The Year of the Dead Rose
by Rachel Parsons
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 appeared
in issue 235.
Chapters 2-4 appeared
in issue 236.
Princess Rhiannon of New Fairy was a prodigal daughter of a king, forced by circumstance into a life of prostitution before returning to her father. Though freed from her servitude, Rhiannon has suffered a terrible curse and must appear naked at all times, vulnerable and cold. As she resumes her rightful place in the world, she encounters dark sorcery, the evil of men, the intrigue of enemies and her own inner conflicts.
Wynne’s Inn was halfway between Caer Rhiannon and New Fairy’s capital and the seat of most of its non-agricultural business-Arbeth Dactyl. Although away from the bustle, you could still hear the roar of the Don and sometimes, the bells and horns of ships, as they warned each other of their presence. Sometimes, as a maiden, Rhiannon would slip away from the palace and stay at the Inn; she would listen to the night sounds of the far-away Don and fancy she could hear sounds from its far shore.
Wynne’s Inn was a tavern, made of stone and wood, in a clearing off the road, surrounded by Matera trees, with their clown lips and their hanging man limbs. By these woods, on the Don side of the clearing, was a wishing well. Some say that its waters are deep and go down to Queen Hel’s dominion. Rhiannon knew this was silly, as the chilly, Ice Realm was, really, in another dimension, some ninety degrees from everywhere else, if you wish to talk like a scholar or a monk.
Besides, riding on Nightshade was chilly enough in her condition. She didn’t even want to think of the Ice Dimension. Nonetheless, Wynne had created a delicacy from the icy waters of the well mixed with milk, ‘creamed ice,’ and the beer on tap was always cold, even in High Summer. Rhiannon’s eyes crossed at the idea of High Summer. For a moment, she was transported to a place where it was always summer, always warm, and always amenable to bare skin. In spite of the all-over sunburn that would be her bane in those months, she hungered for that time, insects devouring her and all.
She rode up to the tethering posts in front of the Inn. An ostler, a boy hardly past his Quickening, came out of the stables. His eyes were all over Rhiannon as she dismounted.
“Take my horse, boy.”
“Gladly, woman, if you have the geld,” he smirked.
He didn’t know who she was. That was obvious by his manner. The boy hadn’t noticed the leather saddle, the portlier made of finest unicorn hide, or the sheath where the death sword glistened. It was obvious what he was noticing, and that explained his familiarity. But rather than be miffed, Rhiannon relaxed.
She fished out a gold coin from the portlier, and then from the only place she could hide such on her person, a folding knife, which she deftly unsnapped by grasping the blade between thumb and forefinger, and jerking the handle down. The boy gasped and turned pale. His manner indicated he was awestruck, whether by the knife itself, her deft handling of it, or from how she had sheathed it, she couldn’t tell. Giggling, Rhiannon re-inserted the knife; went to the back of the Inn, to what looked like a shelter that could protect from the gales that sometimes swept inland from the Don. She bent over and gave the secret knock.
The door’s bar creaked. The door slammed opened, making some of its peeling paint flake. A woman, more planet than person, stared out.
“Rhiannon? Is that you?”
“The very same, mother,” Rhiannon replied with the honorific.
“I had heard that you go about naked these days, but to see it in the flesh, so to speak-“ Wynne laughed a deep, guttural laugh. She laughed with a throat that had been wetted far too long with whisky, but even though Rhiannon had seen the fine liquid flow here, she had never seen its proprietress partake of this goddess-born beverage.
Rhiannon smiled as she descended the stairs, feeling each splinter as she did. At the base, holding on to a newel, she let the globe-woman hug her and rub her behind.
Rhiannon had sneaked to the inn as a maiden, and had participated in its forbidden pleasures-whisky, fags, and games of chance. Nobody knew who the little twat, as she had been affectionately called, was. Except for Wynne, who became a second mother to her.
“Let me look at you, girl.” Still clutching Rhiannon’s shoulders with her hammy hands, Wynne pulled back from Rhiannon and looked her up and down. “It’s too bad you already have a job, you would be most welcome here.”
Rhiannon laughed. “And what, prithee, is my ‘job?’”
“Why queen, of course.”
Rhiannon hadn’t expected that.
“You’re wondering how I knew that you are being pressed into such service?”
“Aye, I am wondering that, mother. I learned of it myself just this second dawn.”
Wynne quivered. “There are some things about me you will never know. Now, what brings you here?”
“Must I have a reason to visit my old mother?” Wynne did not take offense at the adjective old-in spite of her years, she had yet to reach the age where she would stop aging. Wynne was a fairy, like Rhiannon, and not a human, although she had the ears of a mortal, slightly rounded and short.
“Rhiannon, the little twat, needn’t have a reason. Rhiannon, princess of the realm and soon to be queen, has to have a reason.” Wynne was waddling, making like a flightless bird from the eastern pole, toward the game room — the centerpiece of the secret chambers of the inn. As innkeeper and princess passed the threshold, they encountered the tables with men pensively playing cards, balls-and-slots, and in the far corner, stick-and-balls.
The room was practically misty with the splatter of whisky and beer, which flowed nearly as freely as the rapids of the Don. At every table, as croupiers or as distractions, there was at least one woman as naked as Rhiannon. In fact, Wynne, in her black gown with white ruffles, and apron, was the only clothed woman in the room.
Some of the men stared intently at Rhiannon as she made her entry, then went back to their gaming. One woman shot daggers at Rhiannon.
“That’s Nia. She thinks you are the new girl,” Wynne explained. She went over to the bar, whispered to the naked slattern behind it. The girl suddenly looked awkward, with her shoulders instantly hunching, and her movements becoming mechanical.
“You told her who I was,” Rhiannon said.
Wynne nodded. “Unless you want to be molested to death, or need a supplement to your tax income as mutton, it seemed best. You need someone, besides me, who knows your identity. Now, tell me, as you have not yet, why are you here?”
“It could be because I need a place to come where no one is sucking at my nipples-”
Wynne guffawed. “That could change if you let it.” Honk. Honk.
Rhiannon shot her a dirty look. “I was speaking metaphorically.”
“’Metaphorically?’ Now there’s a big word, dearie. So why did you come?”
“It is because I need a champion.”
“The Third Earl of Gwrydall is not man enough for you? He is a stallion if you but give him the word.”
“And how would you know that?” Rhiannon said, partly in merriment and partly in annoyance, for she knew that the rotund matron nonetheless attracted men like flies to excrement. “Never thee mind; I don’t want to know.” She threw up her hands in mock protest. “No, for this mission, I need a man of mystery; someone who can fend himself in any situation, no matter how dangerous, who can find what is hidden, and who will be totally loyal to his employer.”
“A man who is competent, devoted to you, and completely loyal? You want a husband.”
“Certainly not! I’ve tried that journey, and became a whore because of it. Not to mention become an occasion for war and bloodshed.” Rhiannon placed her hands on her hips, this time in true protest.
“How goes the afternoon, fair ladies?” A man, about five foot eleven, broad in the shoulders but narrow in the face, in the road-browned pantaloons, cape, cap and jerkin of an adventurer, had approached Rhiannon and Wynne unbeknownst to them, absorbed, as they were, in their conversation. Rhiannon noted his shock of blond hair, his high cheekbones, and a nose that emphasized the rugged lines of his handsome face.
“It is good, kind gentleman,” Wynne said, placing a halting hand on Rhiannon’s shoulder. She knew the volatility of her young friend, and now that Rhiannon was both near-queen and forced to go about vulnerable and exposed in strumpet like fashion, she feared for the princess’ reaction to the approach of a male stranger.
“Do not think of me as indiscreet or overly concerned with the affairs of others, but I could not help but hear that the lady fair here,” he indicated Rhiannon “is, in spite of appearance, high born, and in need of a man to handle some delicate affairs that involve adventure and danger. You may think me under modest or a braggart, but I think that I fit the description of a man ‘competent, loyal to his employer,’ and for such a beautiful and noble woman, I could be extremely devoted.”
Rhiannon had to laugh at this boldness. Nonetheless, she had learned the hard way that when men were braggarts, they were usually not doers or providers. “And what would make me think you trustworthy of any mission? I do not know you.”
The stranger doffed his hat and bowed. “I do not know you and yet I am at your service.”
“I bet you say that to all women,” Rhiannon returned.
“Only the naked and beautiful ones,” the stranger said merrily.
“You speak pleasantly, but insincerely, methinks,” Rhiannon said. Her eyes were twinkling, though; after all, the stranger was handsome, even if his face looked like some one had placed it sideways between enormous stones for pressing, and she did miss the pleasures that men afforded her.
The absent Rosalyn had pointed out that, as strumpets, they were paid to have the highest pleasure, all at the expense of men. This ignored the times the stronger sex would dominate and humiliate them, subject them to tortures, or would kidnap and imprison them for their entertainment.
“If I may...” The man took a valise out of his cape. He placed it on the bar counter, opened it with a flourish and handed Rhiannon many letters, all made from the finest parchment, and with inks that very few could afford.
Rhiannon recognized the signatures: all men of wealth and power; all sycophants to her father. She looked at the stranger appraisingly.
“If you have been of service to these men, how is it I have never heard of you?”
“That is part of my profession. I move where other men dare not, and must be humble in my demeanor, even if not in my words when seeking employment. But I do not come cheap, and I do not notice an abundance of fine materials that suggest wealth about you. I wish you not to take offense at the observation, but my clients are rarely naked, unless it involves sport with women such as yourself.”
“You have no idea who I am, do you?” Rhiannon’s spleen began acting up again. Although she had come to Wynne’s Inn partly to seek anonymity, it was galling to have achieved it so readily. But she had learned that the best way for her to disguise herself was to simply not announce who she was. All women, she had learned, look alike to men when they are attractive and naked. It was a shocking truth, but one she was accustoming herself to. In spite of her great bosoms and beauty, naked she was among women who were a farthing a score.
“No, and I do not wish to know, if you do not wish to tell me. But I do wish to be paid. So I need some assurance before we go any further.”
“I will back her,” Wynne said. Rhiannon shot her a look. “Oh, I know you are good for it, dearie.” She chuckled at her own joke.
“Well, then, as I am in between commissions, I will accept.” The stranger bowed. “Now, what is it you need of me?”
“I need you to find someone. And to deliver to her a letter. I don’t care what you do to find her, but it will involve danger. She is in New Dyved. There are people there who, if they find out you are working for me, will torture and kill you.”
“Ooh. Torture and kill me. Then it is best I be careful. And not know who you really are.”
“Who I really am?”
“Well, there is no disguise better than no disguise. You come as a woman — you are obviously more than an ordinary woman, and I am not just talking about your bosoms. When asked, I will say that I work for a naked woman, and that will be the truth, will it not?”
“I reckon so.”
“Good. Tell me of this woman you seek.”
Rhiannon sat on a stool; her new found champion sat next to her. The bar wench, after filling their flagons with whisky, discreetly disappeared. Rhiannon didn’t need to look around the room to see if anyone was listening. Anyone who overheard secrets in Wynne’s Inn knew better than to reveal them. Wynne had ways not only of banning people from the Inn, but from this life as well. What was revealed in Wynne’s Inn never left its walls. There was no peeking behind key holes. If someone got down upon his knees, it would be all the better to sport with the person he was with, and not to eavesdrop upon another.
The stranger listened, as if every word Rhiannon spoke was precious. People do that when you are a princess, they listen to every noise, every throat clearing, every fart you make, but she was not a princess to him. Simply a woman with troubles that he could help.
But he had no way of knowing just how much trouble she could be for him.
Copyright © 2007 by Rachel Parsons