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The Final Reckoning



By



Mac Zazski





Smashwords Edition



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Copyright 2018 Mac Zazski



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The Final Reckoning is the Fifth Sequel in the “Royal Consort” series



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Discover other titles by Mac Zazski at Smashwords.com



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This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it or it was purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2 CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 3 CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 4 CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 5 CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 6 CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 7 CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 8 CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24



Chapter 1



The formidable oaken doors of the King’s Council Chamber stood closed and barred, two enormous guards standing just beyond them in the hall of the great castle at Wharton. Inside the chamber, a small, select group sat, gathered at something between a hearing and a trial.

On a raise platform, King Alex and Queen Marie of Zambelia sat side by side, holding hands as was their custom, listening intently to the discussions that were being presented to them. Alex looked large and muscular, his face placid, his light eyes intently following the proceedings. Beside him, his slender wife, Marie appeared slightly anxious, her beautiful face looking slightly pale. Her auburn hair, arranged in a braid down her back was dusted at the temples with a touch of gray, the same color that now speckled her husband’s beard, a subtle salute to the passage of time.

Beside the King and Queen, a stocky, elderly man sat, his bald head reflecting the torches that lit the room. He had a thick white beard and dark, lively eyes and looked completely out of place seated beside the King and Queen. Named the Glorious One by those who practiced the craft, he was the chief wizard of all of those who held the ability to practice magic. It was to his judgement, more than to the King and Queen’s, that those present were applying themselves.

Seated opposite them were two young men of whom they were all very fond, Joseph, son of Prince Ernest, the King’s younger twin brother and Jacob, son of Lord Parker and the late Lady Gertrude. Jacob, two years older, was already growing into a handsome, strapping young man, his dark hair and eyes always displaying a slightly mournful expression. Seated beside him, Joseph fought hard not to display the same mischievous smile for which his father was famous, realizing it would make an odd addition in such a proper setting but cursed with smiling whenever he was nervous.

Seated on either side of the boys were Joseph’s parents, Princess Donna and Prince Ernest. Donna was still a beautiful woman with raven black hair, dressed in a gray gown, her expression somber. At the other end of the table, Prince Ernest sat as he always seemed to sit, appearing to not have a care in the world, utterly happy and content to be exactly where he was no matter where that might be or what he might be doing.

Between the two groups stood three older women, sorceresses who had helped to raise Joseph in the art of magic. Anna, Celeste and Daphne stood primly before the boys at the table, their expressions firm and serious. As usual, Daphne assumed the position of spokesperson for the group.

“We are here to discuss a serious breach of ethics committed by his highness, Prince Joseph of Zambelia, in the instruction of Lord Jacob in the craft,” stated Daphne. Turning back towards the elderly man who sat beside the royal couple, she continued. “I submit that Prince Joseph knowingly attempted to mislead his superiors in the craft as to the ability of Lord Jacob and in so doing, caused harm not only to himself and Lord Jacob, but to every creature.”

The Glorious One held up a hand and then, turning to the King and Queen, offered a word of explanation, “In the craft, your majesties, every action is seen as either beneficial or detrimental to all creatures. In saying this, Daphne is following our understanding of the totality of all things and following our prescribed formulas. I hope that it does not seem unduly harsh.”

Alex and Marie nodded their understanding and the Glorious One signaled Daphne to continue.

“I submit that a punishment prescribed by you, Glorious One, is in order to right the imbalance that has occurred due to Prince Joseph’s actions.”

With a slight bow, Daphne and the other two, shuffled off to the side, leaving the two sides facing one another across the open space of the chamber.

“Do you have anything to say in your defense?” asked the Glorious One.

After a moment, Prince Joseph stood and clearing his throat, spoke.

“Glorious One, your Majesties, I submit that what I did was wrong,” began Joseph, “but there were extenuating circumstances. When we first discovered that Jacob had the gift, we feared that he would be punished for possessing something that he should not possess. I do not say that what I did was correct, but certainly the desire to protect a friend from punishment for a fault that he did not cause might be considered in your deliberations. Beyond that, Glorious One, I offer no defense; I did what I should not have done and I respectfully submit myself to your decision.”

The Glorious One sat for a moment as if considering the Prince’s words. Finally, he looked up at the boys again and motioned to Jacob.

“Have you nothing to say, Lord Jacob?”

Jacob rose and spoke quietly, “Glorious One, I should be punished, not Joseph. He merely acted as my friend and at my request. I still have no idea of why I possess abilities that I should not possess and all that I request of you is to take these powers from me. I have no desire to possess them, they have caused nothing but trouble for me and those I care about, they are the reason that we are here today and I see no point in possessing anything that would cause everyone problems. As you know,” Jacob’s voice became even more pained, “I have recently lost my Grandfather, the Count Bartran. He was a great man and a great diplomat and perhaps he would have known what to say or how to understand this, but I never confided this, even to him. I was ashamed I suppose, ashamed to have lied to him and ashamed to possess something I had no right too. I…” Jacob stood for a moment searching for words that would not come and then sat down again and placed his hands over his face.

Marie moved as if to rise, but Alex gently squeezed her hand and she eased back into her chair.

The Glorious One leaned back in his chair, pondering all he had heard. Finally, he looked up at Alex and Marie and stated softly, “With you leave, your highnesses…”

Marie looked to Alex anxiously and Alex nodded, saying nothing.

The Glorious One rose, “Prince Joseph, you have acted poorly, not by helping a friend, but by not trusting that your superiors would wish for the best outcome possible. The reason we submit to teachers is that we trust them to be honest and to know more than we do; that they are there to help us to understand and to learn. Your failure was not in trying to help a friend, but by believing that you and you alone could do so. Therefore, I will strip you of your powers for six months. You will also submit to daily teachings with your three guardians, hopefully to obtain a greater understanding of your responsibilities.”

Joseph rose and bowed, “As you wish, Glorious One. I only wish to make amends for my mistakes and I submit to your judgement without complaint.”

The Glorious One squinted, frowning slightly as he confronted Jacob.

“Lord Jacob, I understand that you appear before this council under a burden of grief. I am sorry for the loss of your grandfather, he was a special man, a good man. Still, I must punish you for your actions and your failures, not out of anger, but in hopes that you also will learn your responsibility to others. Therefore, I sentence you to leave the King’s service for six months and to go and live with your parents until the end of that time.”

Alex stood quickly, “Glorious One, I must protest…”

“I understand, sire,” stated the Glorious One. “I am afraid that I am the only one who truly does at the moment. You assured me that you would abide by my decision when we spoke earlier…”

“But banishment,” stated Marie as she stood in front of Alex. “Might he be banished to someplace else… there are other estates that Alex and I could send him too. Glorious One…his father…”

“Lord Jacob has caused an imbalance,” stated the Glorious One thoughtfully. “He needs to go where he can create balance once more…”

“Please, Glorious One,” began Jacob. “Please do not send me back to my Father and that woman…”

“You said that you would obey,” stated the Glorious One. “I count upon you to be as good as your word.”

Jacob struggled to remain composed. He loathed his father, Lord Parker, and hated his step-mother, Lady Susan. Wharton was his home, it was the only place left where anyone loved him, but he had given his word.

“Very well, Glorious One,” stated Jacob softly. “I will submit.”

The Glorious One moved to speak but then stopped himself. Finally, he looked at the King and Queen, “I am sorry, your majesties, but…” With a shrug, he descended from the platform and made his way to the door. Waving his hand over the bar that locked it, he watched as it slid back and the door opened. The die was cast, he thought, it is up to them now…



***



Pauline awoke, her eyes blinking slowly, her mind hazy and her thoughts unfocused. As she forced her eyes to remain open, she slowly took in her surroundings and gasped. For a moment, she had no idea of where she was or how she had gotten here. She was just about to bound from the bed when she felt something tighten around her waist and a warm breath dance about her ear just before a soft voice spoke lovingly into her ear.

“Good morning, my love…”

Pauline blinked and then smiled, feeling a bit silly as her fear dissipated. Twisting her body to face opposite of the way she had been laying, she looked into her husband’s eyes and saw the happy, sleepy glow that shown from them.

“Good morning, Jonathan,” she whispered, kissing him softly and tenderly and placing her arms around him.

“Did you forget where you were?” he asked with a knowing smile.

She looked down bashfully, “How did you know?”

“I felt you awaken and then you gave a little jump as if you were going to fly from the bed,” he said softly. “You have not done that in some time, my love…”

“I do not know why I did,” she replied sheepishly. “I supposed I still cannot believe that I am a married woman.”

“And I cannot believe how lucky I am to be a married man,” he stated softly, pulling her closer. “I look forward to spending our lives together here at Angelrod, our own home and in our own bed.”

“Our home and our bed,” she murmured softly after him, looking down bashfully and smiling. “I suppose it sounds silly, I know it has been some time now, but I still cannot believe that we are married.”

“I cannot believe that you agreed to marry me,” he stated. “When I saw Annalisse making her way down the aisle last month to marry Anthony, all I could think of was the joy I felt last year when you walked down the aisle to become my bride. I remembered how I kept thinking that you would come to your senses before you made it all the way down and then turn, screaming and running out of the Church…”

Pauline giggled, “Oh yes, it was a terribly difficult decision to make. Run out of the Church or walk down the aisle and marry the kindest, smartest, handsomest and most loving man in the world…”

He leaned forward and kissed her gently, his hand stroking her face lightly as he pulled back slightly to look at her.

“I am the one who married an angel,” he stated, “I am just happy she would have me and be mine.”

“I will always be yours,” she replied, reaching up and touching his face

Jonathan worked his arms around her gently, pulling her tightly against him as he kissed her passionately. Slowly his one hand worked its way down to the base of her night dress and gingerly began to work it upwards. He always felt as if he were unwrapping the most wonderous gift when he undressed her.

When he had gotten her dress bunched up around her waist, he stopped and propped himself up on his elbow, staring down at her as she blushed and turned her head. She was always so bashful when they made love. Drawing himself to his knees, he pulled her nightshirt over her head and looked down at her nude form. He smiled as her entire body seemed to turn a bright pink. Tentatively, she reached out her hand and gave his night shirt a gentle upward tug.

Jonathan could not contain a slight laugh as he pulled the shirt up and over his head and then, flinging it away, pulled the blanket up around them, wrapping them in a warm cocoon. Kissing her gently, he worked his way down to her neck to and then to her breasts. He heard his beloved sigh as he kissed and gently kneaded her breasts delighting in the way that she responded to his touch. Pauline’s body seemed to react immediately to any action he took and Jonathan marveled at her sensitivity and at the pleasure she seemed to derive from his attention.

She murmured loving words to him as she positioned himself over her, working his way back up to her neck and then to her lips. He relished the feel of her skin against his own, the way her legs rubbed against his as he moved upwards, exciting him and urging him to continue.

He felt her arms entwine themselves about his neck, felt the heat of her passion as their lips seared together. Gently he reached between them, positioning himself between her legs. He found her ready for him and gently entered her, delighting in the sigh that escaped her lips as they joined. Slowly he began to rock himself more deeply into her, his desire growing as he felt her pull her legs upwards, massaging his sides with her thighs and then her calves. As he increased his motion, he felt his love pulling him closer, wrapping herself more tightly around him.

They broke their kiss, their mouths near each other’s ears, the sound of the other’s gasping breaths driving each to greater exertion. Finally, Jonathan could contain himself no longer and with a soft moan filled her. With a gasp, she joined him, closing her eyes to the glorious light that seemed to fill her, her body wrapped tightly around him, her heart pounding in her chest. Slowly, they eased from one another, Jonathan dropping down lightly on his side as Pauline cuddled against his chest, her face pink from her exertions.

He kissed her tenderly on the forehead and murmured sweet declarations of his love as she burrowed into his chest, kissing it and telling him of the love she held for him and only him. Unable to contain himself, Jonathan eased her back onto the bed and smiled as he positioned himself above her once again. She stared up at him, her eyes filled with passion. It did not matter where they slept, as long as she awoke next to him…



***



Leaning back, Mullins caught himself perilously close to falling off of the log he was sitting upon. Jerking forward, he swore beneath his breath and then took another deep draught of the bottle in his hand. He did not allow himself to drink often, it was not part of his new lifestyle, but on this one day he did. Every year on the anniversary of his marriage he got drunk; hopelessly, unutterably, stinking drunk. His comrades never question it for they had all been made fools of, each knowing the pain of betrayal that Mullins felt. Each one had been married to a beautiful woman, each introduced to her by the Lord Parker or his lackeys, each had been blissfully happy, had felt like the luckiest man in the world and each had been the father to a son; a blonde son, a strapping baby boy who was no more a product of their exertions than the sea or the sky.

All of them had sworn eternal hatred for and revenge upon Lord Parker. Each man had given an oath that if all of the others died, he would still find a way to kill Lord Parker, to make him pay for the misery and pain that he had caused them by making each of them a cuckold. Each man looked at Mullins as he weaved back and forth on the log. Some did the same thing, lost themselves in drink, some never spoke of it and some would leave the camp and weep, each man handling it differently for himself. Despite the differences, they also acted together as one man in many ways. Each one was an experienced killer, each had an almost insatiable appetite for violence and each man had spent the last few years training, learning the tricks of the cutthroat and the thief. Each one had become a remorseless killer and each one lived for revenge.

They watched Mullins silently as they ate their dinners, drinking beer and suggesting that Mullins eat. Mullins merely continued to gulp from his bottle and sneer at the collection of men around him. He was squat and strong and with his thick hands, he grasped the bottle and downed the liquid inside, feeling the harsh burn as it coursed its way towards his innards. Sheri had been beautiful, a dream, his entire life until he had caught her being unfaithful, servicing the Lord Parker in the home he had built for her. He took another draught of the liquid, thinking of how he had poisoned her, killing her and the unborn devil that Lord Parker had planted within her. He had spent these last three years planning and plotting his revenge and now, he would have it. He would kill Lord Parker just as he had killed his wife.

He had left his home after her death and wandered out into the countryside. At first no self-respecting thief would be seen with him, but he soon learned the tricks of his new trade, learning how to be stealthy and patient and vicious.

He had found others, who, like him, had been made fools of by Lord Parker; men who had married his mistresses and raised his children, men who had no idea that their families and villages were laughing at their stupidity. He could not count the times he had had to tell another man that he was a fool. Most had sworn vengeance immediately, some had gone off on murderous rampages, killing their wives and children, as Mullins had, but then killing themselves. Stupid fellows, chuckled Mullins to himself as he took another gulp, you don’t kill yourself, you kill the other fellow, that is the road to revenge!

He looked at them men gathered about on the logs about the fire. He had endeared himself to these fellows by being capable of enormous, spontaneous violence. He could and had killed men without a thought or a quiver. He took another mouthful of the liquor and growled in his darkening mind; he could thank Sheri for that, for making him a killer. Nothing mattered to him anymore, nothing but hatred and revenge. The rest of the world was garbage, mankind was filth, only revenge and hate mattered and he carried an unlimited supply of both in his heart.

“Ain’t you gonna share, Mullins?” drawled one of the men seated beside him at the fire, a stupid grin on his face at his own limited display of wit.

Mullins stared at the man, a harden criminal, with such hatred, it made the man turn away. He had shared, had shared his woman with a conniving nobleman; he would never share again.

“I’ve shared enough,” he growled and spat on the ground. “The next thing I’ll share is my sword with that devil’s throat!”

The men seated beside the fire stared into the flames, feeling the heat burning more intensely within them than any fire that could be built before them. Slowly, they began to depart, each rising to be alone with his thoughts, finally leaving Mullins alone. There was no sense in speaking about what had to be done, it had to be done and it had to be done quickly, thought each man. To them it did not matter how it was done or which one of them was the person to deliver the fatal blow; they needed someone dead and that was all that mattered. No small voice cried out to their minds to stay their hand or to attempt to show mercy, not only to Lord Parker, but to anyone they robbed or stole from; while they brought with them many things, none of them cared to carry a conscience. In fact, they had all given up caring about anything a long time ago.



Chapter 2



Lord Parker’s southern-most estate stretched out on a massive piece of land that ended at a sheer cliff above the sea. A gift from Alex and Marie to Parker and his first wife, Gertrude, the young couple had planned to make it their summer escape but had never made the journey to visit it prior to Gertrude’s death. Parker had never seen it until after he had married Susan. Susan had a special fondness for the house since it contained no remnants of Parker’s life with Gertrude and she had spent lavishly to make the place her own.

Parker had gradually grown to like the estate for different reasons. The most prominent one began at a scenic path that wound along the cliffs, a small path that one could not detect unless one knew where to look for it. The path descended through trees and bushes, offering glimpses of the great, sheer plunge into the ocean that a misstep would cause an unfortunate victim. At the end of the path, a slight outcropping provided a porch to a large cave that made its way deeply into the rock of the cliff.

Through stealth and imagination, Parker had furnished the cave, making it a plush and comfortable place that hid in its depths an enormous and often used bed. He had taken more than one of his conquests on a scenic walk about his estate in search of the privacy he needed to relieve his lust. More often than not, he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams whenever he had brought his conquests to this location.

Parker’s love life, or more accurately, lust life, had grown to astronomical proportions. At one point it had been the cause of him flirting with financial ruin. His raging libido had placed him in the position of needing to support multiple mistresses and bastard children, threatening him with both financial disaster and the ruin of his reputation. It was because of his pressing need for money that he initially had become a traitor, selling information to the King of Darma for money to keep his hidden life secret. The King of Darma had promised him the throne of Zambelia if he would lead a revolt against King Alex at the same time that King Tidon of Darma attacked Zambelia.

Parker’s desperate situation had changed almost overnight due to a brilliant suggestion by his favorite mistress, his wine servant. Eva. Now that bankruptcy and ruin had been avoided and he no longer needing any financial assistance, Parker found himself seeking a way to betray the King of Darma. He had no wish to be beholden to anyone for the throne, having convinced himself long ago that it was his due and his due alone.

He thought back to that memorable evening; Eva had asked him why he never seduced noblewomen? He remembered responding that he did not want any more trouble than he was currently facing, but Eva had patiently explained to him that if he bedded noblewomen instead of serving girls, he would be the one with the upper hand. After seducing them, she stated, he could threaten to reveal the affair and then blackmail them for money. The idea had struck his desperate mind like a bolt of lightning and he immediately began seducing noblewomen, finding them no more difficult to seduce than the lower-class women he had been bedding and who were ruining him financially. Now he used the blackmail he collected to pay for the blackmail that he endured.

He smiled; he had long ago lost count of the number of women he had been with or the number of bastard children he had fathered. All of his children were boys who looked exactly like Parker, a situation that Susan had created in order to drive him further down the path of disaster. The money he received from scandalized noblewomen not only paid for all of the demands upon his purse but had even allowed him to create a comfortable reserve of funds that he thought no one else knew about, a foolish idea given the two principal women in his life.

The first, his wife Susan, was a sorceress, unschooled in the craft, but powerful. Parker knew nothing about Susan’s powers or her ultimate plans, his ego deluding him that she truly wanted the throne for him instead of herself. In addition to her magical powers and stunning beauty she also possessed a twisted mind, filled with a desire for power and unimpeded by a conscience. Nothing mattered to her but what she desired and what she desired most was to become the Queen.

The second woman in Parker’s life, his favorite mistress Eva, differed little from the first. While she possessed no magic, she too was incredibly beautiful and she used her body and wicked mind to bend men to her will. Like Susan, she too desired to be Queen and both women had decided that their way to the throne was to make certain that Parker would become King. Little did he realize that neither woman saw the need for him to remain at his post once they had been crowned.

As Parker lay thinking of his latest conquest, Eva lay beside him with her own thoughts. He smiled down at her and she replied with a sultry stare. Parker associated Eva with his life’s resurgence, with the removal of the threat of bankruptcy and ruin and it allowed her tremendous influence upon him. So self-centered had be become that he did not recognize that Eva was every bit as cunning and evil as his wife and the only difference between their visions of the future was that Susan saw herself as the future queen with all of Parker’s mistress’ dead, while Eva saw herself as the future queen with Susan dead.

Eva had been waiting for him when he had returned from attending the Princess Annalisse’ wedding. Her beautiful body was oiled, her dark hair perfumed, her gorgeous face expertly made up. Eva knew every way to pleasure a man and today had used more than a few of Parker’s favorites to welcome him home.

Laying back on his bed, his favorite mistress at his side, Parker was in a sleepy, post-coital state. He smiled as he eased back against the pillows and watched the flickering of the lamps overhead, Eva snuggling into him, her perfume intoxicating him.

“How was the wedding, my love?” she asked softly, nibbling his ear.

“Boring,” replied Parker in a lazy voice, “it would have been a complete waste of time had it not been for the Princess Annalisse.”

“Really, what did she do?” asked Eva softly.

Parker laughed, “Do? She did nothing…well, not nothing, she waved a good deal…”

He laughed again as Eva looked at him, not comprehending. Parker always spoke of his conquests and desires to Eva, seeing in her a kindred spirit who wanted nothing more than to please him. He was completely blind to how his actions might benefit his mistress or to what depths she was capable of to secure what she desired.

“She was the bride and a more beautiful bride you have never seen,” he stated.

“You lusted after the bride?” Now it was Eva’s turn to laugh.

“Every man there did,” replied Parker. “She has grown into quite the beauty…”

Eva smiled, “I’m surprise you did not steal her away from her new husband.” Placing her chin on his chest, she continued, “Could you imagine the money you would make if you seduced a princess?”

“She would be the only one of the royal princesses that I’d seduce,” sniffed Parker haughtily. “Every time I see the scrawny crow that her brother married, I become more confused. Women throw themselves at his feet and he marries that nothing…”

Eva squinted in thought, “Why don’t you seduce the princess?”

Parker looked at her and laughed, “Yes, my love, I’ll seduce the princess at her wedding in front of all of the guests and…”

“No, no,” replied Eva, sitting up and looking down at him, her mind a whirl with mischief. “Not just seduce her…” her eyes glowed with a wickedness that surprised even Parker. “Marry her!”

Parker frowned, certain that she had lost her mind, “Marry her? Did you not just hear me say that I went to her wedding? She IS married, Eva!”

“She is married NOW,” replied Eva. Lowering herself, she climbed his chest, speaking excitedly, “Don’t you see, this whole plan, your plan to kill the King and his family and stage a rebellion and being involved with the Darmanians, you could do it all so much more easily, so much more simply.”

Parker squinted, trying mightily to follow her train of thought, “I don’t understand…”

“What if you married the Princess Annalisse,” laughed Eva, everything becoming crystal clear in her mind. “You would be a member of the royal family, don’t you see. You would be in line to be King without any of the drama of a revolt.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Oh listen,” hissed Eva. “You kill her husband, you were going to kill him anyway, but you don’t kill her, you comfort her. You become her rock in her time of misery and then you marry her. Once you’re married, you kill off her family and assume the throne as the rightful king!”

Parker thought of the idea of bedding Annalisse and his lust grew.

“What of Susan…” he began.

“Leave that to me,” smiled Eva. “I can see to it that she becomes ill and never recovers. She’ll die at that the same time that the Princess’ husband has an “accident”. In your grief and in hers, you and the princess will fall into each other’s arms. A whirlwind romance, a quick marriage and then suddenly the entire royal family dies, all except the new Prince Parker and his beloved bride, who will become King and Queen. Once you tire of her, as you know you will, she too can have an accident and then, my love, we will rule!”

Parker looked up at her stunned.

“I would be beholden to no one,” he whispered. “The Darmanians would have no claim on me, these fools who come and prattle and argue and eat at my expense, I would never have to bother about them ever again. I would be King by undeniable RIGHT!”

Reaching up, Parker pulled her to him as she squealed with delight.

“I will be King, no Susan, no rebellion, just power, MY power!”

Eva felt him growing more excited as she kissed his neck, her hands manipulating him as she spoke.

“Yes, my love, YOUR power,” she purred. With a wicked smile, she kissed him; yes, his power, until she took it all away from him…



***



The Lady Susan, Parker’s wife, sat on the massive patio of their estate surrounded by her guests, reveling in the adulation that her co-conspirators lavished upon her. These were people who believed that she should be Queen and that soon, a revolt led by Susan and Parker would make that desire a reality. As she mingled amongst the group of traitors, confident in their absolute obedience to her, assured of it both by their greed and her magic, Susan felt secure and certain. They would give their fortunes and their very lives when the time came and the time would come soon. She was about to propose a game when she felt that odd feeling she had felt several times over the last few months. Quickly excusing herself, she was just able to make it to her drawing room and lock the door when the trance overtook her.

The room fell away from her and she is outside, the sun uncomfortably bright and people are flying about, some running towards, others away from her. The chaos is violent and confusing, people screaming, yelling, all of them launching themselves in a hundred different directions. She is uncertain, is it she herself or another who raises their hand? A blow is struck and men go flying in every direction, their bodies shattered, behind them the houses splintering from the impact. Turning she sees a man, she is unsure of who he is, but he seems to be coming at her. She is uncertain, is it her or is she just seeing things from another’s perspective? The way she views the happenings is infuriating, now from this angle, now from another.

Glancing down she sees it is not her body, but the body of a massive creature, who does not use magic against the oncoming man, but instead strikes him with its hand. They engage in a physical battle and though he is strong, the creature is stronger, forcing him back, shattering his sword. The creature is about to kill him, about to bring it’s fist down upon his chest when a flash of light suddenly surrounds the scene, blinding her. As the light clears, she sees the sky, the clouds floating overhead and then the vision is gone.

Susan slowly returned to the present, to the here and now and found herself staring up at the ceiling in her drawing room. Glancing about, she sees that she is laying upon the floor, her clothing twisted about her. She is breathing heavily; it had been a near thing, she did not even have time to reach a chair before the vision overtook her. Drawing herself up from the floor, she made her way to a chair and sat down. The visions had been coming more often as of late but having never been instructed in the craft, she has no way of learning what they mean.

She thought back to the day she had first met Parker and had begun her seduction. She had seen where he would be, had known it before it happened, but these visions were different. She was not looking for these things, indeed had no idea of what they pertained too. They were unclear and seemed to be fragmentary. Also, pieces of them seemed to change; the first time she had had the vision, there had been two men, but now, the last few times, there had been only one. There was always a bright light and there was always the sky and then nothing, just a fading of the vision, what did it mean?

She thought back, trying to determine why the vision would change. Did the visions have to do with her plans? She was unsure if they had anything even to do with her, but if they did not, why would she see them? Perhaps it was because her power was growing, her abilities becoming greater.

She began to doubt that the visions had anything to do with her plans. Everything continued to go as scheduled, her manipulation of Parker, her courting of discontents, everything, even his seduction and manipulation by Eva, all was as he had planned it. Did the vision mean she should change her plan? Was it a warning of some soft? Thinking back to the arms of the creature she saw, she shook her head, it could not be her, how could it be her? Was she even present during this vision? Was she seeing things from her own point of view or from the point of view of another? Was the vision suggesting that she create a creature to do her bidding?

Going over recent events, she sought something, anything, that would explain why she had started having these visions. The only significant thing that had changed, the only part of her plan that had been reimagined was the killing of the Prince’s bride, Princess Pauline. Did that have anything to do with the visions?

She thought of Pauline and smiled, how ridiculous she was and yet, how bold. She had always wondered why her magic did not work at Wharton, who could it be protecting the royal family and then it suddenly became completely obvious. Lady Pauline must be a powerful sorceress, it was the only explanation that fit all of the facts. She had been protecting the royal family until she was of age and then she used her magic to make the Prince marry her. It was all so clear now.

Thinking of scrawny, plain Pauline, she laughed. She must be powerful indeed, to be so bold as to maintain that outward appearance and actually marry the Prince. Susan herself was an abnormally beautiful woman and yet she still enhanced her appearance with magic, who would not? She thought of Jonathan and her smile took on a lustier tone, yes, he was handsome. Of all of the royals she planned to kill, his death would be the greatest loss. Perhaps she could arrange to seduce him before he died, he was so handsome and he apparently had no idea that he was being manipulated by the stick figure he called his wife.

Yes, when the announcement had been made of the engagement, a light had sparkled brightly in Susan’s mind. It was the only possible explanation. Pauline was the protector of the royal family and it was then that she had decided to kill Pauline. It was also just after she had made that decision that the first vision had to come to her. Yes, that’s was it! She had decided to kill Pauline and had arranged her plan and now she was seeing this vision! There had to be a connection, but what?

Now the disconnect from her point of view in the vision became more understandable. Of course, it was not a vision of her that she was seeing, it was a vision of Pauline from Pauline’s perspective! Pauline would be threatened and become that creature to protect herself and a man would ride in and…and what? Did the man kill her? Did she kill the man? It was unclear, the vision never telling her if the creature lived or died. Perhaps the flash of light was from Susan’s hand, perhaps she killed Pauline, as the creature, while she was trying to kill the man. Was the man Parker? She could never see his face, but obviously he knew how to fight. Was that it? Parker attacked Pauline, Pauline tried to kill him and while she was distracted, Susan killed Pauline?

She began to review the vision and it began making sense. Men were running both towards and away from the creature. If Pauline could protect the royal family, she must also be powerful enough to create such a creature. Finally, the last person she had to overcome, the person who would fight the hardest to conquer her, Parker, had fought her and was about to lose when Susan stepped in and saved him.

For a moment, she wavered. Her plan to kill Pauline had been simple; she had sent her most trusted servant, a person she controlled completely, to go and work for Pauline and Jonathan at Angelrod. She had never been able to work magic at Wharton, but she had never had anyone who would do her bidding as her servant Ellen would do Ellen was completely under her control, even at Wharton she had not questioned Susan’s dominance. It would make sense for Pauline to protect Wharton, but she felt she would be less cautious in her own home. Yes, Pauline would feel secure there and she was certain that she would take fewer precautions at Angelrod.

So far, her idea had proven correct; Ellen had been accepted as a member of the staff and had even risen to become one of Pauline’s personal maids. Yes, Pauline had become arrogant, had taken no precautions against magic at Angelrod as she had at Wharton because she thought she already had her prize. She thought she was safe in her own home, the fool. She would learn too late that there was no safety from Susan or her desire to become Queen. But if Ellen was successful, if Ellen succeeded in killing Pauline, why was she having these visions? Was it a warning that Ellen would fail, or was it something that would take place prior to Ellen even trying to kill her mistress?

“Visions are not absolute,” she muttered. She had had other visions that had not come true due to her own planning and actions and so it might be with this one. “Ellen must do the deed soon,” she smiled. “We will not wait until the time of the revolt, she will kill her now and avoid the chance that others might learn of my powers out in the open as it happens in the vision.”

Rising triumphantly, she sauntered to the door and opened it, ready to rejoin her guests, pleased with her decision. The visions were warnings, messages to her regarding Pauline and her plans. She would heed the warnings. She was confident her plan would work now. She had sent her most trusted, most devoted ally under her most powerful spell to kill Pauline at a place where her magic would work.

As she returned to the party, the guests began paying her homage, hailing her as she reentered the garden. Gracing them with a dazzling smile, she thought of Baron Fiskar; his arrival would mark the final preparation for the planned revolt. With the Baron in her pocket, she would be ready to launch the final phase of her plan. She would start the revolt before the King of Darma wanted it to happen, before even Parker was certain as to what was happening. The throne would be hers.



***



Ellen stood in her lady’s bedroom and stared down at the vanity, puzzled by what she saw, or more accurately, did not see. Thinking back to her mistress’ Lady Susan’s vanity, it had been covered with all sorts of jars and bottles, perfumes, oils, creams and lotions. The Lady Pauline’s dresser had a brush, hand mirror, one jar of scent and one jar of ointment. Glancing about, Ellen drew closer, certain she was alone and slid open the small draw at the center of the vanity.

She was surprised to see a small book, some parchment paper and some correspondence. Seating herself at the table, she gingerly picked up the small book and found it had a small red ribbon in it that acted as a bookmark. Opening the book to that page, she read it silently, realizing that it was a book of prayers. Cautiously, she lowered the book into the draw and slid it back into place.

Glancing up, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. It had been so many years now, the lines had grown deeper, her eyes seemed to have sunk into her head, her once dark hair all gray and white. She stared, caught by the image, remembering being a young girl at the Count of Keneon’s castle, working her way up to becoming his head housekeeper. The years before the war, the grand balls, the dances and intrigues and then the war with Zambelia and the return of her mistress, the little countess Susan. Shaking her head, she could not seem to reconcile the two periods to just one life. She had almost no memories as Susan as a child, just a sense, really, of being completely devoted to her and then, of being completely terrified of her.

She had retired, had been dismissed actually, by the Lady Susan soon after she had married Lord Parker. Somehow, though she was devoted to her mistress, she had felt unbelievable relief, it was as though she had escaped, had been freed. She and her husband had bought a small farm and had worked hard to make a go of it, but somehow, it had been heaven to be apart from her former mistress. Just as life had become its sweetest, Lady Susan reappeared in her life. She would send her on pointless errands while she used her home for God knew what, but Ellen could never say no to her, could never do anything but what she told her to do.

She remembered being summoned back into service, called upon by a messenger and then taken to the Lord Parker’s estate. She had had a meeting with her former mistress and had suddenly found herself on her way to apply for a position with the new princess, Princess Pauline. How she came to hold a recommendation from Lord Chester, she had no idea; she did not remember ever meeting the Lord Chester, but there she was, his note in her hand, on her way to Angelrod. Now she was back to working, her husband, her small farm, her retired existence all but forgotten, her life wrapped around a new mission.

She looked into her hollow eyes and saw no light, no life there. She had come here barely able to contain her hatred of her new mistress. She would rid the world of this horrible young woman, the owner of the vanity at which she sat. It seemed somehow that she hated this young woman in the same manner that she had seen the Lady Susan grow up, it was nothing she could put her finger on, it was merely as sense.

Somehow, somewhere, she had been told she hated Pauline, had been told that she was a threat and had clung to the belief with her whole being, that was until now. Her hand drifted downwards and fumbled with her apron pocket, feeling the outline of the vial of poison that was concealed there. All she had to do was mix it in with the lotion or the scent and when Princess Pauline used it, she would die. She would never be a threat to anyone again. She stared at the meager assembly of items on the table and thought, why did she hesitate? Was it because it would be too obvious? She did not have enough creams and powders in order to disguise what had happened and this made Ellen nervous.


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