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by Zepp

The Merry Gladiator
by Colin Campbell

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When the Princess Cynthia returned home from her final year of school abroad, she found that her handsome fiance, a young lord, had been beheaded.

Almost as soon as she stepped down from the royal carriage Cynthia asked her father, the King, about the lord; according to the original plan their marriage was only three days away. Her father put his hand on her shoulder sympathetically, and looked at her with a very sad and solemn expression. It took her a few moments to perceive the nature of the expression under all the hair of his full, red beard, but finally she caught the uneasy shifting of his eyes. "You've killed him, haven't you?" Her tone revealed no surprise, for he had killed her ten previous fiances, too.

The King nodded, dolefully. She reproached him only half-heartedly: "Father, you're going to spend my whole dowry on coffins for these poor men!" There were still plenty of other suitable young men of high standing in the kingdom for Cynthia to marry, or for her father to kill, and the Princess was curious to know who was next on the list.

She had begun with the fifth killing to put bets with her friends on whether or not the new choices would live long enough to see their weddings. Understandably, most of the wealthy young men in the kingdom started to fear for their lives as bachelors, and they began to marry as soon as they could to avoid being considered by the King.

When word got out that Cynthia's eleventh fiance had been murdered, two astonishing things happened in the kingdom: The young Lord of Rutherford raced out of his castle, his face white with terror at the bloody news, and fourteen minutes later he was being married to a woman who none of his friends or servants had ever even seen before. Rumors explained it that he had rode as quickly as he could to the nearest brothel, stolen a woman out of a small, raunchy boudoir, and while asking her a few casual questions-regarding health, parentage, and her name-he had dragged her back to his castle to be wed.

The second astonishing thing that happened was that two other young men who were possible candidates for Cynthia's on-going matrimonial massacre wondered with each other, What would happen if they were offered the hand of Princess Cynthia, and they politely refused it?

There is no question that if it weren't for her capricious father Cynthia would be the perfect wife: She was intelligent, exquisitely beautiful, wealthy beyond dreams, and very, very curious about young men. When she went to the opera with her father, it was her habit to completely ignore the stage and stare at the bachelors seated below her.

Several people noticed that similarly it was the King's habit to stare at her while she was staring at them, and so a rather incredible rumor erupted in the higher social circles: The King was in love with his daughter.

I say it was an incredible rumor, but it was true. The King was very passionately, crazily in love with his daughter Cynthia. It actually wasn't anything new except to public knowledge: When five years ago Cynthia returned home at the age of fourteen after the completion of her previous studies in Italy, she had to walk ceremonially into the King's throne room for the reunion. When she did, the King temporarily lost the ability to breath and became light-headed.

The King's first spoken words to Cynthia in seven years: "Oh, oh...hi!" The King gestured a housemaster over and instructed him to change Cynthia's room to the one directly across the courtyard from his.

It was understood that he was doing this so that he could keep an eye on his precious daughter, and that was in fact the truth: His eye was very constantly fixed on her window. Especially in the evenings, when sinister rogues of the night struggled to scale the castle walls, when red-eyed bats swooped about, when wart-covered witches cast strange spells, and when Cynthia changed into her night gown and was bathed. In the total darkness of his room, the King's feverish eyes gazed out from his trim, lightly powdered beard across the courtyard.

First he marvelled at the purity of his daughter's milky skin and the length of her glossy brown hair as it flowed radiantly down her back, and then as it quickly formed a thick triangle rising from between her thighs. He marvelled as her breasts developed from nothing but two tiny nipples into the most abundant and complete shapes he had ever seen. With his face resting on his hands on the windowsill, the King drooled into the courtyard.

Cynthia wasn't a foolish girl though. Even at the age of fifteen she understood things and had a cunning sense of humor. One night during her bath, while her father stared in at her from across the courtyard, Cynthia oredered her maid to sponge her breasts very, very slowly. Cynthia closed her eyes and concentrated on the feeling of the soft, natural sponge soaked in warm, soapy water stroking her breasts. She parted her lips, and luxuriantly tilted her face back. She silently moved her deep red lips around a word for the feeling, then very, very softly, she moaned.

The maid, who had been working for the King for forty-three years, became embarrassed. She tried to stroke the Princess's breasts in a more business-like manner, but Cynthia moaned again, and louder. The maid tried sponging off Cynthia's shoulder instead, but Cynthia grabbed her wrist, and repositioned the sponge back over her breasts.

Cynthia continued moaning; she began writhing; she grabbed the maid's wrist and brought the sponge about a foot and a half lower; she began wailing in pretended ecstasy.

But Cynthia quickly decided not to play such games of jealousy on her father anymore: When she got up the next morning she learned that the familiar maid had, figuratively speaking, woken up without a head; over breakfast, the King had tried her for witchcraft and punished her according to his best sense of justice.

Witchcraft was definitely a dangerous thing in the days when people still practiced and studied the art. Cynthia knew about its power. When the King had assassinated her eleventh fiance, Cynthia visited a witch and commissioned a Pacifism Potion from her. When her next fiance was chosen, she would give her father the potion, and then finally be able to get married. "A Pacifism Potion! Very, very difficult to make, lass."

"Well, I want one just the same. How soon can you make one, and how much will you charge?"

The Witch's face became intense. Her whisker's bristled and her peeling lips trembled a little. "What makes you think I'll make you one? Money isn't everything. I want to know what you plan to use it for first, girl."

The Princess explained her situation to the Witch. The pale, wrinkled old woman's eyes floated around in their sockets for a moment, then she nodded approvingly. "All right. I will create a potion for you."

Cynthia was relieved. She smiled thankfully at the filthy old Witch, then removed her purse. "It will cost four hundred thousand pounds." The price was exorbitantly high; Cynthia herself only owned one hundred thousand pounds. (Actually that in itself was a huge sum; one hundred thousand pounds would have fed all the peasants in the kingdom for fifty years.)

She desrcibed her poverty to the Witch pleadingly. But the old hag refused to lower her price, and just as Cynthia was leaving the hut unaccomplished, the old Witch called: "Girl!"

Cynthia turned. The Witch beckoned her over, and whispered into her ear with breath that smelled of dead things and sulphur, "There is, one way around this. If my potion works, and I promise it will, I will give it to you for only five thousand pounds. If, you let me have your handsome young prince for one night before you even touch his beautiful flesh."

At first the thought repulsed Cynthia. But she realized that unless this homicidal pattern was broken she would never be married; she would turn into a grouchy old queen who had never experienced love, a virgin with wrinkles being sponged by old maids for her life's only sensual pleasure.

The Witch promised that she would not injure the young man or alter him in any way; Cynthia was assured she would probably never even know her prince had been with the Witch. Cynthia thought about this, then agreed to the Witch's offer.

A week later, Cynthia awoke just as the sun was coming up. Warm rays of light passed through the window and touched Cynthia's soft blushed face as it rested on the pillow. She opened her eyes and saw the strong, pure light; she felt it coat her deeply relaxed body like warm water, then she stretched her arms and yawned.

Cynthia noticed the sunlight glinting off something on the windowsill. She peered at it wonderingly, then stood and stepped over for a closer look. There was a tiny glass vial on her windowsill. It contained a single drop of silvery liquid.

The next day, the King called an assembly to announce that he had decided who his daughter was going to marry. All the finest people in the kingdom were invited over for the occasion-the twelfth of its kind-but the tone of the congregation, which the first couple of times had been festive and jolly, was nervous and agitated; faces full of dread surrounded the King.

As usual, to save the King from embarrassment and to save themselves from his rage, everyone went along with his stories about how the past fiances had "gone bad" after their engagements, making their executions completely necessary. In reality, of course, he was just reluctant to let anyone touch his precious beauty; at the same time, she was growing old, and so he felt pressured to let her be married. "I have decided, and so it shall be done and celebrated, that my daughter, Princess Cynthia, shall be married in one week to our noble Lord Westminster."

Cynthia was enraptured: It was the very choice she herself would have made: Not only did Westminster have money and land, he had looks. He also had grace, style, and education.

Moreover, he had character; he was the only young lord in the kingdom who had travelled all over the world. The usual comment on him was that he had seen everything twice, and if there was something he hadn't seen, it was created magically. Cynthia thought about how experienced he must be, and she became short of breath.

That evening, after a grand celebration and a lot of relief, Cynthia went to her father's room to thank him and to bring him some warm milk mixed with the Witch's potion. The King drank the milk thirstily after mixing it with whiskey, then began talking to her in a sort of crazy, drunken way. He told her how sorry he was that she was that she would soon no longer be his little girl. She pointed out that she was twenty now, and that Westminster's castle was only forty miles away. He meant that even still, she would no longer be his, really; she replied that she didn't know what he meant.

The King looked down lamentingly. "'re still young, Daughter. What I mean is: Oh, I mean love, Cynthia darling. Love!" He placed his hand on her leg firmly, and his eyes suddenly looked frantic. "I have only loved one other person the way I love you, and that was your mother: Oh, Cynthia, would you be like her? Would you have her beauty? Oh, Cynthia...!" He slid his hand up along the inside of her leg, and moved his face toward her's.

She became frightened and slapped him. There was a terrible silence, during which the King's eyes were electric. His lips quivered. He stood suddenly, and grabbed her by the hair so fiercely that she squeeked. He pulled his arm back briskly over his shoulder, and in fear of his blow she shut her eyes tightly and clamped her jaws.

But nothing came. She felt him release her hair, then she opened her eyes. The King stood there looking panicked. He suddenly knelt before his daughter-a surprising gesture, for a King-and apologized repeatedly. She smiled, and begged him to stop apologizing. The potion had already begun to work.

Cynthia met with Westminster two times before their marriage. She was worried before their first meeting, since she knew that somehow she would have to deliver her husband-to-be to the Witch. Cynthia didn't dare break her promise to the old hag; she had witnessed the powerful truth of the Witch's magic in her father.

But Cynthia was a clever young woman and it did not take her long to think of an approach: When she was left alone with Westminster, after their formal dinner with her father and a few generals, Cynthia asked him if it were true that he'd seen everything twice. He said it was true; he had seen everything in the world at least twice. She asked him, though, if he had ever seen a witch-a real witch, and in person.

Westminster looked humble for a moment, then acknowledged that no, he had never seen a real witch in person. He would be fascinated to see one, he said, but witches are very hard to find unless you definitely do not want to find them. Cynthia smiled slyly, then moving closer to him she whispered: "I know where a witch lives. Would you like to go look at her?"

Westminster was surprised by this, and his curiosity drove him to visit the Witch the next afternoon. It was curiosity not just about the Witch, but also about whether Cynthia actually knew of one, for how would a respectable woman like her know a witch? If she did, would it imply bad things about Cynthia, maybe?

Westminster hardly expected to find a real witch though; he knew that young women tended towards silly exaggerations, so he was prepared to find at most some old, ugly spinstress. If only he knew.

That same day, the King had plans for a hunt on the land of Lord Rutherford. He was prevented from accompanying the lesser lords in their hunt, however, by his Kingly pride; Rutherford's wife had been under an extremely high-pressured education program devised by Rutherford to conceal her whorish past. Part of her education was the game of cribbage. After two lessons she had the honor of playing the King, and the luck to win.

Laughingly admitting that he had let her win, the King offered to play again. Apparently, he let her win nine consecutive times. Boiling with rage that everyone pretended not to notice, the King decided not to go on the hunt, but to stay alone with the ex-prostitute Lady Rutherford until he was certain she had mastered the game.

Cynthia was anxious to find out how long Westminster would have to stay with the Witch. She actually expected that Westminster, with all his knowledge and intelligence, would somehow get out of the covenstead before the evil old woman could touch him. But the servant Cynthia sent to watch Westminster's castle for the Lord's return briefed her that Westminster did not return from the visit to the Witch's hut until nearly noon the next day.

This surprised Cynthia, but the really shocking information was that when Westminster returned to his castle he was wearing the rags of a peasant. And, several villagers that day had seen a man-also wearing peasant garb and looking remarkably like the popular Westminster-walking nervously with a fearful expression through the town. Witnesses reported that as he scurried past a local inn, a prostitute happened to approach him. She muttered a few lusty, inviting words, then the man, with a look of absolute terror, raced away from her.

Publicly, no one dared to hint that this whore-fearing, bedraggled fellow was Westminster. But realistically, Cynthia had no doubt it was him. And she was worried about Westminster: Had the Witch lied, and broken her promise not to hurt him? Had she deranged him?

Cynthia met with Westminster a second day-the night before the wedding-and he seemed perfectly normal, although he didn't mention the Witch once. Lord Rutherford, on the other hand, fell ill, and it became clear right away that he would not be present for the wedding. Surprisingly, his wife was; for hours after the ceremony, which was pulled off with sufficiently wild, racous celebration, Lady Rutherford sat alone with the King in his chambers playing cribbage.

The guests at the wedding had not only been joyous because of the beautiful, promising contract-Westminster was a wise man, and would soon be important in the kingdom-the guests were also overjoyed that there would be no more executions: All the young bachelors in the land were able to get rudely, wildly, stupidly drunk with a truly clear head for the first time in years.

But when Cynthia was driven with her husband to Westminster palace, her joy was quickly stifled: For all his wisdom, for all his travel and learning, Westminster was just pathetic in bed. Cynthia's deflowering was more like a chore than a heart-shattering adventure: When Westminster finally got a complete erection, it lasted for a totally inadequate two minutes.

Frustrated, Cynthia ordered him to draw a hot bath for her, then nude in the tub with him she guided his clumsy hands across her body, through her scalp, into her tunnels, and through her grief. How lame his hands felt to her!

But nevertheless, it was a great day for the kingdom on the whole. No more executions! The young men marvelled at the thought, and the toasts were all, in secret, to this: No more killing. If only they had known how inappropriate their toasts were. Cynthia got to live in Westminster castle for a total of only three days. A messenger came to announce that the King had fallen ill and requested his only child's presence.

Obediently, she and Westminster went to stay with him. It was really only for formality that Westminster was accompanying her; though it was still their honeymoon, Cynthia had not once in three days been fully satisfied by her husband. She looked at him during breakfast on their last morning in Westminster castle, and she realized that he was a hollow person-an image woven around a blank space. All his popularity, all the wisdom people praised him for, was totally invisible to her.

She stared at him that morning for at least three minutes and he did not look up from his plate once. She asked him questions from time to time and his answers were positively bookish: There was no difference in his tone when he talked to other lords. But still, he had been obedient to her so far, and perhaps after they lived together some more he would fall in love with her.

Yet it was Westminster who suggested that the King's doctor pay a visit to Rutherford. So the discovery that both the King and Rutherford had the same disease must in all fairness be attributed to Lord Westminster. Despite that intriguing discovery neither doctor could figure out what exactly the illness was; it manifested itself in severe lassitude, phlegmatic coughing, dizziness, and blueness of the lips.

With Rutherford it was more severe; he hadn't spoken a word in days, and spent his waking moments staring blankly at the room around him. He seemed to be unconscious although his eyes were open, and he had to be force-fed.

This was all a little too much for Cynthia. The weeks after her wedding turned out to be tragic. Not only was her husband simply the wrong person, her father was ill, and not improving. The King and Westminster tried to guard Cynthia from knowledge of Rutherford's condition so that she wouldn't become too worried about her father, who would probably have the same developments. When one morning Cynthia overheard Westminster speaking with the doctor and thus found out about Rutherford's terrible state and the deception, she became furious. Her maturity had been insulted and her husband, the wrong man, had hidden the bleak truth about her father's sickness from her.

Unsympathetic to his simple-minded excuses, she announced in front of four servants and one doctor that he was no longer her husband. That evening, Cynthia was lying in her old bedroom-not the one she was supposed to share with her husband-when Westminster knocked on her door. She irritably bade him enter. He stood awkwardly inside the room for a moment, not looking at her, then he sat on the chair closest to him. He sat agitatedly for a minute or so, looking down at his clasped hands, then he spoke. His voice rang of contrition. "I saw it in the primitives when I travelled in Africa. They waste away, go insane, then die."

She said nothing, just buried her pallid face in the blankets. Westminster stood in nervous silence for a moment, then quickly left.

They knew better than to try to conceal it from her when Rutherford died, although to her it would mean that her father was without question on his way towards death. On the evening of the day that everyone found out about Rutherford, Westminster became inspired to do something about his wife's grief. He thought about how in Asia he had killed a Bengal tiger alone with a bow and arrow; he remembered how the arrow had pierced the neck of the creature and released a flow of thick, red blood onto its beautiful fur; he recalled the sense of power he had derived from this triumph over Nature.

With his muscles tense in the mightiness of pure virility, Westminster strode through the corridor to his wife's room to plunge a spear into the body of her grief, and knock some sense into her. Westminster had never felt so strong as when he hammered on her door with his fist. But there was no answer. He flung open the door, with his teeth grinding together, then saw that the room was empty. He was dismayed: The place looked as though twenty Bengal tigers had been caged in it; the pillows were torn to shreds, the chairs were tossed around, the paintings and vases smashed: Cynthia had had a tantrum. Westminster was suddenly very relieved that she had not been in the room to witness the force of his courage. Anxious to not be there when Cynthia returned, Westminster hurried to his room to go to sleep.

While she was tearing apart her room in rage, it occurred to Cynthia what she must do to cure her father. So just minutes before Westminster strode off to pay her a profound visit, Cynthia went to her father's room. She visited him every morning, but the visits were becoming depressing. The King's energy was failing, and his hope for recovery was, too.

When Cynthia opened the King's door she saw that his eyes were closed. She heard his heavy, rasping breaths as she walked over softly in the same translucent nightgown she had worn on the evening of her wedding. She sat on his bed and looked sadly down at his face; the illness had worn away it. There were dark purple circles under his eyes, and the blueness of his lips frightened her. But Cynthia was not daunted: She reached out and gently stroked his eyebrows.

His lids opened. Despite the ruthlessness of the sickness, his joy at seeing her was always very plain. There was a glint of pleasure in his eyes as he asked her if it was tomorrow already. She answered no; she just wanted to be with him. He asked how she was getting along with her new husband; she felt her eyes become watery with the truth, but told him that her husband was a fine man. The King agreed, and told her that he was the best man that could be found in the kingdom, since the eleven other best men had turned bad.

Cynthia rested her head on his chest, and she felt his weak hands touch her hair. "Father..."

His voice was so weak that it could have been blown out like a candle: "Yes, Cynthia."

"I feel guilty, Father. I feel I have been for years disobedient to your Lordship." She felt that he was surprised. She explained that for years she had suspected there was something he wanted from her which she had never given him. But it was her duty, she said, to give him everything he wanted of her; he was, after all, the King and her father.

Cynthia lifted her face from his chest, and his hand slid off her back. With a swift but self-conscious movement, Cynthia pushed the silk of her nightgown off her shoulders, and the garment fell to her waist, exposing the pure breasts the King had stared at longingly for years. Cynthia saw the King's eyes, and yes, they were for the first time in weeks full of life. Encouraged, Cynthia stood, and the nightgown continued its passage off her body.

Cynthia stood before him like an aparition; the King heard his own voice. "Cynthia. You are just like your mother." Partly in ceremony, Cynthia bowed over him. With her face lowered near his, she kissed him: It was like kissing him when she was a child: It had the same paternal comfort in it, only it was much more meaningful now. She felt his hand, now stronger, reach across her lower back.

She moved onto the bed and continued kissing him as she began to unbutton his silk pajamas. She kissed the deep hair of his chest, which was partly sunken in from the illness, and rubbed his breasts admiringly. His breathing was fast and heavy, but it sounded like it was real purposeful breathing rather than the almost abandoned habit of a dying body. Cynthia lowered her lips into his thicker hair and began breathing life into his flesh. It responded, and the King moaned in dreamy pleasure.

As Cynthia brought herself onto him, feeling for the first time the fulfillment that can come from serving another person, the King's moans became loud and Cynthia was enraptured at his pleasure. She realized she didn't need to be so gentle after all: But what had she thought, that this real man was like the whore-fearing boy, Westminster? Cynthia felt herself carried by her own pleasure, and she echoed his moans as she rode heavily on him. She closed her eyes and listened to their sounds, and felt their union was like the force of a moon circling a planet, as the planet pulls the moon around it.

Then suddenly Cynthia stopped and opened her eyes: The King was grabbing at his chest as if trying to tear it open, his eyes were bulged, and he was groaning in pain. In terror, Cynthia removed herself and raced toward the door to find the doctor. She heard the King behind her: "My heart. Cynthia, my heart."

Cynthia didn't know which room the doctor was sleeping in, so she had to run to Westminster. Frigthened that she was still in her tantrum, he refused to open his door for some time. But finally the doctor was brought up to the King's room.

His Lordship was not dead, but he had definitely had a heart attack and was going to be considerably enfeebled by it. The doctor's prognosis was that the King wouldn't live more than another week; but Westminster's prognosis, perhaps more valuable considering his more worldly knowledge, was less pessimistic: He gave the King three weeks to live.

The people of the kingdom were very pleased at how destroyed Lady Rutherford became at her husband's death. They didn't expect her to mourn at all since she was really not a proper wife. But in fact her mourning was completely heart-broken and tormented. She decided, much to everyone's praise, to go to a church and confess her life's sins; she reasoned that Rutherford's death was a punishment from God for her sordid, dissolute past.

Certainly the most important of her sins was that during the solitary cribbage sessions they had together, Lady Rutherford had made love to the King repeatedly. The pious people of the kingdom were convinced that the lethal results of the King's illicit romance was his fate's backlash for all the young men he had killed.

When Cynthia learned that her father had made love to the ex-prostitute she was overwhelmed with guilt; if she had been obliging to the King he would never have had to have seen the whore. Westminster would probably never have noticed that she was not a virgin; he never payed attention to anything carnal. The night after she learned about her father and the prostitute Cynthia sat in her old room, where she now spent most of her time, and remembered how her father used to stare in at her from his window across the courtyard.

She remembered remorsefully how she once tried to tease him by having the maid do things to her. Cynthia thought about how young she was then; she had been so secure in her life that she was able to afford such carelessness. Cynthia remembered how as the maid caressed her with the sponge, she had dreamed about the husband she would have and the things they would do in love. Cynthia found herself standing from her chair, and stepping over to the window. She recalled a pair of eager eyes in the old room where her father now slept, and she removed her night gown and touched herself for the eyes that used to be there. She rubbed her hands across her bare skin, but the fantasy didn't survive: Cynthia pictured her father in his present exhaustion trying to recover from his heart attack, and Cynthia began crying.

She knelt before the window, and put her face on the cold cement windowsill. She spent the rest of the evening remembering her bright, mirthful childhood, and the moments when she would return from school abroad and meet her father.

With the King asleep most of the time, or frozen in artificial tranquilized sleep, and with their frequent guest Lord Rutherford dead, the King's castle had become almost unbearably quiet. Many of the servants were in mourning over their master's state, and Westminster certainly didn't succeed in lightening the tone of life there. Ever since Cynthia's tantrum he had begun to fear her, and he often avoided her.

But this quietude was short-lived. One afternoon, a servant came to Cynthia's room to inform her that a woman with a child had come to the castle and was demanding to be given a room. Cynthia was baffled at this until she went downstairs and found the Witch standing in the hall with a baby wrapped in blankets in her arms. Cynthia told the Witch harshly that by no means would someone of her kind be permitted in the castle; if the Witch refused to leave immediately, the guards would force her away.

Suddenly the Witch had the most stunning look of hatred on her face. She hissed that the guards would certainly not send her away... "Not with this!" The Witch displayed the baby: It was an almost exact miniature of Lord Westminster.

Cynthia realized that the Witch was black-mailing her. If she wasn't given a room the Witch would display the child of Lord Westminster to everyone in the kingdom and this would destroy the reputation of the man, and would certainly jeopardize the security of Princess Cynthia. Her only protection was, after all, the King: a feeble old memory wasting silently away in a bed. Cynthia had no supporters aside from the King, since she was unfairly seen as the indirect cause of eleven murders.

Cynthia was forced to compromise with the Witch; she allowed the old hag and her child to have one of the best servants' quarters, all of which were in the cellar. Cynthia tried to force Westminster to do something about the Witch. But regardless what she pretended she could not separate herself from the knowledge that this whole affair with the Witch was, in cause, her fault. Westminster could hardly appease Cynthia with his usual, "I'm trying to think of something! I just need more time."

Despite the fact that the Witch and the boy were given quarters in the cellar they spent most of their time in the upper levels of the castle, and so to escape from seeing them-it disconcerted her to see either of them-Cynthia spent even more of her time isolated in her own bedroom. One morning when she opened her door, she found the miniature Westminster sitting on the floor directly in front of her, and staring at her with unexplained anger. Cynthia was horrified: The boy, who could not have been more than a few months old, looked at least three and a half. She noticed that one of his eyes was useless; it hung limply in its socket to stare perpetually at the floor. Looking down at him Cynthia heard herself conclude silently: This boy wants to kill me-I am keeping his mother from his father.

Suddenly Cynthia became uneasy; how had that thought come to her? How could she attribute such malevolent feelings to such a young child? As if he had sensed Cynthia's strong discomfort, the child's face changed: His lips bent strangely, exposing his small teeth, and his cheeks became tense and seemed to crumple: The child suddenly began crying tearfully while it continued glare at Cynthia, now blamingly.

Cynthia was confused and frightened; she had no idea what to do, but was urgent to shut the child up before itswretched mother heard. In desperation, Cynthia tried reaching out to touch it comfortingly, but then the child screamed and its weeping turned into wailing.

Cynthia stood dumbly, on the verge of tears herself from frustration: The child's cries were the most horrible racket she had ever heard, and its expression commanded her to be killed. Cynthia began muttering to the child to shut up, not harshly but beseechingly, and then the Witch raced into the corridor. Her eyes were bulging wildly above the red, puffy folds under them.

Before she looked at Cynthia she grabbed her child up off the floor, then turned to face the Princess: "What the fuck have you done to him? What have you done, you lousy cunt?"

Cynthia's sense of injustice overwhelmed her. She couldn't speak, and once again she felt like crying. The Witch raged at her. "I'm going to destroy you, you worthless whore! I'm going to cast a spell on you that'll make your eyes rot inside your head, and then I'll torture you to death!"

Cynthia felt herself trembling in fright at the Witch's fury; she literally believed that the Witch could kill her. "If you bother my boy anymore, you bitch, I'm going to bring a dozen thiefs over here and have them rape you until you die! Leave my boy alone!"

In dazed terror, Cynthia moved back into her room and the Witch began soothing the boy-who had become silent the instant his mother appeared-and hurrying back down the corridor.

After that incident Cynthia never felt equal to the Witch. Not only was the woman capable of creating spells; she was probably not sane and clearly hated her. Cynthia was now usually very apprehensive about leaving her room, even during the day.

Understandably, the servants in the royal castle resented having to serve a witch and live with one near their quarters. Many of them, even some of the ones who had been quite dedicated to the King, abandoned their jobs without even talking to Cynthia or Westminster. A few of them were reported to have taken up work with Lady Rutherford who, with her recent conversion to devout Christianity, had become remarkably popular in the kingdom.

Cynthia had realized that both Rutherford's and her father's illness were probably venereal, and contracted from her-since both illnesses appeared soon after the two men first made love to her-but now Cynthia did not dare confront the widow Rutherford; Cynthia wanted desperately to hold on to whatever good reputation she had left in the kingdom, and by suggesting bad things about Lady Rutherford she would no doubt be seen as slandering all holiness.

An additional problem that began with the arrival of the Witch was this: Although Cynthia and Westminster were always distant, she on a fairly regular basis intivited Westminster to visit her during the night. They would make love in the most unemotional, purely carnal way, and then part. With Westminster's lack of proficiency it was small comfort, but now when Westminster visited her he was useless; he simply had no energy for Cynthia. She realized that living with the witch who had raped him must be psychologically defeating for him, but still Cynthia was bothered by it, and she criticized Westminster severely every time he failed to perform well.

Since the Witch spent nearly all her time upstairs rather than in her cellar quarters, she didn't think it was unreasonable to request the convenience of a regular suite. Westminster submissively agreed with her that it would make no real difference, so he gave the Witch and her child one of the guest suites. There were certainly no guests that needed to be evicted in order to make room. When Cynthia learned of Westminster's concession to the Witch, though, she stopped inviting him to her room entirely, and they no longer spoke to each other at dinner; his silence was guilt-ridden and fearful, but also had a victim's cold reticence to it; her silence was harshly resentful.

When the Witch demanded next that she and her son be allowed to dine at the King's table every night, in Westminster's presence but without Cynthia there, Westminster impassively agreed to this also. Cynthia yelled at him for it, but he simply stared down at the table and wondered in an angerless but uncaring, blank way, "Why are you so upset about it? You never liked me anyway; you won't miss dining with me." Cynthia had no answers except that she would now need her dinner brought up to her, which was no real problem, and except that it was wrong for a witch to be in the royal castle at all. But she knew it was her who had originally given the Witch quarters in the castle. Cynthia was infuriated, but she didn't know what to do.

The King, in the meantime, had gotten worse. One evening, in terrible grief at the King's fate and the fate of his kingdom-in which dishonest whores were now spiritual leaders, and in which royalty was ignored-Cynthia went to visit him.

He was rarely awake these days, and when he was he simply stared unthinkingly and unseeing at the room around him. This was worse than when he was asleep, for when his eyes emptily scanned the room, he did not look at all like the King, and the disease's destruction of his personality was obvious. Cynthia also frightened herself by wondering when he did this, What can he be seeing?

The King was not asleep when she entered his room. His eyes weren't moving; they were set hazily on his feet at the end of the bed, and his motionless body was illuminated by the discoloring, yellow light of the candles. Shadows moved minutely on his eyes, but they remained lifelessly open. Yet he was still not dead. Cynthia paused, her sorrowful heart in her throat, before she went over and sat on the edge of his bed.

She looked at the King, and it was like looking at all of it: The whole situation with the Witch, her son, Rutherford's death, Westminster's betrayals, Lady Rutherford's undeserved popularity, the servants' departures: All these things appeared in the hollow, ravaged face of the King. Cynthia felt tears. With her lip quivering, she began telling her father that she had never meant for anything like this to happen. She never wanted him to have a heart attack; she was just trying to cure him.

Cynthia apologized over and over, crying on her father's bed for an hour, and he did not move once. The King died three days later. Everyone knew he'd die, and most people expected it sooner. As very often happens, when the King began weakening people had begun talking poorly about him. When his death came the King was less than popular.

Lady Rutherford, despite the fact that she might have given him his lethal illness, refused to mourn over his death. Perhaps she wanted to avoid it? Maybe she was genuinely contrite, as she had been with Rutherford, but was afriad that people would see it and begin wondering? Whatever the fact was, her decision not to mourn removed many people of their sense of obligation to do it also, and so very few people in the kingdom mourned the King's death. Most of them instead were busy wondering if Cynthia would even become Queen; she certainly didn't seem to be the stuff of a Queen, being-according to rumors-bullied by a Witch and being basically a recluse.

The King's funeral was attended by six people, including the priest. There was Cynthia, in black, two of the King's generals, a poor cousin of the King who was considered terribly dissolute, Lord Rothson, and Westminster.

There was no wake. Instead there was a crowning ceremony attended by only those six people. Cynthia was quietly proclaimed Queen by the priest, whom the King had used for other functions in past decades, and by the two generals.

Very late one evening, the Queen Cynthia left her room to tour the castle: She had had an impulse to see it all; in her several years there, she had never had a complete picture of it in her mind. The castle had always consisted in her thoughts of the vast Throne Room, the servants quarters, the games room, the suites, guest suites, and the dining room. Tonight, Cynthia wanted to see everything. This was challenging for her; the only way for her to overcome her fear of the Witch and the boy enough to leave her room alone was for her to remind herself again and again, "I am the Queen now: This castle belongs to me." She also concealed an elegant, jeweled dagger in her pocket.

The emptiness of the vast rooms and their maze-like corridors was upsetting. She remembered as a girl running through the rooms and finding people everywhere. She would trot happily up to them then introduce herself: "Hi, I'm Princess Cynthia. Who are you?" And they would smile down at her, then respectfully answer. But this night, she entered rooms that could have been crypts or the chambers of some old, abandoned warehouse; the total vacancy frightened her, and felt profoundly wrong.

Cynthia's candle, as if trying to please her, threw shadows everywhere; as if their moving shapes were meant to mimic actual people. Cynthia heard noises as she entered the wing where she and Westminster had slept together for a few nights, and where Westminster still slept.

She stopped moving, and listened: She heard a sound like an animal's voice, a goat's or a small calf's, shouting one note that irregularly fell and rose in pitch. Cynthia very slowly proceeded, then found that it came from inside Westminster's room. Cynthia's face was tight, and she felt blanched.

She tremblingly put her candlestand on the floor, then put her eye up to the keyhole. Cynthia's heart was palpitating: Westminster was lying on his bed naked with the Witch mounting him, moving up and down in vicious pleasure. She was laughing softly as his moans and screams resounded through the room. The Witch was still wearing a ragged black shirt, but below her waist her skin was bare, and her wrinkled white legs were covered with fuzzy grey hair. Cynthia was shocked. The Witch stopped moving herself on Westminster long enough to lean closely over him, and extending her long tongue beforehand, kiss him.

The Witch moved her face away from his, and Cynthia saw Westminster was smiling at the Witch. The hag began moving up and down again, and the man's inhuman noises quickly resumed. Cynthia was on the verge of fainting as she raced back to her room. This was obviously why Westminster was no longer able to make love to Cynthia: Not because he was emotionally unable to, but because he was drained from being with the Witch.

In her room that evening, after the shock wore off and the grief sunk in, the twenty-year-old Queen sobbed. As the realization formed itself for her: "I do not exist. I am nothing now." But it may have been witnessing the Witch with her husband that finally enabled the Queen to get over her preoccupation with her father's horrible death. For the first time since she tried making love with her dying father, Cynthia made a real decision: She would make love to one of the remaining servants: She would become pregnant: She would have a son: He would become king, and in the manner of her father Cynthia's son would restore order to the kingdom. The son would be bold: He would banish the Witch, and the Witch's child, and Westminster. All of them would perish.

That night, one of the servants had an astounding vision: An image of the Queen appeared before him, and made love to him. After the spirit left, the man slept deeply. But for the next two nights in a row he had the same experience. When he spoke to the image of the Queen, it never responded; and when he stopped having the vision, the man became extremely depressed and finally left the castle without announcing his resignation. He had apparently decided it was a bad omen.

The Queen did become pregnant. This was fortunate for her, because after her third visit to the servant she had to stop going to him. One evening when she opened her door and began sneaking down the hallway with her candle, she noticed the Witch's boy standing like a wax statue in the shadows just at the end of the corridor.

At first she didn't recognize him: He was wearing a powdered grey wig and immaculate young gentleman's garmants. There was a moment of total silence, during which the boy glared at her with his one functional eye as if she were a criminal. Cynthia felt that somehow the boy knew her plans. She turned in morbid fright and raced back to her room.

When she had closed the door, she leaned back against it, her breathing rapid. Her wide eyes looked pained. She had nightmares about the boy waiting for her forever at the end of the hall, and she would not leave her room again for quite some time.

There were moments when Cynthia not just realized in a practical sense, but actually believed that she was nothing; she thought she literally did not exist. No one visited the castle. She never received letters. Apparently the lords and magistrates took care of everything. Dishes and silverware from Cynthia's meals-which by the Witch's request the servants just left outside her door once a day-accumulated in dirty, molding piles on her fireplace mantle and on her floor.

Her clothes weren't laundered; they formed heaps on the rug, the dirtied shells of past elegance, and she didn't notice stepping on them.

Cynthia spent most of her time lying on her long-unwashed sheets, losing herself in fantasies based on her better memories. In them she was usually a young girl in a small country cottage with kind, protective servants; the cottage was surrounded by forests and fields, with cool, clear streams running through them.

She would be fed in the morning by her servants, then she would go for walks in the forests. "Be careful, Cindy!" The female servant would call to her as she trotted into the woods, the smell of wildflowers and rich earth intoxicating her. She would see deer in the bushes, looking at her surprised behind leafy shields with their large, glassy, brown eyes; she would see white rabbits bounding in the fields with their long ears and puffy tails. Cynthia would think about the rabbits, and lie on her bed stroking a pillow softly, feeling the infinite smoothness of its fur. She would kiss it, and hold it to her bosom and feel it moving gently in its pleasure.

Sometimes Cynthia was unable to escape into her daydreams. She would become agitated, and have inextinguishable and involuntary visions of the Witch making love to the obedient Westminster, and of the boy staring at her, cursing her silently. At those times she would be unable to revert to the girlish mentality which was too spirited to be confined to Cynthia's actual situation; Cynthia's thoughts would become more and more tense, and she would begin to feel overwhelmed and unable to control them. They would sometimes wear her out.

Once she became so tormented by the images of the Witch, the boy, and Westminster that shot like darts through the rent fabric of her mind, that she reached another level of fear that soon became a frequent one for her: The conception suddenly struck her that her room was the entire world: With its thick, unmoving air, the dirty plates and clothes, her room was all there was. She envisioned her room as a box drifing through a darkness like the one the stars rested on: Behind her door and all around her walls was blackness, and she was absolutely alone.

Cynthia scratched at the skin of her legs with her unclipped nails just for the sake of feeling something. She looked down and saw the new, red scratch marks, blood just barely appearing in them; she also saw the dozens of scratch marks she had already made there.

The only problem with the fantasy therapy that Cynthia could see was in leaving the imaginary places: It was sometimes almost traumatic. But she began to be able to go directly from the fantasies into sleep. The only difficult times were when she woke up in the morning. She would look at the room around her, dazed, and begin to remember things. If she wasn't quick enough in dispelling the thougths, dragons would come out of her mind.

One day as the sun was beginning to fall, and Cynthia was lying on her bed lost in fantasies of cottages and kind servants, her door opened. She saw an unfamiliar Westminster in the doorway: He had none of his old fear, and he looked less groomed. His face was harsh as he stared at her; his jaw was closed tightly, and his eyes were narrowed in a vengeful expression.

He stepped into the room, leaving the door open, then went over to her. Her thin arms were folded over the small velvet pillow on her chest and she was wearing her night gown still-she never really took it off. He looked down at her contemptuously, but she was so confused to see the figure that all she could do was ask, "Are you really Westminster?"

Suddenly he slapped her face-she felt pain ripple through her head and into her brain-then he grabbed her hair fiercely. Cynthia wailed and felt herself crying; she had never been beaten before. He tore the pillow out of her grip with his other hand, then yanked her by the hair onto the floor. He ripped her nightgown off, then kneeling, pulled her legs apart.

When he saw the scratch marks she had carved into her flesh, he was disgusted. He spat on her breasts, then took the pillow that she had been holding and rammed it between her legs.

He stood up from her, and her abused eyes followed him: The Witch and her boy were waiting for Westminster at the door, watching.

After her door was shut, Cynthia wept, holding the pillow there between her legs until she was again able to think it was a gentle, tame rabbit.

The next day she couldn't remember whether that had all really happened, or whether it was just one of her awful, vivid fantasies. The only compelling evidence Cynthia had that showed she did exist was that she noticed herself becoming less beautiful. She seemed to be aging. Something that does not exist cannot change, she told herself.

And if she was aging fast, people would have been astounded at the growth of the Witch's boy, who now had his own suite for himself in the castle-the one the King had occupied. One morning before she began daydreaming Cynthia had seen the Witch's boy-who looked about eleven-riding a horse that had belonged to her in the courtyard outside her window. He was in the raiment of a young lord.

Cynthia's anger, a rare remnant from better days, gave her the strength to summon a servant to her room. When the young woman entered she looked at Cynthia insolently, without any respectful nervousnesss, and said nothing. Cynthia's voice shook. "I saw that boy, Miss, riding on my land." The servant looked at her unmovingly for a moment, then spoke with bitterness.

"That boy, Madam, is named George. And I see no harm in it if George wishes to ride. The land is being used for nothing else now, is it? Besides, I don't think you're in any position to complain."

Cynthia was speechless. George had been, as the servant must have known, the King's name also. After a moment of silence, the servant left the room without acknowledging Cynthia again.

One evening about three days later, Cynthia had a nightmare. She was sitting on her father's bed apologizing to him, exactly as she had really done, when the Witch's boy entered the room. Cynthia knew he was there, but continued pleading with her dying father. She was not afriad of the boy even when he stood directly beside Cynthia and her father. He appeared to listen for a minute, with his useless eye fixed on the floor and the other one flickering about, and then he reached under the King's blankets.

At that moment Cynthia stopped talking to her father and for the first time looked directly at the boy. He moved his hand around searchingly under the blanket, then finally he pulled out a large meat knife. In the dream, Cynthia tried to figure out why there had been a knife under the bed, and then the boy plunged it into her father's collapsed chest.

Cynthia woke up screaming: Her blankets were tossed aside, her gown had been lifted up, and there was blood between her legs. A long, bloody, sharp wire was on the bed. In the total darkness her room, Cynthia heard the sound of her door closing. Cynthia could not sleep again, and no food was brought up to her that morning.

After the abortion she sobbed, tearing up her sheets as bandages for the damage the invader-probably the Witch's boy-had done with his ruthlessly careless work. But her tears didn't just flow into a void; Cynthia began beating on her pillow for the first time since she was seven, then she promised herself that she, too, would become a witch.

She would go find the Witch's old hut, and she would live there, learning witchcraft, then resurrect her baby from the graveyard of her womb. Cynthia stopped crying. She would leave the castle immediately.

Cynthia thought of what she would need to bring, and inventoried what little she had to chose from. She couldn't risk trying to pilfer valuables from the castle treasure: That would be much too dangerous. She decided to bring no clothes-they were too cumbersome, and her royal clothes were hardly appropriate for her future life-she would only bring the silverware lying around her room, and her jewelry. She would sell it all to buy her apprenticeship from the best, most cunning and devious witch she could find.

Cynthia gathered the things up and wrapped them in a couple of pillow cases, then tied her plainest scarf around her head. She remembered how she had once seen the Witch's boy standing at the end of her corridor, and realized that she would have to somehow get out through the window: By now that boy was probably old enough to rape her.

She would get into the courtyard; from there she could easily open the gate onto the castle grounds. Holding her sack of valuables, she looked over the windowsill. The fall was severe. She heard one of the kind servants from her fantasies telling her to be careful. She asked her, "Why? It's only a few feet."

The servant repeated, Be careful. Cynthia stepped onto the cement windowsill and after pushing the shutters open as far as they could go, looked across the courtyard to the window that used to be her father's. Many memories returned to her in that instant: Her father gaping at her strangely, not like a king at all, from his throne when they reunited after her seven year absence; the shape of his head in the window across from her's, night after night; Westminster sitting naked in the tub with her, nearly crying out of childish confusion; the old Witch in her squalid hut, with its strange, chemical odors; the horrible boy screaming at her tearfully, blamingly; Westminster slapping her, tearing her hair; the boy plunging a knife into her father's chest; the King ripping at his own chest, under her naked body. Cynthia stepped off the cement widowsill. She heard her father's voice tell her warmly, serenely: Cynthia, you are just like your mother: A warm bath. The sun. The kingdom flourishing.

The Witch didn't want her son to grow up a social outcast, as she had been. She wanted him to be able to walk through the town and inspire respect, not stone-throwing.

"Westminster dear," the Witch addressed him like a society wife, "I want you to take George out today." She thougt about it some more, and nodded to the servant to refill her teacup. "I want you to go fishing with your son at the lake. The popular one: Crescent Lake. So that people can have a good look at our handsome boy."

Westminster sat with George on a large, smooth boulder. The water lapped at the stone near their feet. The sun had persuaded them with its warmth to remove their jackets, which were now folded under the basket in which they had their lunch. They both held fishing poles above the water; the strings fell slackly onto the smoothly rippling surface. There was a tiny comotion in a tree near them, then a kingfisher darted out before their vision, and vanished into a different cove.

On the opposite shore, the tall pine trees made a solid wall of green. The afternoon air was still and quiet, only tempered by a soft breeze that returned every few minutes. "Father," George asked in a slightly deep, soft adolescent voice, "Will I be king one day?"

Westminster looked down at his feet on the edge of the stone, and saw his reflection next to George's on the surface of barely wavy water. "Yes, George. You will be king."

The sun continued its shining, but the breeze soon became a bit more vigorous. The two moved to a more tranquil cove, and had more luck there.

When the two returned to the castle, George went to bring their fish to the kitchen: The three of them would eat their catch for dinner. Westminster went back to his bedroom to change into proper clothes.

When he opened the door, he gasped: The Witch stood before him in a white velvet dress, with jewels sewn along the deeply curved neckline. Her hair had been washed and brushed, and her face was smooth with make-up; her eyes were shadowed with dark blue, their thin brows rising slightly. There was a faint smile on her painted lips. "You are beautiful, Witch."

When Westminster said "Witch," the old woman shook her head quickly, then mouthed, No. Westminster pondered this for a moment, then understood. He corrected himself, "You are beautiful, Cynthia."

The Witch smiled, then reached out and touched his cheek softly. Westminster was dazzled. He told her in a whisper, "Cynthia, I love you." She stepped over to him, and they kissed for a long time.

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