Arilee checked her blonde locks in the mirror, and then turned to the half-elven woman at her side. "Thank you for coming, Cris."
"I have seen the change in Christi's letters as well. I share your concern and love," Crystania said, and gave a little bow of her head. "I pray you may aid her, as such emotional turmoil could prove troublesome for her pregnancy. If you are ready?"
Ari nodded and closed her eyes, having discovered that it did much to lessen the disconcerting effect of the spell that Crystania was weaving. The magic wrapped around her when Cris' beautiful voice reached a crescendo, and she felt as light as a feather for a moment. When the sensation faded, she opened her eyes and smiled. She was back within Blackhawk Hall once more.
Even as she stepped from the teleportation pattern, someone walked into the room. Sharon let out a laugh and bounded across the floor to gather her old charge in her arms. "Oh — it's good to see you, Arilee."
"It's good to see you," Ari agreed.
The matronly woman stepped back and held Arilee at arm's length. "I hear that you're turning the place upside down. We've had nobles sneaking in here to complain ever since you took over up there."
"I'm afraid they will have to endure," Ari said with a smile. "The people will not struggle to eat while those of noble blood bask in fineries, so long as it is my place to judge."
"And good for you." Sharon put an arm behind the Baroness. "We'll have to catch up later. Christi will never forgive me if I keep you any longer."
"Does she know I'm here?" Ari asked, having hoped to surprise her dear friend.
"I'm sure she knows someone is," Sharon answered, assuaging that worry. "She's in her room. Go on and surprise her."
"Has she found someone to replace me, yet?"
"Replace? Ha! She's got a girl to fetch and such, but there's no replacing you, Arilee."
Ari blushed and turned away a little, still unable to take such unabashed praise without feeling somewhat self-conscious.
Sharon laughed again as she playfully pushed Arilee out into the hall. "You never change — and don't you dare."
After offering a final smile and a wave, Sharon returned to her duties. Arilee looked down the familiar hall — still more familiar to her than her new home — and felt her heart soar from the memories.
She took a few steps forward and ran her fingers over the oak door of the bath room. Within, she'd faced and conquered two demons. One had its claws in her heart, and the other did its best to dig its claws into her flesh. It was Christi who had helped her fight both those demons, and now she was determined to return the favor.
She could almost hear the laughter of the gentle half-orc Kronk as she looked toward the stairs. Just beyond was the door to her old room. Though the door was closed, she could see every detail of the interior in her mind's eye — despite having spent more time in the ducal bedchamber.
The ornately carved double doors to that very room suddenly burst open.
The Duke stumbled out, and quickly ducked to the side. Almost immediately, a dagger slammed into the stone wall opposite the door with a loud clang. Arilee winced, now having a good idea of what had caused the sudden dark turn in the letters from the Duchess. Pregnant women seemed to develop a propensity for hurling the nearest object. When such a woman dwelled in Blackhawk Hall, it was twice as dangerous, as the nearest object was usually pointed, and very, very sharp.
Duke Cerebus rubbed his temples, his hand covering his eyes, and muttered under his breath as he walked to the stairs. Absorbed in his own inner turmoil, he failed to notice Arilee at the other end of the hall as he descended.
A steady stream of curses emerged from the now open doors.
Arilee approached, doubting that waiting would improve Christi's mood. When she reached the doorway, she wisely paused before stepping into the portal and called out "Knock, knock."
"Fucking gutter..." Christi's curses continued for a moment, and then ceased in a gasp. "Ari?"
Stepping into the doorway, Arilee smiled, and bent to pick up the dagger lying at her feet. When the Duchess planted her hands on the feather-stuffed mattress in apparent preparation to rise, Ari chided, "No, no, no, no," and hurried into the room. She closed the door behind her, and deposited the dagger on a nearby table, which was stacked high with various documents.
Christi sat back against the stout walnut headboard again, wearing a look of relief. Then she groaned and laid her hands on her very pregnant tummy.
"Oh, you must be miserable," Ari said in sympathy, and then sat down next to the Duchess on the bed.
"Gods, I'm so glad to see you," Christi responded, and then held out her arms for a hug.
Ari pressed her cheek against Christi's and slipped an arm behind the woman's back. The Duchess' tummy prevented more of an embrace for that. "I've missed you, too."
"Miserable doesn't even begin to describe it," The Duchess said, her voice weary. "I thought you couldn't get away?"
"I probably shouldn't have, but I knew that there was something wrong that you weren't mentioning in your letters. What happened?"
"It's been getting worse for a while. We can't work out our frustrations with each other down in the courtyard, so we're taking them out on each other with spite. I managed to get over it at first, but now I haven't had sex in a month..." Christi's voice steadily rose with every word that followed. "And I'm about to lose my mind!"
The first was bad enough, as the key to the unique relationship between the Duke and Duchess was their ability to engage each other in combat, and walk away afterwards with any disagreement settled in their minds. The last surely had to be devastating, as Christi had a deep sexual appetite. Ari doubted that the Duchess had regularly gone a day without sex, let alone a month.
"Has he lost interest?" Arilee asked.
Christi snorted. "Gods, no. All he does is stare at my tits, and I'm about to kill him over it. I don't need him to remind me about how huge these things are." She cupped the heavy globes as she finished, and then let them fall.
Ari found that she had a hard time keeping her eyes off of them as well.
The Duchess sighed, shook her head, and patted her tummy. "It's this. I can't even find a comfortable position to sleep, let alone fuck. My pussy has more hair on it than my head, because I can't even see it to trim the mess. I can't get there because I'm uncomfortable, and he's afraid of hurting the baby, and..."
While her friend sucked in a shuddering breath, unable to continue, Arilee felt her heart break. Christi's eyes were misting with unshed tears, something that Ari thought that she would never see from the tough-as-nails Duchess.
"We're going to fix this," Arilee declared, her voice full of confidence and conviction.
"H-how?" Christi asked, fighting back a sob.
"First things first. You're going to have a nice long bath, and I'm going to help you with that over-abundance of hair."
Christi sighed in relief. "Oh, thank you. The bath is one of the few places that I can actually get comfortable for a while."
"All the better," Ari said, and offered a wide smile. "I'll go find Kronk, and get everything ready. You just relax as much as you can."
"Bring me my dagger back, in case Cerebus is dumb enough to come back in here. The ass had the nerve to come in complaining about some stupid dispute between some herb peddler and a potion brewer."
Arilee crossed the room and retrieved the dagger, though she had little doubt that several more were well within the Duchess' reach, even with the limited mobility of her condition. "I don't think that sticking him with a knife is going to solve anything."
"It might make me feel better for a few seconds. Besides, if I actually wanted to hit him, he'd already be stuck."
Knowing Christi's deadly aim, Arilee had no reason to dispute that claim.
"Try not to skewer anyone while I'm gone," Ari said, and felt heartened that the remark brought a smile to Christi's face.
Yet another familiar sight greeted Arilee when she stepped back out into the hall. The dusky-skinned wizard Ashtar approached, his eyes and teeth both shining in brilliant white as he smiled.
"Glad I am to be seeing you, Arilee. Much good you must already be doing, if the cursing and crashing has already stopped."
Arilee had a sudden flash of inspiration, and prayed that Ashtar might be able to help her follow up on it. "I need to find Kronk to draw a bath, but I wonder if you could do me a favor?"
"If being within my power it is, yours it shall be. Doubly shall you have my help, if helping our dear friend it will, as I am suspecting."
A nod indicated that Ashtar had guessed correctly. "I'll come see you in your room as soon as I find Kronk."
"Waiting will I be," Ashtar responded, and then bowed his head before turning back to the room always set aside for him in the Hall.
Arilee hurried for the stairs as soon as the wizard turned.
The door to the bath opened, and Arilee hastily secreted a seashell amulet beneath a washcloth on the edge of the bathing pool.
"Here we are, Milady," Kronk rumbled, easily supporting the Duchess on one muscled arm, while she held onto his neck for balance.
Christi grinned and leaned over to suckle his earlobe for a moment. Then she swirled the tip of her tongue around the circumference of his ear, making the hulking half-orc shiver.
"That's not fair," Kronk pouted as he lowered his passenger to the floor.
.... There is more of this story ...