"You don't ever flirt with her," Maria said, notching another arrow to her bow.
Firion shot her a puzzled look in the middle of what should have been a decapitating blow against the sea snake. "What—" he began in the instant before pain burst in his forearm. Careless. He cursed himself silently as his sword skidded across the deck. Just because fending off sea snakes had become routine didn't mean that he could trust his blade to be quicker than their fangs.
Leila's sword caught the sea snake under its chin as it drew back for a second strike. "Ye lackwit lubber! Got its fangs in ye, didn't it?"
"Barely." The fire throbbing in Firion's veins seemed to double the weight of his arm. When he tried to balance against it, he toppled over sideways.
Maria shouted his name, but she was almost drowned out by yelling elsewhere on deck. His angle of collapse afforded him a view of her boots as she took off running after Leila, yelling, "Guy, can you take care of him?"
Glass bottles clinked somewhere behind Firion. Efforts to turn his head met with rapidly stiffening muscles. That was the worst thing about sea monsters, how their venom always seemed to be in a terrible hurry.
Guy's enormous hands hauled him halfway upright. By the time Firion realized that there was a bottle at his lips, most of the contents had dribbled out the sides of his mouth. He ended up with his head propped awkwardly against Guy's shoulder as Guy poured a second antidote slowly down his throat, pausing occasionally to help massage its passage.
As his muscles relaxed, Firion shivered and coughed. Guy thumped him on the back until he breathed easily, then helped him settle in with his back against the gunwhale. While it was possible to walk around immediately after drinking an entire bottle of an antidote, it wasn't advisable. Falling face-first into a patch of swamp water had been a powerful lesson in letting Minwu decide how to cure ailments.
Firion spat the lingering droplets of the potion from his lips and said, "Someone else should learn Esuna. These things taste terrible."
With a shrug, Guy directed a faint shimmer of healing magic into the puncture wounds on Firion's forearm. "Not bad. Tangy."
"We have very different ideas of 'tangy.'"
The commotion at the other end of the ship seemed to be at an end. Leila returned to Firion's line of vision with a fresh splash of blood on her cheek and peered down at him with her arms crossed. Her angle ruined any opportunities afforded by her skirt. "Ev'ry time I've near convinced meself ye've half a wit between ye, I find the same lot of fools I lured into a trap. Ye down for long?"
No trace remained of the poison, but it would be a while before the side effects of the antidote faded. Firion winked up at her and replied, "I'm certain I'd recover faster with my head in your lap."
Leila barked a laugh. "I've no use for any head 'twixt me legs what can't keep its focus."
"You needn't worry. With proper motivation, I can be highly focused."
"Then ye'd do well to reconsider yer priorities." She poked him in the rib with the toe of her boot, not particularly gently, before sashaying off.
Firion frowned after her. "I can never tell whether she's flirting back."
Guy gave him a stern look. "Not point. Firion not careful."
"Maria started it." Already Firion's brain was beginning to feel like wet wool, so he let himself slump lower on the deck to wait for the analgesic to wear off. With any luck, it would be before another monster slithered aboard.
"Don't blame me," said Maria's voice. It took a moment for Firion's eyes to roll in the correct direction as she knelt beside him. "I was just making an observation."
"It couldn't have waited?"
"I didn't expect you to ignore the sea monster over it, dummy." She flicked his nose as if they were both still children.
"Hmph." He tried to return the gesture but found his motor skills still too floppy. "I still don't know what you were talking about. Which 'her'?"
Maria laughed. "Really? Is there a single woman you haven't hit on other than Hilda? You told that poor woman at Deist you'd never met a lovelier widow."
"I was trying to cheer her up. And I'm not foolish enough to hit on our own kingdom's princess. Isn't she the queen now, actually? Either way, it would be disrespectful."
The look Maria directed at him suggested that his logic was somewhat less obvious outside a head steeped in anodynes. "You can't be serious. Hilda treats us almost like friends, haven't you noticed? Don't you think she looks happier when we're less formal around her?"
Firion found the prospect of making Hilda happy a powerful motivator; usually she looked some combination of imposing, weary, and grimly determined, and the darkness under her eyes shadowed him whenever he left the throne room. He shrugged, shoulders not quite in sync. "I think there are better ways to make her happy respectfully."
"You're being very strange about this," Maria said.
"I'm not being strange about it," he insisted. "She's the one leading the entire rebellion." Something happened in your brain, probably, when you woke up from what you expected to be death and a beautiful woman gave you an approving smile before ordering you around. It hadn't even occurred to Firion to do anything but kneel.
"Oh, Firion." Annoyingly, the teasing in Maria's tone dipped toward pity, and she patted his shoulder. "You know it couldn't possibly work."
"I have no idea what you mean. You're the one being strange."
In the corner of his eye, he saw Guy heft his ax and bellow, "Teeth fish!"
With Maria's help, Firion got to his feet. His legs were still uncertain but willing to figure things out as they went along.
"I promise not to distract you this time," she said, handing him his sword. "We'll just drop the subject for now, all right?"
"There's nothing to drop," Firion muttered.
All Firion had to do was remark on Hilda's beauty, which was objective fact. Given that he had, improbably, become an important and trusted part of the rebel army, the worst she might do to punish his insolence was scold him and regard him with cold eyes. Which, he reminded himself, was not worse than exile or summary execution. He shouldn't have had to remind himself.
All he had to do was say something that skirted the edge of courtesy and couple it with an expression that nudged it just over the line. Hilda would be unimpressed, and afterward Maria would apologize and admit that she wasn't as perceptive as she liked to think she was. As soon as she stopped bringing the matter up, Firion was bound to stop turning it endlessly over in his mind.
The first snag in the plan came when one of the guards felt the need to mention that the princess had been acting strangely since the king's passing. "See, now's not the time," Firion whispered to Maria on the way to her room. "She's grieving. It wouldn't be right."
"'I've never met a lovelier widow,'" Maria mimicked. "See, you are being strange about Hilda. If you're a bit silly, you'll probably cheer her up."
Firion couldn't imagine Hilda being particularly enamored of silliness. "Let's just report on the situation in Deist for now."
"Because it's certainly not strange for you to be all business."
With a dismissive huff, Firion opened the door.
It was clear at once that Hilda wasn't quite herself; she listened to their report with vacant, roaming eyes that seemed alert only when they settled on Firion. He shifted his weight self-consciously and couldn't stop his speech from accelerating. If asked, he couldn't have said whether he was more worried about losing her attention or holding it.
Once the story was out, she replied only, "I see."
There were supposed to be new orders, some mission that required full and immediate attention. Firion's sense of urgency flapped like a cut sail.
Maria elbowed him a few times before saying, "Sorry to be the bearers of more bad news. If there's anything else we can do to help, we'll be in the town."
"In the tavern," Leila specified.
Hilda smiled—perhaps she could be in a mood for a little silliness, after all—and nodded again. Her gaze swept to Firion and lingered longer than was comfortable.
He found himself looking away. "Well," he said to the others, "let's go."
No sooner had he touched the handle of the door than Hilda spoke again: "Firion." When he turned, her eyes were warmer than usual, with a gleam sharp as a hook. "There is something I would like to discuss with you."
His gaze wanted to be anywhere but locked with hers, so it returned swiftly to the others. Guy nodded, Leila shrugged, and Maria leaned in to whisper, "Mind yourself. Remember it won't count if I'm not there to see it." She stuck her tongue out at him when he frowned, then added at a normal volume, "We'll be waiting outside."
As the door closed behind them, Firion's pulse fluttered anxiously. He'd had several dreams that started out this way, and they always left him feeling oddly hollow and guilty when he woke. It was essential not to let them seep into any expectation of reality.
So it took him several seconds to process that Hilda really was approaching her bed, perching daintily on the edge of it, and tossing her hair over her shoulder. She extended a hand glittering with rings and crooked a finger upward. "Come to me."
Firion pinched his cheek so hard that he expected to bruise. "Uhhh," he said smoothly.
"Why are you just standing there?" She crossed her legs, dragging the slit of her dress almost obscenely high on her bare thigh. "I don't enjoy being teased."
Grief did strange things to people. Firion could remember layering blankets over his parents' bodies to keep them warm until Guy dragged him away. Maria had laughed hysterically when they were ambushed in the woods. He was in no position to judge someone else's coping process.
His legs weren't moving, so his mouth had to: "I'm flattered—I'm more than flattered—I'm honored, Your, ah, Highness. Your Majesty? I'm not sure which it's supposed to be right now."
She laughed breathily. "I'm partial to 'Mistress.'"
This was usually the part of the dream where Hilda started speaking backward or turning into a skeleton. That she did neither put Firion and his subconscious in equally unfamiliar territory.
"But we shouldn't," he blurted. "I mean, I shouldn't. I certainly shouldn't tell you what you shouldn't do. But you're in mourning, and I... I shouldn't."
She cocked her head at him, at an angle more of challenge than bemusement. "You think you know my own desires better than I? Do you mean to deny me, Firion?"
As he searched for any feeling solid enough to put into words, Hilda watched him with a wry smile. She waited until he had begun shifting his weight from foot to foot to say, "I tell you that you should. What other authority could you require?"
"I wouldn't be satisfied." He might as well as slapped her, for how offended she looked. As badly as he wanted to explain what he meant, he was still trying to make sense of it himself, especially when a significant part of him seemed convinced that it would be quite satisfied and didn't know what was wrong with the rest of him. After a tortuous pause, he added, "Not like this, I mean," and immediately shut his mouth again, feeling miserably ungrateful.
Her expression softened. "Then come to me, and tell me how you might be satisfied."
Fully aware of what a bad idea that was, Firion nonetheless found himself in motion. "It isn't that I don't want to," he said as he sat down as far from her as the mattress allowed. She repositioned herself nearer him. "If it's what you want, then I want to... want."
Hilda leaned in much closer than he'd expected, and something in his brain skipped in proximity to her. Her hand rested lightly on his arm as she said, "Poor boy, you've confused yourself over something so simple."
No simpler than a tapestry, Firion thought, and even at a distance some of the threads were tangled and wrong. He had just drawn a breath to say so when she took it away by brushing her cheek past his. Her perfume was unlike any he'd ever smelled, a blend of crushed wildflowers and old wood with notes of something sharp beneath. He scarcely managed to stop himself from burying his face in the crook of her neck.
Her lips tickled his ear as she said, "Wouldn't it satisfy you to satisfy me?"
"Yes," came out without consulting any higher thought processes. With effort, Firion managed to lean away. "It's just, honestly, I think I—ahh, that's—please let me finish."
With a quiet hum, Hilda stilled the hand that had been exploring his torso.
"Thank you, Your, er, Mistress. I think it's because I might... be..." His tongue struggled against him as if it would rather be doing anything than talking. He flicked it over his dry lips to moisten them, and Hilda mirrored him at a quarter speed, leaving her mouth parted after. Firion addressed the air over her shoulder: "Maybe we could take this slowly?"
She chuckled and leaned in closer, clouding his senses. Her breath stirred the fine hairs above his lip. "I was hoping to prolong this."
When Firion backed away again, she pressed forward, keeping the gap between them narrow. A little farther, and she would have been on top of him. "But more than that," he said, over the objections of most of his body parts. Heat made him bolder, or at least less capable of containing himself. "I overstep—forgive me, I know I overstep—but if you, despite everything, if you and I... if there were any possibility... Forgive me, I'm being foolish."
Hilda regarded him for a moment, resting her hand on his nape. Her eyebrow quirked as her lips curved slowly upward. "Can the queen not do as she pleases? You're mine for the rest of your life."
The most jarringly wrong of the threads was ripped loose. Firion shivered. "I'd like that," he said, half-dazed, then stiffened when she pressed her lips against his. Only briefly, but the contact lingered like an electric shock. The gentle stroke of her fingers along his cheek made his skin bloom with fever.
Uncertain what to do with his own hands, Firion wrapped them around her back. With a hum of approval, she kissed him again. He still shouldn't have been doing any of this, he knew, but only in a distant, unimportant way. Much of the world felt distant and unimportant when he could feel Hilda's warmth through the thinness of her cloak.
She slid her hand slowly down his throat, then beneath the fabric of his shirt, laughing at his startle. "Your heart races. Am I so frightening?"
"This is just very sudden," he said. "I've never been in a serious—"
His belt buckle fell open under her other hand, and Firion's alarm lifted him a hands-breadth from the mattress.
Hilda drew back far enough to smile slyly at him. "Am I to be your first?"
"I didn't mean that! I said 'serious,' not anything about... less serious. There's plenty of wiggle room. That's what I was implying. Wiggling." The part of Firion that realized he was babbling finally managed to subdue the part letting his mouth flap.
With a soft laugh, Hilda tapped a finger to his lips. He tasted the metal of a ring. "Do as I say, and I'll be gentle."
Another shiver pulsed through him, and he let the rush of blood in his ears drown out any misgivings.
With his eager cooperation, she disrobed him. Yet when he reached for the clasp of her dress, she caught his wrist and pressed his hand down into the mattress. Even her helmet remained in place. "Lie on your back," she told him.
"Aren't you going to," was as far as Firion got before she unfastened her cape from her shoulders. He had scarcely reclined before she folded the fabric and draped it thickly over his eyes. He let out a confused whine as he felt her settle on the foot of the bed, brushing his legs with her dress.
"I enjoy the sight of you this way," she said, tucking the ends of the makeshift blindfold behind his head. "No peeking."
A moment later her weight straddled his hips, and her legs wrapped around him with impressive force; he couldn't have wriggled free if he wanted to. His recently developed combat instincts blended a small measure of fear into the thrill, though it faded quickly when Hilda's hands skimmed over his chest. The hand that had automatically tightened around the absent hilt of his sword relaxed.
When he reached up blindly to touch her, Hilda pinned his wrists down on either side of his head. "Be still," she said. "Let me have my way with you."
Firion's breath hitched. "Please do."
The pressure of her legs shifted in ways that didn't quite make sense, as if she were less straddling him than wrapping herself around him. Her calves pressed his together. He fought back the impulse the shake off the blindfold and see exactly how her flexibility looked, and he found his obedience rewarded by the soft heat of her mouth over his.
Hilda's tongue traced a line along his jaw back to his ear. The impossibility of her thighs tightened around his waist. "You're all mine, Firion," she whispered, almost giddily. "Tell me that you're mine."
"Yours for the taking."
Her legs contracted again, even tighter this time, squeezing the air out of him. His breaths came dizzyingly shallow. As he struggled to make more than wheezing noises, she purred into his ear, "Relax, my pretty morsel. I intend to take my time with you."
Firion frantically tossed his head until the cape fell from his eyes. Above him, Hilda's dress fused to her flesh, and over it washed a shade of scarlet too brilliant to be a natural flush. Her helmet melted into the reddening mane of her hair, leaving behind only the horns. Claws dug into his wrists. The breath he had lost could not catch again.
"You peeked," the thing that was not Hilda growled. The vibrations carried through it into Firion, from his constricted chest down to his bound legs. He glimpsed the end of a great serpent's tail, and the world suddenly made a mad, terrifying sort of sense. He could distinguish the coils now, pressing into his skin.
The others were just outside the door. If he cried out or managed to break something loudly enough, they'd surely come rushing in. His muscles burned with strain, but the only part of him free to move was his head.
The monster laughed in another wave of vibrations, arching its upper body to bring its face near his. A thin, forked tongue darted out of its mouth, then against his lips. "Fear flavors you. Such a sweet reward for me."
Firion instinctively jerked his face away. The monster laughed again and licked his throat.
Against his rising panic, he relaxed his neck and let his lips fall open. As hoped, the monster's interest shifted. When the cool ribbon of its tongue flicked inside his mouth, he bit down.
The crushing pressure slackened. Firion gulped air and struggled to push it back with more force than a whisper: "What did you do with her?"
His next breath didn't make it past his throat; the thing that was not Hilda squeezed so hard that he thought he felt a rib crack. It hissed into his ear. "Naughty boy, did I bid you speak?"
He hadn't been loud enough, he realized with icy certainty, and he wouldn't get another chance. The monster kept its coils tight as it lowered its head to his shoulder. Pain blossomed in an incomprehensible smear, smothered under the burning of his lungs and the graying of his vision.
As the last of everything burned out of him, even the final frantic throes of fear, he thought he heard Leila's voice.
To his surprise, Firion woke.
His entire body seemed confused by this development. His ears let noise slosh into them without making sense of any of it, his eyelids clung together like frightened children, and pain presented itself as a bizarre abstraction. Gradually he convinced himself that he wasn't dead.
He was on top of something soft, and a serpentine monster no longer seemed to be on top of him. Nothing seemed to be actively trying to crush or devour him. These were all good things. The noise contained familiar voices, which was also good, but they seemed loudly upset, and there was definite hissing—
Firion's brain rallied to connect the pieces. He forced his eyes open just in time to roll shakily off the bed and watch the floor rush up at him.
As he pushed himself up, he managed to focus on Maria, Guy, and Leila, who had cornered what was bound to ruin the good parts of Firion's dreams for the rest of his life. He glanced around briefly for his trousers before deeming them less important than the fact that Maria had just let out a madwoman's shriek and begun beating Guy over the head with her bow.
There was absolutely no reason for Firion to be the only one any good at Esuna and Basuna. None at all.
Unexpectedly sharp pain in his left shoulder made him miss twice before his magic washed the curse out of Maria's head. Her head whipped around to regard him with surprise, then worry, but nothing came out of her mouth before the monster caught Guy with its claws and sent him slumping to the floor like a massive ragdoll.
"Oy, mind the pointy bits!" Leila yelled.
Firion was bleeding, he noticed dimly. He tried not to focus on the ragged bite as he sealed it up with a healing spell, but he could feel his muscles knitting themselves clumsily back together. Time enough to worry about that later; for now he had to focus on healing. Opening Guy's eyes meant not remembering what he had thought were Hilda's, wide and dark and deep.
He could see his sword across the room where he'd left it, but every time he moved to retrieve it, someone fell mad or unconscious. The monster moved like water, weaving between blades and striking to interrupt Maria and Leila when they attempted to call down lightning. Firion cast about for something nearby to distract it and came up with a vase of flowers, which he hurled at its head. His left arm twinged with the effort.
The monster's evasive twist brought it up against Leila's sword. In its instant of agonized surprise, Maria blasted blinding white electricity from her hands. Guy's ax caught it while it was stunned. Strange, Firion thought, how momentum built in a blink; the sleeping poison in the monster's claws caught Maria once, and it briefly muddled Leila's mind, but the end was inevitable from the moment it as good as split itself open on Leila's blade. Firion winced when its cold blood spattered his leg.
When the beast lay dead, Guy looked him over and remarked, "Firion naked."
From his limited modesty options, Firion selected a decorative pillow. "Yes, thank you, I noticed."
Maria didn't look directly at him, for any of several good reasons Firion could immediately call to mind. "Are you all right?" she asked. "Never mind, that's a terrible question right now. I think I saw your trousers over there." She waved in the general direction of the bed.
Leila didn't seem the least bit bothered by his state of undress. Firion only had his trousers halfway on when she decided to open a conversation with, "Hell of a scar she gave ye."
"It might not scar," he said, and was surprised by how defensive he sounded. Lacing himself up gave him something to focus on. "Why did you decide to break in?"
"Ye were too quiet for too long. And they didn't sit right with me, those eyes of hers."
Firion's shoulder throbbed. "Well, you certainly took your sweet time."
"Ha! We'll make a pirate of ye yet, with so sweet a temperament." She thumped Firion on the back, then thumped him twice, with decreasing gentleness, on the head.
"Ow. Ow. What are you doing?"
"Hopin' to work out what it is ye keep up here, since ye've not a speck of wit."
"Go with Gordon."
Hilda frowned. "It would be more logical for us all to escape together. If there's but one path out of this prison, surely there's no advantage to our reaching it apart."
Firion took a slow, deep breath. "I just think it would be better," he said, keeping his tone carefully neutral, "if we went separately."
As difficult as it was to read Hilda's face, it was usually apparent when something was there to be read. She regarded Firion in silence for several seconds, inscrutably. "You've risked so much for me, even when my own failures caused you suffering. I wish I could offer you some reward for all you've done, but I fear all my kingdom and I can offer are further burdens."
"That's not..." Firion bit his lip as he tried to decide what, exactly, it was. "Let Prince Gordon protect you," he said at length, hoping his emphasis didn't sound bitter. "Please. He's better with his sword than you might expect."
All he understood of Hilda's gaze was its intensity. He should have recognized at once that the Lamia Queen was an impostor; the real Hilda was never half so clearly expressive. "Is he as skilled as you?" she asked at last.
Firion aimed for a smile and settled for a lopsided mouth. "Of course not, but he's not nearly as experienced."
When she and Gordon were out of earshot, Maria set her hand on Firion's shoulder and said, "I'll count that."