Photo © Al Forbes
The servant led Tamaelen to the only empty seat in the circle, beside the young taen. He heard a nervous catch in Maetani’s greeting, and tried to smile reassuringly. Assuming this interview with her council went well, their engagement would be announced. He didn’t need to feign excitement.
Tamaelen felt confident, having practiced acceptable answers to all the likely questions, but he wasn’t taking chances. He had so many protection spells cast on him – against divination, charm, poison, anything he could imagine trying if the roles were reversed – that his head buzzed.
During the introductions, Tamaelen gazed around the throne room, at the ornate statues and exquisite tapestries, the golden cages where exotic birds flashed colorful feathers. Soon, this would all be his. Not immediately, of course. He wouldn’t be that idiot who killed off the ruling spouse in the first few months. Questionable successions, those. No, he’d wait for an heir, a baby linking him tightly to the crown.
A servant handed Maetani a large, odd-looking goblet: a skull embedded in silver and brass. At his glance, she explained, “He was my most trusted servant, and died saving my life. I honor him thusly, keeping his spirit close.” Holding it in both hands, she raised the goblet to the circle. “May I be worthy of your loyalty.” She drank deeply, and passed it to her wizard advisor.
The old woman smiled warmly, intoning, “All loyalty to you, my taen,” before drinking herself.
The goblet passed around the circle, finally reaching Tamaelen. Staring at the remaining liquid, he calculated the odds of someone murdering him now, here, before the taen. Steeling himself, he drained the cup.
His stomach clenched. His arms and legs jerked and twisted, knocking him from the chair to the center of the circle. He’d been betrayed. Tamaelen glanced for help to the taen, but her eyes showed sad resignation rather than horror.
Tamaelen struggled to speak. “I’ve been poisoned, my love. Quick, save me!”
Maetani shook her head. “Not poisoned. Cursed.” Cradling the goblet, she wiped the dripped wine from its rim. “It affects any who wish me bodily harm. As you do, apparently.” She looked away, blinking.
Tamaelen screamed as his body spasmed, contorting into bizarre shapes, shrinking impossibly small. Then he could speak no more.
Maetani’s advisor tried to comfort her. “Better that you know now.”
The taen sighed. “You were right. He was too handsome.”
The advisor shrugged. “He makes a lovely bird, at least.”
That he did, with a haughty crest and a long bright tail, although his terrified squawking spoiled the impression. The bird handler was scratched several times capturing him.
Standing beside the cage, Maetani watched the bird hop wildly around its new confines. “You are certain they do not remember being human?”
The advisor nodded. “My studies assure me so.”
“Good. It would be terrible torture, being trapped that way, if they did.”
“My taen, the man wanted you dead.”
It occurred to the advisor that certain magicks might negate part of the curse, but the likelihood of such being true here was slim. No sense introducing new concerns.
As Maetani walked away, the bird that had been Tamaelen fluttered frantically around the cage, screeching and banging against the bars.
The advisor studied the bird, who paused, locking eyes with her. She spoke softly. “If you don’t calm down, I’ll have to take more drastic measures.”
The bird flapped a few more times, watching the departing taen, then settled onto a perch, tucking its head down to groom its wing-feathers.
“Good. As long as we understand each other.”
The dashing young lord bowed deeply to Maetani, showing his leg to its full advantage. As the official rituals of greeting dragged on, he spotted the addition to the throne room. She must be so proud of her collection. They were the talk of the land.
He waited until the first break in the proscribed back and forth to show interest. “My taen, I notice you have gained another amazing bird. I say, I have never seen its like!”
The taen glanced at the new bird, but her expression seemed less joyful than he expected. Perhaps she was disappointed with this bird. He should veer the subject slightly.
“I realize that your majesty keeps the origins of your acquisitions secret, but surely you can offer this humble servant a hint. How far must your people travel, to find such exotic creatures?”
The taen’s voice was hoarse, tired. “Closer than you might think.”
Word count: far over 200, I’m afraid! This was inspired by this week’s Sunday Photo Fiction challenge, but as you can see, I totally failed to restrain myself to 200 words. My sincere apologies to Alistair, who deserves better loyalty from his blog followers! My only excuse is that the picture he posted was so very interesting and evocative, it enticed me into writing all this story to honor it.
Click here to read the other stories written for this prompt.