Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Cursed Queen of Angmar, The: 8. Ring of Mystery
Ariashal quickly adjusted to the requirements of being Queen.
For the first time in her life she was in command. The people here were willing and eager to obey any whim she might have, although she was careful not to be too demanding. She wanted more flowers in the courtyard gardens, and flowers hardy enough to withstand the cold were brought. She wanted some new, warmer gowns, and her women dutifully sewed them. She wanted music, so skilled musicians were found for her.
Above all else, she wanted the King.
She waited impatiently for him to come to her rooms. They ate together, privately, so no one would see him unmasked. Ariashal spoke with him, trying to divert him and ease the cares of his day. He never really told her much, only occasionally relating a few incidents that he found amusing or strange. It seemed to her that he was tolerantly bemused by her inquiries; she suspected that no one had ever before bothered to enquire after his well-being.
But it was the time after the last of the meal had been cleared away that she longed for.
It was astonishingly erotic to have as a lover a man she could hear and feel, taste and smell, but not see. When she pulled him to her, she cared only for the enormous strength of his body. He needed no face to arouse her, to pleasure her, to bring her to ecstacy. It was as though she had found the ideal lover: a body she desired, and any face she wished.
He was far more experienced than any of her other husbands had been. He knew how to caress, to tantalize, to nuzzle; he knew how to bring her delight before satisfying himself. For her part she was willing to submit to anything he desired, willing to try any pose, any stance, any movement. She would do anything he asked of her, so secure was she in his presence.
There were some things about him that she knew. He must always be in command, even during the most intense, intimate embraces. For the most part she was pleased to surrender to him, to let him do as wished. Ariashal willingly submitted when he looped silken cords around her wrists, binding her to the bedposts. Once he had done so he would gently caress even her most private and intimate places with his fingers and tongue, until she reached the heights of pleasure.
But when she tried to reciprocate, to give him the same pleasure as he gave to her, he angrily refused, flinging the cords across the room. She longed to ask him why he could not relinquish control, but dared not. Much safer to accept that he would not, and leave it alone.
There were many other things that she had come to know about him. He never seemed tired; even after the most arduous lovemaking he never drifted off to sleep, never collapsed from exertion. She knew that his hair was long; it fell past his shoulders, and by running her fingers through it she knew that it was wavy. He was powerfully built; there was no mistaking the contour of muscle on his back, chest, arms, thighs. And she knew that he always wore a ring.
One night, after they had finished their lovemaking, she decided to ask. Playfully slipping her fingers through his, finally grasping the ring, she began. "Why is it, my Lord, that you have a ring which I cannot see? Do you keep it from my sight, so I will not be tempted to steal it? Is it so beautiful that --"
He seized her hand, crushing her fingers until her cries of pain made him release her.
"Why did you do that?" she whimpered, rubbing her bruised hand. "Why is that ring so important that you would hurt me? You know I did not mean-"
"I know what you meant! You want to know what it is, and what it does, and why you must never wear it. You say that you are cursed. You do not know what cursed means!"
She fought back the tears. Could this be the same man who had been so tender just moments ago? "I--I do not understand."
"Be glad you do not!" And he gathered up his robes and left.
Ariashal sought out Adzuphel the next day. Her night had alternated between bouts of crying and fitful sleep. Whatever she had done to provoke the King, there must be a way to set it right. She knew by now that Adzuphel was considerably more than a simple steward. He was in charge of the daily operations of the castle, he was in charge of the household guards, and he was also something of a confidante for the King. If anyone knew what to do, it would be him.
She spent more time than usual on her makeup, trying to hide the effects of her night. When she finally felt able to face the world, she left her rooms. Adzuphel was supposed to be supervising the installation of a new window in one of the halls. She made her way to him, stopping to watch as he explained the layout to the workmen.
He finally saw her. Embarrassed, he bowed quickly. "Greetings, Your Majesty. What brings you here?"
"I must ask you something."
He swiftly guided her away from the workers. "What is it?"
"The King. I angered him last night, and I need your advice."
Adzuphel drew a long breath. "I do not know what I can do."
"You can hear me out, and perhaps offer your counsel."
He sighed. "Very well, Your Majesty. But I must tell you that I am not particularly gifted in matters of the heart."
For the first time in hours she managed to smile. "Anything you can say will be helpful."
"As you wish. Tell me what has happened, and perhaps I can help set things right."
"He wears a ring. What does it mean?"
Adzuphel looked at her, then turned away. "What did he say?"
"That was what caused his anger. I was--teasing him, and when I asked about it, he became furious and left my bed."
He looked over at the workers, then back at her. "I think I understand. Very well. Come with me."
She followed him down the stairs and out to the courtyard, past branches denuded by cold from the wind-chilled trees, to one of the red stone benches. Ariashal quietly settled on it. "Please sit with me," she said.
"Thank you." He sighed as he sat beside her. "Now I know why he has been in a foul mood since last night. He has spent most of the day in his study. I dare not disturb him there. As for the ring, I will tell you what I know."
She waited, expectant.
"I know that the ring is magic, and that His Majesty never takes it off. But what it does, and why he never removes it, I do not know."
"But why would he not tell me this himself?" she asked, puzzled.
"I do not know." Adzuphel groped for words. "I--I do not think that the King has led a very --happy life, madame. I think that there is much more to him than he will ever let on. There is some pain, some burden that he carries, and that, I think, colors all he does.
"There is another thing. You are not the first woman to live here as queen."
Startled, she looked up.
"A few years ago, His Majesty conquered a small city. Their lord was slain in the battle. We brought his wife to the King."
"What--what did he do?"
Adzuphel smiled at her. "Not what you fear. His Majesty does not force himself on women. I should think you would know that by now."
"He asked her if she wished to return here. She did. He brought her back, established her in the rooms which you now occupy, and for some time all was well. Then she grew curious. Like you, she asked about the ring. I do not know what he told her. But I do know that, a few days later, she went into his rooms."
"The ones I cannot enter."
"The very same. You must remember--he is a very powerful wizard. She entered his rooms, and released a demon. It stole her away before anything could be done."
"Yes, my Queen. His Majesty chased after it, but it was too late. His Majesty was furious for weeks."
"Yes. That is why, I think, that he grew angry with you. I think he fears that the same fate might befall you."
"I have no desire to enter his rooms." And even less to meet a demon.
"That is good. I think--" he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper-- "I think he fears losing you. I think he is attached to you. I do not think he loves you; I do not think that he is capable of loving anyone. I think that whatever he has done to gain the power he wields has cost him dearly. But I do think that he cares for you. And I do know that he does not like to lose anything that belongs to him."
He stood to go. "If I may take your leave, I must make sure that they seal that window properly."
"You may go."
She watched him leave, pausing to instruct some servants before disappearing into the shadows of the arcade.
For some time she studied the fountain, the interplay of light on the splashing water, the soothing sound of the droplets scattering across the surface. If only things were as clear! She tried to digest everything Adzuphel had told her. The ring was magic; she had guessed that herself. The King probably never took it off for fear of losing it. What had he said, that first night? Something about control. Perhaps losing it would mean he could no longer control the magic powers he used. And she had suspected that he disliked having things taken from him.
What must have happened? Had she opened the door and freed the thing? What had he told her about the ring that made her think she could safely enter the rooms? Ariashal could not imagine going in there, under any circumstance. What had the woman been thinking?
Adzuphel said that the King had chased after the demon. The sheer amount of will, of determination, of courage, needed to do that was almost beyond comprehension. She could not imagine reaching into a fire to retrieve something, let alone follow a demon to who knew where.
And he returned. She had never heard of such a thing. In every story she had read there was no way to return. But the King obviously had. Powerful magic, indeed!
Ariashal wondered what he found there. The old queen must have been dead, else he would have brought her back. Beyond dead, really; Adzuphel did not mention her body being returned for burial. Surely the King would have done so, if it were at all possible.
And all of this, the chasing, the crossing into the demon's world, all had been done for someone he wanted to keep. What, she wondered, would he do for something he loved?
Well, she would not test him like that. She would stay far away from his rooms, and leave the magic alone.
For several days the King avoided her rooms. He would not even eat with her. Ariashal was heartsick. What had she done? Had she managed to alienate him so thoroughly that she would never see him again? She saw him from afar during the day; she caught glimpses of him as he moved about the castle, busy with his advisors. Her women tried to comfort her as she cried into her pillows, but it was useless. She was stupid; she had driven him off. She had lost her lord and lover. If this was to be her life, she might as well walk into his rooms and let the demons eat her.
One tearful afternoon, as she tolerated the women brushing her hair, she heard the doors open. The women stopped.
"Leave us," said the King.
The women obediently slipped from the room.
For once Ariashal was glad that he could not see her. She looked horrible when she had been crying; her eyes always puffed up, her nose invariably became a red blob. Quickly she dabbed her eyes on her sleeve.
"I have come to see you."
Ariashal managed, just barely, to keep from running to him and flinging herself at his feet. "You--you have?"
"And I have brought you something. Tis no more than a bauble, but I think it will please you."
She went to him. In his hand was a sparkling blue gem, set in a gold sun, a golden chain coiled beneath it. Carefully she picked it up. The gem glittered in the light. She slipped the chain over her head.
"So," he began, "I am forgiven?"
Him? Forgiven? Ariashal seized him, burying her face in his chest, too overjoyed to speak.
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