Soft sounds of still water echoed off of the blue-tiled walls and vaulted ceiling of a great room. "I’m all rinsed off now," Promi announced. She waded through the steamy water toward the steps leading up to the tiled floor.
"Very well, my queen," said Enstami, immersed up to her underarms. She turned to follow her mistress.
Promi emerged from the bath into multi-colored sunlight filtered through stained glass windows, showing a toweled head, trim muscular arms, a firm abdomen, a long waist, and sturdy thighs. She turned to Enstami behind her and said, "I’ll see you back in my private chambers."
Although the soap had been rinsed away, its sweet aroma hung about them in the air. The queen took a deep invigorating breath of it as Enstami handed her a pair of wooden clogs. Putting them on, she started for the arched doorway that led to the cold water room. Her clogs rattled loud on the slippery wet floor. In the cold room, she met Hulteni, a petite slave woman, whose duty was to dry off the queen after her dip in the cold bath. Not speaking, Hulteni sprang to her feet with feline litheness and bowed low. Nodding her head in return, Promi slipped off her clogs.
As the queen turned toward the steps leading down into the cold bath, Hulteni stepped up to her, very close on the right side. Something was amiss. Promi glanced to her right in time to see the glint of a tiny blade in the slave’s hand. Instinctively she swung her right arm to parry the blow. The blade scratched her right side just above her pelvis. Losing her balance, she stumbled down the steps and into the water. The towel covering her hair slipped off. A second later, her soaked head re-emerged.
"Assassin in the bath house! Call the Guards!" she sputtered.
Hulteni stood before her with feet wide apart, holding a slender blade in her right hand. With a contemptuous smile and a belligerent gleam in her eyes, she snarled, "You’re dead. The blade is poisoned."
In the distance, Promi could hear Enstami shouting, "Guards! Guards!" She struggled up the steps from the bath. Her breath was coming in short gasps. Her feet were moving too slow. Her knees were stiffening. Poisoned! The thought screamed through her head. A pair of wooden clogs rattled across the wet tiled floor, louder as they approached. Enstami was coming!
Promi fell to her knees. Her head reeled. She steadied herself on her hands and tried to pray. Only the first gasping words came out. "O Djeu kontujowan haistomid," she began, but her voice failed. She added the last word dideimroi in her head. As her face struck the tiled floor, her blurring eyes caught a cavalcade of images.
Enstami slamming into the assassin at a run.
Hulteni falling on her back, rolling, kicking the other slave off, and slicing her own throat.
Two pairs of military boots running up.
Blood pooling on the tiles.
Clear sight began to fade. She could see only moving shadows.
She heard a voice screaming, "The blade is poisoned." It was Enstami’s. "She stabbed the queen. Get a healer!"
The swirling shadows merged into one.
Promi blinked and turned. She was covered now, and lying on a bed or perhaps a stretcher. She recognized a calm male voice, one she had heard many times since childhood. It belonged to Metwolûn, Chief Healer of her Court. He repeated the same words.
"All-Highest, can you hear my voice?"
"Yes," she tried to say. One badly garbled syllable escaped from her lips. She nodded. Her eyes had recovered enough to discern moving shadows again. She saw the shadow of a human figure holding a hand to its face. She heard a sniffing sound, and guessed he was using a scent on the poison blade to trigger his psychic healing powers.
"I beg my queen to play close attention. The little knife has been dipped in manticore venom. Fortunately, not much of it got into your bloodstream. The wound was a scratch, thank the Creator." She now remembered being scratched on the right side, although she felt no pain there now. She struggled to say she tried to parry the blade, but only a moan came out.
"All-Highest, please don’t try to speak," said Metwolûn. "I’m going to administer a potion. Prepare to drink. Does Your All-Highest Majesty understand? If so, please nod."
She nodded again. At least her neck muscles obeyed her. From shoulders to feet she was numb. Her eyes started to obey her now. She saw a fuzzy image, Metwolûn’s face hovering over her as he pried the cork off of a bottle. He lowered the bottle’s mouth to her lips. Forcing her mouth open, she took a drink and swallowed. The antidote tasted bitter on her tongue. He withdrew the bottle. Promi wanted to thank him for his years of loyal service, but she knew the words would not come, so she prayed inside her head. Djeus, my Creator, I beg of Thee not to take my life at such a young age, when the fate of the Ninth House rests upon me. Nevertheless, Thy will be done!
The darkness returned.
When her eyes opened again, she found herself in her bed. Two cushions lay on the carpeted floor beside her. On one of them sat Enstami, now clad in white cotton trousers and a knee-length scarlet tunic emblazoned with the nine-pointed star of the Ninth House. On the other rested the corpulent form of Krossida Stivir, Master of the Suite in Attendance on the Queen of the Hegemony. He was dressed the same way. Both wore iron collars indicating they were slaves.
She heard Stivir’s high-pitched eunuch voice first. "I trust Your All-Highest Majesty is feeling much better now?"
Promi could form words again, but her voice was a hoarse whisper, and to speak was laborious. She had to pause every few words. "I’m still very weak," she began, "but much improved. Send my thanks to Metwolûn." She could feel her body again, including the stinging pain in her right side. Now, thank the Creator, it hurt no more than the skinned knees of her childhood. "When will I be fully recovered?" asked the queen.
"Metwolûn has upgraded my queen’s condition to stable, and expects All-Highest to be functioning normally in three days."
"Good," Promi replied, forcing a smile to her lips. "At least now I can speak and follow a conversation." There is nothing I detest more than being weak, she thought, turning her head toward the woman.
"Enstami, I saw what you did. Though unarmed and naked, you defended me." Enstami smiled pertly, keeping her mouth shut, while the queen gathered strength for the next sentence. "You stopped the assassin from finishing me off."
"I’m honored to serve Your All-Highest Majesty in any way I can."
"I had a dream while I was asleep. I was back in the most terrible time of my childhood - the long retreat where we had to abandon our old capital."
Both listeners nodded sympathetically. "We were both with our queen then," said Enstami.
"Incessant rain," said the queen. "Wagon wheels stuck in the ruts of muddy roads."
A dark look of painful memory crossed the face of the slave woman. "It was during the rainy season," she said, shaking her head. "I thought we would never get away, moving over those muddy roads. A child is too young to understand. But I was told such lies! There was nothing to worry about, they said. We are just going away to the west. A child knows when the adults’ words belie their acts."
"We were both there and remember those days," said Stivir, shaking his head sadly. "The noise of battle in the distance, the dead and the wounded being brought back from battle. The smoke of burning towns pillaged by the rebels."
"My brother’s body was brought into the camp," Promi recalled. "My mother and I wept and wailed over his body. Only then was I told the truth."
Tears welled up in the queen’s eyes. "I loved my brother. He put me on his saddle, made me hold on tight to the pommel, while he let me ride with him on his horse. I remember his strong hands holding me in place."
"I remember that too," said Enstami. "That was during the retreat. He could tell his little sister was upset. He was only trying to cheer my queen up."
"Those were hard times," said the Stivir. "We battled to cover our retreat, not stopping till the old World-King, of blessed memory, settled us here at Grey Walls."
"At the time I wished I could help him. I wished I was grown up so I could fight beside him. In the dream, I did."
The queen took a long deep breath before continuing.
"In the dream I was the same age I am now. My father and I rode side by side our swords drawn and shields raised. My mother and the treasures of the Court were in a nearby wagon." She took another deep breath, and smiled faintly. "My father gave me words of encouragement."
And in the dream I never saw the enemy, she remembered, but I knew they were there, hiding in the darkness of the forest on both sides of the road. My father said, "Daughter, take courage, but never let your guard down. Our foes the rebels are only a few steps behind us."
"Then what happened?" asked Enstami.
"I could say more when I’m all well. Even talking tires me. But at least in the dream I got my wish. I was fighting for my father and the Ninth House and to avenge my dead brother and for the Hegemony, which now barely exists."
The attempt on my life has merely strengthened my resolve. I will make war on the traitors who overthrew my father after swearing allegiance to him. This is what I’ve trained for, ever since my father’s death. Once I’m crowned and Regency ends, I will accomplish these tasks.
She now had strength to speak again. "It stands to reason the King of Nobalos is behind this plot. He was my father’s worst enemy. I am my father’s heiress and so he would also seek my death ."
"To be sure, my queen, he is behind it," said Stivir.
"Would All-Highest like me to summon a dream interpreter?" suggested Enstami.
The queen shook her head. "Not for this. The meaning is obvious. The rebels are still pursuing me. There are plotters against me here at my court."
"All-Highest, I assure you ... ," began Stivir.
"Silence, Stivir. I wasn’t thinking about any specific person, but even I don’t know all my slaves. I don’t personally vet them for their loyalty. Others have to do that. There must be other plotters here at court. Otherwise how could Hulteni have been placed in a position of intimate contact with me?"
"But surely, All-Highest, I have proved my loyalty," pleaded the eunuch.
Is this to be my fate - to be hunted like an animal in my own palace, surrounded by traitors and opportunists, friendless, and without even family to protect me? May the Maker of Heaven and Earth forbid it!
"Stivir, the only way to settle this is by consulting the Oracular Topaz."
"Excellent idea, All-Highest!" Stivir cried out.
Enstami responded with a nod. "Good idea," she said, almost in a whisper.
"As the heiress to my father’s throne and by right Queen of the World, only I can use it. I will request the regents to deliver it to me at once."
Enstami gasped, putting her hand over her mouth. She turned to the eunuch. "Our queen isn’t supposed to get the Topaz until the Coronation, two weeks from now." Tears welled up in the slave’s eyes. "But All-Highest might be dead by then!"
"I need the Oracular Topaz," said the queen. "I need it right now. My life is in danger until I discover the rest of the plotters."
"If I may, All-Highest," the eunuch ventured, "it’s possible that the Topaz will not respond before the crown is placed on my queen’s head."
"Maybe not, but even though my crowning is in the very near future it wouldn’t be safe to wait that long."
"I shall transmit my queen’s request for the Topaz to the regents today," said Stivir.
"Wait!" The queen’s voice was stronger now. "Why should I risk waiting for the regents’ permission?" She lifted her head from the pillow. "I need the Topaz brought to me right now!" Her listeners recoiled in surprise at the sudden energy. Promi settled her head back on the pillow. "Which of the regents has custody this week?"
The Chief Healer at Court! That’s perfect. He saved my life. I can be sure of his loyalty.
"I’ll bring a transmitter to summon him," said Enstami.
"Do it!" the queen commanded.
Springing to her feet, Enstami dashed out of the room.
Promi turned back to the eunuch. "You are to remain here, to watch over me till Metwolûn comes."
"I am honored to do so, All-Highest."