A Magic King

October 31, 2012

Prologue

     Jane Deerfield’s hand hovered over the on/off switch, but she couldn’t press it down.  Turning off a computer always seemed a little like murder to her.  Stopping access to millions of gigabytes of information was criminal, especially since she’d just spent five hours repairing the system, reloading the software, and making sure everything networked perfectly for the people who used it.

     Jane stood up, hating to leave the dancing lights of the monitor’s screensaver, even to stretch.  She straightened, rolling her shoulders a bit before looking around.  Except for the soft glow of the computer’s monitor, the library was completely dark.  Glancing at the clock in the upper corner of the screen, Jane gasped at the time.

     Damn.  Not only had she missed Mary’s Halloween costume party, but federal curfew too.  By a good two hours, no less.  She hoped any police she met understood the importance of her mission.  The rest of the world might view her as a lowly computer nerd and perpetual student, but she knew in her heart she was a warrior bravely fighting to keep alive one of the last free centers of knowledge available to all.

     Information was getting harder to come by in this information age.  With the electrical black-outs and restricted net sites, not to mention the New Cold War eating up electronic products like candy, even big universities were finding it hard to keep their systems up and running.

     But that, of course, was her job.  Jan ran Boston University’s computers.  Well, she didn’t run them in terms of being head the department.  They had pencil-pusher Dr. Beavesly doing that.  She did all the work, maintaining the software and the machines, and keeping each and every terminal shining bright against the darkness of ignorance.

     Jane straightened her shoulders, laughing at herself as she mentally added a stiff breeze, the right lighting, and of course super-hero music.  She was Jane Deerfield, a.k.a. Oracle, defender of truth and justice and computer integrity throughout cyberspace.  All she needed now were the bat-like boots to go with her costume because her orange high-tops just didn’t seem to fit the image.  Course, it didn’t matter anyway, she thought sourly, since no one would ever see her awesome black leotard with the neon bat on the front.

     “Damn terrorists and their fragging homebody bombs,” she muttered.  “They can’t blow-up some munitions dump.  No.  They have to go for my computers.”

     She should have expected it, she knew.  The psychos had been out in force ever since those last Dustmaker satellites went up.  It seemed like every megalomaniac and his government was buying the latest and greatest weapons of destruction whether they understood the technology or not.  It was getting hard to see the sun for all the satellite shadows.

     No doubt about it.  Some mutant virus had destroyed everyone’s common sense.

     Sighing, Jane slipped her backpack on feeling depression settle in as well.  She was a computer jockey, not a comic book heroine–more’s the pity.  All she could do was her job, fighting ignorance in her own special way.  She’d leave global politics to the mental cases in power.

     Jane hunched her shoulders against the New England fall and started walking to the door.

     There was no warning.  Just a loud sound, felt more than heard.  But Jane knew instantly that something awful had happened.  She tensed to run, but didn’t know where.  Should she go back to the library computer, the core of stored knowledge, making sure to save it?  Or should she run to the central net hoping she could keep the whole system up?

     She couldn’t decide.  And in that moment of indecision, she was caught.

     There was no sound, just a blackness, like a rip in the air.  Around its jagged edges everything was distorted, as though space shriveled, curling backwards like a paper slowly eaten by flame.

     Then it was on her.  The rip stretched and tore, as though reaching for her.

     She ran, but it was too fast.  One minute her feet were pounding on the stone floor.  The next, she was suspended in a nightmare.

     Nothing was around her, but that nothing was black and so very cold.  She twisted, trying to keep her balance, but there was no up or down.  Only incredible coldness.  And the weight of ages pressing against her, choking her lungs, squeezing her body into a tiny pinprick of existence.

     Her mind fought with the impossibility of it all, desperately scrambling for a logical handhold for escape.  And then she had no thoughts at all.

     Only pain.

     She was dying.

Forty-second day, Warming season, Thirteenth year of the Seef

Chapter 1

     Cold.

     Ice cold.

     Warmth.  Blessed warmth, spreading like hot fudge on ice cream throughout her system.  Starting at her forehead, sliding into her mind, it heated the tiny nooks and crannies of her body.

     Jane sighed with delight and opened her eyes, then winced at the glaring sunlight.  She felt a hand glide low over her forehead, shielding her from the glare.  The hand was large and calloused, but gentle as it caressed her skin.

     “Yyi cquiness mnansirul?”  The voice was deep and lilting,  like a magical river in an animated vid.  It was beautiful.  And insistent.  “Mnansirul?

     “Huh?”  One syllable was all she could force through her raw throat.

     The hand slid away, and she blinked rapidly trying to sort shape from shadow.  A man was beside her, gently sliding his arm behind her shoulders.  His touch was almost painful.  Wherever he pressed against her, she felt tiny pinpricks, like electricity shooting minute bolts of lightning through her skin.

     This must be how a recharging battery feels, she thought.  She knew the man was bringing her back to life in slow, torturous inches.  He revitalized her cell by cell, but God, if this was living, maybe being a dead battery wasn’t so bad.

     Her head lolled back against his arm, and she felt his energy pulse through her with the beginnings of a first class headache.

     Something wet pressed against her lips and before she realized what was happening, hot water seared across her tongue, thawing as it slid past.

     She swallowed, waiting greedily for more.  It came in patient mouthfuls, swallow by swallow.  She drank it all, only vaguely realizing the water wasn’t hot.  It was probably tepid at best, but she was so very, very cold it burned as it went down.

     Then he lay her back down on the grass, and she was able to see him clearly for the first time.

     Wow.  He was gorgeous; just how she’d create a leading man for some computer game.  Somewhere in his thirties, his face was cut into hard planes and strong lines.  His eyes were an intense dark blue swirled with mesmerizing gold flecks that were the sexiest things she’d seen in a considerable career of guy watching.  Add to that his golden brown hair and a sweet smile, and she was in love.

     “Wh–” Her throat closed up, but she swallowed away the pain.  “What happened?”

     He shook his head, indicating he didn’t understand.

     “Where am I?” she asked, her words slow and deliberate.  She had a vague impression of grass, trees, blue sky, and clean air, all of which meant she wasn’t in Boston.

     He settled her back down in the grass.  She felt his fingertips run over her eyes again, closing them with a firm insistence.  Despite her growing confusion, she felt herself succumb to their gentle urging.

     Rest, his fingers seemed to say as they traveled across her cheek, stopping against her lips.  He seemed to be holding back her questions, keeping her from speaking until she at last surrendered to his soothing caress.

     Sleep, he urged.

     She slept.

          #    #    #    #    #    #    #    #

     Jane moaned, rolled over and covered her ears against the sound of the oddest car alarms she’d ever heard.  There must have been another bomb because a whole slew of them were going off at once.  Why weren’t they the piercing electronic wails that she could tune out without a second thought?  These were lyrical, shifting notes and tones like a bird call, except there were so many.

     Bird call?  A vague sense of dread stole over her, and she opened her eyes.

     She saw a bug.  A big black bug with red spots and long furry antennae ambling across her arm toward her face.  She jumped up with a squeal, shaking her arm and fighting the nausea.  Fortunately, the startled thing flew away.  Unfortunately, the nausea was caused by her sudden movement, not the sight of a strange new member of the beetle family.

     She dropped her head into her hands and took deep, painful breaths, her chest muscles fighting the movement.  Suddenly she felt him beside her.  His hands held her lightly across the shoulders.  She didn’t move.  Gradually she felt a warmth spreading from his hands, through her shoulders, gently sinking into her body.  She vaguely remembered hot fudge over ice cream, but this heat was different, deeper.  Like frozen popcorn in a microwave, she felt herself pop awake, cell by cell as she heated from the inside out.

     Then he stopped, slowly withdrawing while she was still half done.  Disappointed, she opened her eyes and turned to say something, but the words never formed.  Instead, her jaw went slack as she took in her environment.

     She was at the edge of a meadow ringed with trees and birds.  Lots of real birds, like in an aviary.  There wasn’t a carport in sight.  Reaching down, she touched soft, springy grass that hadn’t been mowed in months.  A cool breeze caressed her tongue, and she shut her mouth with a snap.  Gone was the familiar scent of exhaust, the acrid tang of pollution.  In its place was a sweetness both fresh and laden with the heavy scents of a garden.

     “Ugh.  What is that smell?”  She wrinkled her nose, trying to adjust to the faint electric pulse to the air.

     “Yyi stransve hrenvivr?

     She looked at her computer hero.  He seemed the same today as yesterday, his soft white shirt alternately flaring or flattening against his broad chest according to the capriciousness of the wind.

     “Svenetrins?  KVanteke?  Gronta?”  He was asking her something, his voice changing slightly with each word.  She knew her expression was one of complete stupidity, but she was still in reboot and couldn’t think of a thing to say.

     He sighed.  It was a masculine sigh, full of rippling chest muscles and frustration with the female sex.  She’d seen it a thousand times from her father, her brother, even her boss.

     He leaned backward, neatly snatching his pack from the grass by a low campfire.  Hers rested right beside his. 

     “What’s going on?  Where am I?” she demanded.  But he was focused on his backpack and ignored her, and soon she began watching him, her curiosity piqued.  His pack was an odd thing made out of leather with none of the neon colors or lightweight synthetic materials she favored.  In fact, now that she looked closely, everything about him seemed natural–no bright colors, all natural fiber cloth, even a leather thong to tie back his wavy hair.

     “Are you some sort of naturalist?” she asked.  “It’s not that I mind, but you must be incredibly rich to afford such stuff.”  She bit her lip in frustration.  Why did she always say the stupidest things?  Taking a deep breath, she ordered her questions and started with the most pressing one.  “My name’s Jane.  What’s–“

     Her words stopped cold as he pulled a filthy baggie filled with fireflies out of his pack and pushed it toward her.

     “Ugh!  Get that away from me!”

     She tried to slide away, but he caught her wrist.  Even if she’d been at full strength, he would have been stronger.  He was relentless as he drew her closer to it, firmly placing her hand on top of what she now saw was some sort of bloated animal gut.

     “Yuck!”

     It felt warm and squishy and strangely tingly, all of which was very much like putting her hand on living sheep intestines.  She was thoroughly repulsed, but that was nothing compared to the fear that sliced through her when her companion drew out a very sharp, very wicked looking dagger.

     “Steemanti.  Steemanti!

     He couldn’t really want her to eat that could he?  “Look, I’m not very hungry.  Please feel free to eat your sheep guts without me.  Hey!”

     She tried to jerk away as he brought the knife closer.  Her fingers curled into a fist as she twisted against him, but his grip was like durosteel bands, and she was trapped in it.

     Then she watched in horror as he nicked the fleshy edge of his hand, the one holding her wrist.  His blood welled dark red then slipped down the edge of his hand onto her arm.

     “Okay,” she whispered.  “I’ll eat the sheep gut.  Whatever you want.”

     “Steemanti.”

     He lifted her hand, twisting it until he exposed the same fleshy part beneath her left pinkie.

     “No.  No way are you going to cut me.”  She let her hand go lax.  Then suddenly, she put her back into it, bracing her legs and wrenching away.  She didn’t care if she pulled her arm out of its socket, she would get away from Mr. Psychotic with the knife.

     She made it, though from the pain in her shoulder, she’d probably dislocated it.  Then she scrambled to her feet and started running.  Although not athletic, she’d always been able to cut and run whenever needed.  But she was weak, her movements off balance, and her head still felt three times too big for her neck.  Even with the adrenaline boost, she felt like she moved in slow motion.

     She heard a muttered oath behind her.  Amazing, she thought, swear words are identifiable in all languages.  Then she literally flew through the air as her hero tackled her.

     She landed on her side and was rapidly pushed onto her back while her hero sat on top of her.  Her breath came in painful gasps, and her head pounded like a techno band, but terrified as she was, a part of her still recognized the sheer thrill of two hundred pounds of muscle grinding into her with a power as exciting as it was swift and sure.

     He straddled her hips.  Then he leaned forward, supporting himself on his knees as he twisted his feet behind him to hook over her legs.  It was probably to keep her from kneeing him in the back, which was exactly what she’d intended to do when she caught her breath.  His hardened chest stretched across her, giving her a close up view of sleek, tan skin lightly brushed with golden brown hair.  Then he caught her wrists, neatly subduing her while he grumbled nonsense into her ear.

     For annoyed, irritated male grumbling, it sounded remarkably erotic.

     She looked up and caught the flash of something in his eyes.  If this were an anima novel, she would have labeled it passion, but this was real life.  Still, their gazes locked for a moment and despite her position, the nearby knife, and his blood trickling onto her wrist, she felt reassured.

     He smiled–a wry twist to his lips, and she smiled back.  She couldn’t help it.  Then she gasped as he wrenched himself upright, his thickening groin pressing deeply against her as he lifted up his torso and her wrists.

     “Yyi jaggenwa martense.  Steemanti.  Steemanti.”

     He looked so serious, so intense with his blue eyes burning down at her that she knew she had no hope of fighting him.

     “Do you really have to?” she asked.  Her brief fight had exhausted her from head to toe.  A vague sort of fatalism washed through her as she watched him twist her hand.  “Guess that means you have to.”

     The incision was quick, like a deep paper cut, but it was over in an instant, then his lips, soft as neovelvet, brushed over the wound.  She smiled weakly at his sweet gesture, but it faded quickly at his next move.  Stretching behind him with his cut hand, he grabbed the sheep gut.

     “I told you, I’m not really hungry.”  She knew the firefly sheep gut wasn’t food, but it made her feel better to pretend it was.

     He pressed it against her wound, wrapping the tube around her palm and holding it there with his own bloody hand.  It was still warm and tingly, and she tried to flinch away, but he kept her firmly in place.  Then he slid the knife between them and neatly cut the bag.

     It was the oddest sensation.  The fireflies escaped the bag and tickled her palm, buzzing against her skin before zipping away to her hero.  No, not fireflies.  Static.  As though they’d caught electrical sparks between their palms.

     Then one tiny point of energy found her wound, sliding right in and up her bloodstream.  She jerked, but he held her fast, keeping their hands pressed together.

     Bit by bit, the static wormed its way in, swarming through her wrist, creeping up her arm until she trembled with the horror of it.  He said something, crooning nonsense syllables meant to reassure her, but she couldn’t focus.

     Then suddenly it burst on her.  It was as though the energy dancing up her arm hit a major artery and went straight for her brain.  She screamed as her vision faded into a wash of white.  Her thoughts spun in the dizzying vortex of energy that swarmed through her mind.

     From somewhere above her, she heard his grunt of surprise, but she was still dealing with the reeling, pounding electricity throbbing through her consciousness.  In the end, she gave herself up to it, letting it flood her senses on the wildest sensory trip, virtual reality sci-fi had yet to create.

     Then it faded, and she was left sweetly energized, her thoughts sparkling like Christmas lights gone berserk.  “Wow!  That’s better than coffee.  Even my coffee!”

     Her hero still sat on her, his expression dazed and confused.  “That was unusually intense,” he said, his voice hushed and lyrical.

     “Intense?  It was great!  What was that stuff?  And how come you’re suddenly speaking English?”

     He looked down, his face slowly spreading into a Hollywood sex god smile.  “I’m not.  That’s what that was.”

     Jane blinked.  “You’ve lost me.”

     “You are right with me.  My companions are never lost.”  He sounded vaguely insulted.

     She struggled onto her elbows, propping herself up so she could peer into his dreamy eyes.  Unfortunately, he immediately lifted himself off of her, politely settling onto the grass beside her.

     “I don’t mean physically lost like geographically.  I mean-“

     “I know, woman,” he cut in.  “I was testing the magic.  Language is a tricky thing, and we’re supposed to be able to understand each other completely.”

     “Huh?”

     “That was a spell.  Permanent.  I am sorry I used it on you, but it was necessary.”  From his expression, it was clear he meant “waste” it on her.

     “Well, excuuuse me.”  She rubbed her hand, staring at the fleshy part, now completely healed over.

     “No need to apologize,” he said.  She peered at him, wondering if he was teasing or serious.  “I needed to know if it worked.”

     Jane took a deep breath and tried to sort through the confusion while keeping panic at bay.  “You mean, we’re both talking in our own language, but I hear English and you hear… uh–“

     “Svenetrins.”

     Jane sat up.  “Really?  So I’ll always understand sene–  Svenet–“

     “Svenetrins.  And no.  It’s a personal spell between two people.  You will only understand me.  And I, you.”

     “Oh.”  Then she shrugged.  “Still, that’s better than a secret decoder ring.  Where’d you get it?”  She tried to act casual as though magic sheep guts were normal.

     He looked at her oddly.  “A bard sold it to me for thirty doleens.”

     “Thirty doleens?”  What were doleens?

     “I know.  Exorbitant.  But she was…entertaining.  And she had the most stunning blond hair, like the color of sunlight on Nansar’s pond.”  His eyes grew abstract as he focused on some pleasant memory, and Jane felt the first stirring of annoyance.

     “A little hair dye, and they all go on a testosterone high,” she grumbled.  Then she stood up, moving slowly in case the dizzies came back.  “Well, this has been fun, but would you mind directing me toward the nearest phone?  Preferably without working video.”  She self-consciously tugged at her mousy brown locks, matted now with bits of grass.

     He stared at her, his face registering disappointment.  “The spell must not have worked well.  I don’t understand your words.”

     “Oh.  I need a phone.”  She mimed putting a receiver to her ear.  “Or a computer.  Actually a computer would be better.  Then I can hook into the University Net and get a lock on the damage.”  She looked around, studying the meadow as her memories slowly jumbled into a strange order.  “Exactly how did I get here?  In fact, where is here?  The last thing I remember is the library.”

     Her gaze was caught by a strange purple flower, and she approached it slowly.  It was a pretty thing, with some spiked petals, some curved.  They dotted the meadow grass the way the letter “i” dotted a printed page.  She’d never seen one before.  Never, ever in a whole childhood of helping her father, the botanist.

     “What is this?”

     “The mansara flower?  It’s a common plant.  They’re all over the place.”

     “Uh-huh.  And that?”  She pointed to one of the tall trees lining the meadow.  Its bark was like smooth concrete, and its leaves looked like a marijuana plant.

     “An oant tree.”

     “Right.”  Jane turned slowly, anger building within her like a Georgia heat wave.  She put her fists on her hips and fixed her hero with her ice queen glare.  “Okay, I want to know just where I am and how do I get from here to Boston.”

     “Boston?”

     “Big city.  Streets that used to be cow paths.”

     Blank.  His face was completely blank.  She bit her lip and started pacing off her energy.

     “I didn’t ask before.  Denial, I guess.  But it’s over now.  Tell me what’s going on.”  She waited for him to speak, but all he did was settle more comfortably on the grass and give her his complete attention.  It was as if he were studying her, and that only increased the burn within her.  Still, she took a deep breath and decided to start slowly.

     “Where am I?”

     “The Plains of Eacost, south of the Great Forest.”

     She stared at him, worrying her lower lip until it started to feel bruised and swollen.  Then suddenly her spirits lightened.  “I’m sorry.”  She was proud of how level her voice sounded.  “Your secret decoder gizmo isn’t working right.”

     “It’s working perfectly.  You are on the Plains of Eacost, south–“

     “South of the Great Forest.  I heard.”  Still, she shook her head, wondering if her ears were clogged.

     “What is the last thing you remember?” he asked.

     “I…”  She thought back, finding her mind slow and difficult.  She remembered her morning shower.  The power had been cut again during the night and domestic energy was on lowest priority, so the water had been ice cold.  Her memories leaped forward through a normal work day.  Then she’d put on her costume intending to go to the party just after stopping at the library.

     Glancing down, she groaned in real horror.  Yes, she was indeed pacing agitatedly in front of her computer hero still wearing a billowing cape, a leotard with a huge bat outline on her breasts, black leggings, and neon orange sneakers–she hadn’t been able to afford the stylish boots.

     Of course, she realized as she peered closer at her hero, he was in costume too.  Sort of an eighteenth-century pirate outfit.  Soft flowing shirt, dagger sheathed in the belt of his leather breeches.  He even wore the softest pair of boots she’d seen in her life.  And to complete the outfit, a huge, two-handed, bastard sword lay strapped on his back.  It didn’t look in the least bit fake either.

     She stared at it until he brought her back to the present.

     “Are you hungry?” he asked.

     “I was working in the library.”

     He must have taken that as a “no” because he reached into his pack and pulled out what looked like beef jerky.  Thank heaven he didn’t offer her any because the very sight of it made her think of dried caterpillar.  Rather than watch him eat it, she went back to her confusing memories.

     “I had to reload a system.  The last brown-out zapped everything, but I can’t remember anything after that.”

     “I came upon you two nights ago,” he said between bites.  “You were lying face down, so cold I thought you were dead.”

     Jane stared at him.  “I was just lying there?  In the grass?”

     He nodded.

     “How the hell did I get there?” she yelled.

     He shifted nervously, his broad shoulders rippling as he moved.  “I don’t know,” he said, his eyes dark with sympathy.

     She took a deep breath, trying to recall the zen-calming chant she’d told her friend was stupid.  “This is too bizarre.  It’s like one of those bad comic books when…”  Her voice trailed off, a sick feeling churning in her gut.  Comic books often showed some innocent bystander sucked into a vortex, transported across space and time as a result of the villain’s manipulations.  Usually the nameless slob died before the next page.

     She glanced at her hero, wondering if he could possibly be the product of another planet or dimension.  He looked human.  She clenched her fists, ordering herself to stop being silly.  She had not stepped into a comic book.  She was simply disoriented.

     “What day is it?”

     “Forty-third day, Warming season, Thirteenth year of the Seef.”

     Her knees wobbled, but she persevered, determined to face the truth.  “What…”  She couldn’t say it.  She cleared her throat and tried again.  “What planet?”

     He hesitated only a second.  “Urta.”

     Her knees went out.  Her legs went out.  In fact, her whole body and brain went out to lunch.  She fell to the ground, landing hard on her tush.

     She didn’t see him move, but suddenly he was beside her, his large hands warm on her shoulders.  Instinctively, she asked for the one thing that always made everything easier to handle.  

     “Chocolate?”

     He deftly pressed the beef jerky into her hands.

     She moaned, but decided anything was better than thinking.  Grabbing the brown stick, she closed her eyes and bit.

     She was wrong.  There was something worse than facing reality.  And she was chewing it.

     Gagging, she spit it out on the ground, simultaneously reaching for his water bag to wash the taste out of her mouth.

     “Ugh!  What is that stuff?”

     He opened his mouth, but she raised her hand to stop him.  “No.  Don’t tell me.  I don’t want to know.  Ugh.”  She took another swig.  “Have you got any toothpaste?”  At his blank look she tried again.  “Something to clean your teeth?”

     His eyes widened.  “You clean your teeth?”

     “No, I like foul breath, a brown smile, and pain when I chew.  Of course I–”  She cut off her words at his stunned expression.  “You don’t clean your teeth?”  From his whitewash smile, she’d have guessed they were plastic coated.

     “Of course I clean my teeth.  I am a king.”  He sounded insulted.  As her emotions seesawed between outrage and hysteria, he rooted through his pack and came up with a box of brown powder.

     “What’s that?”

     “Tooth powder.”

     At her hesitant expression, he dipped his finger in the powder then rubbed it along his teeth then spit.  The stream of expectorant looked totally gross, but he offered it to her and flashed his poster boy smile.  It was either try it or be totally rude to the man who had probably saved her life.

     Difficult decision.

     Finally, she imitated him and nearly gagged.  It felt like rubbing sandpaper across her teeth and tasted about as appetizing.  She spit, managing a weak smile.

     “Vile?” he asked.

     She nodded.  They both drank some water.

     Then he turned to her, his expression curious, if a little wary.  “Where do you come from where tooth powder is not a chore?”

     “Boston.  The United States.  And it’s not powder, it’s a…”  She gave him a vapid smile as though she were in a commercial.  “A minty, fresh gel.”  He looked at her like she was moldy spaghetti.  She sighed.  “Oh, never mind.”

     “I don’t know about Bos-ton.  Or the U–“

     “United States.  And what do you mean you don’t know about it?  Everybody knows about the U.S.  Those we haven’t annoyed are actively trying to terrorize us.  There isn’t a soul on the planet that doesn’t know about us.”  She stopped talking, once again feeling sick to her stomach.  “That’s the problem, isn’t it?  I’m not on Earth anymore.”

     Her companion was silent, oddly accepting of her strange comments.  “I don’t know.”

     She stared at him.  His gorgeous body was relaxed, his expression calm.  Everything she wasn’t.  And that really annoyed her.  Her fragile mental health broke, and she rounded on him in fury.  “You don’t know?  Well that does me a whole lot of good.  I’m lost.  I’ve got five bucks, no food, I’m talking to every woman’s fantasy, and I’m in a stupid comic book costume!”  She towered over him, shaking with frustration and fear, and all he did was gaze back at her, the gold in his eyes sparkling in the sunlight.

     “My name is Lycien,” he said softly.  “King Lycien of the house of Chigan.  I am pleased you think me every woman’s fantasy.”

     She stared at him.  “So glad I could be of service,” she said dryly.  Then she collapsed back onto the ground and dropped her head into her hands.

     Lycien sighed, then reached out to her, wishing he could do more for her as he absently brushed her short curls from her face.  “I don’t know how to help you,” he said softly.  Her fear was like a tidal wave, swamping his thoughts.  He could feel her frustration like a raving beast, and it left him feeling very exposed.

     He had to leave.  His people were dying, and his first priority was to them.  But even knowing that, he felt horrible guilt at abandoning this woman when she was at her most vulnerable.

     He clenched his jaw.  He had done his duty.  He healed her, even used his very expensive language spell.  He couldn’t afford to waste any more time or resources on her.  But still, he stayed.

     She stood, pacing back and forth in front of him, rubbing her arms as though she were cold.  He would have offered her his jacket, but he knew she didn’t feel chill.  Her movements betrayed her fear.  And that she didn’t often feel afraid.

     “You can remember nothing else?” he asked.

     She shook her head.  “It’s all a blur.”

     Healing her would be a mistake.  His healer skills would absorb her terror like a sponge, and then he’d spend the next hour steadying the trembling in his own limbs.  Against his will, he found himself in front of her, gradually enfolding her in his arms, giving her what comfort he could.

     She was stiff against him, fighting herself more than him.  He could tell she wanted to drop into his arms, but her pride kept her away.  He waited, demanding nothing of her until she decided.  Then to his joy, she softened against him, melting into his arms like a child burrowing into her parent’s embrace, or a woman nestling into the cradle of her lover’s arms.

     It was a sweet moment, at odds with his warrior’s soul, but still he clung to it, sheltering her in his arms while his mind told him he should be leaving.

     “I must go,” he whispered into the sweet scent of her hair.

     She jerked as if he’d slapped her, but he held her tight, forcing her to hear the rest of his words.  “This is a safe land with generous people.  Find a farm house and offer your help.  They will pay you honest wages for honest work.”

     “But–“

     “Your memory will return in time.”  He didn’t know if it was true, but he knew she needed to believe it.  Then he broke the embrace, feeling the emptiness in his arms like an ache, but he suppressed the emotions and turned away.  He couldn’t stay with her any longer.

     He began to close camp.

     “You can’t leave me, hero, uh, I mean Lycien.”  She said it flatly, as though he had no choice in the matter.  “I’m completely lost.  All I need is to get to a phone.”

     He glanced up, and she shook her head to stop his next words.

     “I know.  You don’t know what a phone is.  How about the nearest city?  Maybe I can get my bearings there.”  She reached out, pulling him around to face her, desperation making her brown eyes luminous.  “Please, I’m begging you.  Don’t abandon me.”

     He twisted away to break their physical contact.  He couldn’t think when she touched him.  Her emotions bled through to him too easily, running riot over his own thoughts.

     “Lycien?”

     He swallowed, knowing she wouldn’t like hearing this any more than he liked saying it.  “I am going to Bosuny, and I have tarried too long already.”

     She stepped forward.  “Let me come with you.”

     He shook his head.  “You are still weak.  You’ll walk too slowly, and I can’t lose any more time.  I’m sorry.”  He kicked some dirt on the dying embers, then grabbed his pack.  “There is a farmhouse a half day’s journey that way.”  He pointed.  “Tell them a king has sent you to them.  They will help you.”  Then he started walking, his long stride quickly eating up the distance to the edge of the clearing.

     “Wait a minute,” she called, running behind him like a lumbering tekay.

     He grumbled out a curse and stopped.  She was too weak to sustain his pace, but from the sound of it, she wasn’t about to stop until she’d said her peace.

     “You can’t just leave me here.”

     “I can’t do anything more for you.  Perhaps a better healer, but I–“

     “I’m not crazy,” she interrupted.  “I’ve lost some of my memory, not my mind.”

     “Woman–“

     “Just listen to me.  I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m not going to find out at some farmhouse where I can’t even speak the language.  Take me with you to Bo…to Bosu–“

     “Bosuny is a long, long way, and you are too weak–“

     “Please.”  Her entire soul seemed poured into her eyes as she pleaded with him.  He should have been unmoved by such a display.  As a king, he’d seen it many times for one reason or another, and he’d been able to ignore it then.

     But with her it was different.  He sensed this woman didn’t beg.  Not without great need.  He reached out, touching the wetness on her cheek, stroking it between his fingers.

     “I’m not crying,” she said, clearly trying to hold back her tears.

     It happened so fast, as though an Old One pushed him into something he never would have done on his own.  One moment he was thinking about the odd puzzle she was, and the next second he was kissing her, her lips warm and sensuous against his own.  She gasped in surprise, and he dipped lower, deeper into her mouth.

     He stroked her tongue, feeling a passion build within her that had nothing to do with her confusion.  She responded to him as a woman, and he felt himself curl around and within her, instinctively protecting that which he wanted to possess.

     Her arms wrapped around his neck, and he let his hands trail down her back, pulling her deep against his thickening heat.  She groaned into his mouth, and he felt his blood surge within him.

     This was wrong.  She was ill.  He was late.  Reasons crammed into his brain, all telling him with perfect logic to leave her alone.  She was a distraction he couldn’t afford right now.

     But still he held her, possessing her mouth as he slowly wedged his knee between her legs.

     Then his conscience won.  He pulled away from her with a curse, slamming his fist into a tree trunk, using the pain to clear his fogged brain.

     “Lycien?”

     “I’m sorry,” he said stiffly, his voice rough and coarse.  “I should not have done that.”

     “Hey, I didn’t object.”

     He ran his hand through his hair, unable to face her.  “You are ill.”

     “I told you, I’ve just lost some of my memory.  That’s all.”

     He turned to look at her, feeling tormented by conflicting responsibilities and desires.  “You are ill,” he said softly.  “I am the one who cares for you.  I cannot use someone I am responsible for.”

     He saw understanding light in her eyes, like a garnet held before a flame.  “It’s a doctor-patient thing.”

     He blinked, not following her strange words.  “You are ill, and I am a king.”

     “King.  Not a doctor.  A king who can’t kiss peasants.”  He heard the outrage in her voice, but he didn’t understand its cause.

     “A king is a doctor,” he said.

     She leaned forward, her eyebrows pulled together as she struggled to communicate with him.  “What do you mean a king is a doctor?  Kings lead people.  Doctors heal people.”

     Did she know nothing?  “Kings lead because they can heal.”

     “So it is a doctor-patient thing.”

     Unable to stop himself, he reached out, trailing his fingers across her full, red lips.  How could he explain to her something he didn’t understand himself?  “Your kiss is a wonder to me–full of magic and power.”  His voice was low and hoarse, and he saw her passion flare again in her eyes.  Rather than give in to the promise he saw there, he turned away, looking east to Bosuny.  “But I must go.”

     “Take me with you.”

     “I can’t.”

     “Please.”

     He groaned, knowing he was lost long before he said the words.  “Very well.  I will slow my steps for you.”

     “Thank you–“

     “But we must not kiss again.”

     She watched him, her eyes so incredibly open and vulnerable.  “I told you, I’m not sick.  And I didn’t mind–“

     “I can’t afford the distraction.”  He shook his head, turning his gaze to the distant horizon.  “I am a fool to let you slow me down at all.”

     “You mean I’m a burden and an annoyance.”  He heard the bitterness in her voice, but would not allow himself to soften more.

     “My mission is urgent.”

     She straightened her shoulders, and he caught a flash of defiance in her eyes.  “Then I guess we better get going.”

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