The worst thing about being king, Iphicles had realized, was how mind-numbingly boring it could be. Take this dinner, for example. A state banquet, to honor the arrival of the Thessalian ambassador and his retinue, and duller than dirt. Even the minstrels looked bored. One of them in particular caught his gaze. She must be new--- there was no way he wouldn't have noticed a raven-haired beauty like her. She saw him looking, and grinned, playing a few measures that most of the courtiers in the hall were too gently raised to recognize as the chorus to a particularly filthy barroom ditty. He had to look away, or burst out laughing.
Eventually, the banquet ended. Pleading exhaustion, Iphicles retreated to his bedchamber, then, as had become his habit, crept out a window into the palace gardens. It was the only way he could get any time to himself these days. Only, this time, he wasn't alone. Someone was already in the garden. Singing. He made his way towards the sound.
"Ol' Hephaestus, he was there, his balls was made of brass. And when he blew a fart, m'lads, sparks flew out his ass!"
It was the dark-haired musician. Apparently, she knew more than just the chorus. Nice voice, too, but she was singing rather loudly. He was afraid it would attract attention soon, if he didn't do something.
"A charming melody, but not really the thing for state dinners, you know."
She turned, blushing. "Oh! I'm sorry! I didn't realize...um, that is, I though...oh!" She had unusually fair skin for someone with black hair, and it flushed a most becoming crimson.
"Not that some state dinners don't need livening up, of course." He grinned down at her. "I haven't seen you before, have I?"
"No... I've just traveled here from Athens. The long way." She smiled, a little shyly. "My name's Delera."
"So, Delera, do you know anything besides dull courtly tunes and rude tavern songs?"
She looked down. "Oh, you don't really want to hear me sing. These days it seems like all I can sing is sad songs."
"I could make it a royal command."
"Well, if you put it that way..." She strummed a soft, melancholy tune.
"I wish my baby it was born
And smiling on his daddy's knee
And I poor girl was in my grave
With the long green grass a-growing all over me"
She was staring straight ahead, and didn't seem to be seeing anything. There was something odd about her eyes- the color was strange, but it was too dim to see them clearly.
"O grieve, o grieve and I'll tell you why
Because that young girl has more gold than I
He takes this young girl on his knees
And he tells her tales that he won't tell me"
Her face was calm, as composed as a death mask.
"I wish, I wish, but it's all in vain
I wish I was a sweet maid again
But a maid again I never shall be
Till apples grow on an orange tree"
Tears were streaming down her pale, expressionless face. Iphicles wanted to tell her to stop, but he wasn't sure she'd hear him. And her voice was so lovely...
"Dig me my grave long wide and deep
Put a marble stone on my head and feet
And on my breast place a white snow dove
For to let the world know that I died for love"
She seemed to come back to herself then. "Oh I should have known better, I..." Her words broke off with a choked sob. Iphicles patted her on the shoulder, uneasily, and she buried her face against his neck with a wail. "I'm sorry," she whimpered, between sniffles, "I shouldn't be bothering you..."
Iphicles was painfully aware of the way she was pressed close against him, her breasts heaving with every sob. He grabbed her by the chin, forcing her to look at him. "Delera. I'm sorry I upset you, but---"
Whatever else he might have said was lost, as she flung her arms around his neck and trapped his mouth with her own. He made a brief effort to pull away, but any resistance that survived her soft lips, sweet breath, and gently probing tongue was dissolved by the feeling of her full breasts crushed against his chest, and the dreamlike way the undulated against him. He grabbed her by the hips, his rapidly hardening cock pressing against her belly, as he broke the kiss with a soft groan.
She was staring at him, her face wan and stricken. "Oh," she whispered. "What must you think of me!" Bursting into tears again, she ran off with a wail. Iphicles stood, bewildered, for a long moment, before making his way back to his room in confusion.
From the shadows, Delera watched him go. When he was safely out of earshot, she allowed herself a quiet chuckle. Phase one was progressing perfectly.
Chapter 2: REFRAIN
Iphicles couldn't get Delera out of his mind. It had been almost a week, and he kept seeing the look on her face before she'd fled into the shadows. She'd seemed almost frightened. He wanted to talk to her, find out what made her run, but she seemed to be making herself scarce... he'd only caught glimpses of her at meals, crowded in with the other musicians, and he couldn't have singled her out then without making a scene. The treaty negotiations with that damned Thessalian delegation had taken up the rest of his time, preventing him from seeking her out.
But, finally, terms had been settled. The treaty had been drawn up, and the formal signing ceremony was tomorrow. And the king of Corinth was stalking the halls of his own castle late at night, as stealthily as a common thief, hoping to steal a glance at the woman who'd so thoroughly invaded his thoughts. There was a good deal of noise and commotion coming from the kitchens. It sounded as if the palace staff was having an evening revel of their own. He heard singing... the clearest voice was--- yes! --- Delera's.
"We'll go no more a roving, a roving in the night
We'll go no more a roving, let the moon shine so bright
We'll go no more a roving!"
Well, she couldn't be too distraught. Her voice sounded cheerful and vibrant, not as constrained or formal as he'd heard her before.
"Now you are no beggar, you are some gentleman
For you have stolen my maidenhead and I am quite undone
I am no god, I am no king, of beggars I be one
And beggars they be robbers all, so you are quite undone"
She really did have a splendid voice... even from the hall, he found him getting caught up in the bouncy little tune.
"Ah, Delera, sing us a happy one!" He couldn't place the voice. There were so many servants, he'd all but given up on trying to know them all.
"Na, I'm fer bed." Odd... Delera hadn't had that up-country drawl when she'd spoken to him. But it was unmistakably her voice.
Iphicles had been too busy listening to realize that she was headed for the very door he'd been pressing his ear against. He was able to straighten up and step back in time, but still, he was standing right in front of the door when Delera opened it. She gasped when she saw him, and stood for a moment, seeming not to even breathe. His own breath seemed stuck, trapped in his throat.
She looked a little different that when he'd seen her last, dressed and coifed to perform at court. Now she wore a becomingly simple linen smock and a long dark skirt, and her hair was tied loosely at the nape of her neck. Even in the dim torchlight, he could see a blush rising in her pale cheeks.
"I'm sorry... I oughtna stare..." she looked down, her blush deepening. "I..."
Iphicles struggled to maintain his composure. What was he doing, sneaking around the back passages of his own castle, just to catch a glimpse of some ragged little musician? Not to mention the humiliation of going all tongue-tied at the sight of her like some adolescent.
"Delera." He smiled, trying to at least look confident. "I had been hoping to run into you. Would you walk with me a ways?"
She nodded, without raising her eyes.
He walked with her through the quiet, seldom-used back corridors, not really sure where he was headed. She was silent, but stood so close he could feel her body heat, and smell the sweet odor of violets rising from her hair.
"Since you haven't been in Corinth long, you may not know, but tomorrow is our Festival of Artemis..."
She looked up at him, but said nothing.
"We hold a Great Hunt... it's basically an excuse for everyone to ride out and have a picnic in the woods, that sort of thing." And all sorts of other things done in the woods, too. He tried not to let his mind linger on that, but the mental image of Delera lying on a blanket in a sun-dappled clearing, smiling up at him, hit him with such suddenness and clarity he had to stifle a gasp. He continued, hoping his face hadn't betrayed his thoughts. "I thought perhaps...." No, that sounded wrong, too weak. "Would you care to ride out with me?"
"I don't know anything about hunting..." Despite her words, she didn't seem reluctant, just a little nervous.
"Oh, you don't need to, really. It's more of a ceremonial hunt than a real hunt. It would help, though, if you can ride."
"I can... well, a little." She smiled at him, then, a heartstopping smile like the one he'd just imagined. Somehow he kept his cool.
"I'll have a gentle horse saddled and ready for you."