Amethyst opened her eyes to find herself in a strange environment. She was on a plush divan in what appeared to be a huge, ornate tent that stretched as far as she could see in each direction. She sat up slowly and sniffed as she noticed a pleasant aroma.
“Some kind of perfume or ointment?” she said. “Did I die and go to the Macy’s perfume counter in the sky?”
A beautiful woman with long dark hair approached her with a nearly soundless grace. She was dressed in a filmy fabric in the style of harem girls from movies about the Middle East. “Welcome, Princess,” said the woman in a rather familiar manner. “It has been a long time.”
“Fawna? Where am I?” she said as she jumped to her feet.
“You are in the domain of my new master, Lord Sardonyx,” explained the former maid. “I came into his service after leaving the House of Amethyst.”
“You were his spy,” she said. “You worked against me and Citrina the whole time you were with us. No wonder you look so natural in that costume. After all, your new boss is a snake, too!”
“Harsh words will get you nowhere,” said a deep male voice. “After all, you and I put our differences behind us when Dark Opal fell. We fought side by side to achieve that goal.” The words came from an oily gaunt man in orange who wore a burnoose that framed his arched eyebrows and highly stylized goatee.
“Sardonyx!” gasped Amethyst. “What’s going on? I was flying away from the Opal domain when my magic failed me.”
“We landed within the border of the Burning Sands — the ancestral base of the House of Sardonyx,” explained Carnelian, who stepped into view from behind a hanging tapestry that depicted Sardonyx or one of his ancestors sitting regally astride a Wyvern. “Our host had his minions bring us here. They also tended to our wounds with a healing ointment.”
“Thank you,” said Amethyst. “And I’m sorry about my reaction to Fawna. Bad memories came to mind.” Fawna smiled rather wickedly but said nothing.
Lord Sardonyx grinned and opened his arms in an embracing gesture even as a snake slithered from out of his puffy sleeve. “You are welcome here,” he said. “All who seek sanctuary are welcome here. That is why I took the girl into my service upon the loss of her previous domestic position. As I said before, you and I were allies at the end when Dark Opal died. You and I rescued my family and this very kingdom from another harsh magical peril not long afterward. I see you as an ally and as my rightful queen.”
Carnelian snorted rather loudly and then leaned against a tent pole. “Well said, Sardonyx,” he drawled, “but you still have all the charm of one of your slimy, slithering pets.”
Sardonyx’s eyes blazed with anger, and he inhaled sharply before continuing. “You have your late father’s black humor, boy. You are fortunate that you have not inherited his other more irksome traits, or you might have been left to die in the sands beyond.”
“We were attacked by a monster that came from the stars,” explained Amethyst. “It was a centaur. My power failed when I fought against it.”
“Now that you have rested and my maidens have healed you,” said Sardonyx, “we will dine and discuss this new and perplexing situation.” He led them out of the tent and across the sand to where a massive city with a combination of decorative tents and palaces with bejeweled, octagonal minarets rose skyward.
Amethyst glanced up, noting that the heat seemed oppressive, but she felt something else. I’m no longer solely connected with Gemworld since I spread the tie to all the twelve royal houses, but I can still tell something is wrong, she thought. Did that centaur somehow mess things up so badly? Maybe he wasn’t the only intruder to come through Dark Opal’s broken portal.
Carnelian put one arm around her shoulder and said, “Here, little Princess — allow me to warm you. You shiver in the desert clime. I fear you have a fever.”
She elbowed him in the ribs and then slowly replied, “You saved me from the centaur. I want to thank you. “
Abruptly gripping her chin, Carnelian turned her face toward his own and kissed her, only to be struck once more, this time by a well-placed knee. He gasped in pain and said, “You’re welcome.”
Lord Sardonyx laughed softly as he led the pair into his palace where a banquet table had been set aside for what was becoming a state dinner.
Boy, he really enjoys being waited on, doesn’t he? thought Amethyst as she noticed dozens of maids and attendants rushing around with trays and bowls piled high with fruits and other delicacies. In spite of the lavish arrangements, she could only see table settings for four.
As they were seated, Amethyst noticed Lady Sardonyx for the first time. She had seen her before, but the circumstances had been marked by peril and magical transformations, and this was really the first time she had been able to study the sultry woman closely. Lady Sardonyx was younger than her husband, but she shared a certain craftiness around her narrow eyes that made Amethyst picture them as siblings rather than husband and wife.
As Sardonyx leaned in and kissed her passionately in front of his guests, Amethyst shook her head and thought, Yuck! I’d rather kiss a snake!
She lifted her feet off the rug as she noticed an actual snake crawling under the table. He doesn’t find it weird to have those things creeping around the dinner table, she thought. I guess he thinks of them the way some folks feel about cats or dogs — not that Taffy is anything like a snake.
Lord Sardonyx stood and raised a glass as he addressed an apparently imaginary audience. “We are honored to have as our guests the Princess Amethyst and her companion, Carnelian,” he said.
Carnelian scowled and sank his teeth into a melon. Bah, he thought. That preening jackal acts like I’m nothing. He thinks I have no status at all. I am the rightful heir to the House of Opal. I may teach him the error of his ways soon.
Amethyst nodded demurely and then cleared her throat. “I thank you for your hospitality,” she said. “I am here because Gemworld has been invaded. Lord Sardonyx, when we arrived in what had been Dark Opal’s domain–“
“You mean what is my domain!” bellowed Carnelian, slamming down a wine goblet.
Sardonyx raised his eyebrows as if in amused surprise, while Lady Sardonyx pursed her lips slightly and said, “Please continue, Princess.”
“When we arrived on Gemworld,” said Amethyst, “we found only a barren space where we were attacked by a powerful centaur. He called himself Lord Centaurian and Carnelian thinks he came from the broken portal to other realms that once existed in Fortress Opal.”
Sardonyx raised one thin hand and said, “One moment, dear child. If I may interrupt you, it will save you much confusion.”
Amethyst nodded and glanced over to see Carnelian wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, looking as if he was well on the way to intoxication.
Lord Sardonyx stood up languidly and said, “You recall the origin of Gemworld, do you not? Our land was formed from raw elemental magic through the efforts of Citrina the Witch Mother and the mysterious Ancient Ones. They, in turn, planned to eventually reclaim this world upon the expiration of the terms of their agreement. I understand that will no longer happen because of certain magical alterations you produced, Amethyst. However, the Ancient Ones still annually claim many realms they once empowered others to create. When they claim a land, the inhabitants must depart. These refugees are forced to resettle where they may. The noble beings of one such reclaimed dimension have been left homeless because, upon the death of their ruler — their Citrina, if you will — they were forced to give up their home dimension to the Ancient Ones. Those beings came from what in our language might be crudely called the Starry Skies. Centaurian is one of them, and they now seek to take Gemworld for their new home.”
Amethyst frowned, beginning to understand the implications of his words. “Centaurian and his race were evicted by the Ancient Ones, and now they want to take over here!” she gasped. Concentrating, her purple aura began to glow dimly. “It’s a trap!” she cried.
Carnelian jumped up in alarm, only to slump drunkenly back into a chair.
Sardonyx smiled broadly and said, “Call it rather a fortunate series of events. As your people say on Earth, out of the frying vessel and into the flames!”
A burly humanoid with the shaggy golden mane of a lion appeared in the entrance of the dining hall and roared as he crouched before them.
“Count Leonine, here, is my guest as well,” continued Lord Sardonyx. “He and his royal brethren have granted me the role of their regent upon this humble world.”
Carnelian staggered to his feet and shouted, “You snake! You served my father, then you turned on him! You served Fire Jade, and then you turned on her! You should have been killed long ago.” He hurled a knife at the oily royal, but his aim was off by inches.
The grinning Sardonyx merely shifted position to dodge the blade and said, “Never fear, Count Leonine. My minions will lock them away securely for you.” Leonine merely glared balefully at them and moved closer on heavily clawed feet.
Amethyst raced over to Carnelian and said, “We’ve got to get out of here!” She groaned as her magic glow faded before her eyes. “It’s worse than before!” she cried. “My magic isn’t working — not even a little bit!”
“I neglected to tell you that dear Fawna’s ointments did more than merely heal you,” said the grinning Sardonyx. “They also placed an anti-magic toxin in your bloodstream.” As Sardonyx’s guardsmen closed in from all sides, the pair found themselves captives once more.
Carnelian cursed and shouted in anger as burly soldiers closed in on him. “You’ll pay for this, Sardonyx, I promise you!” he screamed. “I’m the scion of Dark Opal — Dark Opal! You used to lick his boots!”
Sardonyx’s expression grew darker, but he made no reply other than to say, “There is the boy’s sparkling wit once again.”
The last thing Amethyst saw as she was dragged away was the smiling expression on Fawna’s face. Omigosh! she thought. What can I do now?