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Christianity Oasis Ministry has provided you with this Christian Spiritual Maturity lesson on Christian Spiritual Maturity verses. This Christian Spiritual Maturity book on Christian Spiritual Maturity meaning looks at Christian Spiritual Maturity message and asks what does Christian Spiritual Maturity mean, who is involved in Christian Spiritual Maturity, what is the Christian Spiritual Maturity purpose, who needs Christian Spiritual Maturity help, how can Christian Spiritual Maturity be obtained, why Christian Spiritual Maturity is important, what is the Christian Spiritual Maturity message and how the Christian Spiritual Maturity message affects your Christian walk. Come and let us seek within the Bible and find the truth of Christian Spiritual Maturity verses with Christian Spiritual Maturity message together in this Christian Spiritual Maturity Bible study, shall we?


 

 

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EMILIA

By Meredith Burton

 

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

      This story is a prequel to the novella, “The Battle for Crimlia.” References are made to Queen Salak, whose former name was Lucinda.  She was a magnificent Eaglia Princess in service to “The Imperial Lord” until pride poisoned her. Eaglia’s are message bearers to The Imperial Lord.  They have the ability to shapeshift into any form they choose.  Salak deceived the first humans by encouraging them to inhale the perfume from the Rose of Revelation in the center of Peace Glen, an act forbidden by The Imperial Lord.

      I also make reference to “The Union Ceremony.” This ceremony was established by Queen Salak when she began ruling the Land of Crimlia, the place where Adamant and Evelina were sent after their disobedience.  Salak forced all other neighboring lands to comply with this ceremony, a brutal act in which all girls and boys of teenage years are robbed of their innocence in order to corrupt the promise made by the Imperial Lord.  His promise was that a Deliverer would arise from woman’s seed who would vanquish Salak: “Baker will prepare Freedom’s Bread in His purifying oven”.

      “The Mark of Allegiance” is also briefly alluded too.  When infants are born in Crimlia and its neighboring countries, they are branded with a hot iron.  On their left arms, a picture of a scarlet serpent attacking a newborn lamb is always seared into the flesh.  Queen Salak takes sadistic pleasure in watching this ceremony, for although people have the choice to reject the Mark when they grow older, it always stays with them as a reminder of their unrighteous tendencies.

      These facts will assist you in understanding the allusions in this story.  You might want to read “The Battle for Crimlia” as well.

      I recommend that you read the Book of Esther in order to experience the majesty of The True Storyteller.  My stories are only paltry efforts to point you towards God’s Holy Word.  If you have questions, criticisms, or comments, you can feel free to contact me at mlb3v@mtsu.edu God bless you.

 

EMILIA

By Meredith Burton

 

      “Are you certain of the facts?” The voice was smooth as silk and rich as melting chocolate.

      “Yes, my Queen.  King Cedric refuses to comply with your Union Ceremony proclamation.”

      The man and woman stood in a lavish bedchamber in Imrel palace.  The chamber walls were hung with tapestries of crimson and gold.  The woman wore a pink gown, and her strawberry blond hair was pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck.  Her face was stony and empty of emotion.  The man fidgeted nervously as he surveyed his queen.

“We’ll see.” Ice was in her voice now.  “Collen, send Hamish to me.”

      “Yes, my Queen.”

      The young man withdrew.

      In a few moments, a tall, stocky man dressed in a lavish purple robe swept into the room.  “You sent for me, Your Majesty?”

      The queen smiled at the newcomer.  “Yes, Hamish.  I need your help.” 

      “Emilia? Bring me the pistachio nuts, please.”

      In the log hut, a slender girl rose from the wooden bench on which she’d been sitting.  Her hands were covered with powdered sugar, and on the table sat an assortment of items: almonds, sugar, and vanilla.  “Yes, Cousin Morel.” She called.

      Going to a shelf, she took a small bag from its place.  Making sure that her cloth head covering shielded her face from the sun, she shuffled outside.

      Cousin Morel was in his small workshop behind their home.  He was bent over a stone hearth from which arose the intoxicating aroma of pastry.  “Pastachio tarts?” Emilia asked hopefully as she entered the shop.

      Morel straightened up from his work.  He smiled knowingly at the girl who was more than a cousin to him.  “That’s right.  They’re for King Cedric’s banquet tonight.”

      Emilia nodded as she handed the bag to Morel.  “Another banquet? The festivals lasted six days already! That’s all he does!”

      Morel’s eyes twinkled.  “The Imperial Lord be praised for that! He could do worse, ya know.”

      Emilia shuddered.  A fleeting image of Hilda Withers entered her mind: the playmate from Sumril.  She’d seen Hilda at social gatherings all her life until she’d turned thirteen.  Then one day, Hilda had vanished.  Of course, Emilia knew where she’d gone.  She thanked the Imperial Lord that she lived in Priam and not Crimlia or Sumril.

      “You weren’t listening to me.  I asked if you’d go next door and borrow Marvin’s molds.  Queen Valerie wants the tarts in the shape of flowers.”

      “All right.” Feeling a surge of anticipation, Emilia turned to go.

      “By the way,” Morel called teasingly, “Don’t stay too long.  You’re not married until next week, remember.”

      “You’re impossible!” Emilia laughed.

      She bolted toward the neighboring hut.  From the back, she smelled bread baking.

      “Marvin?” she called.

      Footsteps came scurrying from the bakeshop.  “Emilia! You’ve come!” Marvin was short for his seventeen years.  He, like Emilia, was clothed in a simple homespun robe.  “The Imperial Lord bless you.”

      Emilia smiled.  “And you.” She said.

      Gently, Marvin held out his hand.  Emilia clasped it for a brief moment.  “Morel needs to borrow your baking molds.”

      “Sure.  Come on in.” Emilia followed Marvin into the small bakery.  Like the confectionery, the shop was cluttered with many implements of the trade.  “Mother has gone to market to buy some flour.”

      “I’ve talked to Victoria about my dress! I can hardly wait!” Emilia cried.

      “What about me?” Marvin grinned.  “I’ve waited three long years! Remember the brook last year?”

      “How could I forget?” Emilia laughed.  “You did it on purpose!”

      “It was the jam doughnuts! Morel knows I’m allergic to strawberries!”

      Emilia remembered the day with vivid clarity: the picnic of fish sandwiches, apple juice and jam doughnuts, Marvin getting on his knees to ask for her hand, and then his face growing red! Of course, she’d thought it was nerves!

      “Do you want me to ask you?” she’d said with a grin.

      Soon, it had dawned on her that Marvin had broken out in hives!

      Now, the couple laughed with glee.

      “Thank heaven that Nicole’s cottage wasn’t far from the brook!” Emilia managed to say between guffaws.  “She had the salve you needed.”

      “You didn’t help matters much.  It took you forever to tell her what—”

      “OPEN IN THE NAME OF KING CEDRIC!” Emilia and Marvin froze.  The voice was coming from the front of Marvin’s dwelling.  It was harsh and chilled Emilia to the bone.

      “Don’t worry.” Marvin whispered, “Stay here.”

      He rushed out of the bakery to the entrance of his dwelling.  “Yes, sir? What can I do for you? Do you need—”

      “Do you have any sisters? I have orders from King Cedric.  If you refuse to tell me—”

      “No, sir.  I have no—”

      “Do you think I’m deaf?” the voice snapped.  “I heard you and a girl talking.”

      “What do you want, sir?”

      “By order of King Cedric, any girl who has reached her Moon Phase time is to come with me to Imrel Palace.”

      “What?! That’s absurd! What is the meaning—”

      “KEEP SILENT! IF YOU WON’T COOPERATE, I’LL SIMPLY SEARCH THE PLACE!”

      Emilia was shuddering with terror as she listened to the conversation.  She thought for a moment, then she moved toward the bakery entrance.  She stepped out into the sunlit day.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Marvin dart a panic-stricken look her way.

      “You.” The man said.  “Come here to me.” Trembling, Emilia approached the man.  He was immensely tall and wore a vibrant purple robe.  He was thick-set, and his face wore an expression of frank admiration.  “How old are you, girl?” he barked.

      “F-Fifteen.” She stammered.

      The man’s eyes travelled from Emilia’s white face down to her chest.  Anger rose in her and she turned away from his scrutiny.  “Turn around!” he snarled, “and answer my questions.  Your Moon Phase?”

      “I-I—it’s none of your—” she began.

      With lightning swiftness, the man slapped her across the face.  “You’ll speak civilly to me, Defiant One, or I’ll make your life in the harem a living nightmare! I have the power to do that, you know.”

      “STOP!” Marvin cried in panic.  He stepped forward to stand between the man and Emilia.

      “What’s all this?” a deep voice rang out.

      Hope filled Emilia’s heart.  Morel! The confectioner hurried up to the group, his hands covered in powdered sugar.  “My lord Hamish, what is happening?”

      “Stay out of this, confectioner! This baker’s sister must come with me, as must all girls in this province.  King Cedric’s orders.”

      Morel’s face turned deathly pale.  “May I ask why?”

      “Because the king orders it! Now move aside!”

      “Since you’re here,” Morel said quickly, “You might as well take the pistachio tarts to the palace for the banquet.  Marvin, will you please take him to my shop to collect them? Queen Valerie requested them especially.”

      Hamish smirked.  “Queen Valerie as you call her no longer has a say in what occurs in Priam.  She’s been banished.”

      “Banished? Why?”

      “For unfaithfulness.  What else? Now, come, girl!”

      Nausea slammed into Emilia’s stomach as Hamish grabbed her arm.  Morel bestowed a piercing look on his cousin before going to Marvin’s side.  Tenderly, he grasped the hand of the stricken baker.

      As Emilia was led away, boy and man began praying to their Lord.  “The prophicies say that a Deliverer will come.” Morel said.  “Please send the Deliverer soon, and please protect my Emilia! Keep her safe!”

      Marvin mumbled the same words.  Then he watched as Morel ran toward the confectionery, tears flowing from his eyes. 

      Imrel palace was abuzz with talk and laughter.  In a large Hall, crowds of people sat at gigantic tables that groaned under the weight of many platters of food and goblets of wine.  At the head of the center table, a small man with bloodshot eyes was downing a cup of wine.  Beside him, Hamish sat eating a large slice of venison.  “Sire,” he said, “The girls are in your royal harem.  The contest will begin tomorrow.”

      “Yes, yes, Hamish! I leave all the preparations to you!” King Cedric’s voice was slurred and he spoke with impatience.  “Now, forget palace affairs! Drink! Enjoy yourself!”

      Lord Hamish smiled to himself.  Slowly, he rose and slipped from the banquet hall.

      Soon, the rustling of a silk dress announced the arrival of the person he was anticipating.  “Well done, my loyal servant.” The woman’s voice crooned.  “Excellent job.”

      “I only want to serve you, Great Queen Salak.” Hamish said.  “How else can I thank you for your promises? Already I am second in command to King Cedric himself!”

      Queen Salak smiled and gently drew Lord Hamish to her.  “You deserve to be worshipped! Come, I leave to go back to Plenty Palace tomorrow.” Hamish’s face fell, and she laughed tenderly.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll still be with you, although not physically for a short time.  Let us make the most of the physical time that is left to us.” 

      “All right, girls! Gather round me here.” Emilia, along with a huge crowd, moved to the center of a vast chamber.  The room was brightly colored in shades of scarlet and pink.  Pictures of lush landscapes, jewel-encrusted tables and chairs, and vases of flowers filled the place.  The scent of lavender made Emilia’s eyes water.

      Despite the beauty in the room, the girls were shaking.  Their faces bore looks of confusion, defiance, and fear.

      “Well, look sharp!” The voice snapped.  “Approach me, all of you!”

      Emilia surveyed the speaker.  He was a slight-built man whose high-pitched voice left little doubt as to who he was: one of King Cedric’s eunuchs.  His face was covered with sweat, and his eyes darted nervously around the mass of female faces.

      All the girls huddled closer together.  They did not move.

      “I’m not going to hurt you.” The man’s voice held a note of self-mockery.  “I couldn’t if I wanted to.  You’ll be here from now on, so we might as well get acquainted.”

      Forever? Emilia’s heart flooded with fear.  What was going on?

      Steeling herself, she slowly shuffled toward the man.  A look of relief passed over his face as she approached.  “Well, here’s a girl with some pluck!” He looked at her face.  “And quite lovely too, I might add.”

      Emilia fidgeted nervously, but she was determined to stand her ground.  “Why are we here, sir? What’s your name.”

      “You’re here because the king wishes it.  My name’s Hagoyam.  What’s yours?”

      “Emilia.  Why does the king want us?”

      Hagoyam snorted.  “Because he needs a new queen.  Valerie has been banished for, unfaithfulness.” The last word was said in a contemptible tone.  “You’ll all be presented to King Cedric one at a time.  The one who pleases him the most will become queen.”

      Pleases him? Emilia wondered.  What could that mean? She was afraid to ask.

      “Now, you’ll each be given food to build your strength.  Tonight you’ll take lavender baths.  Lessons in etiquette and decorum will begin tomorrow morning.  One of you will be chosen to go to the king tomorrow night.”

      Emboldened by Emilia’s daring, questions began to erupt from all the girls in a massive torrent.  “What about our families?”

      “My father’s sick! I must go home!”

      “What will happen to us if we don’t please him?”

      “When will we—”

      Hoygam looked sickened by his task. “If you don’t please the king, you’ll stay here in the harem until he summons you again.  Now, go into the adjoining room.  Your food is waiting there.”

      The girls, still clustered together in a group, began to file from the room.  Emilia started to join them, but Hagoyam held up a hand.  “You.  Emilia, is it? Stay here a moment.”

      Emilia shuddered, but she obeyed.

      When the last girl had gone, Hagoyam looked at her with admiration.  “You seem to be the only one here with courage.” He said.  “Who are your relations, Emilia?”

      “I live with my cousin, Morel the confectioner.”

      “Your parents are—”

      “They both died when I was seven.  The Senual Plague.” Emilia shuddered at the memory: her mother’s delirious fevered dreams, her father’s convulsions.  She, too, had been stricken with the disease but had survived.

      “My parents died as well.” Hagoyam said simply.  “Remove your head covering.”

      Emilia frowned.  “Why must I? I see no reason—”

      As an answer, Hagoyam lifted strands of brown bangs away from his forehead.  “Look at me, young one.”

      Emilia leant forward.  On the eunuchs forehead, a picture of a rectangular baker’s oven shone brightly.  The Imperial Lord’s Mark!

      Relief, pure sweet relief, surged into Emilia’s soul.  She whipped off her head covering and pointed to her own forehead.

      Hagoyam grinned at her.  “I knew that someone with your extraordinary courage must have a higher power abiding within you.  We, as all people in this land, are forced to wear The Mark of Allegiance,” (Here he pointed to his left arm), “but we Imperialites wait for a better day!”

      “When the Baker will come with Freedom’s Bread.” Emilia finished his sentence.

      Hagoyam smiled.  Then his face fell.  “Something is going on in this land.  Queen Salak is up to something treacherous.  I know it! Queen Valerie unfaithful? The thought’s absurd!”

      Emilia thought about the days she’d delivered confections to the palace.  She’d seen the queen often in the royal garden, and even exchanged pleasantries with her.  Valerie was always kind and talked openly with all the tradespeople.

      Now Emilia asked Hoygam: “What exactly happened?”

      “Well, it was the fifth night of the banquet.  Of course, the king was drunk!” Hoyagam’s voice held a note of bitterness.  “He ordered that Valerie come and dance before his nobles in her royal crown.” He paused significantly.

      Emilia’s throat was suddenly dry.  “You mean—”

      Hagoyam nodded.  “Of course, she refused.  She’s a decent woman.  Somehow, King Cedric got the impression she no longer loved him.  I was in his chamber that night.  He had unbelievable nightmares.” Hagoyam shuddered.  “The next morning, Cedric ordered that Valerie be sent away.”

      Emilia nodded with understanding.

      Hagoyam looked at her piercingly.  “I’m assigning the tower room to you.  You’ll be in there alone, but you’ll be with the other girls during the day.  I want you to eat the choicest foods.  And promise me you’ll not tell anyone about your heritage.”

      “But, I don’t want to be queen! I’m engaged to—”

      “Your exactly what this kingdom needs! Poison is invading our land.  King Cedric refused to allow the Union Ceremony to take place in his province.  Do you think that was just his idea?”

      Emilia thought for a moment.  “I take it you mean Queen Valerie—”

      “Yes, of course.  All the other lands enforce it.  Salak has gained such a hold over them they no longer think for themselves.  Cedric allowed the enforcement of the Mark of Allegiance because he knew people could choose to turn from its effect.  However, the Union Ceremony robs children of their innocence.  He and Valerie could not condone it.  Don’t you see? There’s still hope for him if someone brave and strong can stand against Salak and her servant, Lord Hamish.”

      Emilia remembered the man who had come to get her.  She shivered.  “I’m not brave.” She said.  “I want to go home.”

      Hagoyam nodded.  “You need some food and some time to think.  I’ll show you to your room.”

      The room was at the top of a spiral staircase.  It shone with the same beauty as the lower chamber.  On a table sat a lavish meal: chicken in an apricot sauce, vegetables broiled in white wine, bread and a dish of chocolate trifle.  In spite of herself, Emilia’s mouth watered.

      Hagoyam left her, and she sat down before the feast.  Suddenly, she heard a pitiful chirping from a corner.

      Turning, Emilia saw a gilded birdcage.  Inside, a goldfinch sat on his perch.  He sang mournfully, filling the little room with pure music of a piercing sadness.

      Emilia rose and paced around the tower room.  She approached the cage.  “I don’t know why I was brought here,” she said, “But I can at least help you.”

      Gently, she opened the cage door and held out her arm.  The bird chirped in surprise but would not come to her.  “I know what you need.”

      Going back to her tray, she broke her slice of bread into pieces and took them to the cage.  She allowed the bird to gently peck the crumbs away with his beak.

      The bird flew from his perch and alighted on her arm.

      Going over to the window, Emilia loosened the catch.  Honey yellow sunlight poured into the room.  She gently set the goldfinch on the sill.

      After a few seconds, the bird began to fan the air with his wings.  Then he took off into the brilliant light.  I wish I could do that, Emilia thought sadly.

      Sighing, she went back to the tray and began to eat. 

      In the bedchamber of Queen Salak, an enraged lioness paced to and fro.  The queen’s face was red with anger.  She stared into a jeweled mirror that stood on a cherrywood frame: her Mirror of Revealment.  She had fashioned this tool herself.  It not only showed her instances throughout the land, it also served as her communication instrument.

      “I won’t allow it!” she whispered.  “He’ll never come!”

      The queen looked at the young girl the mirror showed her.  She would make sure that the girl was destroyed.  It would be quite easy.

      “Try to combat my plan!” She shouted her defiant challenge into thin air.  “I’ll be ready.” 
 

Five Days Later 
 

      In the palace garden, Morel stood.  His eyes were red, and his face was ashen.  In his hand, he carried a basket of pistachio tarts, Emilia’s favorites.  For five days he’d tried in vain to find her.  Salak and her entourage had returned to Crimlia three days ago.  That was some comfort, but not much for lord Hamish was here.  Morel was beginning to despair.

      “Sir?” A young page boy rushed up to the confectioner.  Morel recognized him from previous delivery trips.  “How may I help you?”

      Morel leant forward.  “How will the Baker, when He comes, provide Freedom’s bread?” he asked.

      The page boy nodded in understanding.  “He’ll bake it in His purifying oven.” He said.  “How are you, Morel?”

      “I’m frightened, Anthony.  King Cedric must be enforcing the Union Ceremony now.  I prayed it would never come to this in Priam.  My Emilia’s in there!”

      “I know.  I’ve seen her.  She’s all right.”

      Morel’s face lit up.  “You’ve seen her? Where is she? Tell me quickly!”

      “Eunuch Hagoyam’s given her the North Tower Room.  I’m assigned to take meals to her everyday.”

      “The Imperial Lord be praised!” Morel cried.  “Please, take this basket to her.  I’ll meet you here everyday, and we’ll use the same code as today.  Understood?”

      Anthony nodded and took the basket.

      In her tower room, Emilia knelt in prayer.  Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes swollen.  “I’m trying, Lord, but I don’t understand!” she cried desperately.  “Why is this happening?”

      Even though she’d been in the harem for just five days, the days felt like an eternity.  Everyday she endured lessons in the proper way of walking, curtseying, eating, and speaking.  She endured the lavender baths and the meals.

      The work during the day was fine.  Nighttime was when she was miserable.  During the past five nights, she’d endured horrendous dreams.  A honey sweet voice always whispered terrifying words in her mind: “You poor girl! You do know that Marvin will for get you.  He’ll turn to another, and you’ll be left alone.  Your cousin is pining away.  You will never see him again.”

      In her dream, Emilia had cried out in fear and panic.  “And the other girls.” The voice crooned, “They’re jealous of you.  They seek to harm you.”

      If the voice was all she’d had to worry about, she’d have been all right.  However, last night’s dream had contained more than a voice.  She’d seen herself going in to be presented to King Cedric.  He’d lunged at her, his appetite stronger than his sanity.  “Imperial Lord, please protect me!” she’d screamed, “Remove these poisonous dreams from my mind.  Free me from Salak’s influence.”

      Instantly, the dream had vanished, and Emilia awoke in a tangle of sweat-soaked sheets, her heart racing.

      Now, she was praying in earnest that the agony of palace life would soon be over.

      A knock at her door made her jump, and Emilia rose shakily.  “Who is it?”

      “It’s Anthony, m’am.  The one who brought your breakfast this morning.”

      Emilia sighed.  “Thank you, but I don’t want any—”

      “I have a delivery for you, m’am.”

      Going to the door, Emilia pushed it open.  Anthony held out a familiar-looking wicker basket! Her heart began to pound in excitement.  “Thank you.” She murmured.

      Back at her bed, she peered feverishly inside her treasure.  She was searching for a note of some kind, but all she saw were five pistachio tarts.  She was disappointed, but at least the gift showed that Morel was thinking about her.

      She selected a tart and prepared to bite into it.  Suddenly, she stopped and looked at it closely.  On the flaky crust, words had been written in a violet-colored frosting: RELY ON HIS STRENGTH.

      In excitement, Emilia looked at the other tarts.  Each one contained a message: TELL NO ONE OF YOUR HERITAGE IF THEY DO NOT WEAR HIS MARK.  REMEMBER YOUR GIFT OF HONESTY.  I LOVE YOU.

      Joy made Emilia feel giddy.  She picked up the final tart.  EAT THE EVIDENCE! For the first time in five days, she laughed aloud. 

      “Emilia?” Hagoyam called.

      Fifteen more days had passed.  Emilia turned from the table where she was arranging flowers.

      “Come with me.  It is time.”

      Fear rose in Emilia’s throat.  She tried to swallow, but knew it would be useless for her to talk.  She simply nodded.

      She followed her guide down twisting corridors to a large chamber.  Hagoyam pulled her aside.  “Be yourself.” He said simply.  “My prayers go with you.”

      Opening the gilded chamber door, he announced: “Sire, I present to you the maiden Emilia.” Then he turned away.  Emilia wanted to beg him not to leave, but she knew the futility of that request.  “Lord, please help me.” She murmured.

      Slowly, she shuffled into the lavish chamber.  At a table for two, a slight man sat before a tray of food and drink.  He raised his head as she entered.  “Come closer.” He ordered.

      Emilia approached him and started to curtsy.  King Cedric lifted his hand in impatience.  “I’ve endured twenty girls who always do the same thing! Are none of you able to think for yourselves?”

      “I’m sorry, Sire.  They tell us to do this to show respect, but I don’t like courtseying.  I think its pretentious.  I ask your pardon for my hypocrisy.”

      King Cedric looked more closely at her.  “You’re straightforward, aren’t you? Do you mean no one should pay homage to their king?”

      “No, sir.  I mean no one should be forced to endure regulations that hurt them.  Those who pretend to honor you may harbor feelings of resentment.”

      King Cedric frowned.  “And you? What do you think of me, Emilia?” he asked sharply.

      Emilia swallowed nervously, but she met the king’s gaze.  “I admire you for refusing to enforce the Union Ceremony, but I think you are sometimes easily tricked.”

      King Cedric threw back his head and laughed uproariously.  “You don’t care who you talk to, do you?  I could easily have you executed for speaking this way.”

      “I know.” Emilia said simply.  “But I also know about the torment you’re facing.”

      The laughter vanished from him in an instant.  “How can you know?” he snapped.  “Has anyone ever betrayed you?”

      “No, but I don’t think she betrayed you, sire.”

      Cedric jumped.  “Are you a magician?”

      “No, but I know someone told you that Queen Valerie was unfaithful.  It was a lie told in your dreams.”

      “How can you know these things?” Cedric’s voice was hoarse.

      “I had nightmares the first five days I was here.” Emilia related the final dream to the king.  She did not embellish or sugarcoat the dream, she simply told the truth.

      King Cedric rose.  “I am not a barbarian.” He said.  “I will not hurt you.” His voice was surprisingly tender.  “Come with me.”

      Emilia hesitated.  At last, she said: “I cannot, sire.”

      “What? I just said I would not harm you.  I’m gentle, and you’ll be quite safe with me.”

      “That has nothing to do with it.  I will not go to my wedding bed impure.”

      The king looked at her for a long moment.  “You remind me of Valerie, although you’re less civil than her.  You’re honest.  I do not come across that trait often.” Sighing, he plopped back into his chair.

      “Well?” he said impatiently.  “What are you waiting for? Sit down and eat.”

      “You mean—”

      “What do you take me for? A brutish animal? I won’t send you back to the harem without showing you some hospitality.  Do you like steak?”

      “Yes, but I don’t get to eat It often.”

      “Well, dig in.  Steak’s my favorite meat.  You’ll need to remember that.”

      “Why?” Of course, Emilia knew perfectly well why.

      “Pretending doesn’t become you.  I can already tell when you are acting.  Don’t do that around me, do you hear?” His voice had an edge to it now.  “You’ve tried my patience more than anyone I’ve ever met.  Tell me why you need to remember what meat I like.”

      “Because I’m to be the next queen.” Emilia whispered.

      Cedric smiled at her.  “Excellent, Emilia.  Don’t worry.  I really do mean you well.”

      In the throne room of Plenty Palace in the land of Crimlia, Queen Salak peered into her Mirror of Revealment.  The lily-livered milksop, she thought darkly.  He’d let that sniveling, virginal wretch beguile him! Curse the girl! She thought savagely.

      Bile rose in the queen’s throat as she thought about the girl.  Somehow, the pustule had managed to block the queen’s entrance into her dreams! She’d have her revenge! Salak grinned in anticipation.  “How can you hope to win using puny followers like that girl, my lord?” she mocked.  “I’ll bring such pain onto her and Morel that she’ll soon forget you.”

      Salak knew that Cedric was not a good tool to use at the moment.  The gullible fool was already thinking about what the brat had told him! However, all was not lost.  The queen rotated her mirror.  “Show me Hamish.” She commanded.

      The mirror clouded, and a picture of a bedchamber in Imrel Palace came into focus.  Hamish lay sprawled under the covers sound asleep.  “Hamish?” Salak crooned.  “I’m here.  I need you my loyal servant.  Great worker who deserves all the power!” 

      Two months later, Queen Emilia sat in the royal palace garden.  People on their way to market stopped to chat with her.  Emilia loved talking to everyone in the kingdom, and she was particularly proud everytime she met a fellow Imperialite.

      Life as queen was mainly uneventful.  She made sure to inspect the harem everyday, and spoke with the royal cooks to ensure the girls were well-fed.  Contrary to Salak’s taunting in her dream, the girls were not jealous of her.  She attributed this fact to the Imperial Lord’s grace, and to her own kind treatment of them.  In fact, some of the girls who had never been summoned to King Cedric asked her frank questions about her wedding night.  She’d answered them all, and regarded herself as the girls’ new mother.

      The wonderful thing about her new status was that she could go out into the garden whenever she wanted.  This meant that she often saw Morel and they were able to talk for a while when noone was around.  Marvin also came occasionally bringing loaves of bread.

      Emilia picked an apple off the tree under which she was sitting.  As she was about to bite into it, she heard a rustling sound at her feet.

      Quickly, she looked and saw a scarlet coiled shape.  A snake! She kept perfectly still, knowing that if she moved the snake would strike.

      The snake balanced on its large tail, its bulbous yellow eyes scrutinizing Emilia’s face.  As the snake studied her, it was as if words of pure venom were eating into her soul: “You fool! You think I’d allow the Imperial Lord to beat me using someone as insignificant as you?” The serpent’s scarlet tongue shot forward as the head lunged.  Emilia felt fangs pierce the flesh on her hand.  She screamed, and watched through blurred eyes as the serpent slithered into the roots of the apple tree.

      Struggling to stand, Emilia gasped as fiery pain shot up her arm.  Her head swam and nausea slammed into her stomach.

      Suddenly, a blinding flash of white light engulfed her.  Rustling grass announced a strange presence.

      Emilia felt something soft and wet touch her hand.  Drowsily, she managed to look.

      A Lamb, snow-white and shining with a blinding brilliance, stood beside her prostrate form.  Tenderly, the Lamb had placed its front hoof on her wrist to hold the hand still.  With its tongue, the Lamb was licking the wound inflicted by the serpent’s fangs.

      Emilia felt strength surge through her body.  The Lamb finished its work and turned away.

      “Wait!” Emilia cried desperately.  She reached out a trembling hand to touch the Lamb’s woolly back.

      The apple tree began to shake as the writhing serpent exploded from underneath the roots.  Emilia stood up to run, but before she could move, she saw the Lamb turn to face the quivering snake.

      “NO!” Emilia cried in agony.  She lunged forward to pick the Lamb up, but he moved out of her reach.  Scarlet serpent and snow-white lamb were nearly touching now.

      Emilia could only watch in wonder as the Lamb fixed a piercing gaze on the snake.  The snake seemed frozen in place, unable to strike or move at all.

      As quickly as the confrontation began, it ended.  The Lamb walked away, and the serpent slithered back under the tree.  Emilia began to run toward the palace. 

      Morel stood at the palace gate carrying a large basket of confections to deliver.  His spirits were lighter now that he knew Emilia was safe.

      He raised his hand to open the gate.

      “We’ll do it tonight, Bendrix.” A raspy voice was speaking in urgent, low tones.  “You have the potion?” Morel looked and saw two of the King’s guards standing close together.  He stiffened.

      “Sure, Terence.  Course I do.  He gave it to me yesterday.  Do I give it to him, or do you?”

      “You idiot!” Terence hissed.  “Not so loud.  It goes in his wine.  We don’t take it to him.  The wine steward does.  If we brought it, he’d get suspicious.  Just give me the potion and I’ll take care of it.  It has to look like an accident, remember?”

      Morel shuddered.  Were the two guards planning to…

      “Freedom’s Bread.” A voice called.

      Morel turned and saw Anthony waving at him.  Quickly, he grabbed a chocolate cream puff from the basket.  “Anthony! Come here.”

      Startled by the urgency in his voice, the page approached Morel.  The older man was squeezing white frosting from a cloth bag to write words on the cream puff.  Anthony, who couldn’t read, was dumbfounded.

      “Quick! Take this to Queen Emilia.  It’s urgent!” 

      “It is done, then?” In his private chamber, lord Hamish surveyed Terence with a steely gaze.  His face was flushed, and he was perspiring.

      “Yes, my liege.  I poured the potion into his goblet myself!”

      Hamish grinned.  He handed Terence a leather pouch filled with coins.  “Excellent!”

      Terence left the room, and Hamish sighed in contentment.  Soon, his power will be mine. He thought gleefully.

      “GUARDS! SEIZE THEM!” Outside Hamish’s chamber, scurrying footsteps were heard.  Cedric was ranting and raving.

      Arranging his face into a concerned expression, the Prime Minister bolted from his chamber.  “Sire? What is it?” he called as he raced down the crowded hallway.

      In the throne room, King Cedric was staring at Terence and Bendrix.  They were struggling in the grip of two burly guards.  “It was his idea!” Terence was squealing.  He tried to nod at Hamish, but King Cedric ignored him.  “Place them in the dungeon!” he thundered.  “They’ll be hanged in the morning.”

      As the would-be assassins were led away, a guard looked at the king.  “It was fortunate Queen Emilia learned of this plot, Sire.”

      “Yes, indeed, and she was brave to send the message through Anthony.”

      “Um, Sire?”

      “Yes, Albert? What is it?”

      “Her Majesty said the discovery of the plot should be credited to a man named Morel.”

      “Morel? Ah yes! The confectioner.  Very well, make a note of it in the records of my reign.”

      “Yes, Sire.” Albert withdrew.

      Hamish coughed discreetly.  Cedric turned around.  “Hamish! I did not see you.  I’m quite shaken as you can see.”

      “Of course, sire.” Hamish said gently.  “Can I assist in any way?”

      “Yes.  Conduct morning and afternoon rides around the palace.  Report any suspicious activity to me at once.”

      “Of course, my lord king.  Should I—”

      “Certainly, certainly!” Cedric said with some impatience.  “Use the royal carriage.  You’ll do these patrols everyday.  Understood?”

      Hamish smiled.  Everything was working beautifully! By royal command, anyone who saw the carriage was obliged to bow to the occupant inside it! His heart hammering with excitement, he left the throne room to make preparations for his morning patrol. 

      “MAKE WAY! PAY HOMAGE TO LORD HAMISH, KING CEDRIC’S MOST FAVORED PRINCE!” Two weeks had past since the revelation of the assassination plot.  A majestic black carriage with the royal crest clattered into view on the street adjoining Imrel Palace.

      Tradespeople on there way to sell their wares in the marketplace quickly moved aside.

      The clatter of horses hooves drowned out any attempt at conversation.

      Hamish surveyed the masses of commoners.  He smiled with satisfaction as they all lowered their heads in respect.  His ferret eyes gleamed with contentment.

      Suddenly, he became aware of a murmuring hubbub of voices.  He leant forward in order to see better.

      On the fringe of the crowd, a dignified-looking man stood holding a basket.  The man looked directly into Hamish’s eyes with defiance.

      “Perkins!” Hamish snapped at the servant beside him, “who is that man?”

      Perkins surveyed the crowd.  “That is the confectioner, Morel, my lord.”

      “He does not bow.  Why?”

      “There is a rumor that he is an Imperialite.  They’re a strange sect in the province.”

      “Yes.  I’ve heard.  We’ll see about this.”

      Suddenly, the horses neighed and were jerked to a stop.  A shrill scream of fright pierced the silent air.

      Hamish looked out the carriage window.  A young girl was cowering just inches away from one of the horses hooves.

      “You! Girl! Stand up!” he bellowed.

      Shaking, the girl staggered to her feet.  “I-I beg pardon, my lord.” She quavered, “Mother sent me to fetch—”

      “I don’t care! How dare you walk ahead of me! Pay a tribute to your lord! Then you may pass.”

      Trembling, the girl started to bow.

      Morel left the throng of people and rushed to the carriage.  “Victoria? Are you all right?”

      “Y-Yes, sir.” She stammered, “The horses were coming so fast I got scared.”

      “A true follower of King Cedric would have payed more heed to people in his province.  Come with me.  I’ll see that you reach the market safely.” Bestowing a steely gaze on Hamish’s purple face, he took Victoria by the hand and walked away.

      Seething, Hamish looked after the departing pair.  In his mind, the honeyed voice spoke: “He insulted you.  Will you let him get away with it? The whole Imperialite nation mocks you.  You are second only to the king! Be a man and demand true allegiance.”

      Hamish smiled at the praise.  The voice of his true ruler was with him all the time now.  Yes, I am owed reverence, he thought.

      He turned to his servant.  “Perkins? Organize a banquet tonight.  It’s ben a while since we had a festival.”

      Musicians played and men feasted.  The rich aromas of roasting meats and rich wine filled the air.

      At the head table, Cedric and Hamish sat.  Cedric was already consuming his fourth cup of wine.  His face was flushed.

      “My Lord King, I must speak to you about an urgent problem.” Hamish whispered.

      “Business? At a banquet? Relax, man! Try some of the pomegranate wine.  It’s superb!” Cedric’s voice was slurred.

      “I have sampled it, Sire.  It is indeed delicious.  However, this business cannot wait.”

      “Oh, very well.  Get on with it.”

      “There is a certain people who are inciting rebellion, Sire.  The Imperialites.”

      “Ah, yes.  I see no evidence of rebellion within them. They do good work,  and they always show respect to me.”

      “To you in person, my King.”

      The words hung like poison in the air.

      Cedric lowered the cup of wine from his lips.  “What are you saying to me.”

      “I have heard them talk of a deliverer.  They speak of freedom, and they tell others of their hope of deliverance.”

      “They speak of an uprising?” Cedric’s voice was sharp.

      “Yes, and it is not just me who has heard them.” Hamish’s eyes roved around the banquet hall.  “I’ve discovered two other witnesses who’ve also heard these claims.” He lifted his hand and two men detached themselves from a corner table.  They stumbled forward.  “Arthur.  Maurice.  Two guards in your service, great King.  Tell him what you’ve heard.”

      “Oh, King, live forever—” Maurice began.

      “Enough flattery! Get on with it!” Cedric snapped.  “This is a party, after all.”

      “Of course, Sire.  On my patrols around Priam, I see groups from this strange sect.  Everytime they meet, they always speak of freedom.” Maurice said.

      “Yes!” Arthur cried.  “And they speak of a time when all rulers will be overthrown.”

      Cedric was looking troubled.  “You may have a point, Hamish.  Are you quite certain that you’ve heard correctly?”

      “I am Sire.  In fact, I am so certain of the danger they pose, I make bold to request a tremendous favor.”

      “Well?”

      “If it please Your Greatness, issue a royal decree that this dangerous sect be destroyed.”

      “Destroyed? Are you suggesting extermination?”

      “I am.  Is it not prudent to treat sores before they fester? I will gladly put 20,000 sheckels of my own silver into the royal treasury to cover the cost of ridding our nation of these troublemakers.”

      “Well, if you’re that sure of the danger, keep your money.  I will grant my permission.  Write the order whatever way you see fit.  Use my signet ring to seal the order so it can never be reversed.”

      Hamish nodded graciously.  “Thank you, Great King.”

      “Now everyone! Have some more wine!” Cedric called.  He failed to notice that Hamish had swept from the room closely followed by the two guards.

      In the hallway, Hamish handed each guard a bulging sack of coins.  Then, his face crimson with triumph, he hurried to his private chamber to put his plan into action.

      “Excellent work, my Lord.” In the throne room of Plenty Palace, Salak stood before her mirror.  The words of praise sickened her as she said them, but she watched as they formed themselves into crystalline shards of glass.  The shards touched Hamish’s image in the mirror.  When the shards touched him, they embedded themselves into his brain.

      Salak laughed to herself as she watched the pompous fool grow more prideful every second.  Everything was perfect! She’d foil her enemy’s plan and have her revenge against that putrifying girl at the same time.  Salak still trembled when she remembered the encounter in Imril’s garden, But now all would work to her advantage. 

      “Ohh! Ohh! We are undone!”

      From the window of the royal chamber, Emilia listened to a heartwrenching sob coming from outside.  She drew in her breath in surprise.

      Morel stood at the palace gate wearing a black robe of mourning.  He cried louder at every moment.  What was going on?

      “Felicity?” Emilia called.

      A young serving maid hurried from an adjoining room.  “Do you see that man outside?”

      “Yes, Your Majesty.  I ‘ear he’s been cryin’ for hours.”

      “Please gather some suitable garments and send Anthony to him.  He can enter the palace if he puts them on.  Tell Anthony to instruct him to come to me.”

      “Yes, mum.” Felicity hurried away.

      “Great Lord? What has happened?” Emilia wondered aloud.  She’d grown accustomed to palace life, but she longed to see her people frequently.  Morel’s pain terrified her because he rarely ever wept.

      A knock was heard at her chamber door.  “It’s Anthony, m’am.”

      “Is Morel with you?” she called.

      “No, m’am.  He refused to come in.” Emilia noticed the worried tone in Anthony’s voice.

      Utterly bewildered, she went into the hallway.  “I’ll go to him, then.” She hesitated when she saw Anthony’s face.  He was pale.  “What is it?”

      “Better to let Morel tell you, Your Majesty.”

      As usual, the palace grounds and the streets beyond pulsated with early morning activity.  Emilia knew she couldn’t reveal that she knew Morel.  She rushed to the palace gate.  “You!” Emilia called, “Why do you cause such a disturbance? Come with me at once!”

      The sobbing stopped, and Morel bowed his hed in submission.  “I apologize, My Queen.”

      Emilia signaled with her hand, and the confectioner followed her.

      In a grove of apple trees, she stopped.  “What is it?” she whispered desperately.

      Morel did not speak.  He handed her an official scroll.  “This was delivered to the confectionery yesterday.  All Imperialite people received them.”

      Emilia was already reading what was written: “By order of Lord Hamish, Prime Minister to our Great King Cedric, all Imperialite people will be killed on the fifteenth day of the second month in the year.”

      Bile rose in her throat.  She sank to the ground.  “Why?” she whispered.

      “I don’t know.  He’s gone mad.  We need your help, Emilia.”

      “Me? But I—”

      “Go to King Cedric.  Hamish cannot do anything without his permission.  Plead for us!”

      Emilia felt drained of strength.  “Go to him? I can’t just go to him.  It’s forbidden.  I haven’t been summoned to him in two weeks.  If anyone goes to him unannounced, death is the sentence.  The only hope is if Cedric extends his golden scepter.  This act shows his approval of the person.”

      “Surely he will receive you.”

      “He extends the scepter so rarely.  Don’t you understand? I could die.”

      “What can we do, then? Do you think you will be spared because you live in the palace now?” Morel’s voice was desperate.  “Salak is behind this, I know it!”

      “How can you say I don’t care?” Emilia’s voice shook with anger and panic.  “How can I fight her? She nearly killed me before.” Briefly, she told Morel of her encounter with the Serpent and the rescue by the Lamb.

      Morel enfolded Emilia in his arms.  “You’re my daughter, Emilia.” His voice choked.  “I know you’re scared, but I know this must be happening because of a bigger Plan.  The Imperial Lord is in control.  Who knows.  Maybe you were brought to Imrel Palace to fulfill His Purpose.”

      Emilia thought for a moment. Of course! It all made sense! The forceful abduction of the girls into the harem.  The assassination plot.  Salak had destroyed Queen Valerie’s reputation in order to place a new queen on the throne: she wanted someone weak whom she could control  because queens have a great influence on kings.

      Salak hadn’t reckoned on The Imperial Lord’s work.  He’d provided Priam with another queen to protect the land from tyranny.

      Furious, Salak had then tried to dethrone Cedric.  When that had failed, she’d turned her vengeance onto Emilia. Not just her, Emilia realized.  The whole Imperialite nation! Salak strove to wipe them out and crush the Imperial Lord’s promise of a Deliverer once and for all!

      Squaring her shoulders, Emilia faced Morel.  She was shaking, but her voice was strong: “Please gather all the people together in the confectionery.  Fast and pray for three days.  I and my maids will do likewise.  Then I will go to Cedric.  If I forfeit my life, so be it.”

      The cousins who were more than cousins clung together for a long moment.  Then Morel left to carry out Emilia’s orders. 

      The palace was abuzz with talk and preparations.  Affairs of state were being discussed between the provinces of Crimlia, Priam, and Sumril.  This meant that Queen Salak was at the palace.

      Emilia left her bedchamber on the fourth day.  She was weak from hunger, but a light shone in her brown eyes.

      “My Queen?” Anthony approached her.  “Will you eat at last?” His face was concerned, but he grasped her hand as if to transmit a silent message.  Emilia could tell that he’d fasted as well.

      “Yes, Anthony.  I’ll have some food.  Then I’m going to Cedric.”

      Anthony swallowed nervously.  He leant closer to his queen.  “The Imperial Lord protect you.” He whispered.

      An hour later, Emilia slowly approached the gilded throne room doors.  Her heart was hammering.  She raised her hand as she approached.

      A burly guard turned around.  His face registered surprise.  “My Queen? Can I help—”

      “I’m going in to see the king.” She was surprised at the strength in her voice.

      “I don’t think, uh, you see.  There’s a—”

      “Please open the door.”

      “But has His Majesty summoned—”

      “Do as I say.” Emilia did not raise her voice, but the guard recognized the authority within it.  Slowly, he moved to obey.

      The throne room doors opened soundlessly.  Oh, merciful Lord, help me! Emilia thought desperately.  Then she stepped across the threshold. 

      In the room, a large crowd was talking heatedly.  Cedric sat on his throne.  Beside him in the second seat of honor sat Queen Salak.

      Emilia saw Salak half-rise then sink back into the plush cushions of her chair.  Salak bestowed a cold-eyed stare of hatred upon the girl, but Emilia now focused her full attention on King Cedric.

      Slowly, she approached his throne.  The room was so still she could hear her pounding heartbeat.  “Great King Cedric? I come to ask a favor.” Her voice echoed in the stillness.

      “I must say, Cedric, it is highly irregular to have outsiders barge into state proceedings uninvited.” Salak’s musical voice filled the room.  “Is your new bride ignorant? Does she wish to die? I hear she was raised by a confectioner.  She’s a commoner, so perhaps she’s not aware of the law regarding interruptions.”

      The words hit Emilia like physical slaps.  She felt dirty and defiled.  The people in the room were murmuring and looking at her with contempt.  Salak turned a triumphant face upon her.

      The sound of movement from the king’s throne made Emilia turn to her husband.  Cedric’s hand was clutching his golden scepter! Slowly, he held the scepter within Emilia’s reach.

      The feeling of relief was immense! Trembling, Emilia clasped the tip of the scepter with her right hand.  “Thank you, my Lord.” She murmured.

      “I’m aware she is a confectioner’s daughter.” Cedric addressed Salak.  “She is also my bride.  I will not allow her to be ridiculed.”

      Salak’s face glowed crimson, but she nodded.

“It is always a delight to see you, Emilia.  What did you need?”

      “If it pleases you—”

      “None of that! Just be honest as you always are with me.”

      Emilia looked from Cedric’s kind face to Salak’s livid one.  She knew she couldn’t ask the favor now.  Had her courage failled? Perhaps, but she needed Hamish to be present when she made her request.

      “I ask that you come this afternoon to a banquet I will prepare for you.”

      Cedric laughed.  “A party, eh? Well, it will make a nice change after this dreary state business.” Then he surveyed her shrewdly.  “I know that isn’t all you want.” He whispered.

      “No, but you’ll have to wait to find out.” She smiled mischievously at him.  “And I’d also like to request that lord Hamish attend as well.”

      “Hamish? Really?” Cedric looked slightly disappointed, but he nodded.  “He’ll be there.” 

      “This feast is superb, my Queen!” The informal celebration was being held in a small room that overlooked the palace garden.  The windows were open to allow sunlight to enter.  Large platters of food and goblets of wine were passed around by servants.

      Emilia turned to Hamish.  He was devouring a piece of chicken in frenzied delight.  His teeth tore at the bloody meat as if he were a ravenous wolf.  She shuddered.  “I am glad the food pleases you.” She murmured.

      “Yes, Emilia.” Cedric was eating a slice of steak.  Surprisingly, he’d not imbibed more than two goblets of wine.  He was still sober.  “But you didn’t just invite me for a feast!” He grinned.  “Now, what’s your request? I’ll give you anything you desire.”

      Emilia nodded.  “Since I’ve pleased you, I ask that you and lord Hamish come to another banquet tomorrow that I will prepare.”

      Cedric frowned.  “You’re trying my patience again.  I don’t like games as you know already.”

      “I promise to reveal everything tomorrow.”

      Despite himself, Cedric smiled.  “We’ll be here.”

      As the king and Hamish left the room, Emilia noticed that Hamish looked immensely pleased with himself.  Good! That meant he didn’t suspect anything.  “Thank you, Lord.” She whispered.  Maybe everything would work out. 

      What a glorious day! Hamish was buoyant as he made his daily patrol through Imrel’s grounds and the surrounding streets.  He surveyed the groups of bowing people.  As always, he spotted Morel arranging confections in his basket.  The fool! He thought darkly.  His euphoria vanished, and he glared at the insufferable troublemaker.  Something must be done, he fumed inwardly.

      Back in his bedchamber, he paced furiously.  A discreet knock made his heart leap in anticipation.

      On the threshold, his mistress waited.  She smiled at her tool, letting her scarlet tongue pass over her crimson lips.

      “My Queen!” Hamish cried in ecstasy.  “You’ve come!”

      “Did you think I’d desert you?” Salak glided into the room.  “You are my most loyal servant, and I will always come to you.” She reached out a hand and caressed Hamish’s brow.  “You are tense, great prince.  Why is your brow sweat-soaked?”

      His queen’s bell-like tones acted as balm on Hamish’s wounded pride.  “I want that pompous confectioner to pay for his defiance!” He burst out like a petulant child.

      Gently, Salak propelled the man to the canopied bed in the center of the chamber.  “He will die soon enough.  Remember your proclamation.  The date for slaughter is next week.  Lie down, now, and let me soothe you.”

      Hamish wrenched himself from her grasp.  “It’s not soon enough! He must die now!”

      Salak grinned at him.  “You’re more a man than I first believed.  Good.  Tell me who you are.”

      Hamish threw back his head.  “I am second only to King Cedric himself!” he bragged.

      “Yes, and you can ask anything of him.  Simply go to him and ask that Morel be hanged.  Erect a gallows outside the palace grounds so that he may be executed publicly as an example to the people.”

      Hamish laughed.  “Yes,” he whispered, “excellent.  I will do as you suggest.” He turned back to his queen with anticipation.  She did not disappoint him. 

      “You pathetic excuse for a king!” The words exploded in Cedric’s mind.  They pierced him like poison-dipped arrows.  “Why do you think your wife requested that Hamish attend the banquet? She’s a harlot! You are ignorant and weak! Two promiscuous wives! You cannot satisfy them. You weakling.”

      “NO! LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME IN PEACE!”

      “My Lord King! Sire! You must wake up!” Hagoyam’s distinct voice shattered Cedric’s tormented dream.  He bolted upright, his heart galloping in his chest.

      “H-Hagoyam, I—”

      “Here, Sire.  This elixir will soothe you.” Gently, the eunuch placed a steaming cup containing a sweet liquid to the king’s lips.  “Can I get you anything else?”

      The drink restored Cedric’s calm, but he was afraid to close his eyes again.  “Yes, Hagoyam.  Read me something.  Anything.”

      “Will the royal records—”

      “Yes! Yes! Just read.  I need to hear something other than my own thoughts right now.”

      Hagoyam began reading from a thick book.  Cedric let his mind drift.  He hadn’t had nightmares for weeks.  What was wrong now? Could it be true? Why did Emilia request that Hamish—

      “The plot was revealed by Morel, the Confectioner.  The would-be assassins—”

      Hagoyam’s words interrupted his thoughts.  “What was that?”

      Hagoyam looked up.  “The plot by the two—”

      “Yes, but the man who revealed it.  What reward did I give him?”

      Hagoyam hesitated.  “Um, none, Sire.”

      “What? That’s preposterous! A man saves my life, and I do nothing?”

      A knocking outside the chamber was heard.  “Find out who is there.”

      Hagoyam opened the door.  “It’s Lord Hamish, Sire.”

      “Ah! Good.  Admit him.”

      Hamish entered wearing his usual ingratiating smile.  He bowed low.  “My Lord King, I have a favor—”

      “In a moment, Hamish.  I must ask you something first.  How should I reward someone whom I want to honor more than anyone else?”

      Hamish’s heart skipped a beat.  Who else would he want to honor more than me? He thought.

      “Hamish? Are you listening to me? I asked you—”

      “Yes, Sire.  I have an answer for you.  Dress that person in a royal robe you yourself have worn.  Place him on your favorite horse.  Then have one of your highest officials escort that person through the province shouting: This is what is done for the man the king desires most to honor!”

      Cedric grinned.  “Fantastic! I knew I could count on you! Go and do it at once for Morel!”

      Hamish gulped.  “M-Morel, Sire? Y-You mean the confec—”

      “Yes, that’s him.  Go at once!”

      Hamish’s face glowed crimson.  As he slouched out of the room, Hagoyam bestowed a look of triumph upon him.  Cedric did not notice. 

      “This is what is done for the man the king desires to honor most!” Hamish had been shouting all day.  Anger and bewilderment made him nauseous.  When would this agony be over?

      At long last, he reined in the chestnut-colored stallion at the palace gate.  Morel, who was still trying to comprehend what was happening, was left to dismount by himself.  Hamish had rushed into the palace hallway.

      “PERKINS!” the Prime Minister roared, “Come to my chamber at once!”

      When the servant arrived, Hamish grabbed him by the arm.  Perkins winced in pain.  “The gallows!” Hamish hissed.

      “It’s nearly completed, my Lord.”

      “Why isn’t it ready now? The builders were instructed to work through the night!”

      “Well, you see—”

      “Never mind! Just inform me the instant its completed.  Understood?”

      “Yes, Lord—”

      “Now, get out of my sight! I must prepare for Queen Emilia’s banquet.” In spite of the horrible day, Hamish smiled.  All was not lost. 

      Another lavish feast had ended.  Now plates of frosted pastries were making their rounds.  Emilia watched Hamish savagely devour a jam tart.  “Lord, strengthen me.” She breathed.

      Emilia turned to Cedric.  He’d eaten moderately, and now he looked at her with anticipation.  “All right, Emilia.  Enough stalling.  What is your request? I will give you anything.”

      The time had arrived.  “Cedric, I ask that you spare my life and the lives of my people!” Her voice was strong, but its earnestness hit the king like a physical blow.  His queen was a woman, but she was also a child.

      “What are you talking about?” he asked.  “Your people? Spare your life?”

      Emilia removed her head covering.  The Imperial Lord’s Mark shone brightly.  “I am an Imperialite, Cedric.  My people have been selected for slaughter in two days time.  You must save us!”

      Cedric rose to his feet.  His face was livid.  “Who would dare threaten you?” he thundered.

      A wine goblet fell and shattered on the chamber floor.  Emilia turned and stared directly at the Prime Minister’s white face.  “The would-be murderer is this vile Hamish!” she cried.

      Cedric turned to his most trusted adviser.  The look on Hamish’s face was confirmation of the truth.  The king could think of nothing to say.  Without a word, he bolted through the chamber doors.

      Emilia felt fear grip her heart, but she saw that Cedric was not leaving the palace grounds, he was merely pacing in the garden.

      Movement alerted her.  Hamish stood beside the divan on which she was reclining.  “Y-You’re an—”

      “Yes.  Why, Hamish? Why would you—”

      “I beg you, Your Majesty! I didn’t know! Have mercy!”

      “The same mercy you would have shown my people?”

      “Please! I’ll do anything you ask.  Banish me, but—”

      Emilia started to stand as Hamish’s frenzied pacing drew him closer to her.

      With a lunge of panic, the Prime Minister grabbed her wrist and forced her back onto the couch.  “Please!” he bellowed.

      “Hamish, let me—”

      Suddenly, a hissing sound erupted, causing Emilia to stop speaking. From underneath the couch, she saw the glint of scarlet skin and fangs.  Hamish was babbling incoherently.

      Emilia managed to make herself heard over his pleas.  “Hamish.  Move away from the couch quickly.” She ordered.

      However, the Prime Minister was beyond reason.  He continued to grasp the queen’s arm.  This action proved to be his undoing.  The serpent’s head thrust itself from beneath the couch.  The scarlet fangs bit again and again into Hamish’s ankle.  Emilia screamed.  “Begone, Salak! You have no authority here! Only the Imperial Lord does!”

      The lidless eyes bestowed one look of hatred and fear upon the queen, then the serpent vanished.

      Pounding footsteps announced Cedric’s entrance.  “You would assault the queen in my presence?” His voice was terrible.

      Emilia realized that Hamish had fallen backward on the couch beside her.  His body convulsed with spasms of agony, but he still clutched her hand.

      “Great King Cedric?” Perkins had entered discreetly.  “Lord Hamish instructed me to tell him when the gallows was completed.”

      “Gallows? For what purpose?” Cedric snapped.

      “To hang the confectioner, Sire.”

      “Morel?” Emilia gasped.

      “How convenient.” Cedric whispered.  “Hang him on it! Now!”

      “No, Cedric.” Emilia whispered, “He’s been through enough.”

      “What do you mean?”

      Emilia was bewildered.  “Can’t you see? He’s been bitten by—”

      “There are no bite marks on him, Emilia.” She looked.  The Prime Minister’s lower leg was free of marks, but he was still writhing in pain.  Was she the only one who saw this?

      Guards rushed into the room and forced Hamish to his feet.  They led him away.

      Outside, the guards pushed him onto the scaffold that stood beneath an immense gallows.  Hamish’s leg throbbed, and he felt sick.

      “Hamish!” The familiar voice filled him with hope.  You did not forget me, he thought with relief.

      “Of course I didn’t.  I told you I would never leave you.” His queen’s voice was smooth and caressing, but where was she?

      “I am at the foot of the scaffold.  Lean forward, and I will take you to a place of safety.”

      Excitement filling his mind, Hamish bent down.  He felt a strange sensation as if a vital part of himself was slipping away.

      “YOU FOOL!” Now the voice no longer sounded human at all.  “YOU FAILLED ME!” Like a rag doll, Hamish flopped lifelessly to the ground.

      In her serpent form, Salak grinned gleefully.  She watched as a peacock with brilliant multi-colored tailfeathers arose from the ravaged body.  Languidly, the Serpent lunged and wrapped its loathsome body around the bird.  The peacock screeched in terror.  “Your mine forever!” Salak hissed.  Slowly, the peacock became totally enmeshed in the scarlet coils.  The Serpent’s mouth opened, and Hamish’s soul was sucked into a vast emptiness.

      The Queen of Crimlia looked at the sky.  “You may have won this battle, My Lord.” She hissed, “But the war is far from over.”

      Then she vanished. On the scaffold, the body of Hamish hung swaying in the wind. 

      After Hamish had gone, the banquet hall was silent for a moment.  “Emilia.” Cedric ran to her.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

      “The time was not right.” She said simply.  Husband and wife clung together.

      “You must tell me about this mysterious sect to which you belong.  Hamish said your people spoke of rebellion.”

      “No.  We speak of a Deliverer who will bring freedom from Salak’s tyranny of these lands.  Don’t you see how she manipulates you and all of us into evil? When the Deliverer comes, he will destroy her.  Until then, we must keep her influence away from this province.”

      Cedric thought about his poisonous dreams: his self-doubt and his fear.  “How can we ignore her? I must report the activities of my province to her.”

      A soft bleating pierced the silence.  Emilia looked around and gasped in wonder.  The snow-white lamb stood by the door of the chamber.  In His mouth, He carried a thorn from a rosebush.  His eyes scrutinized Emilia as if He wanted her to approach him.

      Trembling, she obeyed.

      The Lamb sank to the ground and placed His face into Emilia’s hand.  Understanding, she removed the thorn from His mouth.  The Lamb held his front hoof before Emilia’s eyes.  “I can’t.” she whispered.

      A voice like rushing water seemed to envelop her.  “You are my loyal servant.  Do this for your protection.”

      Trembling, she drove the pointed rose thorn into His hoof.  Blood gushed forth like a fountain.  The Lamb bleated in pain, but His eyes drifted to a clean goblet on the banquet table.  Emilia took it in shaking hands.  The drops of His blood filled it.

      “I’m sorry.” She whispered.

      When the bleeding ceased, the Lamb surveyed Emilia with piercing tenderness.  Love soaked into her soul.  “Sprinkle the blood on the palace gates and on every house in Priam.  Salak cannot cross the borders the blood will create.  Well done, Emilia.” Then the Lamb left as quickly as He had come.

      Emilia turned back to her bewildered-looking husband.  “Now can you write another proclamation reversing Hamish’s decree?”

      “Once a law has been sealed with my ring, it cannot be reversed.”

      Emilia thought for a moment.  “But there is no law that forbids that the Imperialites defend themselves.”

      Cedric smiled at her.  “I think you’ve discovered a way.” 

      That night, Emilia lay beside her sleeping husband.  She smiled as she surveyed the Imperial Lord’s Mark shining brilliantly upon his forehead.  The Mark of Allegiance on his left arm was visible, but it had faded.

      She smiled as she thought about the journey with Cedric through the province.  Along with the deliverance of the news that Imperialites could defend themselves against attackers, they’d sprinkled the Lamb’s blood on every doorpost.

      Emilia remembered stopping at Marvin’s bakeshop.  He’d been delighted to see her, and they’d clasped each other’s hands as in olden days.

      “I’ll never forget you, Emilia.” Marvin had whispered.  “I’ll never marry because I’ve lost you.”

      Blinking back tears, Emilia looked him in the eyes.  “You will.” She said simply, “And you’ll be happy as I am now.  I’ll always remember you, but you have to move on.”

      Marvin grasped her hand tighter.  “I know.” He’d whispered.

      Now, she closed her eyes and drifted into a deep sleep.

      Her dream was mysterious and wonderful at once.  A plain-looking man stood over a steaming oven from which flames erupted.  The man was a baker.  Emilia watched as he repeatedly brought forth numerous golden loaves from the flaming oven.  His every movement was purposeful, and he worked continuously.

      Suddenly, the familiar shape of The Serpent lunged from underneath the oven.  The head groped for purchase on the stone floor of the bakeshop as the snake tried to bite the Baker’s heel.  His heel slammed downward, crushing the Serpent’s head with a furious blow.

      “He will come!” a majestic voice reverberated around her.  “Because of your bravery, He will come.”

      In her dream, Emilia smiled.  All was well. 
 

FINAL NOTES 
 

      Marvin married two years after the events described here.  His descendants took up his trade and taught the Imperialite ways to each generation.  From his lineage, Jamal, son of Marigold, would be born.  His story is chronicled in “The Battle for Crimlia.”

      Cedric and Emilia ruled forty years.  They were good rulers who emphasized equality and love to all people in the kingdom.

      Salak repeatedly tried to enter Priam, but she could never cross the border during Emilia and Cedric’s reign.  Only those who allowed her to enter their dreams or removed the Lamb’s blood from their doorposts were subject to her influence.

      Morel was appointed Prime Minister in Hamish’s place, and the harem girls were sent back to their families.

      Every year on the fifteenth day of the second month, the very day the mass slaughter was to take place, the Imperialites hold a feast day to remember Emilia, a queen who trusted her Lord and saved her people.  The Imperial Lord be praised!

 

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