Copyright © 2017 by Erin E. Woods/ GB MacRae
This is a work of fiction, any similarities to people or places is purely coincidental. First Printing, 2017
Thank you for the dance
The Veil Lifted
She pushed open the heavy wooden doors with her magical winds, sending with it the fragrance of rich spices. The drummers produced a slow, exotic rhythm, and she glided into the fire lit great hall in a cloud of garnet silk. Her body moved in serpentine ways, sensual, controlled, elegant. Minya knew the nobles she entertained still wondered what new methods of enticement she’d learned in her century long absence. However, they would never know about that time, could never know. Her secrets must keep themselves.
As Minya undulated, her long layered skirt floating around her ankles, she made eye contact with the lord, Rynard, but for only long enough to lure him. It amused her that his name was a peasant’s name, not like hers, a proper name from her noble family: Xzelleminiya. He was just one of a multitude of usurpers in this empire. Always at war with one another, her countrymen could rise to and fall from power within a week, no matter who they might be. The cunning and malevolent were the ones to claim titles, not the heirs. He had been cunning, but he had no appreciation of what she was truly capable, of what her mystical talents were capable.
The audience was riveted, as they always were when she was dancing. It wasn’t the brief glimpses of flesh through the silk, nor the riches adorning her body. Perhaps her bejeweled raven hair did add some mystique, being that its ample length proved her immortal years. No, it was her presence, her enigma, her talent as a dancer. Her flirtation with the lord continued when she looked at him with heavy lidded eyes as she turned. Everything in her life was a dance.
She hadn’t finished her performance when the lord summoned her. It was a common breach of etiquette of his that she had to tolerate. “Minya, come to me,” he said, his bauble laden hand beckoning her. The other nobles applauded, spoke her praises. Minya approached the lord, conscious of her every measured movement as was her habit. She didn’t break eye contact as she bowed; a lesser woman would balk at his lusty gaze. He took a deep breath. “You are perfection, Minya,” he said. He turned to the guests. “Feel free to enjoy my hospitality,” he said with a smile. “But I must retire.”
Glasses were raised in praise of the lord’s conquest. Minya smiled but was disgusted. This was not as affluent of a household as she known in the past, but her absence from society also required her to rebuild her legend and as well as her resources.
Minya followed the lord from the hall, maintaining the proper spatial etiquette of her people. She always managed to avoid his attempted groping in the corridors; she was not a street whore.
Late that night she was sitting in his bed with a mitt of ermine stroking his back while he relaxed. He was still awake, probably reliving the past hours in his mind, and enjoying the silken touch. Minya thought about the next, more powerful castle she would visit. Indeed, daydreaming was risky, but Rynard was not so deadly that she had to maintain constant focus.
“The others nobles will respect me more, with you at my side and in my bed,” he said.
“I’m honored you think so, my lord,” she said. Of course he thought so. She was known to dance at victory celebrations across the land. If she was there, the residing lord had power. “Would you like me to play for you, my lord?” she asked.
“Yes. No one plays like you do.”
She took up the nearby lute and her fingers began to dance across the strings. It never took long; he drifted into dreamland with ease. Once he was snoring she slipped silently from the bed. A servant helped her don essential garments as well as a hooded robe, and it was time for her to make the nightly walk back to her own chamber.
It was a lovely room filled with all the trappings of a favored courtesan. The servants had drawn her bath, and she quickly sank into water, steam curling around her. Scrubbing had always been her task; she didn’t want the servants touching her bare skin. However, they were allowed to dress her for bed, and left at her command. Minya sat at her table and stared in the mirror. Her magic sensed that she was truly alone, no one hid behind curtains or under the bed. Spies could be anyone and everywhere, but she knew how to find them.
It was rare she could sink into her own thoughts. She reflected upon her life and how the definition of dream and nightmare had been skewed in ways she never thought imaginable. Someday she’d have the resources to take back her family’s city, the Healer’s city. She remembered it from her childhood, its stone pillars and grand archways, the river winding through it. Nature was all around, useful plants growing from every available surface. Perhaps what she remembered most, serenity. It was a time long ago, before her family was destroyed and she was sold into the life of a courtesan. Taking the city back was the best she could hope for, and she’d lost so much time in her absence. …Despite the pain it still caused, and how much it had changed her, it had been worth it. She’d learned a beauty she didn’t know existed.
Quite often she could be found in the extensive gardens entertaining others with music or wordplay, which was a favored pastime in the empire. Much of Minya’s life was gleaning information about the rest of the empire. However, she stopped when the stakes were too high. She could protect herself, but she would lose her place. Her kind was suspicious and unforgiving, and maintaining her forward momentum was imperative. From the night she was freed from her contract she had to stay ahead of her enemies, and enemies were easy to make. To fall behind this time could cost her life.
Lord Rynard approached her from the other side of a vast fountain of bubbling stone dragons. She’d been conversing with Baron Admon from the other side of the province. Lord Rynard was young, arrogant, and foolish. It wouldn’t be long before he angered more powerful nobles. Baron Admon’s keep might be her next stop. “My lord,” she said, bowing.
“Minya, where have you been hiding yourself?” he said. His doublet sparkled with gems in the sunlight; his hair was braided in the style of affluent people of the empire.
She chuckled musically. “I was allowing you to give chase,” she teased. “Noblemen love their hunting.”
He laughed and offered his arm. “Come, I desire your company. I have a meeting with my advisors. You’ll make it more bearable.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
As they walked he began to talk to her, far too close to her. Better nobles would have never done so. She reminded herself that while she might lose a shred of credibility with him, her coffers would be filled when she left. “You are the most beautiful woman in the world,” he said. “If I didn’t have a meeting, I would take you to my room right now.”
“My lord, you can make up for lost time tonight.” Minya controlled her urge to gut him, and make no mistake, she knew how. Taking his dagger would be easy enough and the job would be done instantly. He wasn’t worthy of her magical talents.
His two advisors kept him informed. Most nobles she’d serviced kept information to themselves and were informed directly by spies, but Rynard didn’t want to be bothered. Actually, she was quite certain one of his advisors really worked for someone else she knew, a baron whose title was not an accurate description for how much power he truly held.
The advisors warned Rynard about foreigners crossing his farmlands. The empire that shared a border with her country had a long standing rivalry, and in recent history this other country, Zephronia, had been able to move their armies about without resistance. About this, Minya was well informed. Zephronia’s Emperor Gallylya was a hero having led the country through the Holy War, a dragon slayer like no other, and the head of an exalted order of knights known by their golden dragon armor and great deeds. He was a shining bastion amidst his people. Few knew how reluctant Gallylya had been to take the throne. They were a people of honor, loyalty, and friendship, the opposite of her empire.
Rynard decided to send a party to investigate. Minya said nothing. If Rynard was foolish enough to send men to bother a group of Zephrons, he deserved the repercussions, and Minya would be long gone before battle neared. Zephrons were on her list of people to avoid at all costs.
“No ‘Phron is going to spy on me,” Rynard said, puffing his chest out. “I’m not afraid of them.”
Minya looked at him with admiration all the while his stupidity and his use of the hateful word for Zephron raised her ire. “You are most wise,” she said. Clans who tried to stand against the Zephrons were destroyed. It was how her family’s enemy had met their end. Zephrons would mind their own business when in her empire; they usually were just looking for dragons. Every so often she was reminded how blindly the two empires hated each other. If anyone should know better, it was her.
There was another night of dancing and as a special treat Minya used her power over the air to affect the torches and candles, and to give people chills. There weren’t many mages like her—she had learned that from experience. In another time she had used her magic to do great things, and her strength gave her the ability to keep up with the toughest of men in the most difficult of times. Now she just amazed audiences with her fluidity as she bent herself backwards and dropped to the floor, rose up again once more. Lord Rynard clapped and shouted.
At the end of the night the nobles crowded around the hall, sharing the latest information, including the news of the Zephrons. Minya was required to stay by her lord’s side. Like so many, he had tendencies to be immensely jealous. After leaving him late that night, she again stared at herself in the mirror.
How did she come to this place? She tried every day to go back to the way she was before, when she didn’t see the shame in what she did. There had never been shame in being a courtesan in this land, and she was admired and respected by most. Her time away had made her feel this way, had nearly destroyed her. She closed her eyes and let her power rise around her, bathed in its light, remembered when it was used gloriously. Once more she let it rest and looked in the mirror. This life she had now would be her life until she could regain her city. Then there would again be glory.
It was several days later when the knights returned with a captive. Minya was astounded by the ridiculousness of the presentation. The prisoner was shoved through into the audience room for the entertainment of the court. Minya played her part as she always, wearing one of her many perfected masks. He had been stripped of his armor, his blond hair was crusted with dirt and blood. The nobles jeered the man, laughed about how he and his kind looked alike (which was the same his people thought of her kind).
She could sense all his wounds, many of them from a fresh beating. She could also sense the magic in him, the heritage in it, and hoped he didn’t see her. The knights in attendance told the tale of the capture, but she ignored it. It was obvious enough that no other was left alive. Must have been a small party.
Lord Rynard was mocking the Zephron with comments about his ineptitude and cowardice. Minya was weighing possibilities while keeping quiet and smirking. This prisoner was not an ordinary man. His capture would not go unnoticed. The emperor wouldn’t need to send anyone; his compatriots from the Order would come to recover him, destroying the city if Rynard was foolish enough to deny his freedom. She knew Rynard would be that arrogant. He would rather his people die than release a captive. Minya nearly broke her mask as she made her choice. Time was not her ally. It should have been common knowledge of how quickly Zephronian forces could move, but apparently not.
Rynard called for a celebration that night, but before she once more entered the hall to dance for his so-called victory, she made sure to swing by the barrels of wine to touch the aged wood. It was a minor enchantment, and no one here could sense it. That night the revelers fell asleep sooner than usual. Minya left Rynard snoring in his chamber. It was easy enough to use a touch of magic to put guards and servants asleep. It wouldn’t last long, but it would be just enough as she started her work.
Locks and doors couldn’t hinder her magic, but her identity could be her undoing. She wore a hood and a veil to hide her face in darkness. This act must be unknown to all concerned lest she be destroyed.
Since she made a point to know the servants’ corridors in every castle she lived in, it was easy enough slip through the fortress unseen by the few who remained awake. She was able to quickly sense and put to sleep anyone near, including guards in doorways.
Minya entered the dark passage and into the dank cell. As she bent over the prisoner she spoke his name. “Kenrick,” she said in his native tongue. She put her hands on his shoulder; let her magic flow through him, healing him but keeping him dazed. She couldn’t afford him attacking her.
“Mmf…whore,” he muttered. Zephrons felt strongly about purity, while in this empire women and men alike were allowed freedom to bed who they liked. To Kenrick, all the women here were whores.
“Kenrick, I’m here to help.” She guided him to his feet. He would be well enough to move, but not coordinated enough to land a hit on her. Minya helped him from the cell and past the sleeping guards.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Your voice…”
“I’m a friend.”
“Lies,” he slurred. “You’re all nothing but lies. You’re leading me to my doom.”
“I would never do that,” she said.
“Why should I trust you?”
“You don’t have a choice, neither do I, neither does this city. Rynard doesn’t respect the Order of Vega, nor his highness, the emperor.”
They hurried through eerily silent corridors and into the stable. His captured bond-horse snorted at her. The white mare knew who she was. “Say nothing,” she pleaded with the mare. Bond horses were magical creatures, not beasts of burden. She saddled the mare, healing her injuries as she went. Minya scrambled about, leaving Kenrick to lean against a wall. She led them both to the yard and helped Kenrick mount.
“Who are you?” Kenrick asked again. “Your voice is so familiar.” He was becoming more alert.
“I am no one, a shadow,” she said. “I’m certain you will find your main force, or one of the Order coming for you.” She paused at her words, and used her power once more. “I’ve disguised you and your horse. No one in the city will stop you, but it will wear off.”
“Your magic, it’s so familiar.”
“I’ve placed healing tonics in your saddle bags, they will aid you on your journey. I ask that they leave the city in peace. Go now, you don’t have much time.” She motioned to his mare, who took the hint and trotted away. Minya used her power once more to ease open the gates from the castle to the city. She took a few ragged breaths and tried to maintain her wits. There were so many messages she wished she could send with him, but that life was one to which she could never return. Most importantly, Kenrick would return to his country and noble family, and this city would likely be safe.
She hurried back to her room and cast off her veil and cloak. Her servants were elsewhere. It was only then she used the enchantment she hadn’t used in years. She drew forth a pendant she kept locked away, and with her magic, light came from it. In a stream of magic poured the ethereal shape of armor which solidified until it was once again before her. She took a few hazardous moments to mournfully admire it, touch its magnificent golden curves. Made for her by the best smiths and enchantments in a place far from here, a suit only granted to her and no other since the Order first existed. For a moment she relived her denial, and the words that had been spoken to her near half a century before. “Such a responsibility is never granted to those who think they deserve it, but to those who will wear it best.” She sighed and returned the armor to its hiding place. She spoke so softly she could barely hear her own words. “You were right, Gallylya. You were right.”