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The Fall of Antiquity
In the far western corner of the known world sat the large, prosperous kingdom of Antiquity. Antiquity was a broad, flat coastal plain, with three great rivers, several lakes, an abundance of forests, and a comfortable climate. It also boasted the two greatest monarchs anyone had ever known.
King Buroch was a short, plump man who made up for his size in volume and aggression. He had risen to power in the normal, my-father-died-and-left-me-the-kingdom way, but after knowing the man for any length of time, one might be inclined to think he'd seized the land as a military dictator. It was his way, or death, but the kingdom stayed peaceful when ruled with an iron fist.
Buroch's wife, Queen Maude, was a soft, lovely woman who rarely spoke more than two words at a time to anyone outside her family. Unlike her husband, she was slow to anger and quick to mercy. It was often said that she was the Angel of Compassion in human form, and thus, the local peasants had taken to calling her "Queen Compassion".
The king and queen had but one child- a princess, tall and fair, named Elisina. Despite her sheltered upbringing and delicate looks, she had a fiery spirit and a crafty mind, and had an inner strength greater than any other girl her age.
Now it came to pass that on the day Elisina turned sixteen, King Buroch decided to give her hand in marriage to his best knight, Sir Amaron. Amaron was a strong, proud knight- a handsome man any young woman in the kingdom would have been more than happy to marry- but still, Elisina protested. This bothered Sir Amaron, for he himself was quite pleased with the arrangement. He had long admired the radiant princess from afar, and had begun to love her even before their engagement was announced, and he knew she would make a gorgeous bride. Elisina, however, wanted no part of such a union. Sir Amaron was indeed an impressive man, but he was seventeen years her senior, and she felt absolutely no romantic sentiment towards him. Queen Maude had- on several occasions- tried to reassure her daughter that she would grow to love Amaron just as Maude herself had grown to love Buroch, but Elisina remained adamant.
A short time before the wedding of Princess Elisina and Sir Amaron, a messenger from the kingdom east of Antiquity- Iniquity- brought news of a Pestilence outbreak within Iniquity's royal capitol. "Unless somethin' is done about the matter, Your Majesty," the messenger said gravely. "The Pestilence shall be upon you a'fore your lovely daughter has a chance to marry."
Naturally, King Buroch placed Antiquity under quarantine- no one came in, no one went out- and made certain the gates to the royal city and castle itself were shut, locked, and heavily guarded and fortified. To the messenger, he said, "Leave us, knave! Go back to Iniquity and tell them to keep away from us, or we shall wage a bloody war with them once the Pestilence lifts!"
But Queen Maude regarded the poor traveler with characteristic compassion and said, "Nay, sir. You may remain within these city walls as long as the disease still ravages your home. Once it has run its course, however, you must return to Iniquity and remain there."
King Buroch went red in the face and opened his mouth to object, but the messenger nodded and hurried out of the room before he could say a word.
When Elisina caught word of the quarantine, she was outraged. "Father," she cried as she stood before her parents in the throne room. "You must repeal this ridiculous decree this instant! It is bad enough that you expect me to marry a man whom I do not love nor appreciate- how am I to have a tolerable wedding ceremony and feast when half of the guests are now unable to attend?"
"It is far better for your party to be lacking in guests than for my kingdom to be lacking in health, The king shouted. "It is a wonder I do not force you to marry a blacksmith for having the audacity to speak to me as you have!" He pounded his fists on the throne's armrests, mumbling a few curses. "Maude- help me, dear- lest I lose myself in rage and obliterate what remains of Elisina's freedom!"
Maude patted her husband's hand and tried to soothe him. "Now, now, darling... no need to work yourself up over something like this. Elisina is only nervous about the ceremony, aren't you, child?"
Elisina could tell that this was not a good time to argue. She bit her lip. "Yes. That is all, father. I am simply... nervous. After all, I have never visited a wedding before, let alone been a part of one."
"Perhaps she just needs a bit of fresh air, darling," Maude suggested. "Can we not have Sir Cor or Sir Stephan escort her outside of the palace?"
"No! I will not have her gallavanting around town when the Pestilence is running rampant-"
"You quarantined the kingdom, father," Elisina said.
"And if you are about to say something about thieves, she shall have one of the knights with her as protection, so there would be no need to fret about that.
Buroch rolled his eyes and swore, sinking down in his throne. "Fine, Maude! I do not care any longer! Summon Sir Cor and have him take her- Sir Stephan is too much of a bore for Elisina's company- and get her out of my sight before I accidentally sentence her to death!"
The queen called for Sir Cor, whom arrived nearly a second after he'd been summoned. The gullible young brunette- who was also known to be a bit of a gambler- dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "You called, Your Majesties?"
Maude gestured to Elisina. "I am putting you in charge of the princess for a few hours. Take her outside the castle gates and follow her around the city. Do whatever you like there, but keep an eye on her, and try to be back by sunset."
"Sunset?" Elisina protested. "But that is only-"
"Hold your tongue, daughter, or you shall get no time at all!" the king bellowed.
"Yes, father. Thank you, father." Elisina dipped into a quick curtsy, stifling a cry of outrage.
Sir Cor nodded and bowed low to the ground. "I swear upon my sword she shall not leave my sight, Your Majesties."
Buroch's cheek twitched as he made a move to dismiss the pair. "Hear this and remember it well, Sir Cor- all men who live by the sword will eventually die by it!"
This last shout echoed around the room for a good ten seconds as Cor and Elisina rose to their full heights and backed out of the throne room.
The very moment Sir Cor and Princess Elisina set foot outside the palace, Elisina was already cooking up a scheme to get Cor off her back so she could run off on her own. If this was going to be her last night of freedom, she was going to do more exciting things than sightsee, and for that, she needed to lose her temporary guardian. "Oh, Sir Cor," Elisina sighed, slipping her arm through his. "Thank you ever so much for accompanying me out on such a... trifling venture. Indeed, what a wasteful burden you must find this whole ordeal." She fluttered her eyelashes, the picture of innocence. "Why, I should feel quite selfish were we not to make a stop on your behalf, as well..."
"My behalf, highness?"
"Yes, Sir Cor. Is there, perhaps, anywhere you should like to visit?" Elisina had to fight back a smile as she said this, for she was certain she already knew what the knight would suggest.
She was not disappointed.
"Well... I had hoped to pay the Red Raven a visit this evening- if my princess pleases, of course." He dipped his head respectfully.
The Red Raven was a local tavern where peasants and nobility alike fettered their coin away on such pursuits as betting on the outcomes of eating contests, fighting tournaments, and drinking games. Elisina knew that Sir Cor was quite the gamble, so she wagered the knight had been there several times before that day. The Raven was an excellent bribe, indeed.
"She does please," Elisina said. "And she also consents to let her knight remain there until she returns for him."
Cor smiled, then pondered her response for a moment. "But His Majesty said I was not to let you leave my sight, highness."
"That may be true, but how can you be blamed for having been rendered unconscious just before I escaped?" She fluttered her eyelashes again. "We shall simply tell my parents that I hit you over the head and ran off, and when you awoke, you spent the entire night looking for me."
"You intend on staying out all night?"
"I do, yes, and I implore you to remember your station, lest you give me feasible cause to have you executed."
Sir Cor paled and dropped into a quick bow. "I had no right to question your whims, Princess Elisina. I offer you my sincerest apologies for my disrespect, and I also beg you for your forgiveness."
"May you cease to ever repeat such an offense," Elisina said. "Now, let us go our separate ways, and I shall come to the Red Raven to fetch you on the morrow."
Cor bowed again and obeyed his young mistress, never guessing that he had just single-handedly sealed the fate of the entire kingdom.
Princess Elisina wasted no time in getting as far away from the castle as she possibly could, and within the hour, she had somehow managed to wander into the outskirts of the royal city, just within the gated walls. She tried to stay just inside the marketplace, but having shop owner's yelling for her attention every five seconds was getting on her nerves.
After fifteen minutes inside the marketplace, Elisina let down her ebony hair and ran her fingers through it to muss it up so she would appear more common. Since her birth, she could only remember three times she had been outside of the castle, and then, she had only really been visible once of those three times. No one was likely to recognize her, but if they did, she supposed she could always just deny their accusations.
Elisina bought a hunk of bread and a wedge of cheese to eat, and sat down on the edge of a fountain to eat it as the sun began to go down. She smiled in spite of herself as she remembered that her father had wanted her home at sundown. What would he think when she didn't return?
It does not matter to me what he thinks anymore, the rebel princess thought to herself. I am on my own now, and I shall do whatever I please.
A gentle melody floated across the way and fell upon Elisina's ears, piquing her interest. Turning her head as she swallowed the last of her meal, the princess was amused to see an attractive young minstrel playing a flute as he made his way towards the fountain. She smiled at him and found herself unable to take her eyes off of him even as he approached her and said, "If you do not mind me askin', what is it that you have been starin' at these past few moments?"
Heat rose to Elisina's cheeks, and she had the grace to avert her eyes as she spoke. "Why, sir... I am afraid I am not entirely sure what his name is, otherwise I would surely tell you."
The minstrel laughed merrily, flashed a grin at her, and took the hand she offered her. "Flattery will get you everywhere, my lady, regardless of what others may say." He bowed low over her hand and kissed her knuckles. "His name is Thomas, and he is sorry to say he is naught but a wanderin' minstrel."
"I am... Princess Elisina," the princess said matter-of-fact;y. "Daughter of the great King Buroch."
"The king is your father? Oh, my. I feel a good bit more ashamed of my station knowing that." Thomas flushed and let go of her hand. "I am sure you prefer lords, knights, and princes to the likes of me."
Elisina smirked and looked directly at him. "Actually, handsome Thomas, I do not. I find the likes of you so much more-" she hesitated- "alluring."
She was not so sure she was still making this up.
He was indeed alluring.
"Princess Elisina," Thomas said in a low voice, sitting down beside her on the edge of the fountain. "I would be honored if you were to accompany me to a small gathering a friend of mine is having-"
She pressed a finger to his lips and said the words quickly, before she had time to change her mind. "Thomas, I should like to accompany you, though not to a small gathering." Elisina swallowed her fear and laid a hand against his arm. "I was thinking more along the lines of... an inn."
He stared at her in wonder, understanding flickering behind his eyes. His hand slipped up and closed around hers. "My princess..."
"For tonight," Elisina said. "I am indeed yours."
The next morning, Elisina walked into the Red Raven Tavern wearing the same dress she had worn the day before, her cheeks rosy and her hair disheveled. She smiled at Sir Cor as she approached, even though he was unconscious on the table and obviously could not see her.
She nudge his shoulder with her hand and leaned over him. "Sir Cor, I have returned. We may now go to the castle together."
Sir Cor groaned and lifted his head to look at her. His eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, and he squinted at her as if trying to figure out who she was, then, he reluctantly rose to his feet and bowed weakly. "It shall be ash you have wished, Your Highnessh."
He was drunk, then. It did not appear as if he had won any money, either. "Come, Sir Cor. Do you recall what our story is to be when we must testify before the king?"
"Vaguely," Cor replied. "You should probably refresh me."
"I knocked you over the head in order to escape," Elisina replied. "You awoke later and spent the remainder of the night searching for me." Then, she added, "You discovered me at the Duke of Moraine's residence this morning."
"Of courshe," Cor said. "Lead the way."
Princess Elisina and Sir Cor waltzed into Castle Buroch's throne room no less than fifteen minutes later. Inebriated as he was, Sir Cor wasted absolutely no time in prostrating himself before Their Majesties, slurring a stream of apologies. Elisina dropped into a deep curtsy, but made no move to speak.
King Buroch's face was redder than anyone inside the kingdom had even seen it before- Maude, Cor, and Elisina included. Queen Maude was gripping her husband's upper arm so tightly it was a wonder it had not yet broken; she must have been trying to keep the quick-tempered king in his seat.
"Sir Cor," Queen Maude said before her husband had time to attack, "do you have any excuse for the princess'... tardiness?"
Elisina cast a glance at Sir Cor, who was facedown on the cold tile. "The fault is entirely mine, mother."
"She uh, hit me over the head and knocked me unconscious, Your Majesty," Sir Cor added, exactly as planned. "I awoke late last night and spent several long hours looking for her."
Queen Maude nodded slowly. "I see."
"I wanted a taste of freedom before I am sentenced to a life with old Sir Amaron."
Buroch's face- if possible- reddened even further. "You ungrateful wench! Your mother and I have made a fine choice in Sir Amaron, and you have the audacity to refuse our decision?" He uttered a storm of obscenities and banged his fists against his throne's armrests. "You should feel honored that Sir Amaron would agree to marry a woman as rebellious as you are! No other man in Antiquity would even think to marry someone will as strong a will as yours-"
"I have already found such a man," Elisina insisted. "and I have already consented to be his bride!"
Buroch swore vehemently and broke free of his wife's hold, hopping down from his throne and stomping over to his daughter. With every word, his voice shook with fury and he jabbed his index finger at Elisina's forehead. "You are completely out of line! Peasants that behave as you do are locked in the dungeon for their behavior, so I find it only fitting that you be locked inside your chambers until the day of your wedding-"
"My wedding to Thomas?"
Buroch's eye twitched. "Your wedding to Sir Amaron!"
Elisina regarded her father with the cold denial that often accompanies discipline. "As you wish, my king."
A guard came and led her away, though Elisina did not seem the least bit rebellious.
Perhaps she had seen the error of her ways, after all.
The wedding took place on a sunny, cloudless day, and it seemed as though all of Antiquity had turned out for the event. King Buroch and Queen Maude did not seem the least bit anxious- everything was going to go according to plan, after all, and when it came right down to it, this was simply a wedding.
No one sensed the impending doom looming over the castle like a hungry giant.
Elisina allowed her maidservant to lead her from her bedchamber into the main hall, where she was to meet up with her father before being swept down the aisle to her husband-to-be. Her jaw was clenched; her face, blank.
Inside, her soul simmered indignantly.
"Beggin' your pardon, miss, but I was told to relieve you of your duties."
Elisina stifled a gasp as Thomas turned the corner, dismissing Elisina's maidservant. He wasted no time in pinning the princess up against the wall, sliding his hands to her waist.
"Thomas... what are you-"
"You've given me everythin' I wanted, Elisina, save for one thing," Thomas whispered. "A kiss."
Elisina smiled softly, relaxing in his arms. "Yes, I do believe we may have skipped that part before..."
The minstrel closed the gap between them, insistently pressing his mouth against hers. Elisina closed her eyes and let herself go, tangling her fingers in Thomas' hair.
Both jumped at the sound of the king's voice. Thomas made a move to break away from Elisina, but the princess saw the opportunity for what it was and stared at her father while pulling Thomas into another kiss.
Buroch swore creatively and tore the pair apart, throwing Thomas against the opposite wall. The minstrel's back collided with the unforgiving stone, and he slumped to the floor, groaning.
Elisina opened her mouth to protest and was silenced by a slap from her father.
"I once imagined you a lady," the king said loudly, taking hold of his daughter's arm, "but now it would seem you are naught but a common whore."
Tears sprang to Elisina's eyes as her father paraded her into the Banquet Hall, where the wedding ceremony was supposed to take place. Buroch's voice was so loud that everyone present had undoubtedly heard his exclamation. It was only a matter of time before word spread through the kingdom, and then, she would most certainly be referred to as "Princess Whore."
The processional music began to play as King Buroch walked Elisina down the aisle. She glanced up momentarily to see Sir Amaron standing in front of the bishop, a serious look on his serious face.
There was no love, no passion, and no joy in his eyes.
This was merely a business transaction.
It was at this moment that Elisina began to cry.
She cried, she wept, she sobbed. Her shoulders shook, her chest ached, her heart broke... but no one seemed to notice.
The bishop carried on with the vows as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
When Amaron took her hands in his, she literally wanted to die.
"You may now kiss the bride."
A low, guttural moan issued from Elisina's throat as the knight leaned in to kiss her. All she could think about was Thomas, and that after kissing Thomas, she never wanted to have to kiss anyone else besides him. The princess drew away from Amaron and raised her leg, kneeing her new husband in the groin.
A shocked murmur rippled through the crowd.
King Buroch stood to his feet and banged his scepter against the floor until everyone fell silent. "Elisina," he hissed cruelly, "you will allow your husband to kiss you- or, if you will not, your dear minstrel friend will die!"
Elisina cried out, clutched at her dress, and felt her heart shatter.
"Kiss me," she said weakly, "but know that my heart shall never belong to you."
Sir Amaron looked at her strangely but kissed her anyway, and their union was sealed at last.
The music started up again, but was suddenly overwhelmed by a cacophony of laughter.
"What is the meaning of this!" Buroch roared, rising to his feet once more and looking wildly about the room. "Who is causing such an outrageous commotion?!"
"It is I," the voice calmly replied, stepping out from the shadows at the back of the room and casting a rakish grin at the princess.
Elisina's face paled. "T-T-Thomas?"
"Yes, love," Thomas said, making his way down the aisle towards the unhappy newlyweds. "I apologize for my outburst, everyone, but how I do love a good jest!"
A puzzled, uneasy silence filled the hall, punctuated only by Thomas' laughter.
Buroch blinked, eyebrows drawing down in concern. "What... 'jest' are you referring to, minstrel?"
"Why, the grand joke Elisina and I have just played out on everyone, Your Majesty." Thomas strode over to the princess and placed his arm around her shoulders, ignoring the hateful look he received from Amaron.
Elisina stared at him with a mixture of warmth and bewilderment in her eyes.
"Wait," she said slowly, "what joke?"
Thomas began to laugh again, holding onto his sides as if to keep himself from coming apart at the seems. His hysterical cackles echoed eerily in the hall, sending shivers down the guests' and monarchs' spines. After several unsettling moments of this had passed, Thomas wiped at his eyes and took a deep breath.
"To make a long story short," the minstrel said, "everyone in the kingdom is going to die- and it's all thanks to me, and to your dear, darling Elisina!" He clapped the princess on the back hard enough to wind her, laughing yet again. "It was foolish for you to quarantine your kingdom so quickly, King Buroch, and it was foolish for Queen Compassion be so trusting of a stranger!"
"You have no right to speak to my wife and I in such informal-"
"I am the messenger from Iniquity that delivered you the news of the Pestilence outbreak," Thomas said finally. "Your wife permitted me to stay, and your quarantine prevented me from leaving!"
Elisina swore, not caring that ladies simply did not use such language.
"For the love of heaven," Queen Maude said faintly, "the messenger has brought the Pestilence into the kingdom!"
"Even better," Thomas said. "I gave it to your daughter."
A cry of outrage issued from the king's lips and was taken up directly by everyone else in the hall. People fell out of their seats, screaming, and it seemed as though all the women present had now fainted.
Elisina's broken heart plummeted into her stomach. "What do you..."
"The Pestilence is transferred by physical contact, my dear."
Elisina wept bitterly.
Thomas swayed and crumpled to the ground, his body shuddering convulsively as his eyes rolled back into his head and blood poured from his ears.
Elisina watched him die and managed to collect herself.
She knew that she was soon going to die, too...
But so was Sir Amaron.
"I kissed you," she said to him. "I kissed you."
Amaron began to tremble, placing a hand against his lips as if to erase the touch of his wife's diseased mouth.
At least their marriage would be a short one.
The princess raised her head and looked about the room, knowing full well that these were her last minutes on earth. Everyone watched her expectantly, as if she were going to drop dead any minute. She smiled.
Sir Cor's eyes widened as Elisina grabbed him and carefully pressed her lips against his. The minute she pulled away, he realized what had occurred, and dissolved into bitter, anguished sobs.
Next, her lips fell upon a random wedding guest, a man she had never seen in her life.
Someone shouted that Sir Amaron had fallen down dead.
Then, the same person called out Sir Cor's name.
The wedding guest fell just as Elisina reached her father, who looked at her as if she were the devil himself. "Elisina," he shouted, "please-"
She managed to forget his face long enough to stomach kissing him, and then calmly crossed over to her mother.
People began sprinting from the room, trying to get away before it was too late.
"I'm sorry," Elisina said as she kissed her mother, "but you never even tried to stop father from shouting at me."
The king hit the floor.
Maude cried and met her fate with her mouth opened in a tortured sob.
Elisina looked down at her parents, then over at Thomas. She laid down beside him, wrapped his arms around her body, and leaned over to kiss his one last time.
She died there in his arms, just as she had foolishly wanted to.