From the kitchen door, Tova had turned back to see if he'd been joking. His expression had been stormy.
"Let me get you a hot drink and then you can tell me about it."
"Yeah. And Tova – I'm sorry."
She'd left her mind on neutral as she boiled water and found a box of mint teabags in the cupboard.
As she'd brought the steaming mug to him she'd asked, "Then you didn't want the ring back? And can you sit up?"
With an effort, Sam had raised himself to a sitting position and started to sip the tea, breathing more easily as he did so.
"Thank you, darlin'. And no, I never said nothin' to Monty about taking back that ring. It's yours to keep, even if you've had enough of me and don't like to wear it. Though I hope that ain't the case."
He looked at her appealingly. "I like your new hairdo, by the way. It's real attractive."
"Thanks." She'd pulled the ring out of the change compartment of her wallet and, after meeting Sam's eyes, slipped it back onto her finger.
That made him smile.
"So what's going on, Sam?" she'd asked, trying to modulate her voice so she didn't sound aggressive or nagging. Or needy. Everyone hated neediness.
"You have every right to ask that, sweetheart. Why don't you sit down here next to me? I've missed you something terrible."
Tova had sat. "I thought you didn't want to see me any more."
"Monty rigged my phone."
"I started to get suspicious when every time I called you, the line was busy – and I know you have an answering service so that didn't make no sense. And also, every time, right after, Monty would call me with some little thing he wanted me to do. I finally contacted my computer genius and had him check it out."
"So Monty thinks I'm that bad for you. That's nothing new."
"It's more complicated than that."
Suddenly Sam had been wracked by a coughing fit, and though he'd covered his mouth with a handkerchief, Tova could see that he was coughing up blood.
"Sam, you need to see a doctor. Sam?"
But he'd passed out against the back of the sofa, looking so pale and still that Tova had checked for signs of life.
He'd been clammy, breathing shallowly, and his pulse had been quick and weak.
As she'd held her cheek next to his mouth, searching for his breath, she was overwhelmed with tender feelings for this man she'd tried to forget. She pressed her lips to his forehead and gently stroked the skin of his wrist.
The resulting emotions had made her head spin and she hadn't been able to think what to do, so she'd called down to the concierge who was a sensible young man and able to think more clearly than her.
He'd called an ambulance.
After the standard three-hour wait in the emergency room, the doctor who'd examined Sam had announced, "He seems to have been poisoned."
Crane was having the nightmare again, but this time he couldn't wake up.
"It's not a dream, my handsome hero," a chillingly cheerful voice chirped. "I just needed an opportunity to make my intentions clear to you. I know you'll be reasonable."
Feeling strangely calm Crane began, in his mind, to perform the Susan exercises, though he could neither move his limbs nor see his surroundings.
"Nothing to say?" the voice persisted. "No demands for me to let you go or show myself or this or that? I'm surprised."
In front of Crane's face, a section of the darkness slipped away and through this window he saw a pale pink face with watery blue eyes, a button nose and soft thin lips.
"All hail!" she called, waving her fingers at him. "We haven't been formally introduced. You, Crane of Astartha, are now a welcome ward of Malmort, which you will find is a realm that has been transformed by my patronage. I am Merwa. Merwa of Malmort."
And then she put her hand over her mouth and tittered in an awful parody of childish laughter that offended Crane's ears like a swarm of gnats.
When he remained silent, she tossed her shiny golden hair, pouted and pointed her finger at him.
"You no doubt wish to have your super-sword back, but you may not have it until I have examined it thoroughly. It's only fair – I've never seen one like it and I must know how it works."
In his mind, Crane crouched and turned, smoothing the air with his hands.
"And you will want to know about the little boys, too," Merwa offered lightly. "I might just bring them to meet you. Sometimes," she pouted a little more, "they don't treat me with as much respect as they should. I've tried to explain to them that it all works better when I run things for everyone. The king understands – why can't they?"
Unable to lower his eyelids, Crane counted his breaths and pictured his comrades' faces before him, one by one, thinking, "Ayelet, Shira, Lero, Esther ..."
Merwa let out a little shriek of frustration and closed the window, plunging him back into darkness.
"I will be back!" she squeaked.
"So will I," thought Crane.
YOU ARE READING
Once upon a time there was a warrior queen who loved peace ... Mild-mannered writer Samuel J. Burnside is working on his latest adventure story, set in ancient Susa, where Queen Esther is teaching former harem slaves how to fight! But can Sam's new...