A Girl’s Best Friend
As a guard in Her Majesty’s service, Byron was used to receiving orders; he just wasn’t used to them coming from the wall.
“It’s for princess’s own good,” the marble bust continued. “Rumor has it the diamonds are cursed.”
Even though Ratrilpot’s Queen couldn’t see Byron through the statue–at least as far as he knew–he still tried to keep his disgust from showing.
Was she really that cruel?
Eilloena was his dearest friend, and the pendant was the only memento she had from her late father. How could the Queen expect him to be an accomplice in stealing it?
“I’ll expect your report in my throne room after tonight’s festivities,” the statue concluded.
Byron took a deep breath and raced into the chilly depths of the castle. He could think of only one thing powerful enough to help him now; but like Her Majesty, it was unpredictable at best, and at worst… lethal.
Byron hid under the table in the library, feeling as helpless as the newly armless maid who’d made the mistake of dusting one of the feistier shelves.
Tomes snapped open and shut on the floor around him. Paperweights and inkwells clogged on the table above. Flames crackled from the fireplace, while smoke slithered closer. His sword might help him cut through a binding or two, but an army was marching forward.
“Stay back,” he ordered. “Think of what Eilloena would say if she found you trying to eat me.”
The wordsmen paused and chattered amongst themselves until the doors to the library flung open. As the thud of the door striking the stone wall echoed through the library, the wordsmen scrambled back to their shelves and shuddered quietly.
“Ah, Byron. I thought you might turn up,” Ratrilpot’s Magus said with a smile. “I take it you’re here about the Queen’s latest attempt to distress our beloved princess.”
Byron crawled out from under the table and nodded.
“Please, Drendyn, I’m desperate. If I see Eilloena wearing the pendant at my brother’s wedding this afternoon, I’ll have to tell Her Majesty. Missing the event is not an option. And I can’t warn Eilloena; the Queen won’t let the princess out of her sight.”
Although Drendyn seemed pleasant with his long silvery beard, spectacles, and half-full cup of bergamot tea; standing next to him made your hair stand on end–and not only from apprehension. Drendyn reduced the air around him to quivering, and the mischievous twinkling of his eyes was bright enough to read by.
“Just as I cannot send Eilloena a message without detection; you cannot lie to Her Majesty,” he said. “Even a good-intentioned spell won’t change the unchangeable.”
Byron sighed and collapsed into a leather chair. I guess that rules out magic, he thought. Though he shouldn’t have expected anything less. Magic was more a tool than a miracle.
“What if I devote my life to Annūté? Or you enchant my prayer to Him into a two-sided conversation so I can beg for a divine favor? I can’t let the Queen take the pendant from Eilloena; she’d be devastated.”
“What if I can help in another way?” Drendyn asked.
Eilloena had long spoken about Drendyn’s penchant for inventive solutions to problems and the hardships accompanying those lessons. Like when she’d begged him to help her learn archery to impress her first crush, and instead he helped her to learn the dangers and pain of changing oneself to please someone else.
“So what are you thinking? Sending me away? Enchanting my breeches so I survive Liar, Liar, Legs on Fire?” Byron asked.
“In a manner of speaking. I’m going to send you on a brief quest to retrieve some information for me.”
Drendyn’s fingers crackled with blue sparks. Byron’s hopeful outlook fizzled.
“If you must,” Byron said sullenly, “but I still like my magical armor idea.”
Drendyn chuckled, set down his cup, and waved his hands in a circular motion. The books in the room grew still, dust swirled in tiny cyclones on the shelves, and Byron’s chair rumbled beneath him.
“Never forget, my dear boy, how powerful knowledge can be. Her Majesty uses it as a weapon to slay her enemies and maintain her power; but it can also be used to shield one from the darkest of evils.”
Drendyn raised his eyebrows and a musty mist rolled in from the library aisles. “Ready yourself; this will probably sting… a lot.”
In a second that felt like a lifetime of brutally savage winters, Drendyn’s transportation spell whisked Byron across the ice-covered landscapes that separated the castle on its spire in central Ratrilpot from Eastcliffe on the Northeastern shore.
He shivered upon arrival and prayed his numb toes weren’t frostbitten.
“Master Elroy, what a surprise. Happy LongNight.”
Byron turned around. The cramped stone chamber was empty of life–and exits–but not devoid of presence.
“And the same to you, Ambassador,” Byron said to the ghost. “It’s always a pleasure. Though Drendyn’s choice of destination is rather odd.”
“My tomb, you mean?”
Byron turned as green as the mold-covered walls.
“I guess if I’m already buried, the Queen can’t do it herself,” he squeaked.
The translucent specter flickered in unison with its chuckling, causing the temperature in the room to drop another few degrees. Byron rubbed his hands together and blew on them to compensate.
“Fear not. If Drendyn wanted me to speak with you today, this is the only place you could have been sent. Once a year I must return to my remains to re-anchor my presence to this world; else my ties to my daughter and grandchildren would be severed.”
The ambassador motioned for Byron to take a seat on the lone bench in the room; and once Byron had done so, the ghost sat down on his own stone sarcophagus.
“So, what can I help you with on this festive day?” the ghost asked.
Byron buried his hands in his armpits and fought to speak through his chattering teeth. “I’m looking for a way to save Eilloena from heartache. The Queen has tasked me with reporting on whether the princess wears a keepsake from her father to my brother’s wedding later today.”
The ghost shook his spectral head and sighed.
“So the witch still hasn’t given up on her treasure hunt. How unfortunate. I suppose a certain bane to both of our noble houses revealed the memento’s existence to her in an another attempt to gain favor with the Queen?”
Byron nodded and stood back up so he could get the blood flowing in his feet again. “I’m not sure why Drendyn thought I should ask you about it, though. If you can’t move from this spot, it’s not like you can warn Eilloena not to wear it. Unless… being a ghost, do you know a way to lie to the Queen, so I can say I didn’t see it?”
The ghost made to say something, but the smell of old books filled the crypt and dust drifted down from above as the room shook.
“Bother. We’ve run out of time. I’m sorry I cannot give you more details, lad, but I can tell you this: Eilloena’s father knew his greedy Queen would never let the princess keep the legendary pendant. So before our deaths, he asked me to enchant it with a powerful memory-lapse charm that would cause the Queen to immediately forget seeing it, and a hidden message–which Eilloena has probably shown you–that is revealed when the stones are held to the light.”
Byron nodded again and his stomach lurched.
Before he could even thank the ghost, the rest of him lurched too.
A few hours later, Byron stood with the other Elroys in the castle chapel, heart filled with joy as he watched his brother pledge life and limb–thankfully represented by silver sculptures, rather than the bloody components used on some Sugonian islands–to be a loyal husband.
“Just as these two fragrant lightlilies shine brighter when intertwined, so does the light given off by these two souls,” the Queen announced to the congregation with what Byron recognized as smile number 99: victory is mine. “May Annūté bless their noble union, and may all who bear witness support them on their shared journey through life and on to the Planes of Peace. Now raise your mugs to Boyden and Polly Elroy.”
The crowds cheered, Eilloena beamed at him, and Byron sighed.
“Twas a perfect day for you, brother,” he whispered.
And a perfect last day for Byron, since after the sun set and the happy couple departed for their own personal LongNight celebration, he planned on fleeing Ratrilpot in hopes he could live out his days in hiding. Her Majesty might still learn that Eilloena was wearing the jewels from someone else, but at least he wouldn’t willfully cause his friend pain.
Byron downed his mulled mead and walked towards Eilloena so he could ask her to dance; but a thought struck him. By getting married to his brother in this sacred ritual, Polly Revere’s name had changed and she had become an Elroy.
Byron raced across the room, telling Eilloena she looked beautiful along the way, and promising he’d be right back.
“Magus, can I have a word?” he asked.
Drendyn smiled and nodded to the enchanted instruments in the alcove nearby, causing them to play louder. He didn’t want any prying ears to hear what Byron had to say.
“If they’re good ones, perhaps I’ll let you have two.”
Byron fought back an eye-roll. “Names have power, right? That’s one of the basic tenets of magic?”
Drendyn stroked his beard. Blue sparks fell to the floor and skittered through the cracks between the planks.
“Yes and no. You must know a name to call one by it; and for some, you cannot exert control without knowing their name. Yet, look at Her Majesty. She has abandoned her name, executing any who speak it, and still she has power in frightful measure.”
Byron scrunched his brow. Perhaps a more direct question was the way to go. “What if I tell the Queen that I didn’t see Eilloena wearing the Diamond Dewdrops? The king renamed it ‘My Joyous Tears’ in his message to Eilloena. Would his renaming of the pendant be enough to convince Her Majesty I spoke the truth?”
Drendyn shook his head.
“A clever thought, but I’m afraid not. In the truest sense, the pendant is still the same pendant; like Polly is still Polly even though she’s an Elroy now. But your discovery in Eastcliffe gives me an idea. Do you trust me?”
Byron turned pale and Drendyn chuckled.
“Smart lad. Well, at least trust that I don’t wish to see Eilloena hurt either.”
Byron tried to ignore the screams as he stood outside the throne room. As many times as he’d entered and left it alive, he always knew ‘this time’ could be his last.
“She’s in a mood, mate,” one of his compatriots whispered. “Even Annūté might hesitate before setting foot beyond those doors today.”
The other guard condemned the blasphemy until blood seeped under the threshold and soaked his boots; then he passed out.
“Bloody newbies,” the still-standing guard muttered.
Other members of the castle staff whisked by to clean up the mess, while Byron took deep breaths to calm his pounding heart. Why didn’t he listen to Drendyn?
The Royal Magus had temporarily modified the spell on Eilloena’s pendant to make Byron forget about it and prevent him from seeing it. Thus he could honestly tell the Queen he didn’t know if Eilloena had it, and because he’d be wearing the pendant–which neither one of them could see–she’d feel like he’d delivered it to her and wouldn’t kill him.
But Byron wasn’t convinced that would work; and even if by some miracle it did, he wasn’t convinced the Queen would give up her search for the memento.
So now he was risking everything to trick her into using the pendant as Drendyn had intended him to do. If he could get her to pull up the memories of the pendant before she read the inscription inside, then it would be wiped completely from her mind. If not, then the maids would be back to wipe what was left of him from the floor.
“Show in my next victim,” said a voice Byron recognized all too well.
It was followed by what appeared to be the whispering of someone else, and then, “Is that what I said? How funny. For once I actually meant to say visitor.”
The doors swung open; and Byron marched onto the crimson runner leading to the dais, where the Queen sat on her throne. Her gaze was as cold as the howling winds outside. Worse, she wasn’t alone. That ruthless schemer, Lord Goodbane, was standing next to her.
“So, guard, what did you discover?” the Queen asked.
Byron swallowed the sour sausage taste back down, mind racing to think of what to do. He had to get the Queen alone; but he couldn’t lie to her in the process.
“I would prefer to speak with you in confidence, Your Majesty.”
The enchanted instruments above the throne room door switched to something with more bass and percussion to emphasize the dramatic request. Lord Goodbane flushed. The Queen’s eyes turned into slits.
Byron’s stomach continued rolling–not helped by the turbulent music and overwhelming scents of cedar and spice puffing out of the pots by the windows–but he did his best to ignore it. Confidence. He had to exude confidence.
“Because I believe there is something Lord Goodbane didn’t tell you about the pendant.”
Lord Goodbane huffed, obviously trying to think of how to respond.
The Queen raised an eyebrow. “Just because your words ring true, doesn’t mean your intentions follow suit. How do I know I can trust a friend of Eilloena to deliver the pendant to me?”
Byron gulped. How in Annūté’s name could he answer that?
“Yes, Elroy Runt. Why should the Vessel of Annūté’s Divine Virtue heed the word of a lowly guard over that of one of her nobles?” Lord Goodbane added, one again exuding the strong presence he was known for as one of the most dangerous men in Ratrilpot. “We’ve all seen how buddy buddy you are with Eilloena. You can’t expect us to think you wouldn’t want to protect her.”
The Queen grinned. Lord Goodbane simply smirked, but the effect of it with his haunting eyes and slightly graying black goatee–perfectly trimmed to create the sharpest curves and points possible–made him look more villainous than the Queen.
What could Byron say?
His word should have been worth something, as he was of noble blood. He was just too far down in the pecking order to inherit the estate. But there was no way to get around the fact he’d do anything for Eilloena; hence why he was here in the first place.
No. He couldn’t parry. He had to feint.
“Though that be true; which of us has more to gain from this?” Byron asked. “Surely you’re not insinuating I pose a danger to Her Majesty?”
Lord Goodbane clenched his fists, but Byron continued before he could interrupt.
“There are shackles on the wall over yonder. Bind my feet and my arms if you do not trust me to honor my oath to protect the Queen’s life over my own.”
The Queen chuckled and stood up. “Oh, Byron; how you amuse me. Naxor, run along and go play for a moment.”
“But, Your Majesty!” Lord Goodbane shouted.
The Queen froze him with a look.
“Don’t forget who is Queen here,” she snapped at him. Then turning to the door she said, “Guards. Chain Byron to my gaming wall and escort the overzealous Lord Goodbane from these chambers.”
Lord Goodbane turned pale. Then he bowed and saw himself out, uttering a, “I’ll be outside in the hall if you should need me.”
Byron did his best to keep his composure while his compatriots secured the clamps around his wrists and ankles. There was no escape now. He had to see this through or die in the process.
The Queen motioned for the guards to leave and close the door behind them. Then she slinked over to him as only she could do, emphasizing each step with deadly grace, like a snake about to strike.
“So we’re alone now, as you desired. What is it Naxor failed to tell me?”
Despite the fact that every tapestry, bust, mosaic, statue, rug, painting, mural, carving, and vase he saw was a stunning reproduction of the olive-eyed blond beauty in front of him, Byron managed to keep an image of Eilloena in his mind. He had to be strong for her.
“The pendant’s real value lies in the inscription within; something that can only be seen when the pendant is held to a light source,” he said.
Her Majesty crossed her arms. “And that helps me how?”
This was the moment of truth.
“I’m wearing the pendant round my neck, Your Highness,” Byron replied, unsurprised about the dum dum dum duuuuuummmmmm musical accompaniment his statement got. “Perhaps if you hold the jewels in your hands and concentrate, it will help you to overcome the enchantment that’s preventing you from seeing the pendant?”
The Queen rolled her eyes and fished in his tunic, until she found it.
“It’s still invisible,” she raged, staring at it as though doing so would set it ablaze.
Byron’s stomach lurched again. His plan depended on her seeing the message.
“Through the corner of your eye, maybe? Perhaps if you don’t look directly at it, it will come into focus. Like when you stare at clouds or try to remember a dream,” he said quickly.
The Queen scowled and turned towards the door as if to call for help, but then a slight smirk came to her face.
“Oh you clever, clever, boy. I can barely make it out.”
Byron almost let out a sigh of relief before remembering the most important part of the spell.
“This is what you’ve been seeking, Your Majesty, over all those years since you first learned about the Diamond Dewdrops. All your searching, all your struggles, all your plans and schemes. Naxor mentioning it to you last night, always suspecting Eilloena had it. It all comes down to those words.”
“Carry My Joyous Tears close to your heart, for my love is with you, whether near or apart, ” she said softly, as though in a trance.
She dropped the pendant and took a step back.
Then her eyes went wide in rage.
“What the Hym are you doing in my throne room and how did you get chained to the wall?”
Sweat trickled down Byron’s back. He was still alive; though that might change if he let his guard down. He had to come up with a story–a true story–and fast.
“I came at your request, Your Majesty,” he said slowly, attempting to bow in spite of his chained up state. “And the guards bound me to the wall because Lord Goodbane didn’t trust me to be alone with you. He’s outside the door waiting to re-enter, hoping to read the message in the invisible pendant I’m wearing.”
The Queen glared and tapped her foot on the cold marble floor as if she thought him insane, something the instruments attempted to showcase through a dissonant arrangement. She might want more specific answers, but she was unlikely to admit she didn’t know what was going on.
“Guards, open those doors!”
Lord Goodbane barged in, still looking suave and sinister, albeit a bit unsettled. “Are you alright, Your–”
“Of course I’m alright, you idiot,” she barked. “Even if Byron wasn’t chained to the wall, I could kill him without breaking a nail. Now enough of this nonsense. What’s this unseen pendant say, hmmm?”
Lord Goodbane was obviously as confused as the Queen was, but if Byron reacted prematurely, it might make things worse.
“You want me to read it?” Lord Goodbane asked.
The Queen glared again and reached for her dagger.
So much for caution.
“Her Majesty can’t see it, if you recall,” Byron blurted before his teeth chattered or he peed himself. “You went to great lengths to learn of the pendant, perhaps if you read the inscription to her, you can achieve what you were planning when you mentioned it to her last night.”
Lord Goodbane scowled, but since he was apparently unable to think of any reasonable excuse not to do so, he picked up the pendant and started to read. By the time he finished, his voice trailed off and his eyes were glassy.
“Well?” the Queen snapped.
Lord Goodbane turned around. “Your Majesty?”
“You had one of my guards chained up so you could pretend to read some sentimental jibber-jabber to me off an imaginary necklace? Who the Hym do you take me for?”
Lord Goodbane shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“That makes two of us. Now run home to your wife in Hoodlum’s Hollow before I tell her about your attempts to woo me; or worse, prevent you from doing so permanently.”
Byron hummed as he mucked the stables, one of his many punishments for “allowing himself to be used by that devious Lord Goodbane in such a demeaning manor.” It stunk–both literally and figuratively–but it was far better than what could have happened.
“There you are,” Eilloena said upon entering. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. No doubt you’re wondering why you can’t remember your brother’s wedding, or how long the breadfight went on between Boyden and Polly’s dad.”
Byron smiled. “As a matter of fact, I remember quite well, thanks.”
He took his gloves off, so as not to get the treasure dirty. Then he reached into his tunic, pulled out the pendant, and gave it to her.
“I know Drendyn was trying to keep them safe for you; but I didn’t think his approach would prevent the Queen from trying to steal the pendant in the future. So I improvised a bit and tricked her and Lord Goodbane into forgetting about it completely.”
Eilloena looked down to the pendant and then back at him; but it wasn’t with wonder or amusement. Instead, she’d donned the offspring of disbelief and frustration.
What have I stepped in now?
“Byron Elroy, you are denser than a wedding loaf sword!” she snapped, thwapping him on the head. “Drendyn wasn’t trying to protect my diamonds; he was TRYING to protect something far more precious to me.”
Byron blushed as though sunburned and ran a hand through his mop of hair. Eilloena rolled her eyes.
“Friends for life?” he whispered sheepishly, gathering her into a big bear hug.
Eilloena hugged him back.
“Provided you stop trying to end yours prematurely; absolutely.”