Welcome to the May 2023 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Though it’s actually the second Monday of the month.
To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll probably know that the coronation of King Charles III took place on Saturday. Therefore, this month’s free story “The Tear of Chronos” is a story about a coronation, namely that of Kurval, King of Azakoria, who crowned himself after killing his villainous predecessor in true sword and sorcery fashion, but is still required to go through the motions and is about as thrilled about the entire ceremony as King Charles looked at times.
The lengthy coronation ceremony requires Kurval to consult the oracle of the goddess Ashvarya and gain a glimpse of the future by gazing into a magical jewel called the Tear of Chronos. However, he gets far more than he bargained, when he enters the inner sanctum only to find himself not just with a statue of the goddess, but with a woman of flesh and blood who is the spitting image of the goddess and wears the Tear of Chronos around her neck.
So follow Kurval, as he meets a woman who may or may not be a goddess, uncovers a conspiracy and gazes into…
The Tear of Chronos
“When King Kurval took the throne of Azakoria in the Year of the Forked Serpent, he consulted the oracle of Ashvarya, as is custom for the newly crowned kings of Azakoria. Just what precisely the oracle revealed to him is not known, though King Kurval would go on to have a long and glorious reign, bringing peace, justice and prosperity to Azakoria…”
From the Chronicles of Azakoria by Ragur, Count Falgune
I. The Coronation
It was the day of his coronation, but Kurval, King of Azakoria, wanted nothing more than to retire to the royal apartments with a jug of wine and a leg of lamb and be left alone. But instead, he had to spend the entire day either on his feet or in the saddle — and all in full armour, too.
As far as Kurval was concerned, the whole ceremony was superfluous anyway. He had won the crown fair and square — by chopping off the head of the previous King Orkol and placing the bloody crown on his own head. As long as no one challenged him — and no one dared — he was king, ceremony or no ceremony.
However, his vizier Izgomir, whom Kurval had inherited from Orkol along with the crown, had insisted that a formal coronation was absolutely necessary to keep up appearances and pacify the nobles, the people, the priests and the gods. And since Kurval did not actually know a lot about being king, he’d gone along with it.
And so he had gotten up at the crack of dawn and dressed in his rich, but impractical royal robes. He had dropped to his knees in the temple of Odulf, God of the Sun and Lord of all lesser Gods, to receive the crown — the very crown he himself had taken from Orkol’s severed head not quite two weeks before — from the hands of the high priest.
Next, he had overseen a seemingly endless military parade, as every single regiment in the Azakorian forces plus various mercenary companies marched past Kurval to salute him.
First came the elite Blood Guards in their splendid red armour, led by the young Lord Vangenard. Vangenard had been involved in the uprising against Orkol for reasons of his own and had been the first to cry out “All hail King Kurval,” once Kurval had placed the bloody crown on his own head. In return, Kurval had given him command of the Blood Guards after Vangenard had slain his predecessor Vitericus.
Izgomir did not trust Vangenard. He said that a man who had turned first against Orkol and then against his employers would eventually turn against Kurval as well. And who knew, maybe he was right? However, Kurval liked the young Lord and for now Vangenard seemed to be on his side.
Once the Blood Guards had ridden past, came the not quite so elite Silver Sentinels in their shimmering silver armour. Their commander was one Baron Kelgurd. Kurval did not know the man well. However, both Izgomir and Vangenard had recommended him as a dependable man who was no friend of Orkol’s. And since those two almost never agreed on anything, Kurval figured he should heed their advice the one time they did.
Next came the Ruthless Swords, the mercenary company that Kurval had commanded before the crown of Azakoria had landed at his feet. He smiled and waved, this time with genuine enthusiasm. These were his people, after all, and he knew every single man and woman marching past him in the plain, functional armour of the professional mercenary. He might not be certain about the loyalties of Izgomir or Vangenard or Kelgurd, but he was certain about the Ruthless Swords.
Tsabo, commander of the Ruthless Swords, rode ahead, splendid in his gilded armour that gleamed against his dark skin. Tsabo was probably the only true friend Kurval had in the world. The armour had been a gift, together with the offer to become general of the Azakorian army. Kurval had hoped for an enthusiastic acceptance, but so far all that Tsabo had said was that he needed to discuss the matter with his wife.
Kurval decided to take the fact that Tsabo had chosen to wear the splendid plate gilded armour rather than his ordinary plain chainmail as a positive sign. Because he did not want to deal with the intricacies of kinghood, not to mention a palace full of backstabbing nobles who despised him, without his best friend by his side.
More soldiers marched past. Archers, pikemen and the alchemists with their deadly but cumbersome flash powder cannons. Soldier after soldier, a seemingly endless stream of them. All the while, Kurval was in full armour and seated upon his faithful stallion Shadowmane. The day was unpleasantly hot day and he found himself desperately needing to pee, but found that he could not move from his post until after the last infantryman had filed past.
Even after the parade, Kurval barely had time to relieve himself, before he had to sit on the obsidian throne to receive the oaths of fealty of the various nobles, most of whom hated him and half of whom wanted to kill him and sit on the throne themselves. To make matters even worse, the obsidian thrones was infernally uncomfortable and so his back and arse were sore, when he could finally rise.
And still there was no rest for Kurval. For now it was time to ride through the streets of the capital and gracefully receive the cheers and homages of the people of Azakoria who cheered and threw rose petals onto his path, which struck him as very wasteful, though at least Shadowmane appreciated having some petals to nibble on. Though at least the cheers of the people were genuine — unlike the smiles and bows of the nobles — though they were cheering less for Kurval than for the demise of his hated predecessor Orkol.
Once Kurval and his retinue had reached the temple district, there followed a tour of every single temple in Amalgonda to pay his respects to Gods that were not his in rituals that were meaningless to him.
“What am I even doing here?” Kurval asked himself, not for the first time.
Many years ago, in his homeland Temirzhan across the Great Sea, the Dark Gods that dwell on the Plains of Shadow had prophesied that one day, Kurval would be King on the far side of the great sea. So Kurval had travelled across those endless waves, not so much to chase a glorious destiny, but mostly because there was no place in his homeland anymore for a captain of the Royal Guard who had gotten his king killed.
Kurval had spent many years wandering the lands on the far side of the sea, selling his brawn and his sword to whoever needed his services. He’d started out as a lone sellsword and eventually rose to commander of a mercenary company in the employ of the King of Azakoria, the glorious destiny that the Dark Gods had prophesied long forgotten. Most likely, the Dark Gods had lied anyway, cause that’s what they did.
When some of the Azakorian nobles approached Kurval to enlist him and the Ruthless Swords in their uprising against King Orkol, Kurval had accepted without hesitation. After all, Orkol was perpetually late in paying, so Kurval felt he owed him no loyalty. Not to mention that the plotting nobles promised to pay Kurval and his people better than Orkol ever had.
Finally, Kurval had seen what Orkol did to the people of Azakoria, how he abused those he was responsible for. He’d seen how Orkol bled a once wealthy country dry. He’d seen protests and uprisings brutally squashed, citizens randomly arrested, imprisoned, tortured, executed. He’d seen men slaughtered and women ravished, all in Orkol’s name. Worse, Kurval and his people had even been ordered to take part in Orkol’s atrocities.
Unbidden, an image rose in his mind. Bodies swaying in the wind outside the walls of the rebellious city of Fredegond. Young women in plain white gowns with nooses round their necks, gently crying into their execution hoods, bound hands clutched in prayer, as they were led to the gallows.
That had been the last straw. Kurval had walked away in disgust and thrown in his lot with the plotting nobles. After all, Count Walbordo, leader of the plotters, could hardly be a worse king then Orkol. At the very least, he paid better.
He’d had no illusions why Walbordo and the other plotting nobles wanted his support. Their own troops weren’t sufficient to take on Orkol’s, so they needed Kurval and his men. The mercenaries were to be used as shock troops, to break down resistance, to fight and bleed and die, so Walbordo’s own men would be spared.
Kurval knew fully well that he and his people were expected to die fighting Orkol’s troops, that they were never expected to collect the generous payment they’d been promised. He also knew that they were better than that, better fighters, better trained. He knew they would prevail. And they did.
Once Kurval and his people fought their way to the throne room, he’d finally found himself face to face with Orkol himself. Kurval had treated the swine better than he deserved and gave Orkol the chance to draw his sword. But Orkol was not much of a fighter and so Kurval chopped his head off. The crown, still sticky with Orkol’s blood, rolled across the marble floor and landed in front of Kurval’s feet. And suddenly he heard the voice of the Dark Gods in his mind again, heard their prophecy, their mocking words. And he bent down to pick up the crown and put it on his own head.
And now that he was king, now that he had finally fulfilled the glorious destiny that he’d been foretold all those years ago, Kurval realised that he had no idea what came next. The Dark Gods had certainly never said anything about that and Kurval himself knew nothing about being a king.
Briefly, he’d even entertained the thought of just making off with the royal treasury and leaving the throne to Walbordo who’d wanted it all along and who probably knew what to do with it, unlike Kurval. However, the royal treasury turned out to be nigh empty, the kingdom’s wealth squandered on Orkol’s whims. And besides, the people that Orkol had abused and bled dry actually cheered for Kurval, called him their liberator. Kurval could not steal what little was left from these and then abandon them. For their sake, he had to try to be the best king he could be.
“And now, Sire, it is time to consult the oracle in the temple of Ashvarya,” Izgomir whispered to him, looking distinctly uncomfortable in the saddle, though his mount was the calmest, most good-natured mare to be found in the royal stables.
Kurval grunted in acknowledgement. Maybe this oracle could tell him what to do now he was King.
II. The Temple of Ashvarya
The soaring columns and spires of the temple dedicated to Ashvarya, Goddess of the Moon and consort of Odulf, gleamed silver in the light of the midday sun.
In front of the temple, Kurval dismounted and handed the reins to a waiting groom. It wasn’t necessary — Shadowmane would not run off, unless he was hungry — but the boy would be disappointed, if he did not get to hold the reins of the King’s horse, so Kurval and Shadowmane obliged him.
He waited patiently, as Izgomir dismounted with some difficulties. The groom who held the reins of the vizier’s mare remained stone-faced, but Shadowmane neighed in obvious amusement.
Finally, when Izgomir was back on his feet and had straightened his robe of office, Kurval ascended the white marble steps that led up to the temple, his vizier by his side.
“So how does this work?” he asked Izgomir.
“You will be welcomed by Morelia, High Priestess of Ashvarya. Then you will enter the inner sanctum, where you will remain alone in contemplation and prayer, until they oracle reveals its wisdom to you.”
Alone sounded good, though Kurval couldn’t help but wonder what would happen, if the oracle did not deign to reveal its wisdom to him.
“So what exactly is this oracle?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“Inside the inner sanctum of the temple, there stands a lifelike statue of our blessed Lady Ashvarya, Sire. Around her neck, the goddess wears the Tear of Chronos, a jewel that fell from the sky eight hundred year ago and burns with cosmic fire. If the true King of Azakoria looks into depths of this jewel, the goddess will grant him a vision of the future.”
Izgomir was polite enough not to point out that Kurval was not the true King of Azakoria, but a foreign usurper who’d taken the throne by sword and slaughter. However, if this oracle was truly omniscient, it would know. Most likely, this jewel — if it was even real — would show him nothing. Or maybe it would tell him to go away and leave the throne to someone who actually knew what he was doing.
“And then?” he asked, “Am I obliged to share the vision the jewel has granted me with the Council or the people?”
And what if there was no vision? Would Kurval just have to make something up? Or admit that he was not the true King of Azakoria?
“That, Sire, is Your Majesty’s decision. However, traditionally, the Kings of Azakoria have shared the wisdom granted to them by the Tear of Chronos with the High Council and the people.”
“So what about Orkol?” Kurval asked, suddenly curious, “What did he see?”
“When King Orkol emerged from the inner sanctum, he announced that the Lady Ashvarya had commanded him to put down the uprising in the northern provinces with fire and sword, Sire.”
Kurval sighed, for he was only too familiar with Orkol’s cruelty in squashing the rebellious northern provinces. After all, his mercenaries had been hired to participate in some of it.
They had reached the top of the stairs by now and were met by Morelia, High Priestess of Ashvarya. She was a striking woman swathed in a cloth of silver gown that was draped around her shapely figure. Jewels gleamed at her wrists and throat. A diadem of diamonds and pearls adorned her midnight black hair that had been arranged into tightly curled ringlets.
The priestess curtseyed, which was quite a feat, given her slinky gown.
“Welcome to the temple of Ashvarya, Goddess of the Moon and Mother of all Lesser Gods. May Her light always shine upon Your Majesty’s reign.”
The words were polite but rote. And though Morelia had dropped to her knees before him and lowered her gaze, Kurval had caught a flicker of disdain in her eyes. This woman despised him and only went along with the ceremony, because she expected that the goddess she worshipped would tell Kurval to go away.
However, since Morelia was being polite, Kurval would be polite as well.
“Thank you,” he said solemnly, “I hope that I will prove myself worthy of Ashvarya’s blessed rays.”
Morelia gracefully rose to her feet and again, her slinky gown neither slipped nor tore. Maybe there truly was magic at work in this temple, though keeping a priestess’ gown in place struck him as a rather frivolous use of sorcery.
“And now, Sire, I shall escort you to the oracle chamber, so Ashvarya may share her guidance and wisdom with Your Majesty.”
The High Priestess led the way and a procession of lesser priestesses fell in step behind her, bearing silver staffs and fans of ostrich feathers. Kurval followed, Izgomir at his heels.
One by one, the lesser priestesses came to a halt and stepped out of the way to line up on both sides of the broad temple hall, until only Morelia continued forward, followed by Kurval and Izgomir.
Morelia led them to a large door of white ash wood, inlaid with silver. She took a key from her chatelaine and unlocked the door. Upon opening, the door squeaked like a slaughtered pig. Clearly, it was not used often.
Morelia bowed and still her slinky cloth of silver gown did not slip, but remained glued to her body. “Here, Sire, is the inner sanctum, where you may confer with the oracle of our blessed Lady Ashvarya.”
Again, there was a look of disdain in her eyes and again, Kurval chose to ignore it.
“Thank you,” he said and stepped inside. With another squeal, the door closed behind him and Kurval found himself alone in a small, windowless chamber.
The walls were of white marble, just like the rest of the temple, and adorned with chiselled scenes from the legend of the goddess, as she fought and smote the Great Old Ones to banish them from the world of men. The rays of the midday sun fell in through the filigree roof, sprinkling the chamber with glowing spots of light and stranger shadows.
The room was empty except for a statue of a beautiful woman. Skilled hands had chiselled every feature of her face, every fold of her skirt, every ornament on her body, every hair on her head, out of a block of pure white marble. The effect was remarkably lifelike, as if a living, breathing woman had been turned to stone. So this was the goddess Ashvarya or at least an artist’s vision of her.
Around her neck, the statue wore a gleaming jewel the shape of a teardrop and the size of a child’s fist on a finely wrought chain of silver. This had to be the Tear of Chronos then, the magical jewel that Izgomir had mentioned.
In front of the statue, there was a bench of white marble, the only other piece of furniture in the small chamber. Most likely, this was where Kurval was supposed to sit down and gaze into the jewel, hoping for some kind of divine vision.
What if there was no vision? What if the jewel remained empty, the future clouded to him? What if the goddess with her mocking smile should decide that Kurval was not the true King of Azakoria, that he was not deserving of being granted a vision?
Should he just make something up, just as he suspected Orkol had made up the divine command to subdue the rebellious northern provinces with fire and sword? Cause no deity who cared about those who worshipped her would ever condone the brutal slaughter Orkol had committed in the northern provinces.
Still, there was no way of knowing whether he would be granted a glimpse of the future or not, unless Kurval actually gazed into the jewel. So he took a step towards the bench, only be hurled backwards, when a clap of thunder echoed through the small chamber, followed by a blinding flash of light and a puff of purple smoke.
III. The Apparition
Instinctively, Kurval reached for his blade. Now he was King, he was bearing a ceremonial sword with a gilded and jewel encrusted hilt, but the blade was still cold hard steel and sharp enough to deal with any threat that might have invaded the inner sanctum.
If there was a threat to deal with, that was. For once Kurval’s eyes had recovered from the flash and the smoke had dispersed, he realised that he was no longer alone in the chamber. Stretched out on the bench in front of the statue of the goddess lay a woman.
In every detail, from her gauzy skirt via her silver girdle and bejewelled breast plates to her gleaming tiara and the teardrop gem around her neck, this woman was the spitting image of the statue. Only that this was a woman of flesh and blood. Her skin was soft and rosy, her lips the colour of a morning rose. Midnight black hair fell to her shoulders in gentle waves, long lashes quivered and her chest heaved with every breath.
His hand still on the jewelled hilt of his ceremonial blade, Kurval took a hesitant step towards the sleeping woman. Was this the goddess then, miraculously become flesh? And why had neither Izgomir nor Morelia mentioned that the goddess would appear in the flesh? Or had this never happened to any of Kurval’s predecessors before? And if so, why had the goddess decided to appear to him of all the Kings of Azakoria that had come and gone? Was she here to smite the usurper or bless his reign?
Kurval had almost reached the bench, when the sleeping goddess suddenly opened her eyes. She stretched her limbs like a great jungle cat and sat up, shaking her midnight black hair.
Kurval froze, when the goddess opened her rose red lips and spoke. And though she was speaking a barbarian tongue that Kurval had never heard before, he could nonetheless understand every single word, as if by magic.
“Ugh. Wherever and whenever I am, this is obviously not Cross Plains, Texas. Must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Again.”
The woman looked down at herself, clearly surprised by what she saw.
“Oh great! I’m dressed like a lesbian villainess from a fucking Margaret Brundage cover…”
The woman looked up, only now becoming aware of Kurval’s presence. She emitted a heartfelt sigh.
“And hither comes Conan. Or is it Kull? Cause you’re obviously not Elric. Nor Kane, cause I’d recognise that bastard anywhere and in any time.”
“I am Kurval,” he announced, wondering how a goddess and all-knowing oracle would not even know something as simple as his name, “King of Azakoria.”
The woman nodded. “Of course, you are. So Kurval, King of Azakoria, can you tell me where and when we are?”
Kurval blinked, taken aback. “You don’t know?”
“Would I ask if I did? So, for the slower barbarians among us, where are we, what is this place and what year is it?”
Even if the oracle of Ashvarya was not truly all-knowing, Kurval would have at least expected her to know such basic facts as where or when she had appeared. Or maybe, the oracle was forever casting her all-seeing eyes into the great river of time, with the unfortunate side effect that the present became dim and obscure to her.
“We are in your temple, my Lady,” Kurval replied with a polite bow, “In the city of Amalgonda, capital of Azakoria, in the Year of the Forked Serpent.”
“None of this means anything to me,” the woman replied. She rested her head in her hands, midnight black tresses obscuring her face.
“Still, this place is definitely prehistoric, an early high culture, bronze or iron age equivalent. Not our world, though, since the art and architecture don’t match anything we know. So this is likely some kind of parallel world. Which means I didn’t just take a wrong turn at Albuquerque, I ended up in the wrong fucking universe. Fuck!”
“For a goddess, you sure swear a lot,” Kurval remarked.
The woman, who was very likely not a goddess, looked up, her sparkling dark eyes meeting Kurval’s steel grey. “Is that who you think I am? A goddess?”
“Are you not Ashvarya, Goddess of the Moon and consort of Odulf, God of the Sun and King of all lesser Gods?”
“Is that who you were expecting?” the woman asked, “Cause in that case I’ll have to disappoint you, cause I’m very definitely not the goddess Ashwhatever.”
“So who are you then?” Kurval asked.
“Call me Stella,” the woman said, “And by the way, you don’t have to stand there like a big barbarian oaf. You can sit down. This bench is big enough for both of us.”
So Kurval plopped down on the bench next to the woman, careful to keep sufficient distance between them, for goddess or not, it was only polite not to crowd the woman.
“I have no idea who or what I was expecting,” he admitted, “After all, I’ve never done this before.”
Stella shot him a sideways glance. “New to the crown, are you?”
Kurval nodded. “This is actually my coronation day.”
“And let me guess, you did not inherit the crown from a long line of ancestors but instead won it by blood and steel?”
“Is that so obvious?” Kurval grunted.
Stella nodded. “The crown doesn’t quite fit you and you seem uncomfortable in those kingly robes, as if you don’t quite know how to wear them. And while your royal robes are nice enough, the seams are not quite straight and the embroidery is hastily stitched, as if some overworked seamstress had to alter them in a hurry to fit you.”
“You have a good eye,” Kurval said.
There was a pause, then the woman asked, “So Your Majesty, what were you doing in here, before I so rudely interrupted you?”
“I was waiting for the goddess to grant me a vision of the future.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you there,” Stella said, “I can only foretell the future or pretend to, if I know what’s going to happen. But since I’ve no idea where or when this place is, I don’t know what’s going to happen either. I’m sorry”
“That’s all right.”
Stella turned at him, interest gleaming in her eyes.
“So how is this supposed to work anyway? A ghostly voice from nowhere, a drug-fuelled vision, a prophetic dream or do you just make something up, which fits your policies?”
“I have no idea,” Kurval admitted, “The last time I was given a prophecy of the future was when I was doing battle with the Dark Gods that dwell on the Plains of Shadow…”
“Sounds creepy,” Stella remarked.
“But the Dark Gods are an ocean away, so I doubt they will appear in the here and now. According to my vizier, I’m supposed to gaze into a magical jewel called the Tear of Chronos, which will grant me a vision. Though personally, I suspect that my predecessor just made up something that suited him.”
At the mention of the jewel, the woman stiffened. “You know of the Tear of Chronos?”
“I’d never heard of it until today,” Kurval admitted, “As far as I know, it’s the jewel that the statue of the goddess wears around her neck…”
His eyes were drawn to the identical copy of that jewel around the woman’s neck.
“…and the one that you wear.”
And how was this possible anyway? How could there be two identical jewels?
Stella suddenly jumped to her feet and clambered onto the bench with surprising grace.
“No, this…” She grabbed the jewel that the statue wore around her neck. “…is just a piece of cheap cut glass. This, however…”
Her hands reached for the jewel around her own neck. The jewel glowed brighter, as she touched it, almost as if it were responding to her.
“…is the real deal.”
So if the jewel the statue wore was a forgery, how could Stella have the real one? Was she just a clever thief using trickery and flash powder to abscond with the jewel? But if so, why did she admit that her jewel was the real one?
“How did you come by the jewel then?” Kurval asked.
“I did not come by it. The Tear of Chronos chose me to be its guardian,” Stella replied and sat down next to him again, “Its current guardian, that is. There have been others before me and there will be others after me.”
“Like the goddess Ashvarya?” Kurval probed.
Stella shrugged. “Or someone your people mistook for the goddess at any rate. It happens.”
She shivered and wrapped her arms her body. “Brrr, it’s bloody cold in here. And this silly outfit provides no protection at all.” She gazed down at her gem-encrusted breastplates. “These jewels are the real deal, though. Must be worth a fortune.”
Gooseflesh had appeared on her exposed skin, so Kurval took off his royal robe and draped it around her shoulders. “Here. This should keep you warm.”
Stella smiled at him. “Thanks.” She wrapped herself in his robe. “So, do the women really dress like this, where you come from?”
“Dancers and tavern girls sometimes do.” He glanced at the statue behind them. “And goddesses, I guess. But most women wear clothes.”
She grinned, as if Kurval had just settled an argument she’d been having with someone. “Knew it.”
“Actually, I thought this is how women dress where you come from.”
She looked straight at him. “Goodness gracious, no. No one ever dressed like this outside a Weird Tales cover.”
Once again, Kurval had no idea what she was talking about, so he asked, “About the jewel, can it really foretell the future?”
“Sometimes,” Stella replied, “When it feels like it. Cause the Tear of Chronos is nothing, if not capricious. After all, it sent me here rather than where I was going.”
“So what is this jewel?” Kurval asked, because none of what little she’d said about the gem made any sense.
“The Tear of Chronos is very old… and very powerful,” Stella began. Her eyes took on a distant look, “It’s not from Earth — either yours or mine — but was forged somewhere in a depths of space, maybe even in the Big Bang at the beginning of time. It is imbued with magical energy. Those of us, who have the ability, can tap into that energy and use it for our purposes.”
“So are you a sorceress then?” Kurval asked.
Stella nodded. “I guess you could say so.” She looked at him and smiled. “And thanks for not saying ‘witch’, cause I really hate that word.”
Kurval returned her smile. After all, Aelisia, the only other witch he had ever known, had hated that word as well.
“And the jewel responds to your magic and allows you to foresee the future?”
Stella shook her head. “Oh, it allows me to do much more than that. Time and space are nothing to the jewel, that much is true. It’s said that the Tear of Chronos has seen everything that has happened and ever will happen, all of time compressed in a single moment.”
“So it can foretell the future?” Kurval exclaimed.
“I guess it could. But if you’re like me and can harness its power, the jewel doesn’t just show the future or the past, it can take you there.”
Her hands closed around the jewel, which glowed brighter in response.
“With this, I can travel through space and time. I can go anywhere and anywhen I want… at least, if it works properly. Which it doesn’t at least half of the time. Like right now.”
She let go off the jewel and clenched her fists in frustration.
“Where did you want to go?” Kurval asked.
Stella lowered her eyes. “I wanted to travel eighty-five years into my past, to a town called Cross Plains in a place called Texas. A great poet of my world lived there, until he took his own life. I wanted to persuade him not to do it.”
“That sounds like a noble mission.”
She banged her fist against the marble bench.
“It probably would have been futile anyway, cause some people are very hard to keep from dying. I mean, don’t get me started on John Lennon. I tried, I honestly tried. I tried so many times, but that idiot always gets shot anyway.”
She emitted a heartfelt sigh.
“And the jewel tends to take me to places where I don’t want to go. But to get knocked off course by what’s probably thousands of years and a whole universe, that’s new. Most of the time, it’s just a few months and a different part of the world. Like when I wanted to go to Woodstock and ended up in Vietnam.”
Sorceress or not, the girl seemed lost, lost and confused. And Kurval very much wanted to help her to go to wherever it was that she wanted to go, though he had no idea how.
“Can’t you just ask the jewel to take you to… well, whatever the place is that you wanted to go?”
Stella looked up, eyes blazing. “What do you think I’ve been doing all this time? I’ve been trying to tap into the jewel’s power to take me to Cross Plains or home or anywhere but here really. But it’s not working. It might as well be a chunk of glass like that statue is wearing.”
“I’m sorry,” Kurval said, cause he really had no idea what else to say. He had only met one other sorceress, Aelisia, whose life he’d saved in Temirzhan on the far side of the Great Sea. But while Aelisia’s abilities had been powerful, she had never been able to travel through space and time. And until today. Kurval had no idea that this even was possible.
Stella, meanwhile, was holding the jewel by its silver chain, dangling it in front of her face.
“What do you want of me?” she demanded, almost as if she were speaking to a living being, “I know you brought me here for a reason, cause you always do, but I can’t do what you want, unless you tell me what it is.”
Kurval didn’t know if she expected an answer or not, but she got one. And so did he.
IV. The Voice of the Oracle
“Kurval…” a ghostly voice — vaguely female — echoed through the inner sanctum.
Both Kurval and Stella started and looked around for the source of the voice. It came from behind them, from the direction of the statue.
“Kurval, usurper of the throne,” the voice continued, “Listen to me, for I am the oracle of Ashvarya, Goddess of the Moon and consort of Odulf, God of the Sun and King of all lesser Gods…”
“Is this supposed to happen?” Stella whispered.
“I don’t know,” Kurval admitted, “But I doubt it.”
“Kurval, you usurped the throne against the will of the Gods,” the voice of the oracle continued, “The crown was never supposed to be yours and you know it. And your reign shall be cursed, cursed with death and war and pestilence, unless you abdicate at once in favour of Count Walbordo…”
“Who is this Walbordo?” Stella wanted to know.
“The man who hoped to be king, until I got in the way,” Kurval whispered back.
Stella got to her feet. “Now isn’t that convenient?”
Kurval nodded and got up as well, reaching for the hilt of his sword. “Especially since this ‘goddess’ has a notable northern accent.”
“Lots of pantheons have a north.”
Stella pointed at the statue. Kurval nodded and drew his blade. Together the rounded the statue, Stella on the left and Kurval on the right.
Behind the statue, the white marble walls were covered in decorative friezes. And hidden among these friezes, there were a few strategically placed holes, from which the voice boomed. So this was how the oracle conveyed its messages.
“Abdicate or you shall be doomed, barbarian usurper…”
“Now that’s just rude,” Stella whispered and methodically let her fingers run across the friezes with a swiftness that made Kurval wonder, if she was not a very clever thief after all.
“…and the streets of Amalgonda shall run red with blooahhh!”
In less than a heartbeat, Stella had found a part of the frieze, which retracted into the wall, as she pressed it. A hidden door opened, revealing a barren alcove in which a young women in the garb of a temple acolyte was huddling.
With a strength and roughness that belied her slender frame, Stella grabbed the girl by her plain white robe and pulled her out of the alcove.
“So here we have the false oracle. Not very impressive, is she?”
She hauled the girl into the main chamber and slammed her against the wall. Kurval raised his sword, the tip pointed at the girl’s ample chest.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” he demanded.
The girl quivered and began to cry, golden curls bobbing. “Oh mercy, Your Majesty. The goddess…”
“Don’t blame your goddess,” Stella said, “This is very human trickery. No divine intervention needed.”
The girl looked at Stella and then at the statue and her eyes — blue, like twin sapphires — went wide. Abruptly, she threw herself to the floor, prostrating herself in front of Kurval and Stella.
“Oh my Lady, have mercy on your humble servant,” the girl sobbed, “I… I thought it was your will.”
Stella turned to Kurval, a devilish gleam in her eye.
“Well, it is not,” she declared in her best imperious tone, “You have blasphemed the very goddess you claim to serve.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl sobbed, “Please, my Lady, have mercy.”
“Maybe,” Stella declared, “But first you must answer our questions. Who are you and who put you up to this?”
“I’m Elissa,” the girl cried, “An acolyte of the temple. Morelia, the high priestess, came to me, locked me in the alcove and told me what to say. But she said it was all the will of the goddess and that I had been chosen to deliver the prophecy.”
“Well, it’s very much not the will of the goddess,” Stella thundered, “And now where is this Morelia?”
It was Kurval who answered. “She should still be outside, waiting.”
Waiting for Kurval to reappear, dejected, because the goddess herself had declared him unfit to be king.
Anger rose inside him. He wouldn’t have minded if the goddess genuinely considered him unfit to rule. But for Morelia to use trickery to get him to give up the throne in favour of Walbordo…
“Why?” he demanded, “Why does Morelia favour Walbordo over me?”
“I… I don’t know, Sire. And…” Elissa’s rosy skin flushed bright red. “Well, I should not repeat gossip, but…”
“I command you to speak,” Stella thundered, every inch the goddess she pretended to be.
“Morelia is Count Walbordo’s lover and was hoping to become his queen,” Elissa blurted out, “At least, that’s what Jozella said and she’s Morelia’s personal handmaiden.”
The girl broke down sobbing again.
“Please don’t hurt me. Please, I didn’t mean to…”
Kurval had no intention of hurting this pitiful girl. Though he had every intention to apprehend and question the treacherous Morelia.
Stella seemed to have the same idea. “Let’s go and get her.”
She shrugged off Kurval’s royal robe and handed it back to him. “Here. You’d better put this back on, so you look suitably kingly. While I…” She smoothed down the gauzy skirt and adjusted the jewelled breastplates. “…must play the goddess some more.”
With surprising strength, she hauled the still sobbing Elissa to her feet.
“And you’re coming with us as well.”
V. High Treason
When Kurval threw open the door of the inner sanctum, he found himself faced with Izgomir, Morelia and a dozen of her priestesses. There was a look of pure triumph on Morelia’s face. Most likely, she already pictured herself as queen of Azakoria. But not as long as Kurval had anything to say about that.
Izgomir bowed. “And, Sire, did the goddess speak to you?”
“Indeed, she did,” Kurval said with a grim smile on his face, “And it was most illuminating.”
He stepped aside to reveal Stella who was holding the sobbing Elissa by the arm. At once, the lesser priestesses dropped to their knees and mumbled prayers.
Morelia paled and the triumphant look faded from her face.
“I did it for you, my Lady,” she snarled, slowly retreating backwards, “I did it to expand your worship and influence and to save the realm from this… this foreign barbarian.”
Stella took a step forward and then another, every inch the goddess.
“Liar,” she thundered, “You did it for yourself, because you wanted the throne, wanted the crown.”
In response, Morelia went deadly pale.
“Stupid woman. Did you really think he’d marry you? Cause he won’t. They never do.”
“No,” Morelia howled like a wounded animal.
Then she spun around and ran with remarkable speed, given her slinky gown. Without hesitation, Stella set off after her, gauzy skirt flying.
“Have the Blood Guards and the Ruthless Swords arrest Walbordo,” Kurval called to Izgomir, before going after the two women, sword in hand, “He’s in on this as well.”
“In on what?” Izgomir called after him, utterly confused.
“Treason, Izgomir, high treason.”
Morelia fled through a door at the back of the temple, Kurval and Stella hot in pursuit.
Behind the door, a staircase spiralled upwards and further upwards. Ahead of him, Kurval could hear Morelia’s light steps, followed by Stella’s equally light and his own heavier footsteps.
Up and up the staircase wound with neither branches nor any end in sight. This had to be one of the spires of the temple then. Good, cause that meant that Morelia was trapped and could not escape.
At last, after a seemingly endless number of steps, Kurval and Stella burst onto a small platform at the top of the spire. In the middle of the open platform, there was a swivelling telescope, allowing the priestesses to observe the moon and the stars.
Morelia was here, panting and dishevelled, her tiara askew and her slinky cloth of silver gown torn at the side.
“I will not hang,” she said, her eyes wide, like that of a wild beast at bay, “Nor will you torture a confession out of me, monster.”
She took a step back, until she bumped against the low railing that surrounded the platform.
Kurval spread his hands away from his body. “Morelia, I promise that you will not be tortured…”
He’d spare her the noose as well, if he could. Though he feared that he’d have to sentence her to death for her part in this plot.
“Liar,” the high priestess spat, backed against the railing, “I did what I had to, for the good of the realm.” Her eyes sought Stella’s. “You know this, my Lady. You know that I’m right.”
She took another step backwards, even though she had nowhere left to go.
“No,” Kurval cried, but it was too late.
Morelia tumbled over the railing with the scream of a damned soul, until she landed on the marble paving far below with a sickening crunch.
VI. Aftermath with Roasted Quail
“Walbordo had already fled for the border, when we reached his estate,” Lord Vangenard reported. He bowed, his golden curls tousled, plumed helmet in his hand. “I sent the men after him, of course, but Walbordo has a significant head start. Once he crosses the border, he’s beyond our reach.”
“The Ruthless Swords are in hot pursuit as well,” Tsabo reported, his gilded corselet gleaming in the firelight. They’ll be riding through the night, but Walbordo is too far ahead. Unlike the Blood Guards, we can cross the border, but it could still be seen as an act of war.”
Kurval nibbled on a leg of a roasted quail and leant back in an ebony chair in what had once been the private chambers of the late Morelia. For the moment, that was the best place to set up camp, while the Silver Sentinels combed the city for traitors and the Blood Guards and Ruthless Swords chased Walbordo to the border.
“A war with Gandersum is the last thing we need right now,” he said, “And even if Walbordo crosses the border, he can never return without risking death. So either way, we’re rid of him.”
“But how can we be sure that you…” Izgomir pointed at Vangenard with a leg of quail, “…did not warn Walbordo?”
Vangenard blushed furiously and ran a hand through his tousled curls. “And why should I warn Walbordo?”
“Because you were his man once,” Izgomir said, nibbling on a leg of quail, “Just as you were Orkol’s man before that.”
“I was never Orkol’s man,” Vangenard replied, his temper flaring, “All I ever wanted was for Azakoria to have a good and just ruler. And as far as I’m concerned, she does.”
“And we should trust you why exactly?” Izgomir asked, taking a sip of the late Morelia’s wine, “After all, you’re a traitor twice over. First, a traitor to Orkol and then a traitor to Walbordo.”
Vangenard’s hand reached for the hilt of his sword. “With all due respect, Izgomir, but…”
“Stop,” Kurval ordered in his best kingly voice, “I do not tolerate my people fighting each other and I shall certainly not tolerate any duels fought for any reason.”
Stella was sitting opposite Kurval, listening with to the conversation interest. She was nibbling on grapes and peaches from Morelia’s larder and her shapely legs were resting on the table in a quite ungoddesslike fashion.
“If I may…”
Kurval nodded and Stella continued.
“It seems this young man’s loyalty is in question, am I right?”
“Very much in question,” Izgomir said, shooting uneasy glances at Stella, clearly unsure what to make of her.
“Only because Izgomir, a man whose loyalty is as fickle as the affections of a tavern wench or a catamite, says so,” Vangenard replied hotly.
“Well, that question can be settled easily enough, if I were to read this young man’s mind.” Stella batted her lashes at Kurval. “Only with your permission, of course.”
“It’s Vangenard’s choice to make,” Kurval said and popped a grape into his mouth, “Not mine.”
“Well, then…” Stella turned to Vangenard. “…ready to prove that you’re not a traitor?”
Vangenard nodded firmly. “I have nothing to hide.”
“Oh, you probably do,” Stella said, “But don’t worry, I’m not telling, unless it’s pertinent to this case.”
She reached out and Vangenard flinched a little, as she laid her hand on his temple, fingers resting among his golden curls.
Then Vangenard’s expression went blank, as his eyes lost all focus. Stella closed her own eyes and a look of pain, grief and horror flickered across her face. If it was an act — and Kurval was not certain that it was — it was certainly convincing.
Kurval had no idea how long the moment lasted. It might have been the space of a few heartbeats, it might have been hours. But then Stella opened her eyes and abruptly withdrew her hand as if she’d been burned.
She turned to Vangenard, who slowly shook his head, as if awakening from a deep sleep. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” she said, reaching for his hand and squeezing it, “They shouldn’t have made you watch. That was cruel.”
Vangenard looked at her in shock. “You saw that? You saw everything?”
Stella nodded, an odd sadness flitting over her features. “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. Though I think you can tell him.” She pointed at Kurval.
“Well, what is the verdict?” Izgomir interrupted, inpatient as ever, “Is he a traitor or is he not?”
Stella turned to him, a flicker of annoyance in her dark eyes. “Lord Vangenard stands loyal to the King, exactly as he says.”
“And the rest? There is more, isn’t there? You saw something in his mind.”
Stella nodded. “I did. But that’s not my story to tell. All you need to know is that he’s loyal.”
“But what about Orkol and Walbordo?” Izgomir wanted to know, “He was their man before.”
Stella leant towards him, eyes blazing. “Do you doubt the word of a goddess?”
It was Izgomir who looked away first. “No offence, my Lady. But it’s my duty to keep the King safe from traitors and spies.”
“Just as it was your duty to keep King Orkol safe?” Stella countered.
Kurval decided to intervene, before they could come to blows. Especially since he had no ideas what kind of blows Stella could deal.
“Enough. Vangenard says he’s loyal, Stella confirmed it and that’s good enough for me. And now, can we maybe focus on the real traitors here?”
“Of course, Sire.” Izgomir smoothly changed the subject. “It’s a pity that the treacherous priestess took her own life rather than face justice. However, I have ordered that her body be hung in chains as a warning to all traitors.”
Kurval took a sip of wine. “Izgomir, I will not condone displaying dead bodies in my city. It stinks and attracts vermin. Have the body of Morelia burned or buried or whatever the cult of Ashvarya demands.”
“As you wish, Sire,” Izgomir said, a hint of disappointment in his voice, “As for the girl, Elissa, she was taken to the dungeon to await trial and execution.”
Kurval slammed his hand down on the table, setting goblets, platters, roasted quails and fruits awobble.
“You will set the girl free,” he ordered, “She confessed and she also truly believed she was be doing the will of the goddess…”
“But, Sire…” Izgomir protested.
Across the table, Stella raised an eyebrow. Vangenard and Tsabo smiled.
“Elissa was deceived by the treacherous high priestess, as were we all. And naivety is not a crime worthy of death. See to it that she is set free and allowed to return to the temple if she wishes.”
Izgomir bowed, clearly disappointed. “As you wish, Sire.”
At this moment, a dark-haired young woman in the plain white garb of a temple acolyte entered the chamber and bowed deeply. In her hands, she bore a silver platter with flat square biscuits embossed with various figures.
“Sire, we baked these sacred biscuits in honour of your coronation, as the Lady Ashvarya demands.”
The girl moved to set down the platter on the table, but before she could, Izgomir intercepted her.
“And how are we to know that these are not poisoned?” he demanded.
The girl quivered. “But they… they are sacred to the goddess.”
Izgomir grabbed the girl by the arm.
“This entire temple is sacred to the goddess and yet your high priestess conspired against her king. How are we to know that the rest of you are not in league with Morelia?”
“I… I’m loyal, Sire, please.” The girl broke out in tears.
Kurval sighed. “Izgomir, let her go,” he ordered, “She’s bringing us biscuits. And since the wine, the quails, the stuffed peacock or the fruit did not turn out to be poisoned, I doubt very much doubt that the biscuits are.”
Stella got up, graceful as ever, and bent down for a closer look at the pastries.
“I’ll be damned, it’s speculaas,” she exclaimed full of wonder and snatched the platter away. She picked up a biscuit and popped it in her mouth.
Izgomir blanched. “My Lady, do you think that’s wise?”
“Oh, it’s not poisoned, just in case you were wondering,” Stella replied, still munching on the biscuit, “And they even got the spice mix right. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and pepper. Though the figures need some work. I mean…”
One by one, she held up the biscuits, so everybody could see the embossed figures.
“…a headless man, a king with a big sword, a bare-chested woman with really big boobs, a skeleton, some kind of demon, a phoenix, Cthulhu and…”
She squinted at a biscuit that was stamped with a misshapen blob with too many eyes.
“…is that a misprint or is that a Shoggoth?”
“The… the sacred biscuits show scenes from your life, my Lady,” the young priestess stammered.
“They do? Well, I guess you know best, but I certainly don’t recall fighting Cthulhu or a Shoggoth or chopping some guy’s head off.” Stella popped another biscuit into her mouth. “Anyway, my compliments to the baker. But you definitely need a windmill stamp. And an elephant. Those are my favourites, you know?”
The priestess nodded and backed out of the chamber, clearly glad to get away from Izgomir and a goddess who was critiquing the design of her biscuits.
Stella retreated to her seat, taking the platter with her. Izgomir turned to Kurval.
“Sire, I still think we should arrest and interrogate all of the priestesses and temple acolytes. Who knows how many more of them were in league with the traitress Morelia?”
Kurval decided that he had enough of this. Izgomir might be invaluable to the throne and the realm, but there was only so much of the man he could tolerate.
“Don’t you have something else to do?” Kurval said, “And Izgomir, you will not — I repeat not — arrest or interrogate any priestesses or indeed anybody without my order. And see to it that the girl Elissa is set free.”
Izgomir bowed. “As you wish, Sire.” He rose to fulfil his orders.
“I’d be careful about that one,” Stella remarked, once Izgomir was gone, “He’s rather bloodthirsty and likes torturing and executing people a little too much.”
She was munching on another biscuit.
“He is right, though. There probably are other traitors lurking about, waiting and biding their time. But I forget my manners.”
She held out the platter.
“Have some speculaas. They’re excellent.”
Kurval and — after some hesitation — Tsabo and Vangenard each took a biscuit. Kurval regarded his. It was square-shaped, brown and embossed with some kind of tentacled monstrosity. He took a bite, savouring the sweet and spicy taste. Stella was right. They were excellent.
Through it all, Tsabo had been uncharacteristically quiet. Now, however, he did turn to Kurval, his biscuit — embossed with a lion — uneaten in his hand.
“Captain — ahem — Sire, may I have a word? In — ahem — private.”
“Of course, old friend.” Kurval rose and clapped him on the shoulder. “And you know you don’t have to call me ‘Sire’. After all, you didn’t call me that when we were chained together to the bench of a slave galley either.”
There was a curtained doorway at the back of the room, so Kurval and Tsabo retreated there for some privacy. Stella, meanwhile, offered another of the sacred biscuit to Vangenard.
“So, you like poetry…?” she began.
VII. An Offer and a Blessing
Kurval swept the blue and silver embroidered curtains aside, only for him and Tsabo to find themselves in what had obviously been the late Morelia’s bedchamber. A divan piled with silken cushions stood at one end of the room, while a large bed with curtains of silvery gauze took up the other side of the chamber. Bottles of perfume and pots of various ointments stood ion a delicate table in front of a large mirror.
“So, what is it, old friend?”
Tsabo studied the intricate pattern of the rug on the floor, almost as if he did not want to look Kurval in the eye.
“About you offer to become commander of the Azakorian troops, it’s very generous, but…”
“…you’re declining,” Kurval completed with a sinking heart.
Tsabo nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“I know you’re weary of the mercenary life, but this would be different. I don’t aim to start a war, though of course Azakoria shall defend herself, if attacked. Still, there would be no more tents and camps. You and Sunilda could have a house in the city or a villa in the country…”
“It’s not that. It’s… Sunilda is with child.”
“But Tsabo, that’s wonderful news.”
Kurval hugged his friend. Because it was wonderful news.
The marriage between Tsabo and Sunilda had not exactly been voluntary, at least on Sunilda’s part who’d been given the choice between marriage and the gallows, that is no choice at all.
Tsabo adored his wife and Sunilda respected her husband, though she did not love him, at least not at first. But a child might change all that and bring them closer together.
Tsabo grinned, his ivory teeth stark against his dark face. “It is wonderful. It’s a blessing, a gift I hadn’t dared hope for.”
“But…” Kurval prompted.
“Sunilda wants to return to the north to have her mother by her side, when she has the child.”
“And of course you want to go with her.”
Tsabo nodded. “My place is by Sunilda’s side and our babe’s.”
“You could always return, you know? Once the baby is born and old enough to travel. My offer still stands and the armour is yours regardless.”
But Tsabo shook his head.
“I’ve been a warrior since I was barely more than a boy. But I’m weary of war, so maybe I should try what peace feels like. Sunilda’s father was a blacksmith, but his workshop has stood empty since he was hanged. I can take over his trade. And besides, I’ll be a father myself soon and I have to think of Sunilda and our child. War is for younger men and for bachelors.”
Kurval clasped Tsabo on the gilt-armoured shoulder.
“I understand, old friend. Much as I shall miss you in this den of vipers.”
“You could always resign and come with us to the north,” Tsabo suggested, only half jokingly.
“And leave the throne to Walbordo or some other backstabbing noble?” Now it was Kurval’s turn to shake his head. “No, Vangenard is right. Azakoria deserves a better king than what she had. I’m not sure yet if I will be that king, but I want to try.”
“Azakoria is lucky to have you,” Tsabo said, “About that woman, Stella, do you think that… that she’s the real thing?”
“I have no idea what she is…” Kurval admitted, “…and whether she’s a goddess or a cunning con woman. But I saw her appear out of thin air with my own eyes. And we both saw how she read Vangenard’s mind. Though a skilled con artist can fake that.”
“But if she were a con woman, wouldn’t she act a bit more like… well, like a goddess.”
Kurval laughed. “Who knows what goddesses are like? The only gods I’ve ever met were the Dark Gods that dwell on the Plains of Shadow and I doubt they were representative of godhood.”
“And a biscuit munching goddess is?”
“Well, I know which one I’d rather deal with.”
They found Stella in close conversation with Vangenard, who seemed to have relaxed by now, which was unusual, because Vangenard was normally tense and nervous around women. Kurval had never understood why. After all, Vangenard was young, handsome, a lord and a highly eligible bachelor. Surely, he had no lack of female company.
Yet somehow Stella had persuaded Vangenard to relax, which was testament to hr powers.
“Your friend was very talented, though I have to admit that I don’t quite understand all the political allusions in this ballad,” Stella said, still nibbling on a biscuit.
“I am certain you would have liked him,” Vangenard said gravely.
“I’m sure I would have. If nothing else, we could have talked poetry.”
She turned to Kurval and Tsabo, a dazzling smile on her face.
“Oh, you’re back. Vangenard here was just reciting some poetry written by a good friend of his.”
Vangenard liked poetry?
Tsabo took a step towards Stella and bowed, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“My… my Lady, I know that I am not one of those who worships you…”
“That’s all right. I know there’s more than one god. If anything, there’s enough gods to fill an arena out there.”
“…but may I ask you for a favour?”
Stella turned to face him, lowering her legs to the floor.
“Of course. If it’s in my power to help you, I will.”
“My wife Sunilda… she’s with child…”
“And though I do not worship you, she does. She wears a silver pendant dedicated to you around her neck…”
Stella was still nibbling on her biscuit, listening intently. The jewel around her neck glowed.
“…and I was wondering if you would bless her and our child.”
“That’s all? Of course, I’ll bless and your wife and your baby.”
Stella raised a hand and sprinkled silvery dust from her fingertips onto Tsabo. It landed on his shaven head and gilded armour, glimmering in the candlelight.
“Consider yourselves blessed. And here…”
She grabbed some of the biscuits as well as some grapes, persimmons and pomegranates and piled them into a bowl.
“Give these to your wife. She’ll enjoy the speculaas and the fruit will do her good. And make sure that your wife doesn’t have raw milk or cheese and that she goes easy on the wine and the ale. Finally, when the time comes, get a midwife. Not a physician, a midwife. Cause birthing is women’s work.”
Tsabo bowed. “Thank you, my Lady.”
Stella smiled. “By the way, even if you wife did not always love you, I’m pretty sure she does now or she would have left and not told you about the baby. And now go to your wife and bring her the fruit and biscuits.”
“But the troops…”
Kurval clapped him on the back. “Go to Sunilda and give my regards to her. The troops will be fine. Chem will lead them well. After all, he’ll have to learn anyway.”
Once Tsabo had left, bearing a bowl of fruit and biscuit, Kurval turned to Stella. “What did you do to him? That silver dust…”
“Oh, that was just glitter. Gets everywhere, but is completely harmless.”
“And the blessing?”
“Your friend was clearly nervous about becoming a father and if a bit of glitter calms him down, so what?” Stella shrugged. “And the rest that I told him — about avoiding raw milk and cheese, wine and ale, and getting a midwife to assist the birth — that was actual useful advice that will help his wife have a healthy baby. Sure, things might still go wrong, but women have been having babies for thousands of years or we would all have died out a long time ago.”
“So you know about poetry and midwifery?” Vangenard asked.
Stella shrugged once more, her whole supple form rippling. “I know about lots of things. I can dance and sing and play the lute, too, though don’t tempt me or I will.”
“Ashvarya…” Vangenard pointed out, “…is the goddess of the moon, of poetry and music and dance as well as patron of midwives and birthing women.”
“Is she now?” Stella raised an eyebrow. “Well, that’s convenient. Anyway…”
She rose to her feet, graceful as ever.
“…the speculaas were excellent and the wine, the roasted quails and fresh fruit were quite nice, though I’m not a fan of stuffed peacock, I’m afraid.”
She turned to Kurval with a smile and a sweeping bow.
“In spite of the circumstances, it was nice meeting you, Kurval, King of Azakoria, and Lord Vangenard, commander of the Blood Guards and connoisseur of poetry. But I have places to go and people to see. So if you would escort me back to the inner sanctum?”
Kurval rose as well and offered her his arm.
“So does this mean you can go back to… well, wherever you are from?”
Stella looked down at the jewel she wore around her neck. It was glowing brighter than before with a nigh magical fire.
“The Tear of Chronos is glowing, so…” She grinned. “…I guess I can.”
VIII. A Glimpse of the Future
Inside the inner sanctum of the temple, Stella positioned herself in front of the statue, examining it like one would look into a mirror.
“You know, the goddess really does look like me,” she remarked, “Down to the jewel and the ridiculous outfit.”
“Maybe you have been here before,” Kurval suggested.
Stella shook her head. “Not that I remember. But I may yet be. Time travel is complicated, you know.”
She turned to him. “But with all this excitement, you still did not get your prophecy.”
“That’s all right,” Kurval replied, “I wasn’t expecting to receive a vision anyway. After all…” He shrugged. “…I was never supposed to be king.”
“But the guy who thought he was supposed to be king is on the run for the border, so your throne is secure for now, Your Majesty.”
She settled down on the marble bench and removed the jewel from her neck.
“I can’t promise you that you will get a vision of the future,” she pointed out, “Like I said, the jewel is capricious. But it sent me here to help you, so I guess you’re meant to be king.”
She let the jewel dangle from her hand on its silver chain.
“And if you’re meant to be king, the Tear of Chronos might just give you a glimpse of the future. So why don’t we give it a try?”
Kurval set down on the bench and looked into the jewel, looked very intently.
The jewel the statue wore was clear shimmering glass, but this one was different. It was burning with magical fire in a billion different colours, half of them unknown to mankind. The colours flickered and swirled and gradually coalesced into images.
Kurval saw a hooded assassin and a dagger aimed at his heart. He saw dead bodies on the gallows, swaying in the wind. He saw battles, horses trampling, blades clashing, swords flashing. He saw the people cheering him, saw knights raise their swords and call out his name. He saw Izgomir and Vangenard and the High Council and a blonde young man he did not recognise. He saw himself fighting a knight in black armour, saw a torchlit execution chamber. He saw a woman with hair like living fire fighting by his side, cutting down monstrous things from beyond. He saw the same woman lying in his arms, in his bed, her fiery hair covering him like a blanket, as his heart burned with fierce love. He saw himself sitting on the obsidian throne, a little boy with curly hair bouncing on his knee, and was overcome with a feeling of overwhelming love.
A shadow fell onto the throne and Kurval saw the Dark Gods in the skies above the streets of Amalgonda. He heard their voices again, mocking him, taunting him and heard himself shouting into the wind in pure defiance.
“This is my land, my people. You can have me, but you can never have them…”
Abruptly, the vision vanished and Kurval was just staring at a diamond pendant again. A very large and very valuable diamond, to be sure, but still just a diamond.
“And…” Stella wanted to know, “…what did you see?”
Kurval shook his head to clear it.
“I saw battles and assassins, monsters and dark gods, executions and deaths…” he began, “…but also people cheering, calling out my name. I saw a woman, a beautiful woman. And I had a child, a little boy.”
“So you’ll have a queen and you’ll have a son,” Stella said, “That’s a good thing.”
“And what of the battles and the deaths and the Dark Gods?” Kurval asked.
“Well, you did not expect this to be easy, did you?” she countered, “Being a king rarely is.”
In a fluid motion, she put the jewel around her neck again and got to her feet.
“This was all quite fascinating, but it’s high time I went back to where I want to be, so farewell, Kurval, King of Azakoria. And though I may not really be a goddess, I’m sure you’ll be a good king.”
Her hands gripped the jewel at her breast. There was a blinding flash of light and she was gone and Kurval was alone in the inner sanctum once more.
“That woman… do you believe she really was the goddess?” Izgomir asked him later that night, as he reported that Walbordo had escaped over the border, beyond the reach of the king’s justice.
“I have no idea who or what she was,” Kurval admitted, “But she had magic and she did aid us and that’s good enough for me.”
Izgomir shot him a questioning look. “Sire, if I may inquire, what was the vision of the future that the oracle revealed to you?”
Kurval smiled. “The Tear of Chronos said that I’ll have a wife and a son and that I’ll be a good king.”
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.