Beneath sweet silken Moon I watch her, though I'm damned for doing so. No man may set eyes upon the Queen without the King's leave, and here, now, as she bathes in the river, as she bathes in soft moonlight, I am cursed, thrice damned, and have destroyed my ancestors' memories back seven generations.

I don't care.

I was a soldier. A warrior. Polite terms for savage, monster, killer. In times of war we fought as directed, the arm of our commanding officer to wield as he wilt. It all sounds like the poetry of dance....back at Court.  

On the battlefield, it was swords splitting skulls. It was kill or be killed, and soldiers on every field understand. There is a kinship with your enemy at close range, and though you would stomp out his eyes and piss in the sockets if need be, no grudges are held. The battlefield is sanctioned killing, but it is not personal, not for us.

But after the battle....

The heat and the hurt of battle are like nothing you have seen, ever been through, ever experienced. It drains you of life, but can fill you with such power. They call it Bloodlust, and it can drive soldiers mad.

The officers, they know this, which is why they often allow their men to sack a city once conquered. Yes, there is the plunder, but that would happen anyway. No King takes something that he does not make completely his.

But there is more to sacking a city than plunder. There is mayhem in the streets. There is no attempt at captivity, or mercy. There is murder. Sanctioned, the same as the battlefield, if implicitly so. Men always resist in cities, casting down their hollow defiance in a mockery of true bravery, destined for ignominious death. This too would happen no matter what.

But there is more to it than that. Children are ridden down in the streets if they are in the way, for sport. The old and the sick are slaughtered in their sick beds, one less thing to worry about.

And the women....

They would never talk about this at Court. It may well be that none but the soldiers even know of it, but more than killing takes place after a battle. Officers will turn a blind eye on a captured city, and the women are brutalized with no more compunction than those children are trampled underfoot.

The women are taken, usually quietly in back rooms of small houses. Several soldiers may gather, or one may sneak away to a hay loft, an animal stall, attempting to find some small measure of privacy.

I spit the word and its implied civility.

The women rarely fight back, perhaps overwhelmed with the devastation of what has occurred in battle, perhaps self-preservation. Any resistance they do give is usually to protect the girls, as soldiers have far less discriminating tastes than merchants’ and farriers’ sons.

All the women violated are low-born, of course; the high-born are ransomed, worth far more if they are untouched, and thus they are treated well. But a common soldier never even gets close to a highborn woman.

I have been a soldier, and an officer, accounted a good one; I have allowed these atrocities, in contravention of my oath as an officer, of my duty as a man.  I have seen the consequences of an army not able to vent its Bloodlust.

Fighting is never truly over, but eventually, for a time, even Kings grow tired of bloodshed, and the wars subside, the battles die down.

Selected by superiors for my skill, my calmness under fire, an ability to see what's coming and more than a little luck, I was set down a different path, that of a royal guard.

The life at Court is as different from a soldier's lot as ever could be, though no less dangerous for it. Court may not have open warfare on the marble floors, but plans are still hatched, strategies formed, advantages pressed, weapons armed, aimed and fired.

I prefer the honest violence of the field, sword on sword, blood, sweat and tears, to the diabolical machinations of Court, which you never see coming.

But as I said, I was quick on my feet, and I adjusted, I learned who not to cross, who to approach and when, and I learned that a guard, seen as less than furniture by someone in a noble House, still has an important role to play.


I think back over the night...the moves I made, leading here. People had died tonight. More people would die because of what I did. Innocent people. Well, no one is innocent at Court, but innocent of harming me.

But I had no choice.

That is not true. Every man has a choice.

I wanted no other choice.

From the first moment I saw my Queen, now almost eight years ago, I knew this night would come. Everything I have done since I entered Court led me to this moment.


The Queen in Moonlight.  Four words to make any man with sense sweat just hearing them.  To see it, that would make a man's blood stop cold.

To describe my queen is beyond words. I have become more than a simple soldier, yet I would wager all I have that not even the greatest bards in the Seven Lands could produce a soliloquy, a sonnet, a song, that would be anything but foolish and sad when compared to even a reflection of her reflection.

I have no words, and you have no way to understand, but hear me, and mark me for true when I say that it would be the highest aspiration you could aspire to give your life just for one look from the Queen.

I watch her now in the moonlight, silver threads of light lay over her skin.  Her skin....It is to me a combination of the dusky rose that grows solitary on the mountainside and the last ribbon of sky in the west holding off the ravenous night.

It took me six years at Court to get into her guard. In those six years I only ever saw her once. That is all I needed. The two years guarding her, the two happiest, and yet frustrating years of my life...those two years brought daily contact, hourly, and it nearly unmanned me.

Yet in all those times, I never once saw my Queen let down her hair.  

Until tonight.

Bathing in the river, bathed in moonlight, she unwraps and slowly unfurls her hair that lays so intricately on her head, as if it were her true crown. The Queen's hair flows, sweeping down into the water. Unabashed tears roll down my face as I watch the radiance of the Kingdom caressed and worked through with scented oils I can taste all the way over in my hiding place.

The water would be barely waist-deep for me, but comes to the Queen’s mid-back. I have been watching her back with a studied reverence ever since I lowered myself to this spot.  Her smooth skin makes my eyelids flutter.

As my Queen lathers and washes her glorious hair, she turns a rounded shoulder from time to time that just happens to catch the moonlight.  For the last two years I have thought humbly that to see the expanse of radiant skin on the Queen’s back and shoulders would be all a man could aspire to, and I could die happy once having done so.  Now, however, I want to see more, and I find myself growing hot with fear and anticipation.

Hair washed to my Queen’s satisfaction, she leans back to lower her mane completely into the water. It is an incandescent moment, unmatched not only for its effervescence and rarity, but for the revelation of soul, of playful heart and winsome smile.

I can barely see any of it, for the act of arching her back to lower head to water also brings into the silky moonlight the single greatest creation in the entire history of the world.

Correction: the two greatest


Two years of planning, six months of waiting for the moment, and then sudden movement, taking everyone by surprise. These actions -- and other, darker deeds -- got me to this point. My plans were to watch in the shadows for as long as the Queen kept bathing, not revealing my presence in the open, in some hope that I might live past the night.

However, in that moment of her arching back, all has changed. In battle we say plans only last until the first arrow flies, and this night up until now -- and surely, to come -- was every bit a battle.

My armor already shed to allow my silent presence, now I slip the leather jerkin off my shoulders, and my tunic slides noiselessly up over my head. Soft supple leather boots, pants and linen small-clothes follow quickly and easily without issue.

All that remains on my body is a dagger caressing the back of my right thigh, held firm by an almost invisible sheath. If I am to take by force what I do not even have the right to look upon I must leave no witness. I do not know if I can stomach such a thing. Perhaps I think in my heart I will offer my own life instead, a worthy price for my purchase. Either way, I am too much of a soldier to go anywhere without a weapon. Naked, yes, but always armed.

As a soldier, I know the value of choosing the land upon which you wish to attack.  This is why I had so carefully chosen the shore, after the Queen's body was exhausted from fighting the current throughout her bath. To give up this advantage might seem minuscule when compared with the totality of other factors, but after all this time and planning the rashness of my actions give me pause.

Maybe it is the reflected silver moonlight off the dark stains of blood and gore caked to my body, earned in earlier action to lead me here, and happy to say none my own.  Perhaps I wish to be washed clean, bathed and purified of blood's price.

Perhaps I cannot stomach the idea of touching that perfect ambrosia-laced skin with the blood of vanquished foes.  But I would be touching her skin, more than touching it. I would meet it, melt it, have it sear me, and I would tear it asunder. There is no use pretending. I had known I was going to do this from the first terrible, wonderful sighting of my Queen. The wonder of it is that I had managed not to think about it again until now.

Everything in a soldier’s training points him in one direction, feeds off his carnal lusts for blood, for murder, for power. Battles end, but the soldier does not.  I was a soldier, trained to go where sent.  And when the battle was over, and frenzy still poured in my heart, and Bloodlust still choked my throat, filmed my eyes red and nearly crippled me with unspeakable rages, my commanding officers would turn away, and I became a part of it.

When war was over I put that part of me away, tools no longer of use, the same way I stored my sword, axe and shield. Can a man just walk away from the violence he tears into the land, into himself? I thought so.

Yet here I am, slipping quietly into the water, approaching the most perfect creation ever given to man, and I am prepared to do just that.

The night air has held just the slightest breeze, but the moon's dominant effulgence has warmed the water, so that it is almost mild. Some of the blood washes off me, but most remains, waiting to be scoured.

My steps are slow and measured, as is my heartbeat, a trick you learn young if you wish to survive the heat of battle. The Queen is turned away from me, head slightly back, arms upraised as if in silent convocation with her god the Moon. The moment feels sacred, and I am hesitant, as if to give her these last rights.

Another slow step forward.

When I am less than fifteen feet away she turns toward me, smooth and in rhythm, as if planning to face me at this point all the while. I stop, watching her silently. I have watched my Queen all these years, and have never once seen her out of countenance. A live adder could drop in her lap and she would not turn a hair. My Queen could be shocked to her bones, and this is exactly the expression she would have.  Yet....

Something small within whispers that she knows, she knew. Impossible, yet my Queen is ever as brilliant and capable as she is physical perfection. I have checked and rechecked every shadow that could hide a mouse; I am utterly certain there is no one here but us.  Yet I cannot shake the feeling that she knew I was coming.  No matter. It changes nothing.

I have been preparing all night to near my Queen's presence.  Hardening myself, resolving to step past the feeling of awe and adoration, and take what I have waited so long to claim.  The King is a fool, but even if he were the greatest man who lived, it would matter not. My Queen, she is everything. She is grace made flesh. She is heart made whole. She is bottled lightning and liquid song.

For years I have spent my days a few feet from her, as I am now, and the ONLY reason I did not move then, come what may, was the certainty I would never make it.  Trained as I am, skilled as I have learned, and brave as I have to be, there is no way I would get to her, take her as the Earth itself cries out she be taken. It was doubtful I would even have touched her before being struck down.

Everything has come down to this night.  And I have no illusions.  More than a dozen have been killed, just tonight, to bring me here, with more to come. The destruction I have wrought to possess her, to have her, to take her here under the full fawning moon might bring down the kingdom.

I don't care.

Let the king die. Let his Court die. Let the castle crumble stone by stone to the ground. Let the city be swallowed by the sea, and let land burn wild for a year and a day.

I don't care.

I am taking my Queen. I am taking her, and I am doing it now.

She looks at me intently, the slightest of grimaces on her perfect cheeks, for my blood soaked body, until she realizes what it is. This brings a smile to her face. She speaks, a heaven-song.

"Did any of them put up a fight?"

If you're going to be a soldier, you learn early to burn shock out of the body's response.  Shock slows, and slow is death. Yes at this moment, I am frighteningly close to shock. There is no moment to recover, as now she moves toward me, reaches me and leans down into my chest, as if it's the most natural thing in the world. Only years of discipline keep me upright. Her hair falls forward, covering my chest, touching my shoulders and arms. Even wet, it sparkles, and each brush against my skin jolts my entire body. She leans into me now, her breath hot and spiced like the winds from the south.  She begins to lick my arm, where blood from one of her guards has dried.

I have been with women over the years, though precious few since I first laid eyes on my Queen, and some were stirred by how close to violence and danger a soldier lives. (And perhaps much closer and more continually dangerous in the telling than the living.)

But nothing has prepared me for this.  She writhes as her tongue strips away dried blackness to reveal coagulating dark red. She sucks it off my arm as if it is nectar of the gods. She moves to my other arm, and the tips of her breasts brush lightly against my chest. At this point I am no longer functioning. My breathing coarsens gutturally, each breath a battle. My Queen compounds the problem by wrapping long delicate fingers around my neck and pulling me to her effortlessly, wherein her tongue goes into my mouth, and she holds me there, unable to breathe. After seconds, minutes, she breaks the connection, and I gasp, swallowing air in fits and gulps. She pauses not a moment, but puts her hands on my shoulders and climbs up onto me, straddling my waist with practiced movements. I am numb, hoarse, and see myself reflected in her eyes. I see my own destruction, but I already knew that. She slaps my face hard enough to loosen teeth, a wicked smile on her lips. It is time I remembered why I came.

My arms move now, iron bands, and they position her where I want. As soon as I take hold of myself (and her) she becomes docile, letting me direct. The water makes it tricky, but we are both more than ready, and in a few seconds I enter her, not slowly as I had planned for years, but like a knife trying to cleave flesh in two. She screams at the blow, a howl of pain, ecstasy and defiance.  She slaps my face again, and punches me in the nose, which starts to bleed. Before I can react she pulls me to her again, licking the blood from my face while I continue to thrust into her as if to tear her apart. I know each thrust hurts, but she only urges me on, faster, harder, over that edge. It does not take long. We are both so primed and primal that it builds within us in mere seconds, and rises up and snatches us together, shaking us like a duckling in a mastiff's teeth. At climax she arches backward again, hair trailing into the water, a scream ripped from her throat full of more joy than in all the world. I empty into her, everything I have, and more. I feel my essence, my soul, my shadow flow out of me, but I do not care.  Her hands go back into her hair behind her head, and there is no surprise left in me when a dagger, twin to mine, pulls free. Smoothly and without an ounce of hurry, My Queen leans into me again. Her blade slides freely across my throat, spraying my lifeblood over twenty feet in arc. My Queen, still cleaved to me, is bathed in my blood, and lets it wash over her like the coolest rain. She shudders, silently screaming, as her voice left with last sound she made. As the life slips from my body, and the light slips from my eyes, I see the soft silken moonlight on my blood-drenched Queen, and she has never been more beautiful.

After Dark Tales                     Hyperion Empire