed her, though I felt so fluid in her presence that I could hardly call it obeying. Her every command seemed almost as though it was what I would have done anyway.
I was unable to see, but I could feel her warmth approach close to me. Then I felt her pouring warm liquid over my head. It dribbled over my ears and down my face. Its scent was the same as hers, only far stronger for having dripped under my nose. This potion was a symphony of scent, with flutes made of wildflowers and lavender, violins made of raspberry and almond, horns made of cinnamon and clove, bassoons made of freshly cut birch, and deep animal bass notes that quivered in my loins. She kept pouring gently for nearly a minute. It ran in warm rivulets over my shoulders and down my chest and back. When she was done, she rubbed it into my skin with the flats of her palms.
“You may rise, my Liege,” she said. She patted me from head to foot with a dry cloth, then dressed me in freshly laundered robes with as much finesse as she had undressed me. Then she bowed and bid me good day.
“Thank you, my dear,” I said.
“And thank you, my Liege,” came the reply. “The pleasure your bath brings you is equal to the pleasure serving you brings me.”
I left the bathhouse and proceeded to my queen’s chamber, where I spent the afternoon fulfilling my duty to her, which this day was as foul a thing as such an undertaking can be.
That evening I had dinner in the great dining hall with Ghezylah and at least a dozen lords and ladies of the palace. My chefs outdid themselves this evening with a glazed veal dish I had never tasted before, garnished with sautéed asparagus tips and marinated artichoke hearts. But as a waiter carried in huge soufflé, I was overtaken with a sudden unease. I rose abruptly. My chair fell over behind me. The lords all rose in response. I backed away from the table, which seemed now to pitch and roll like a ship at sea. I looked around at walls that swam before my eyes. And then the marble floor careened up from beneath me and thudded against my shoulder. I recollect looking into a tight circle of shocked faces. And then I was awakening in my chamber.
The sheets of my bed were damp and rank and clung to my skin. I was shivering, even though morning sun poured over me through my chamber window. Deep cramps gnawed at my at my belly. My joints ached. My head throbbed. My mouth was as sawdust. My eyelids might as well have been sandpaper. From each of my extremities news of calamity reached my sensibilities, save one — my right hand – which Dembrosia was pressing gently between her palms. She knelt at my bedside, her head bowed in apparent prayer, with strands of her hair draped over my forearm.
“My Liege,” she breathed, looking up. Tears welled in her eyes. She rose to lean over my bed and kiss me on the forehead. Then she drew back suddenly. “Oh forgive me, my Liege,” she begged. “I lost my senses to see you stir once more. Such affront will not happen again.”
“What happened?” I croaked, for my throat was as dry as ashes.
“Oh Sire! It’s terrible.” She broke out in sobs.
“What, girl?” I demanded. “Stop that crying and speak.”
“Poison, my Liege,” she said. “They mean to kill you. But praise to the heavenly spirits, they have failed.”
“What filthy worm worked this villainy?” I asked, my anger dampening my pain.
She broke again into squeaky sobs and buried her face in the blanket. Then she shook herself, wiped her eyes, folded her hands and spoke calmly. “I cannot know, Sire. I trust none of them. Not one of them with whom you dined is what he pretends to be, I’m sure.”
“And did my taster not fall ill?” I asked.
“No Sire. Nor did the kitchen dog I fed your leftovers to — see, he sleeps in the corner. I believe it was the wine. In the tussle, your glass was spilt. I expect that indeed that was no accident, Sire.”
“But I watched it poured into every glass from the same bottle. Who else has suffered?”
“Nobody, my Liege. It must have been the work of a conjurer.”
I smiled for the first time since waking. “You are a most clever girl,” I said. “I should have the likes of you at my table of advisors. Now please, fetch me water to drink.”
She drew a copper flagon from beside the bed and held its lip to my mouth. The water was tepid, but it washed the parched slime from my tongue. I reached for the flagon that I might tip it to make the drink flow faster. She drew it away.
“No, my Liege. Drink slowly. The poison is still in you. It made you cry out in thirst for three days and nights.”
“Three days! I remember none of it.”
“You cried out as if mad, Sire. I was by your side every moment. And when a servant brought this flagon, I poured its contents out the window in fear it too was poisoned.”
“And so how did I drink?”
“I took the flagon to the cistern myself and filled it.”
“Did anybody question you?”
“Yes, my Liege. The guards at the door bid me not enter with water for you lest I was the assassin bearing more poison.”
“Who gave them their orders?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, Sire.”
“And yet, how then did you bring me drink?”
She was silent.
“Oh please, your majesty. Promise me my execution shall be quick and painless.” She began to cry again.
“Cease this foolishness at once. Tell me how you came to bring me untainted water.”
She bit her lip and began in a whimpering voice. “Sire, know that I did this to save your life. I beg your mercy. When the guards refused me, I darted around the corner and drank the contents myself — all ten pints that it holds. The guards then allowed me entry with the flagon empty. And I waited as you cried out again and again like a wounded child for water. And oh, Sire — I did this for love of you. When I could wait no longer, I peed in the flagon and gave you drink from it. Over and over, I did this. Eight times during your madness I ran to the cistern, then hurried back to drink every drop while standing just down the hall, where I could be sure the guards had let no one else into your chamber. Then I entered here again and repeated my ministration. I now kneel before you, Sire, prepared for my punishment. Let it be the headsman, though, and not the gallows. I beg you my Liege.”
She bowed her head again and wept silently into her hands. Her spasms of anguish shook the bed. I looked on amazed.
I considered what she had done — what I had just drunk. And revulsion was certainly my first thought. But it hadn’t tasted at all bad. Then I looked at the morning light in the window and remembered I was alive.
“Rise sweet Dembrosia,” I said. “Neither axe nor rope shall blemish your neck. You have proven yourself loyal and resourceful. If the fates smiled upon me, I should have a hundred more like you. But you, being just one, derive preciousness out of your scarcity.”
She lifted her face from her hands and locked her gaze upon me, her dark round eyes glistening with tears and her cheeks all streaky.
“My thirst still burns,” I said. “Give me the flagon once more.”
“No Sire. You’re still feverish. I’ll help you to the cistern. You needn’t drink of this further.”
“It is the medicine that sustained me in my weakest hour. It has restored me to health. I shall have the rest of it. That is my order.”
With shaking hands she held the flagon out for me. Despite my inclination to wrinkle my nose and push it away, I took it from her and spoke a toast to my sweet servant. Then I raised the flagon to my lips, and drained it to the last drop, letting the it clatter to the floor once empty. My throat hissed with the sigh that comes from a quenched thirst.
“Hereafter,” I began, “you, Dembrosia, shall be my constant companion, advising me of your opinion of every action you see about you, no matter how insignificant. You shall not fear my wrath when your news bodes ill. You shall speak to me your honest mind. Your cot shall be moved into my chamber. You shall stand behind me at my meals and whisper your advice in my ear. Even when I am in the queen’s chamber, there you shall wait for me behind the screen.”
“And how shall I take my meals, Sire?” she asked.
“You shall be given a share of the food from the royal dining table,” I answered.
“Forgive me, my Liege, but I cannot do that.”
“And why not?”
“I cannot eat your food, Sire. I would cease to be an Orchid Petal.”
“And pray tell, what is that?”
“I beg your majesty’s indulgence. You see, in the Orchid Empire, we are an ancient order of women who serve our masters with only the most delicate of pleasures. So for us to serve, cleanliness must come above all else. We must keep ourselves as clean and fresh as the petal of the orchid, both inside and out. It means we mayn’t permit ourselves foods that turn foul within our bellies. I may eat only rice, fruit, herbs, spices, vegetable roots and greens, nuts, and honey. I may also imbibe purified essences so that my fragrance shall come from within. In that way, every breath of air that touches me becomes a joy to my master’s senses.”
“But the servants all eat the same food,” I objected.
“With the sole exception of me, Sire,” she said. “I prepare my own nourishment on a small hearth they have ceded to me.”
“Then take me to this place. I wish to share my next meal with you.”
“Ah, what a wise monarch you are, my Liege,” she said. “Such pure foods will drive the poison from your flesh, you’ll see.”
She drew the covers back and carried my feet past the edge of the bed. Then she put her shoulder beneath my arm and helped me straighten to a swaying stance. For a moment I thought I might collapse once more, but the weakness passed quickly. In small unsteady steps, I accompanied her into the servants’ quarters. The moment the first of the servants saw me, commotion spread, and every door opened that the staff might wish their king a quick return to health. Dembrosia whispered palace gossip to me as we went.
“That boy is Gol, the lamp-lighter. He is — I forget your word for it — man-boy-squeeze with Lord Langdon. And scullery maid Lanilee — she’s quite a simpleton and delights in listening at doors late at night. There’s chef Holio. When he’s been drinking, we girls must oft cast his hand from beneath our skirts. Your head waiter fancies himself quite a lady’s man as well.” And so on.
We got to the kitchen, and indeed Dembrosia did have her own hearth and her own small pantry as well, stocked with rice, jars of herbs and spices, honey, and dozens of tiny vials of liquid. There was also a bag of rice cakes, from which she drew two, poured honey over them, and offered me one. It was not the manner of food I’m used to, but I nibbled it at her urging, while she munched enthusiastically at hers. She kindled a fire and put water on to boil. She then asked one of the cooks for fresh fruit. The request was answered with a basket of pears and another of blueberries. I had one pear. My stomach was still weak and demanded I stop eating after that. I watched in amazement as Dembrosia ate five pears and nearly a quart of blueberries.
By the time she was done, the water was boiling. She fixed me a weak tea of herbs. But her own cup she filled more than halfway with herbs, then poured the water over it, added aromatic drops from various vials, and drank the result leaves and all.
“If it please my Liege,” she said when she had finished, “although you have requested my constant presence, you must rest, and I must prepare your bath. So I fear we must separate these few hours.”
I nodded in agreement. She helped me back to my chamber, where she changed my sheets and put me to bed. I awoke in the afternoon to what in my dream was the fragrance of a deep red flower. But it was, in truth, Dembrosia’s breath breezing past my nose.
“Your bath awaits, Sire,” she was saying.
My bath proceeded much as the last one, except this time I said yes to the special treatment I had refused the last time. Her fingers probed slowly at my tender parts, sliding amid the suds. My wand of power, as she would have it, swelled in her palms. The soap frothed about it — the froth outside more than matched by the froth I felt within. She exercised care that no soap should find its way where it might cause pain, and yet her touch covered every spot that desired touching. It was as though the downy breasts of doves caressed at my stiff, throbbing scepter. As the tingling rose in my loins and my fingers and toes began to curl, she slowed until her hands barely twitched. And thus, she kept the doves nervously cooing and bobbing and ready to fly for time unmeasured. But fly they did — in a flurry — an entire flock of doves within me took wing at once, all flapping through my pee plumbing and spewing into her palm.
I lay panting with my head back and eyes closed. She rinsed me, then bid me to cover my eyes again. This I did, and again, warm fragrance poured over my head. In the complex mix of scents it carried, I discerned the fruity hint of pears and blueberries. At once I understood. There was never a danger to my eyes, only to my sensibilities. But they now dissolved completely under the cascade that trickled over through my hair and beard. I bent my neck back so that the stream fell on my face. Then I opened eyes to see Dembrosia’s thighs spread before me. Out of her split little flower a slow gentle stream of clear liquor sprang from beneath its pink nub. And despite my prior feelings, I had no notion this time to wrinkle my nose. Instead I was overcome with animal lust. I pressed my lips to her spigot and drank like a calf feeding from its mother. The sweet fragrance flooded over my tongue and filled my head. My arms enfolded the pliant hillocks of her derriere and pressed her deeper into mouth. I licked into the depths of her fold to taste the brook at its source. I could hear her sighing. She clutched at my hair and squeezed my cheeks between her thighs. And yet, she controlled the stream to flow at just the rate that I might swallow every drop.
When I had completely consumed my libation and licked the faucet till it was more than clean, she stepped back, and between heavy breaths said, “Stand please Sire, for I must dry you now. So are you displeased to know my secret?”
“No my sweet. It was a rare gift. But tell me why it does not taste rank, as I had always expected it should?”
“In my land, my Liege,” she answered, “men of means pay in gold for as little as a half pint of orchid dew, whether for drinking or for rubbing into their skins. We of the Orchid Petal Order train all our childhoods to withhold the waste from our pee at one time and to discard it quickly and discreetly at another. I cleansed my blood during my noon meditation, while you slept. Since then, I have made my body a vessel in which to mix nature’s nectars into a precious potion, which you drank. The recipes and skills I learned from my mother who learned them from her mother, back on into the first gray light of memories. We of the Order are greatly prized in the empire.”
“Then how did you come to be here?”
“It was a mistake. We of the Order are all slaves, pampered though we are. When my time came to be auctioned, someone misplaced me among common house servants. I was sold to an exporter at a fraction of my value. After a long sea voyage, I was sold again to your palace.”
It was all so surprising, that the stream from between her legs might be anything but foul, much less delicious. And yet, the aftertaste still simmering in my mouth and the fragrance I was smelling on my own breath was persuasive evidence that no bee had ever gathered any finer liquid. Meantime she attempted to pat me with the towel, and did what had to pass for a good job given that she worked amid my embraces and kisses.
Back in my chamber, she sat at my bedside as I rested. She urged me not to speak, but to rest. She sang me her native songs – hypnotic chants with warbling syllables and undulating melodies. She reassured me that I would soon know the faces of my betrayers. She smoothed my face with her hand. And at some time unknown to me, I drifted off to sleep.
“Wake up, my Liege,” came Dembrosia’s voice. I opened my eyes. It was nighttime. She and Lanilee stood by my bed, each holding a candle. Dembrosia turned to her companion and said, “His majesty will question you now, Lani. And remember you must tell the truth. The king boils liars in oil.”
Lanilee winced at the thought. She was a disheveled, rag-draped woman of perhaps thirty years. She had wide hips, droopy breasts, and hair like a thicket of briars.
There was a pause.
“Lanilee, dear,” I said, “is it true that you listen at doors?”
She turned to Dembrosia but said nothing.
“He’s the king, Lani,” Dembrosia said. “You must answer. You must tell all.”
“If you speak the truth,” I said, “you have nothing to fear. Now tell me, do you listen at doors?”
“Yes m’lord.” She curtsied, then dropped to her knees.
“Now tell me what you hear.”
She looked around, then said, “I ‘ear ‘em doin’ it, I do.”
“Is that all you hear?”
“Well, kinda, m’lord. I’ve quite a sharp ear, y’know, an’ I can ‘ear if ‘e’s pluggin’ ‘er or lickin’ ‘er or if ‘e’s got ‘is drumstick in ‘er mouth.”
“Do you tell anybody what your hear?”
“No, m’lord. All I does is takes me wet bum back to me bed an’ I fingers me-self, I do. The other girls in me room, they laugh a’ me, bu’ I know they fingers their bums sometimes too. I seen ‘em do it, I ‘ave.”
Dembrosia stifled a giggle.
“Do you ever hear anybody speak words when you listen at doors?” I asked.
“Why sure, m’lord. They says ‘Oh me bum!’ ‘Oh me balls!’ ‘Sit on me face, bitch!’ ‘Oh I’m coming!’ and such. They screams it sometimes.”
“But do you ever hear talk besides about such things. Do you ever just hear them talking back and forth?” I asked.
“Oh, you mean like a’ the queen’s door. No m’lord. I would never listen a’ ‘er door. That’d be disrespec’, wouldn’ it. The queen’d ‘ave me ‘ead chopped, she would.”
“There’ll be no head chopping, Lani,” I assured her. “Now who was in the queen’s chamber with her? I know you were listening. Speak child.”
“Please don’ ‘urt me, m’lord. I didn’ mean no ‘arm by it. I’ll be a good girl, I will. Don’ ‘urt me.”
“Stop this nonsense and tell me who,” I commanded.
“Oh m’lord. I can’t. I mean I’m sure I don’ know. They was talkin’
real low. I didn’ stay long as they wasn’t doin’ it.”
“Are there any words you remember from any door?”
“There’s Lord Lowry. ‘ E always ‘as got some tart in there an’ keeps sayin’ ‘ow when ‘e’s king this an’ when ‘e’s king that. An’ then they does it real loud, bangin’ ’round and screamin’ like.”
“Is that all you know, dear?”
“Can’t think o’ nothin’ else, m’lord.”
“What about Lord Langdon and Gol?”
“It don’ wet me bum to ‘ear a man pluggin’ a boy. ‘E’s just a poor child, y’know, an’ it ain’t right. ‘At’s why I don’ listen there. But Gol says the lord’ll make ‘im a courtier someday, ‘e does. Says that all the time. ‘E says Langdon’ll go far someday.”
“Anything else you remember?”
“‘At’s all, m’lord. I swear.”
“Then you may go, Lani. And be good.”
She rose and curtsied again. Then she said, “And what’s to be my punishment, m’lord? I been very bad, I know, doin’ all tha’ listenin’. You may ‘ave me stocked if you like. But please don’ whip me.”
“You do need a punishment, I suppose,” I said, twirling my beard in my fingers. “Your punishment shall be three days with no fingering. And remember, if you do finger yourself, I’ll see it in your eyes. Three days, Lani, starting now. Now get to your bed this instant and don’t tell anybody you’ve spoken to me.”
She grabbed her candle scurried out the door.
Dembrosia looked at me for a few seconds then broke into peals of laughter. She set down her candle and collapsed in giggles onto my bed beside me.
When her laughter subsided, she said, “Sire, you shall have your betrayers tomorrow evening. I shall make it known that you never believed you were poisoned, but that it was simply a sudden illness. I shall also spread the word that you were especially fond of the food you ate and the vintage you drank the other night. You shall have another dinner. I shall stand beside you as you wish, Sire, whispering in your ear whom to suspect.”
Dembrosia was still lying by my side when I awoke the next morning. I felt far stronger. I spent the morning tending to matters of state. Dembrosia took the opportunity to shop at the market for more of her special supplies. By afternoon, I thirsted for her nectar, but Dembrosia was nowhere to be found. I had to go without a bath. By evening, I was ravenously hungry. When I entered the dining hall, magically Dembrosia entered immediately after. I asked the waiter to bring her a stool and to place it just behind me.
I watched carefully as the waiter poured the wine, but saw nothing unusual except a peculiar twist of his hand as he stepped away.
Dembrosia leaned forward and whispered, “Speak a toast, Sire, but do not drink.”
I rose, and the lords all followed. “A toast,” I bellowed. “A toast to loyalty. My new valet and confidant who sits behind me comes from a far-away land where they speak a tongue very different from our own. And so we shall toast to their word for loyalty …”
Dembrosia whispered the word in my ear. I wasn’t sure I could pronounce it.
“Khaelgyang.” I mimicked as best I could, “That is the word we toast to. Between it and our own word, there is but one difference. In the foreign tongue, it actually has meaning. To khaelgyang then.” I began to raise my glass.
“Have the guards seize the waiter,” Dembrosia whispered.
“Waiter,” I called. He came. “Guards, seize him.”
The waiter’s face screwed itself into a frightful expression, but he surrendered without a scuffle.
“Now trade glasses with Lord Langdon,” she whispered.
I stepped over and put my hand on his shoulder. “Langdon, Earl of Crenshire,” I said. He was shaking. “I am led to believe your vineyards have been most productive this season. Is that not true?”
“It is true, you majesty,” he replied.
“And is this vintage I have in my hand not of your vineyards?”
“Again your majesty is quite correct. It most certainly is.”
“And so, it is befitting that you should drink this toast from the king’s crystal goblet, as you are the founder of the drink, don’t you agree.”
“Most certainly, your majesty.”
I made the exchange and returned to my place. “To khaelgyang,” I shouted again, and downed the whole of Langdon’s glass.
“My dear Langdon,” I said. “You lower your glass yet it is still full. Will you not drink to loyalty? Come now.”
“Yes your majesty.” He took a sip. “To khael — er — to loyalty.”
“Loyalty is worth but a sip? Drink man.”
He fumbled around, then let the glass drop and shatter on the floor.
“Have the guards search the waiter’s tunic,” said Dembrosia out loud.
This they did, and turned up a tiny vial in his sleeve. The waiter set straight away to whimpering and pointed to Langdon.
“No, Sire!” shouted Langdon. “I did not order this. It must have been the queen.”
At first I refused to hear the last of his words. As wretched a woman as the queen was, I had always believed that she loved me. But Dembrosia whispered to me again. “Sire, he’s implicated the queen. Question her.”
“My darling Ghezylah,” I said, looking into the queen’s averted eyes. “What do you know of this affair?”
At last her eyes met mine. They opened wide and the color drained from her face.
“The gentleman accuses you. Speak!” I demanded.
Her lips trembled. Her eyes began to fill with tears.
“It is she, your majesty,” cried Langdon. “She would give your kingdom up to your enemies for the sake of her own advancement.”
“And you, Langdon — am I to believe you stand to gain nothing from her ascent? You think me a fool? Seize them both,” I commanded. I turned to my companion. “Dembrosia, tell me now the meaning of all this.”
“Gladly, Sire. This afternoon, I took myself to this waiter’s room and pretended to find favor with him. When I had his confidence, I told him that his master could not deliver the message himself, as suspicion was upon him, but the word was that the plot was the same as at the last dinner, only more so. I then returned to him later as dinner neared readiness and toyed with his affections once more. And through my caresses, I discovered the vial. I told him that his master desired a signal when the deed had been done. This he did when he poured the wine. I observed his eyes and the eyes of each lord at this table. The gaze only of Lord Langdon was taken by the waiter’s signal. If that weren’t enough, Sire, ask the guard to my right who gave the order to keep me from bringing you water.”
The guard did not wait for my question, but said, “It was Langdon, your majesty.”
“And this too, my Liege,” Dembrosia continued. “Lani,” she called, “come into the dining hall at once. Your king requests you.”
Lanilee emerged from the kitchen. Dembrosia spoke reassuringly to her. “You need no longer fear the queen, girl. She can’t harm you from the dungeon. Tell the king’s court what you know of her.”
“It was ‘im,” she said, pointing at Langdon. “‘E was in ‘er chamber, ‘e was. I seen ‘im come out, an’ the queen seen me, an’ she says she’d be like to chop me ‘ead if I ever says a word to nobody. I beg you m’lord — forgive me for not tellin’ you sooner. The queen frightened me so.”
“Guards, take them away,” I ordered. “And find Lani her own private quarters as a reward for her good work in identifying my betrayers.” I then reached out my arm to my faithful servant and said, “Sit, Dembrosia, in the queen’s place. I shall have them bring you our finest fruit.”
Lord Lowry rose, raised his glass, and sang out, “Long live the king!” The hall thundered with voices echoing his words.
Dembrosia leaned to me and whispered, “Next time, you shall allow ME to fill your glass, Sire, for my vintage is more savory than any squeezed from the vine. Now hurry and finish your dinner. There were fresh peppermint leaves at the market today. Not half an hour ago, I ate half a pound of them, and I soon shall be eager to share them with you.”