Hythinca placed the poultice on her leg and carefully bound it with strips of cloth. She was going to have to admit to King Jesparian that she had again failed to get close to the dwarven king. The man had a second sense for magic of any nature close to him. She had thought she had kept just far away enough that he would not sense her true nature. Hythinca winced as she tied the strips tight over the poultice.
Her error had almost gotten her killed. If this leg wound did not start healing, it would still do so. She sighed as she pulled down her leather skirt. She might as well get this over with for King Jesparian was not a man to keep waiting. She did not fear death at his hands. He had no other shapeshifter at his call. Her gift seemed outside any sphere of magic. It was a unique manifestation of magic and it was the only magic she held.
It was no surprise when she was ushered straight into the King's private parlor. He was sitting with his feet on his writing table. The room was plush and furnished in shades of deep greens. The table seemed almost a trunk of wood to the sprawling carpets and forest wall hangings.
Hythinca limped to stand before it and laid several sheets of parchment before him. She dropped a deep curtsy then stood quietly with her hands clasped behind her back.
"You could have sent those. I find it curious why you are here in person." The King drawled out. His cold green eyes slowly roved over her.
Fortunately, she had never let the King see her true face. If she ever had to flee his service, she knew it was unlikely he would ever find her.
"As I told you the last time you sent me to spy on King Orechin, he has an uncanny knack for discerning magic. I doubt I will get close a third time to provide you any additional information. I suggest, that you convert a real dwarf to your cause, Your Majesty." Her voice could not hold back the sarcasm.
The King rose to his feet alerting the two guards by the door. He strolled around the desk to stand beside her. Hythinca did not move or look away from his chair. The King was a bully. She had grown up with such boys; males that used their size and presence to frighten others. Tactics she had used as well when she was mimicking a male. She did not flinch when he whispered in her ear.
"Why should I not kill you for your inability to complete this task for me? Hmmm."
"Your Majesty and I both know that you have no other with my skills at your hand. It is not my fault that this King can sense me or has some spell to reveal me." She still did not glance at the man. While she was indispensable to him, he was also unpredictable. There was always a chance that his anger would fly to the point of an irrational decision.
"A fact that barely protects you," he hissed.
"I am well aware of that, Your Majesty," she conceded softly.
Jesparian reached out and took hold of her chin turning her face to look at him. "As it turns out, your timing is, in fact, fortuitous."
He searched her face as if trying to determine if it were real. She knew that while those with spells to discern magic would know she was using it, but there was no way of seeing her real face. It was not an illusion; her face actually changed. It was a painful process.
"My King has another assignment for me?" She breathed it out as he still held her chin.
"I do. I wish you to take the place of my sister." He said finally letting go of her chin. He strode back to his desk and sat down.
"Replace the princess? Why would you need me to take her place. Is she ill?" Hythinca asked with concern. She liked Princess Jacquelyn.
I have made a pact with the High Priestess Morana, a priestess of the heathen old god religion. Her primary temple is on the Great Isle. It seems she is close to the ruling house of Lerdenia. As such, this alliance may be beneficial in the securing of bloodstones." He put one foot then the other on the desk. Her gaze returned to the soles of his boots.
"To secure this alignment, she wants me to send my sister to study with her. I really have no desire for my sweet child of a sister to become some death worshipping trollop." The King put his hands behind his head. "So, you will take her place. This will be beneficial to me as not only will she feel the bargain fulfilled, I will have a spy close to her."
"So you are okay with me becoming a death worshipping trollop?" she asked with a hint of amusement.
"Aren't you already?" His quip stung a little.
"You and I both know that I need the blood of my new face. I do not need their life. You are the one that takes joy in the removal of their last breath." She took a breath. What he was suggesting would be the hardest assignment that he had given her yet. "Speaking of which, I will need the Princess's blood."
"I am aware. Jacquelyn trusts you and said you have but visit her in her chambers. She will provide all that you need. Lessons in etiquette, demeanor and of course other highborn traits. I have given her full leave to spend what she must to ensure you are properly outfitted as a true princess."
Well, at least that part would be enjoyable, she thought. She nodded to the King and considered her other questions. "When do I leave?"
"My royal ship will carry you in a fortnight. You had best be ready by then." Jesparian's tone left no doubt that he would not tolerate failure on that regard.
"I will have funds to present myself as one of your house?" She liked that particular thought.
"You will have all you need. All I ask is that you portray my sister. Send me reports on this witch's doings which means you will need to win her favor." He sat up suddenly. "And… If you have the opportunity, win the affection of this Lerdenian ruler. I would approve such a marriage." He rubbed his hands greedily.
"What of Jacquelyn? She can't be attending balls and such. This ruler or this priestess surely has spies about the city," she pointed out.
"My sister has asked to return to the mountain estate with her books. I could not deny her request. She will live a quiet life far from the eyes of those questing for power. I will send her as a Lady of my keeping. The servants will all be replaced before she arrives." He nodded. "I have considered your concerns already."
Hythinca just nodded. She already knew without asking the fate of all that served Jacquelyn. There would be no one to know that his sister had not really left on the royal ship heading to the Great Isle.
"How long will I serve you on the Isle?" She was getting the idea this would be a long absence from her homeland.
"If you can become the wife of this Lerdenian High Minister, it may be a lifetime. I am sure you will like being ...in effect... a queen." Jesparian eyed her firmly.
"Of course, Your Majesty. It would be my honor to serve as your sister in any capacity." She bowed low as she knew that he was expecting it. "I had best be seeking out Jacquelyn. I have never stood as royalty in a human household before this. I have much to learn."
"Yes, you do," he said. "You walk and carry yourself like a peasant."
"I will remind your majesty, I have been a dwarf for months." She braved a smile.
"Yes, yes. I know." He waved her towards the door. "Off with you before I remember you have failed me twice." He picked up the papers. "Hythinca, fail me this time and you had best run for the rest of your life. I will find you if I have to pay a multitude of those with such discernment." He did not look up and began to read.
"Yes, Your Majesty." She curtsied low once more and hurried from the room before he changed his mind.