The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 16

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

Lady Gina meets her just reward. A test of loyalty for Captain Malchor, and Tyra learns a lesson about being a woman. A sick Librarian may be more than he looks. A new plot is formed, and a warrior must die.

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The Legal Stuff: The Warrior from Batuk  © 2004, 2007 Aardvark
This work is the property of the author, and the author retains full copyright, in relation to printed material, whether on paper or electronically. Any adaptation of the whole or part of the material for broadcast by radio, TV, or for stage plays or film, is the right of the author unless negotiated through legal contract. Permission is granted for it to be copied and read by individuals, and for no other purpose. Any commercial use by anyone other than the author is strictly prohibited, and may only be posted to free sites with the express permission of the author.

This work is fictitious, and any similarities to any persons, alive or dead, are purely coincidental.

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Chapter 16
When I returned to the palace, I learned from Kernul that Gina was in a cell, and Franco had arrived. In his capacity as head of the Giovannis, it was his responsibility to represent the family in disputes. He'd brought with him the other two Giovanni castle lords, Nino and Adriano.

I returned to my apartments to find, Thea, dressed in a maid's gray and purple. I hadn't asked for her, but her steady assurance made it clear that she came with the quarters. I used her to help get into a formal dress. I went downstairs and visited Malchor in the anteroom of the foyer. I dismissed all of the guards except one.

“Malchor, I need you to testify against Gina,” I said.

“Your Majesty?”

“I can’t allow a traitor to remain free. People would stop respecting me. Gina signed the pass to let you leave. I’d like to have it now.” I held out my hand. He hesitated. “Come now, Malchor, I know you have it. It was your insurance. You needed it until you were out of Tulem’s reach. You would certainly have it now.”

He cast his eye askance towards the guard at the door, then shrugged like it meant nothing and pulled the pass from a leather folder in his tunic, handing it to me with the outline of a bow. I examined the document, recognizing the slight shimmer of the special ink, and the intricate swirls and flourishes of the castle seal that had been mine a few days before.

“Very good. Don’t worry. I’ll keep my promise. You will have your abduction. If you stay far away from Tulem, you and she may live a long happy life.” I leaned my head towards the door and nodded to the guard. “Come with me,” I said.

The three of us made our way through the halls, passing servants and palace functionaries, a few stumbling or staring; it seemed that the news of my return hadn’t quite overtaken the rumors of my enslavement. Stone-faced guards in palace purple opened the great white and gold doors of the inner audience hall at our approach. I trod the long carpet to the back, where the three Giovanni lords, several guards, Selmin, Kernul, and the Captain of the Palace Guards waited for me by the throne.

Lady Gina was also there. While others stood comfortably, she was not so fortunate, disheveled in her finery, gagged and chained to a chair.

Taking my place on the throne, I regarded my unhappy audience.

“I’ve decided to limit this court to the minimum. The rumors were true. I was abducted two days ago. Captain Malchor stole me away, escaping Tulem with Lady Gina’s signed and stamped pass.”

Franco sighed. “Your Majesty, may I see the pass?”

I handed him the pass and he passed it around.

Franco handed it back. “It looks like her signature, and I recognize the stamp. Could this be a forgery?”

Kernul handed him the stamp he had taken from Gina and a block of ink. A print was made and compared. Testimonies were taken and recorded by the court clerk from the guard who had allowed Malchor through the gate and from Malchor himself. He cooperated fully, probably with few regrets, leaving out the part where he took me in his house. His story unfolded swiftly: He had approached Gina when I had requested his presence outside the gate. Gina had approved the pass, wishing to make her temporary status as Lady of the castle permanent.

There was little doubt of her guilt. I signaled the guard to remove her gag, granting her the opportunity to speak. The whole time she had listened, she had remained calm, reserving looks of hatred for Malchor and me.

“She and Malchor plotted all of this!” she screeched.

I allowed her to run on for a time. The hysterical woman surely thought she was going to die. After she started to repeat herself, I ordered her to be silent. The Giovanni lords agreed with my ruling of guilty. I then ordered her removed from her position in the castle, with Lord Paoli to take her place immediately. This was ratified by acclamation.

“Gina,” I said.

She stopped her wailing long enough to look up. Crying had left her eyes wild and red, and her face was blotched and swollen. It was difficult to believe that a few hours before she had ruled a castle. She managed a final plea, however. Her hands reached towards me in a semblance of humility.

“Your Majesty, you were my brother, now my sister. Please, Your Majesty, mercy!”

“You have a choice, Gina: death or Ruk’s Serum.”

Franco swallowed but nodded his approval, not that I needed it. A noblewoman had never suffered the disgrace of Ruk’s serum in the entire recorded history of Tulem, yet few could say that the punishment did not fit the crime.

“Majesty, I choose Ruk’s Serum,” she cried, lowering her face into her hands to howl uncontrollably.

“Ruk’s Serum and permanent exile,” I pronounced. I almost felt sorry for her, but she would eventually find her true self in some distant place in a strong man’s arms, and would be pleased to wear the brand and collar for the rest of her life. A physician in ceremonial gray robes carried out the sentence, injecting her in the arm as a guard held her. She screamed as the needle entered her flesh and sobbed as she was taken away. I never saw her again.

When she was gone, I faced my former Captain of the Guards. “You are exiled permanently. You have until midnight to leave Tulem. Return to the anteroom and await word from me.”

He bowed. “Yes, Your Majesty.” He turned smartly and walked from the hall. I motioned a pair of guards to follow him. When the doors shut again, Franco eyed me, curious at the light sentence.

“Malchor desired me,” I explained. “We were friends and he wanted to make me his slave. He probably thought he was doing me a favor, taking me before my urges disgraced me. His real crime was striking a deal with Gina.” I leaned forward and smiled my finest. “I think it’s rather romantic, don’t you think?”

He bowed deeply to conceal creeping redness. “Your Majesty.”

I consoled the new Lords on their loss of a fellow ruler, but it was only a formality. Gina had been universally despised.

Finally, only Franco remained. “Franco,” I began my speech of regret again, but Franco interrupted me.

“Your Majesty, it’s not necessary. Gina deserved what she received. I hope that you were not harmed by the experience.”

I looked at him anew. It was the most delicate of probes, and I was flattered with what seemed to be genuine concern.

“I’m well and unchanged by the experience -- perhaps a little wiser. Thank you, Franco.”

“I'm pleased that you returned to us.” He bowed and walked out.

Again, he appeared earnest. He would have become King if I hadn’t come back. That meant that he truly didn’t want the throne or … I shook my head. It couldn’t possibly be what I was thinking; I was Queen, but only a serum girl.

I returned to the anteroom and dismissed Malchor’s guards after borrowing a long, sharp dagger from one, and assured them that I would call out if he attacked me.

I placed the dagger on the small table between us as a sign of trust in our mutual pact. “I've arranged the abduction for this evening. Two guards will lead you there at the eighth bell. When you arrive, materials for an abduction will be by the door. Two horses and provisions for two for two weeks will be outside. The guards will also have my pass and any final instructions.”

“Your Majesty,” he said, injecting a trace of friendly sarcasm.

I smiled. “When you fight for her, use your sword. The man there is an excellent warrior and you can press him fairly hard, but try not to overdo it. When he falls, it will be over.”

“Just how good a swordsman is he? How much can I press?”

“Let’s not find out. Do as I say and press him fairly hard, but only to the point where Dana would believe. I don’t have to do this, you know. I could just hand her to you on the other side of the Tulem gate.”

He leaned forward and grinned, a familiar countenance I knew well from the pelts. “Are you sure you don’t want to trade places with her? Eventually, you'll submit to someone. You could do worse, Tyra.”

I covered his hand for a moment and grinned. “I’m going to miss you, Malchor.” I took the dagger and got to my feet, pausing at the door before leaving. “Truly, I wish you both the best.”

I left him sitting comfortably, but his expression worried me. He was not one to conceal his emotions well; he wore a smile, but underneath lay a deep sadness.


It was dark outside Ketrick’s apartment. The streetlight at the corner was dimmed at my instruction, and the only illumination came from The Queen’s Cup and the lights in the apartment above, filtered through heavy curtains. I waited outside, across the street, wrapped and hooded in a cloak of deep gray, as the guards brought Malchor to the stairs. He took the steps two at a time. At the top of the stairs he flexed his hands, gave his shoulders a roll, then unsheathed his sword, tapping on the door with the pommel. When it opened a crack, he threw himself at it, forcing his way in. A few seconds later came the muted ring of steel and oaths.

“Is everything ready?” I asked.

“Yes, Majesty,” the senior guard said.

“Very good.”

We waited. Pottery shattered. Heavy objects thumped, as if thrown against the wall. Steel clashed against steel several more times. A man roared in pain. An object fell to the floor with a thud, all of it mixed discreetly with the usual night sounds of street laughter and passing horses. And then: silence.

“That should be all. It won’t be long now,” I said.

Malchor appeared in the door carrying a long package wrapped in a pelt over his shoulder. If one bothered to listen very closely, small squeals could be heard emanated from beneath the fur. He placed his burden over the middle of the pack horse and tied it down with prepared leather cords. In all, the sequence lasted less than two minutes.

“It's time. Take him all the way out to the Tulem Gate. Maintain a steady pace, but not too fast. Warn him about keeping quiet. If he speaks to anyone, even you, kill him immediately.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

They mounted their horses and rode across the street to escort Malchor and his prize. When the clopping of their horses faded, I climbed the stairs and entered the apartment. It was about as I had expected. The chairs lay on their sides scattered about the room, the stuffing from one spilling out through a ragged slice; the dinner table was upturned, its former contents a sticky stew spreading on the floor. Two of the four plants had been knocked over, with the largest pot, a century old Fashtun, shattered into a thousand glazed bits. A huge hole through both plaster and board brought attention to the back wall. The divan was upright, however, and occupied.

I tread lightly through the debris, shaking my head at the mess. “This wasn’t a fight, this was a battle.”

Ketrick grunted. “Malchor is good with the sword. It was a convincing performance.”

Wanda emerged from the back with a broom and pan, going immediately to work on the area around the broken pot. I watched her, glad I didn’t have to do it.

Ketrick stood and brushed himself off. “Are you ready?”


Our horses waited for us behind the tavern, our own squirming package double sealed in chains. We slipped out of the city through the northwest gate, close to the Borodin side of the valley. We rode hard, passing the orderly torch flames outside the Borodin castles and scattered lights of the villages, a trot most of the time, but breaking into a gallop when the way was clear. It was the long way around to Tulem’s Gate, but it would suffice.

An hour later, standing in the office at the gate, I watched Malchor and his train come into sight, climbing the last curve into the staging area. For the moment at least, it looked as though Malchor was keeping his word. It was clear and the moon, nearly full, reflected from the helmets and polished mail of the several guards that maintained the Gate at that time of night. Malchor’s guards, having done their duty, split off and left him some room.

It was up to Malchor now. My former Captain of the Guards drove his horses forward until he was under the torch lights then dismounted. A Gate guard walked forward. Malchor handed him his pass and went back to check his cargo. I waited, hanging my head when his hand stayed too long at her bonds. I started walking; it was time to end it.

“Malchor! What in Hades do you think you're doing?” I shouted.

He spun around with a startled expression. He had already loosened the pelt and was close to undoing her gag.

“I do what must be done. It’s too late.” He pulled the last bond free. The blond image of myself spit out the cloth wad and looked around dazedly. “Speak now. You are free! Tell them who you are!” he cried to the girl.

The guards would have rushed him, but I held my arm high, waving them back. “That’s enough. It’s time to move,” I said.

He turned to the guards desperately. “Listen to her!” He addressed her again. “Tell them who you are!”

Face down on the horse, the girl bent her head back uncomfortably, and squinted with eyes blurry from being upside down. She croaked, “I’m whoever you want me to be, Master!”

I threw back my head and laughed.

He threw me a furious glance and turned back to his captive. “Tell them! What was your name before you became a slave?”

“My name was Tyra l’Fay, Master.”

“Ah!” Malchor pushed her head down and threw the pelt flap over her in absolute disgust.

“It seems that, once again, you have stolen the wrong girl,” I noted amusedly.

His eyes blazed, but he held his tongue.

“Walk with me.” I gestured to the two guards who had escorted him to the gate to follow. They brought their spears forward, ready to kill him at the first sign of treachery. “Bring your horse, but leave the girl behind. You are leaving now.”

He moved, too numb to protest. We walked down the tunnel to the outside, the horse’s hooves making a racket off the cobblestone in the enclosed space.

We didn’t stop at the opening, but went further, where our words would be lost in the cold whipping wind of the mountains. He could have snapped my neck with a twist, so a pair of crossbows watched us.

“I’m sorry it ends like this,” I said.

“Are you going to kill me?”

“No.” I pointed further down the hill a few hundred yards to a pair of horses with one rider. “The real Dana is on that packhorse. Take her and go.”

He started, then relaxed. “So, you kept your word.”

“And I will continue to do so. I respect your obligation to your birth city, but I can’t trust you. When the man with Dana saw you come through without your packhorse, he gave her a DNA modifier. Soon, she will be unrecognizable as my twin. Three days from now the changes will be complete. Her value as a tool to destroy me is over. By the time she recovers, I expect you to be long gone from Tulem. If you return to the gate while I’m on the throne, you will die.”

“Making changes so soon after Ruk’s serum is a risk.”

“A small one; these changes are minor and cosmetic. You gave me no choice if I didn’t want to kill you both.”

He mounted his horse and began the walk down the mountain. Father would have told me to leave it at that. Authority is best firm and quick; the fewer explanations the better. But I could only watch him go for a few seconds. Damn.

“Malchor, wait!”

He turned, his expression a mask.

I picked up my hem and ran until I was by his horse. “Listen to me. Dana's hurt inside. She’ll need you to be kind for a while. She's also stronger than you think. She took control of the castle after Paolo was killed. I would ... I would have liked her if things were otherwise. One more thing: let her pee once in a while, more than you let me. Riding on a horse like that compresses the bladder.”

He pressed his fist to his chest, making his salute sardonic with a tilt of his head. “I’ll take your advice. Goodbye, Tyra.”

I watched for a long time, ignoring the biting wind, while he spoke with Ketrick, and waited until he rode away, south, following the same route he had taken with me. I walked back through the tunnel and dismissed the guards that had escorted Malchor. They must have thought I had played a great joke on him, judging by their laughter.

Ketrick came through riding a moment later and went straight to the packhorse. He unwrapped Angel, readjusted the pelts to make a crude saddle, and lifted her onto them. Her injuries must have been, at best, half-healed, but she only winced.

I mounted my horse and started back. Ketrick joined me before too long, the lead rein from Angel’s horse tied off to a ring on his saddle. I held my peace until we were out of sight of the gate.

I took a deep breath before saying what must be said. “You were right. Malchor betrayed me.”


“Ketrick, I don’t know how to say it…”

“I told you there was no need to apologize. I understand exactly what happened. Part of it is inexperience, but the greater part is because you are a woman.”

I'd been ready to grovel, but that killed it faster than a beetle under a boot. “Now wait a minute...”

“Isn’t it obvious? Would Tyr have done that?”

“That’s … that’s not the right question. I may as well blame everything that you’ve done wrong on your suren. Do you want to listen to my explanation? Then hear me out. I agree that I made a mistake, but it has nothing to do with me being a woman -- well, in a way, but not the way you make it out to be. Yes, I made a mistake with Malchor, who held his obligation to his home city, as damaged as it was, sweeter than his word to me.”

“You’re only proving my point so far.”

“I’m not done yet. Likely, Malchor quibbled with his blood oath because he didn’t see me deserving the warrior’s bond.”

“Considering that he’s had you in the silks several times, I would surmise that he knows what’s beneath your dress.”

“I ... I treated him as one warrior to another. I honored him with a chance to fight me --”

“Which was idiotic.”

“Damn, it, Ketrick. It would have worked if I had been a man.”

“It probably would have -- for Tyr, but Tyr would never have tried it.”

I looked straight ahead to avoid looking at him. When Ketrick saw me, how much did he see of the man I used to be, and how much of my breasts, and bottom -- and remember the way I moved under him, the scent of my hair, my body.... None of the old rules apply anymore. You’re not a man, and you can’t forget that for a second -- ever.

“All right. Tyr would have killed Malchor, changed Dana’s DNA, and sent her to the Slave Trainers Guild with instructions to sell her in some distant land, regretting all of it, but not enough to take chances with the lives of the men, women, and children of Batuk. But I’m not Tyr. I know how much Malchor loved Dana. I know what a serum girl feels like when she wakes up. I know the black depths of Dana’s mind after she understood that her supposed ‘friend’ had destroyed her life. With Tyr’s way, she would have been scarred forever. I have learned. If I had a chance to do it over, I would have tied Malchor up somewhere outside the Gate, brought Dana to him drugged -- something, but Dana would have still been with Malchor in the end.

“Which way is better? The question should be, which way is better for whom. The safer way is Tyr’s. He could have lived with killing Malchor and sending Dana to an unknown fate, but not me. I know too much. I don’t think I could have returned to the palace unhaunted with the memory. After all this killing and betraying, I had to be human again. I can’t apologize from my heart for trying to save Malchor and Dana, only that I wasn’t more careful.”

“We all keep the jackal at bay in own way. I understand.” He grinned. “At least you’ve admitted that you think like a woman.”

I groaned. “Ketrick, how would I know? I think the way I think, but I suppose so, yes.”

He nodded. “It’s been a good day. Despite the added risk, we are alive, Dana is saved, and Malchor is free to go his way -- an interesting fellow, by the way.”

“Yes. You and Malchor spoke for a long time before he rode away.”

“Truth. We had much to discuss.”

I waited in vain for elaboration. “So? What did you talk about?”

“I told him that I'd taken Dana silently with a black mask in the dark and put her on the horse. We are about the same size, so Dana may reasonably conclude that it was Malchor who had abducted her, and her natural slave heart will be suitably impressed.”

“That was considerate, but it hardly took the entire time.”

“No,” he admitted.

Ketrick could be infuriating at times. “Well, what else did you talk about?”

“Things we have in common -- you, in particular.”


He smiled his rakish best. “Of course, I can’t tell you precisely what we discussed. That subject is reserved for those who think like men; however,” he confided, leaning over the saddle, “in the main, it was complimentary.”

We rode to the bottom of the valley before I cooled. Why did this bother me? Women talked about men all the time. Angel, Wanda and I had spoken of Ketrick in intimate detail and he hadn’t cared at all. It was unfair.

I motioned Angel forward, allowing her room to ride between us. She still winced and rode slightly twisted to one side. “How bad is it, Angel?”

She glared at me as if it were my fault. “Nice of you to ask. It hurts like Hades!”

Male jokes and insolence by an ex-slave: I’d had enough for one night. “Ketrick, do you see any reason to keep Angel free any longer?”

“She will submit before the night is over. Perhaps I’ll break a few rules and give Wanda lessons in unarmed combat. A turn as second girl might teach her humility.”

Mouth open, she bowed to me as far as her injury would allow. “Please forgive me, Mistress! I was rude and should be punished.”

“You’re still a freewoman, but there are limits.”

“I’m sorry, Tyra. I’m not used to this.”

I shrugged. “You did well at the gate, and you are in pain. I forgive you. Now return to your place in the rear.” She nodded submissively and moved back.

My old castle came into view, the walls gleaming in the darkness from torches spaced every few yards. Slow rockets burst green and gold in the air overhead. As we came closer, I heard loud music and wild shouts. They had to be celebrating Lord Paoli’s ascension -- or Lady Gina’s departure.

“We’re still in trouble, you know,” I said. “Even as the Queen, I can’t stop the invasion without a very good reason. As a serum girl, my rule is tenuous.”

“I never thought it would be easy. What are you doing so far?”

“I commissioned a study to analyze the effect exiling anyone who misbehaves has had on the mundanes over the centuries. If it proves what I suspect, it will demonstrate to the Borodins that the men and women of Batuk are different, that their enlightened rule over the ‘peasants of the plains’ would be anything but.”

“That's an unusual approach,” he said after a moment of deep reflection. “Clever, in a way, but it won’t work for the immediate task at hand.”

“I know,” I sighed. “It was more of an impulse than a plan: it felt like the right thing to do. I have another tack.”

“Does it concern Spymaster Thermin or his deputy?”

I give him a hard look. “Why do you even bother asking me these questions if you’re two steps ahead of me? I’m just a warrior, or I used to be. You’re the one with all the experience.”

“Experience is a valuable guide, but relying on it too much impedes innovation — or maybe it’s because I enjoy hearing a woman’s voice plot war and killing.”

“Sweet words. I’ll be swooning any second. It’s just an idea I had, a rather obvious one. I don’t think I can stop the invasion from the palace. The Borodin lords are more eager than ever to attack Batuk. The key to ending this war, now, I think, are the spies and saboteurs in Batuk. We need information about them, and then a way to stop them. I need….”

I closed my eyes for a moment. Lack of sleep numbed my brain, my body was tired after riding all night, and I was weary of the constant strain. The task suddenly seemed hopeless.

Ketrick gripped my arm. “Where is Malchor’s house?”

I knew that tone of voice very well, and found that I needed him dreadfully. “I don’t know if we have the time.”

“You’re the Queen. You have no schedule to keep.”

I let out a shaky breath and pointed. “It’s right over there.” He nodded, then turned his horse. I followed, and my urges built the entire way, but when we dismounted, the door was locked. I almost cried from disappointment, but he took me in his arms.

“It doesn’t matter, Tyra. The ridge of trees by the castle field will do nicely, and I still have Angel’s pelts. She can stand guard.”

He took only a moment to undress me. I unclipped my circlet and let my hair free to blow in the breeze. Standing naked under the limitless sky, the cool ground under my feet, I might have been anyone from slave to Queen, and none of it mattered to me. All I wanted then was the man in front of me. He took me with a kiss, leaving me room to give something of myself. It was this delicious difference, unique to Ketrick, that bridged the freewoman and the natural slave in me. A purist would have scoffed, claiming that my natural slave’s satisfaction wasn’t fulfilled, and that was true, but if it was something less to the natural slave, it was everything to the flame of freedom that burned within my breast.

Then I gave him myself for a wonderful hour on the warm pelt beneath the stars. Soon, I was his, and I screamed the full-throated wail of a woman who knows her true self, my cries soaring into the night sky to combine joyfully with music from the castle, sounds of celebration, and rockets exploding.

An hour passes swiftly when one is used so splendidly. When he finished with me, we lay side-by-side, allowing the evening to cool our overheated bodies. I turned to my side to watch his carved profile and superb body. I longed to say what was in my heart, but it wasn’t the right time. From my experience as Tyr, I had learned that the first words should come from the man, lest his ardor be quickly diminished.

“I'll send you Wanda late tomorrow afternoon,” he said.

I propped my head on my elbow and smiled. “She would be very welcome. I’m assuming I would own her?”

“Yes. It’s too dangerous for us to meet like this. You need a way to contact me. I’ll set up a few message drops that Wanda or you can use.”

“Hmm. What if she’s followed?”

“That’s why I need the day. I’ll train her to detect and avoid tails, and you should start a pattern of being outside the palace with her at all times.”

I nodded. “She is clever.”

“She is. In all my years, I don’t believe that I’ve ever owned two more satisfying slaves.”

I still felt a pang at their loss, but not nearly as much as I used to. “They were my greatest pleasures, especially Angel. What are you going to do with Angel, by the way? It won’t do for the Queen’s twin to be used and dominated in a tavern.”

“I’ll change her appearance. It’s too early to alter her DNA, but I can change her hair and give her cheek pieces.”

“Don’t cut her hair. I might need to use her again.” I smiled at the image in my mind. “Why not part her hair to the sides of her head and tie it off in twin ponytails?”

His laugh was a pleasant rumble. “Like a little girl?”

“Just like that, yes -- and you could give her a new name, like Rosy Cheeks or Baby. That should be enough to satisfy my Minister of Protocol. If he still complains, then I’ll simply tell him that it’s enough for my sense of propriety.”

“Then that’s what I’ll do.”


Ketrick was right: no one said a word to me about how late I was getting back. I summoned my bath girls, who prepared my bath, and I settled into its hot, perfumed waters. All three massaged my body in scented oils until I nearly fell asleep. I slept like the dead in a linen nightgown in a warm bed overlooking my magnificent city. Sometimes, I decided, it’s good to be the Queen.

A gentle cough awoke me in the morning. I rolled towards the offender, Thea, my apartment maid. She bowed, holding a set of purple and white towels in her arms.

“Your Majesty,” she said softly, “breakfast is in an hour.”

I suspected that King Bruno might have told her to leave, or taken her if he was in the mood; she was a pretty girl if you liked short buxom brunettes with limpid blue eyes, but I was not a king, and it was time to face the day.

After a bath, and being dressed and coiffed -- my new palace circlet wasn’t finished yet, and I didn’t want to wear the other in the palace -- Beti met me outside the door.

“Your Majesty!” She bowed.

I thought Beti to be a good sort, but I didn’t care for dogs or people who followed me around everywhere. “Beti, how long do you intend to monitor my progress? My wounds are healing well.”

“Physician Lees’n asked me to watch you for another two days, as a precaution.”

“Physician Lees’n and you have done extremely well, but this is excessive. I’m too old for a wet nurse and the attempt would please neither of us. After today, you will return to your regular duties with my thanks.”

“Yes Majesty,” she said, less enthusiastically.

Breakfast was in a private room in an annex of the Great Hall. It easily compared to my apartments in opulence, although this was more austere. Instead of curtains and personal scenes, its elegance relied on marble carvings and gold.

I appeared to be the last one there. My place was at the head of the table. To my right were Kernul and Selmin. To my left were The Captain of the Guards, Gherome, and War Leader Prator, the Commander of my portion of the forces arrayed against Batuk. Finally, there was an empty place, set with plates, cup and glass, Thermin’s chair. I looked to Selmin for an explanation, unsure whether to proceed or wait.

“Your Majesty, Spymaster Thermin begs your pardon. He is occupied this morning.”

“Is he now. Is he in the palace?”

My Minister of Protocol’s face flushed a deeper shade of brown. “He is.”

From Selmin’s reaction, I had been snubbed. My position in the palace was unsure, but this went too far; Thermin wasn’t even a noble. For someone to dodge the first breakfast with his sovereign was inexcusable. “I will meet with our Spymaster before he leaves the palace. Please see to it, Gherome.”

The Captain of the Guards waved a guard over from the door and whispered a few instructions. Kernul made a small nod of approval.

Breakfast was intriguing, not for what I learned about the palace and the way it was run, but for what I learned about King Bruno’s ruling style. When I asked the ministers about their finances and operations, they answered, but as a curiosity; the men at the table were not accustomed to being questioned. The rumors about King Bruno had been correct: he had been bored, and preferred hunting, drinking and wenching to governing. Except for the weekly audiences, his active mind and formidable leadership had largely been wasted.

My ministers honored my position as Queen, but I doubted they would invest much loyalty or devotion, as they expected my rule to be brief. I couldn’t find fault with their logic. I, too, hoped to be beyond Tulem’s gate soon after Batuk was saved.

After breakfast, I needed to think and to be alone. I only had vague notions of what to do. Tulem needed its spies and saboteurs to create havoc. We needed to stop them. But how?

Just then my assigned companion attached herself to me.

“Majesty, would you like a warm bath and massage?” Beti asked hopefully.

“Beti, I’ve decided that I won’t need you today after all. Please return to the infirmary. I will be there at the usual time, and I promise that at the first sign of danger I will run straight to you.”

Her face fell, but she bowed to my command. “Yes, Majesty.”

When she was gone, I wandered the halls in thought. I’d considered returning to my apartments, but the pinks, frills, flowers, and languid scenes of children playing appealed to a different woman’s mind. My feet led me to the Hall of Kings. I stopped once again before the evocative portrait of that long-dead queen. If I didn’t know better, I might have sworn that her eyes saw still, even across two centuries.

I caught a movement walking down the hall, a quiet tread. It was Merton. He stood beside me, not too close, and looked up at the picture of Tulem's first Queen.

“The artist captured her extremely well, but forgot her sense of humor, I think,” he said in his unobtrusive voice.

“The artist was a genius.”

“He was Grent Dewy, Your Majesty.”

Even dreaming in class, I remembered his name. He was ranked among the finest painters in the last five hundred years. “She was fortunate to find him.”

“And he, her.”

The catch in his voice was telling. I looked at him and smiled. “After all this time, do you still love her, Merton?”

“Majesty,” he sputtered.

I took his hands instinctively, ignoring for the moment our relative positions. “Don’t be ashamed. I’m sure she was worthy of it. I’ll wager she knew what you felt for her.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty. May I ask you an impertinent question?”

I raised my right eyebrow. “Within reason.”

“How has Ruk’s Serum changed you inside?”

I considered the Librarian. Merton had served six kings and a queen. Liars and scoundrels would never have lasted so long. “This isn’t a question for your library, is it?”

“No. I’ve studied the subject, but it’s a personal request.”

I moved to a bench by the wall on the opposite side, away from the portraits. “Sit, Merton, and I will do the best I can.”

I wondered what I could tell him. As nervous and stiff as he was, it had to be more than curiosity. “It’s like looking out onto a new Zhor. The body changes you, Merton, and all is shifted. Men and women are not the same. The world regards you differently. Some of what I could do before is impossible or difficult, but other avenues open, and I’ve learned to adapt and appreciate some of what I have. Am I changed, Merton? Yes, but deep inside I am still me.”

“What about the urges, Majesty?”

“I’m a natural slave, and will possibly, probably, succumb sooner or later. Yet even then, I’ve seen slaves with their old personalities intact. I will hold onto what I have with all my strength, but even if I lose, I will still exist, with yet another view of the world. I do not scorn the slave any longer. I understand her.” I found his eyes after a brief search. “Did that answer your question, Merton?”

“Abundantly, your Majesty. Thank you very much.”

When he moved on the bench, he winced, and I finally connected the points. “You’re welcome. If you want to discuss this with me in more detail, come to my apartments sometime when I’m free.”

He bowed very deeply. “I am honored beyond words, your Majesty.”

I looked into his face when he rose. “Be honored all you want, but do not hesitate.”

He departed with a steadier step, but now, looking for it, I could see the pain he'd been hiding. Merton was a sick man.

For whatever reason, the conversation had cleared my head. I returned the way I came and entered the administrative section where Thermin’s offices lay. He had insulted me that morning. It was possible that he truly had been indisposed with a critical matter, but I wouldn’t give him the opportunity to apologize; it wouldn’t suit my purpose.

He had the end of the corridor to himself with a guard blocking the way to non-essential traffic. I glanced at the guard, who allowed me by. He made to announce me, but I shook my head. Thermin’s door was unlocked. I opened it to a scene of three men clustered around a set of maps spread out on a large table. I couldn’t have hoped for better.

“Your Majesty!” cried the man in the middle. The others moved to block my view.

I disliked him on sight. He was tall enough, with brown hair and blue eyes, and handsome in a way I’d seen in taverns. He would dominate a woman well, but tie her arms a little too tightly, or bind her mouth so she had to strain to breathe.

“Oh, did I come at a bad time?”

“Majesty, we were examining some of the latest maps from Batuk.”

“Excellent. I would like to see them, too.” I started forward.

Thermin turned quickly and gathered them up in his arms.

I directed my attention to the other two men. “Get out!” I shouted, pointing to the door. “Come back when I tell you to!”

They glanced at Thermin, who nodded very slightly. I narrowed my eyes at this blatant disrespect, but they did leave.

“Majesty, what can I do for you?” he said charmingly, yet lacking the essence of it.

“I want to know what you do.” I sat and waited.

“Majesty, I wouldn’t be doing my job for you or for Tulem if I told you Tulem’s greatest secrets. Your ... condition leaves you vulnerable to an enemy.” He spread his hands. “I’m sorry.”

It all sounded very reasonable. “That’s unacceptable,” I said, folding my arms. “I don’t expect all the details, but I will have a good idea how a department under my control is run.”

He grimaced. “If this is because I was busy at breakfast…”

“That’s part of it. It showed me an arrogance and lack of judgment that concerns me. Now, describe your operations.”

“Majesty,” he began, as if he were speaking to an irrational child.

“The next time you open your mouth I will expect a reasonable description of this department.” I waited a few seconds, then leaned forward and spoke clearly, enunciating each word. “If you do not speak very soon, Donal will be the new Spymaster and you will be in a cell for a very long time.”

“May I be candid?”

“Always, Thermin.”

He leaned backwards to half-sit against the table, and crossed his arms comfortably. “Your Majesty, you’re a serum girl. You can’t possibly expect me to give you Tulem’s secrets when you might be in a master’s arms a week from now. If you put me in the dungeon during this sensitive time, it would jeopardize the war. The nobles would unite and make Franco the King.”

“Serum girl or not,” I sneered, “do you really believe that nobles would hold your arrogance higher than my right to know what an underling is doing? I’m the Queen in Tulem, whether for a day or years. Donal or another can do your job, you arrogant twit. I would bet my crown that I could break you. And remember this, Thermin: I have less to lose than you do. This is your last chance. Tell me what I want to know.”

His eyes burned with a cold blue flame for a few seconds, but he did the calculus. “Majesty, may I ask a question?”

I inclined my head graciously. “You may.”

“Do you really care how this department is run?”

“As far as you’re concerned, Thermin, I do. And that is all you need to know.”

He hung his head in disgust. “Very well -- Majesty!”

He walked to a display board, erased what was there with a coarse cloth, and began to draw. “This is no secret in the palace. I have three men and two women on my palace staff.” He wrote their names and functions. “There are about four dozen men and women in other cities that report to me. Naturally, more than half are in Batuk.” He paused to examine my reaction to these revelations.

“How droll. What you’ve said so far any fool can guess. What specifically are you doing in Batuk?”

His jaw knotted for a second, but he acceded. I even admired his poise, for he was furious beneath the facade. “I communicate regularly with my spymaster in Batuk via courier. My spies occupy positions at every level in Batuk society and provide an excellent slice of the city’s mood.”

“And how often do you contact your spymaster there? It’s a two-day trip.”

“It is a single day. We provide a way station halfway. I have daily reports.”

I took no notes nor asked more than a couple of dozen questions. For Thermin, I was a petulant bitch making a point, but by mid-morning I had enough information to churn with possibilities.

“Majesty,” he called just before I left the office.

I faced him from the door. “Yes?”

“I’d advise against exiling any more people until this war is over. Captain Malchor might have swung north to Batuk instead of south.”

I thought about it for a moment. “Very well, Thermin, I will not. And will you be at breakfast tomorrow morning?” I asked sweetly.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said, but his eyes told me that he wouldn’t easily forgive me for putting him in his place.

After lunch, I changed to a split dress and rode south with two guards towards the army practice fields. We rode through the city. More than a few gawked at me. I waved and smiled when appropriate as the every-present enforcers cleared a path through the pedestrians, wagons and carts.

A few minutes later we climbed a mild hill overlooking the parade grounds. The tents, roads, and exercise fields extended all the way to the southern mountains. Thousands still marched or rode in formation, but most practiced whatever martial specialty they would be using for the attack, and the whack of practice swords and spears laid a constant patter echoing against the walls of the valley.

I marked a place at the top of the hill, and waited.

Gerhart, one of my guards, pointed to a large collection of purple tents to our left. “Your Majesty, those are the headquarters of War Leader Prator.”

Being a woman usually carried with it the impression of military incompetence. I’d chosen my guards because they looked stupider than most, but even so, he should have known better. “Gerhart, I wait here, not because I have no idea where to go, but because I have no desire to interfere with the War Leader’s command. Here, we are visible across the field. When he sees us, he will send a man.”

“Of course, your Majesty. I’m sorry.”

Zhok, the other guard, gave him a look when he thought I didn’t see him, mouthing “rhadus.”

It wasn’t long before a man in polished mail with a purple sash around his waist trotted towards us, pulling up a few feet in front. He bowed his head. “Your Majesty! War Leader Prator extends his greetings and compliments. He inquires whether you will join him in his tent.”

“I would be pleased to join him, Commander. Lead on.”

Prator’s tent was the largest, the nexus of a circle of tents. The sides were rolled up for light in the mild weather. I had entered during an exercise of some sort, and the place teemed with officers milling over charts and couriers at the ready. For a moment, in my unobtrusive cloak, I mingled unnoticed amidst tall men.

From markings on the charts, Prator had chosen this simulation assuming that a sizable portion of his forces would be inside Batuk. I noted coldly that part of his “territory” included Eagles.

I looked up when a shadow crossed the chart I was reading.

Prator bowed with precision and grace, finishing with a grin that highlighted a three-inch scar in his cheek that he’d never bothered to have removed. To another man it would have been a sign of vanity; to him it was a reminder to be more careful blocking a spear.

“Majesty, it’s an honor. What brings you here?”

“I came to see the men train, War Leader.”

“An honor. A sub-commander’s foot up their rhadus works pretty well, but your presence will increase moral.”

“That’s my intent. I won’t interfere, but I’d like to watch the men for an hour or two before I return.”

“Admirable.” He gestured to an aide, already anticipating my needs. “I have a place where your men practice the long and short spear. I understand you have some experience with the weapon,” he said, a glint of humor in his eye.

“Don’t worry. I won’t be demonstrating any of my ‘moves’ or offering instruction. Those days are behind me.”

The aide assembled a canopy and provided a chair for me. Another gave me a drink, and I settled down for the afternoon to watch a company of conscripts stab straw figures clothed in Batuk brown. When they lunged, they yelled “Kill!” and “Death!”

Privately, I thought that each warrior in Eagles was worth three of the levees, but there were thousands of them. My thoughts were dark, but I smiled and applauded a well-executed block or a fine thrust and twist, ignoring that it might be my father or mother whom they practiced to spit. I saw no evil in them except what they were training for. With different colors, they might have been a well-behaved militia in Batuk. Before they had been given spears, they’d been farmers or tradesmen, and would be again.

Perhaps some of them would fight harder to emulate my example as their bloodthirsty Queen, but I thought that most looked to me as the wife or sister they wanted to keep safe. The fiction spread was that the barbarians from Batuk had to be overcome for their own good before they became powerful enough to threaten the valley and Tulem’s peaceful way of life — and most believed.

These fine-looking men with bright eyes, humor and passion were not the face of my true enemy, but they would kill us anyway.


Once back at the palace I headed back to my apartments, looking forward to a bath and massage. It was not to be. Kernul and Selmin waited for me on the ground floor.

“Majesty, may we speak to you about tomorrow?” spoke my Minister of Protocol.

I sighed. I had completely forgotten about the audience I had the next morning. “Of course, Minister.” We walked to the anteroom together, and I ordered a carafe of tea.

Selmin began: “Kernul and I have discussed the matter. If you’d like, Kernul could conduct the audience for you. King Bruno and others used a surrogate when they were ill or incapacitated.”

From the looks of them, it had been Selmin’s idea, so my attention was to him. “You diminish me, Selmin. Some serum girls never get the urges. Is it so hard to imagine that I might be the Queen a year from now, or two, or three? From such a vision grows mutual respect. Do you understand me, Minister?”

The man surely doubted that I’d be Queen for more than a matter of weeks, much less the wildly optimistic years I’d mentioned, but he barely hesitated. “Yes, Majesty. I understand. In that case, you’ll need to know some palace customs and practices…”

While he droned on about what dress I should wear, what side of the throne I should mount, and where my advisors should best be placed, I watched Kernul. For the first time since the coronation on the balcony, I saw a glimmer of approval.

When the ordeal was over, I didn’t waste a second before leaving, and found Wanda just outside in slave position on her knees. A guard with a long spear stood next to her, holding the raven-haired beauty’s leash as if she were a panther. She smiled up at me.

“Majesty, this slave just arrived,” the guard said. ”According to these documents, she belongs to you.” He handed me her transfer papers, and I gave them a look.

“Yes, she's my slave. Thank you.” Dismissed, he returned to his post.

“Rise, Wanda and come with me,” I said, unsnapping the chain from her collar.

“Yes, Mistress,” she replied, and followed me upstairs to my quarters. At the entrance, I informed the guards that Wanda was my personal slave, and was allowed entry to my apartments at all times.

Thea was there with towels in her hand and a hot bath already prepared. It was a nice touch of a dedicated maid thinking ahead, and Thea was an unassuming woman, but I was already impatient to speak to Wanda alone. I allowed Thea to help me with my dress and assist in the bath because I didn’t know what else to do.

Could I simply send Thea away? Would that be suspicious? I hated not knowing the rules. I determined that I would let matters stay the same, at least for the moment.

That night, Scholar Jillian arrived for her appointment with me looking around and clutching her hands like a fidgety bird. I decided that it was safe and “natural” enough that late in the evening to dismiss Thea, and did so.

“Majesty,” Jillian said after Thea had gone, “You asked me to talk about King Bruno’s last year, but I don’t know what to teach you. You were directly involved in most of what happened.”

“I want you to concentrate on events in the palace.”

“What do you mean, politics?” she asked, screwing up her mouth, as if the word were soiled.

I decided to just come out and say it: “Jillian, I don’t know whom to trust in the palace.”

She breathed a sigh. “Ah, subterfuge, plots, and ears at the door. I’m sure there was some of it, and factions among the palace staff, but I wasn’t involved in that sort of thing. I was with the library. It might be pertinent to say that King Bruno was one of the most powerful rulers in centuries. As far as I know, everyone was completely loyal to him.”

And King Bruno had fifty years to consolidate his reign. “How many times has a King been assassinated where the palace staff was involved?”

“That would be three times, and Queen Prudence, of course. She was the last.”

“Would you say that Queen Prudence was a strong monarch?”

She shook her head. “No, Majesty. As you know, she only took the crown when her husband died. She had few allies and many resented her for not taking a husband.”

I stood abruptly and walked to the balcony that looked out over Tulem. I didn’t go out, just remained standing, watching the orange glow of the setting sun illuminate the clouds over the valley.

Ordinarily, there would be no reason to get rid of me. They would only have to wait for the serum girl Queen to feel the urges. But there would come a time when I would order the attack on Batuk halted. If my position weren’t at least fairly secure, someone might decide that killing me was the right thing to do. I was a fluke, a gallant gesture from the lords who fought with me, and few would mourn my passing. I would never have a strong hand; my own transience ensured that true loyalty would elude me. There were a few precautions I could take, though.

“Jillian, have you noticed any changes in the palace staff?”

“Yes, Majesty. Besides the guards at your door, of course, your maid, Thea, is new here. There may be other changes, but…”

“You know Thea?”

“I know of her, Majesty. She used to work in the administrative wing for your spymaster. They needed a new maid. The King’s private maid was traumatized when you killed the King in front of her.”

He was sleeping with the maid, too? My respect for the dead King went up a notch.

“Any other changes?”

“I don’t know, Majesty. The Chief of Staff would know, of course.”

“Of course. Thank you, Jillian. Do you have those studies about the effect of the exiles ready for me?”

“No, Your Majesty,” she said uncomfortably. “I was wrong. There are none in the archives. There are indications that some similar studies were done, but none survive.”

“I find it troubling that no studies survive. What does that mean to you?”

“I don’t like to think about it, your Majesty,” she said in a small voice.

“Then do your own study. What resources would you need?”

She looked down into her hands and sighed. “Mainly time. I’d have a thousand years of records to go through. It would take weeks to quantify the parameters. It could take more than a year to do a decent job.”

“Then you had better start.” I reached for a pen and paper, wrote a letter of authority and stamped it with my seal. She took it reluctantly.

“Truth is always the goal of the Scholars Guild,” she muttered under her breath. “I’ll do my best, Majesty.” She bowed and let herself out.

When she left only Wanda and I remained.

Like Angel, I’d come to know her when I was in Ketrick’s stable. Behind the passion slave I’d bought to help Angel learn how to please me was an intelligent, caring woman with surprising initiative at times. If she was angry with me for pretending to be a slave, I couldn’t tell. It must have disappointed her to be away from the finest master she'd ever had, but she showed no sign.

“Wanda, what instructions did Ketrick give you for me?”

“He set up several drops, Mistress. He'll check them twice a day, around the eighth hour in the morning and after noon…” She went on to describe the drops and their locations.

“Mistress, if Ketrick needs to pass something to you, then he will wait for us to leave the palace and meet me in disguise, passing me any instructions. If you need relief and Ketrick isn’t available, visit the Queen’s Cup the day before. After the supper hour the next day, Angel will switch with you and return the next day in the early morning just after breakfast. She’s called Baby now. Her hair is still blonde, but she looks like this:” She pulled her hair out from her head sideways in two directions and smiled goofily.

I laughed. “Baby” would hate that.

The next morning, I left the bed early. When Thea entered, she looked around uncertainly, puzzled and alarmed to find that Wanda had already made my bath and that I was just drying off. I allowed her to help me with my dress, but provided no explanation.

At breakfast, Thermin was in his chair. As I'd expected, forced to be there, he contributed little to brighten the conversation.

“Kernul, I’ve decided to replace Thea with my new slave Wanda,” I said.

Thermin paused while lifting a melon slice to his mouth.

“Did Thea perform poorly?” Kernul replied.

“Not at all. She was exemplary. I’m sure she’ll find employment somewhere in the administrative wing.”

“I’ll make the adjustment this morning.” He made the briefest flicker of a glance towards Thermin, his lip twitching faintly in amusement, as if our Spymaster had been caught in some prank.


It was the voices that morning in the audience plaza outside the palace that convinced me this was real. I was inside at the time. My dress was an immaculate purple with white trim. Sherry was applying the finishing touches to my face and fussing with my crown, which I hadn't worn since the inauguration, while Minister Selmin repeated the protocols for the third time. My Chief of Staff looked at me and nodded when appropriate to give me confidence. But it was the voices outside, respectful, hushed in a way that a Batuk crowd could never be, that convinced me.

They expected to see their Queen.

Here, the sovereign had the power of life and death, and they expected her, me, to use it. In a moment I would be judging men and women with an authority greater than the council in Batuk, in a contract with the people of Tulem that went back nearly a thousand years. Despite my mission, in the ways that mattered, they were my subjects, and they had nothing to do with Batuk. I owed it to them. For the moment at least, this impostor had to take on the responsibilities of her position and become the best Queen she could be.

I took a slow breath, then nodded to Kernul.

“I’m ready,” I said to Kernul, who handed me the rod of authority, the same King Bruno had carried, and Queen Prudence two hundred years before.

The guard opened the door. He and the other, their spears in hand, walked through first. The Sergeant at Arms, already outside, announced the my name. I lifted the hem of my dress, stepped down, and up again, onto the marble dais. Below me was an empty semicircle chained-off and surrounded by a sea of bowing men, and women curtseying, all towards me. They overflowed the assigned grounds, well beyond the overhang into a light drizzle, I estimated the audience at several hundred, larger than the one I’d attended with King Bruno, and well beyond any hope of hearing the details of each case.

They were, of course, there to see me.

I climbed into the throne from the right, as I was instructed, carrying the rod of authority in my left hand. Why the custom was important was not important, all that was, was seeing that their Queen followed the same patterns, maintained the continuity of the past. Naturally, they would also be watching me like a predator for signs of weakness. I settled in, made sure my legs were closed, and waited for the first case.

There were a few serious crimes, mainly thievery and the occasional dispute, which I handled quickly with the aid of advisors when I needed to know the law. Only one case caught my attention.

Lester, the Audience Master, read the case brief:

“Jasber Kellen insulted Queen Dana three nights ago in the Tavern by the Lake in front of witnesses. Enforcer Seth overheard the slander and arrested him. The charge is sedition.”

Jasber was in chains, with two enforcers flanking him. He wore his brown hair long and loose, the style of a day laborer, and appeared nervous, as well he might. The penalty for sedition could be death or exile.

“Jasber, explain yourself,” I ordered.

He had called me a slut. When prodded by an enforcer, he admitted that after several cups of siolat, that he might have voiced an opinion of my saer and expressed a desire for its use. Several in the audience gasped. His wife, a pretty woman in what was likely her finest dress of tan and yellow, wept.

I brought my hand up to my face and shook it back and forth. When I was Tyr, I’d said much the same about slaves and a few freewomen. But I had to punish him. His main offense, as I saw it, was stupidity for saying it where the enforcers could hear him. In Tulem, ridiculing the Queen would rightly be seen as weakening the aristocracy. In Batuk, he would have been guilty of demeaning a free woman, not a crime, exactly, but an offense the woman’s family might punish with a severe beating.

“Two months in the dungeon. After that, Jasber, I will see if you have recanted sufficiently.”

He sagged in his chains, relieved, and his wife shouted her thanks with eyes red with tears. It was a light sentence for Tulem, but it was also a statement that I intended to be Queen for at least that amount of time.


Later that morning, I wrote a note explaining what I'd found out from Thermin, especially the times the couriers to Batuk arrived and departed from Tulem. After a quick change of clothes, Wanda and I, along with three guards, left for a trip to the lake, not far from the city’s northeast gate.

The sun had come out to shine on the timeless lake. I had Wanda spread a quilt and blanket in the shade of the tree, and spent a comfortable hour reading a book almost two hundred years old on the short reign of King Walker and his surviving Queen. One of Ketrick’s drop was there, a tree marked only by a peculiarity in its trunk, a large knot facing the water.

Wanda took up her position behind me, backed against the tree. The drop was in the knot, a hole the width of a pen, small enough for a rolled up message and at the proper height that her hands might secrete the note behind her unseen, which she did in the first few minutes.

Returning the next morning, a new note was in its place, which I read later in my apartments on the balcony overlooking the city. It was typical Ketrick: brazen, and direct. I sighed and came inside. Wanda was there and watched me burn it in over a candle.

“Mistress, are you all right?”

I shrugged, not knowing what to say. With time running out, something like what was on the note was expected, and this was war, but it wasn't the kind I'd learned from Father.

I watched the levies at practice in the afternoon again, as was my norm, and cheered them on, but I was really interested in the warriors.

Ketrick had decided that I could do little directly as Queen, which was true, but that he might if I could free him from the valley. As a foreigner, he wouldn’t be permitted outside Tulem until Batuk was conquered, but Tulem had over four thousand warriors in the standing army that could. I only needed one that Ketrick could impersonate. It became my habit that afternoon to meet them in formation, asking each his name, something of his life. The men liked it and so did I. Men, hot and sweaty from exercise, spoke to my slut urges, always ready for any excuse. After a day of searching, I’d found two, but rejected them initially because they had family.

I saw the final prospect on the second day, a tall man of suitable size and aspect wielding a sword and shield. His hair was fair, but his face had the same rough profile, resembling Ketrick enough to make me sit up.

He would do if he wasn’t married -- or even if he was -- we were nearly out of time. When I finally faced him on the line, I had a good look. He wasn’t a perfect match, but he was close enough.

“What’s your name, warrior?” I asked, looking deep into his brown eyes.

“Nestor, Majesty.”

I saw no small necklace or other woman’s decoration to mark him as taken. “Are you married, Nestor?”

He smiled as if such a thing was far from his mind. “No, Your Majesty.”

He was handsome, free, bold enough to glance at his Queen’s breasts, and I thought of the old days. But this was war, and his fate was sealed.

To Be Continued…

Thanks for all the comments. They warm my heart like Tyra's slut urges when they ... well, something like that, anyway. :) The next chapter finds Tyra in some serious trouble, and you find out how special Wanda really is. And what part could a 200 year dead Queen possibly play in this story? Bigger than you might think. ~Aardvark

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