The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 24

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

Tyra finds a way to forget about Ketrick — for the moment. A royal wedding. A close friend dies, but leaves a great gift behind. A old face leads a new investigation, as Tyra prepares for the greatest shock of her female life.


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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.

 
Photo Credit: 3.bp.blogspot.com


 
Chapter 24
 
 
By that afternoon, Tulem knew what I’d done to Ketrick. I raged in my apartments until that evening, when I cooled long enough to meet with my ministers to handle the affairs of the crown. I left most of the decisions to Selmin and Kernul, and returned to my quarters, determined to get control of myself before appearing in public.

“Hii-yaa!” Each lunge returned something of the feel for my old warrior self. I spun, whirling the javelin-length spear, my hands the right size and strength for it. Its blade was needle-sharp, enough to make me concentrate, burying for the moment the hatred in my mind outraged that my life had been stolen by the worst sort of “friend!” I wasn't as good as I was as Tyr, and without the strength of a man, I would never be again, but with discipline and practice I would adjust, force my woman's body through the routines and forms and someday be as skilled as before.

I stopped when I my hands became too slick to be safe. Naked and sweaty, I stood in front of the mirror. I don't know what I expected to see, more fire in my eyes, something of the warrior I'd once been in my stance — and perhaps there was. I was still a woman, though, with the same breasts and saer as before. My patrician face was still beautiful, my black hair pulled up behind my head to fall in the same sweep I'd maintained for years. My body was feminine, my arms and legs lithe and female slim. I was not significantly different — on the outside — as I was days before when I'd learned of Ketrick's treachery.

“Damn you to Hades, Ketrick,” I said under my breath. I will not cry. I will not grieve. I was just realizing how much he had been a part of my life. I was no warrior, but I had my duty to Batuk. Somehow, I would put the rhadus out of my mind. I would finish the job in Tulem, and then ... and then I had no idea.

***

Four days after I exiled Ketrick, Katrina called at my apartments.

There was no way to avoid this confrontation, so I let her in. We drank wine and spoke of inconsequential matters while I thought of what I could say to her. Wanda poured me another glass, but when my slave approached Katrina with the carafe, she waved her away, and leaned forward, all sympathy and understanding.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Dana.”

“He used me in a way I can’t forgive, so I exiled him,” I said, as if that was the end of it.

She opened her her eyes wide in disbelief. “That’s it? You’ve been walking around for days as if you had a burr in your halter. How can I help you if you won’t tell me what happened?”

“That is all I’m going to say on the matter.” I was likely hurting her by not sharing, but I wouldn’t make up a lie to make it easy.

“You can’t keep it inside. It’s not healthy.”

I had cried for two days when I'd found out. I refused to weep again for the rhadus. Watch me, Katrina.

She sighed when it became clear that I wasn’t about to give her what she wanted. “Then I can only give you the most general advice. This shall pass. Men can be the lowest form of life on Zhor, but we need them. Fortunately, the world is filled with men, and you can choose your own. Ketrick is just one of many.”

Katrina was convinced that women lived at the center, and that men were the ancillary beings who served them. Even if I could have told her, she would not have understood my fury at not being one of the lower life forms.

“You’re right, of course. I’ll find another man someday.”

She turned up a corner of her mouth skeptically at my tone. “You don’t believe it now, but you will. Dana, I don't think you shouldn’t come to the next encounter. Let Daphne and me handle it.”

“I will not shirk my duty because of that son of a dog.”

“Goddess, have you looked at yourself? Allow us to handle this, at least until you can face the ladies with a smile. Right now, you’d simply frighten them away.”

Upon reflection, that was likely true. “All right. I’ll skip this one.”

She reached over and took my hand. “You are not alone, you know. You’ve made friends. After what you did to Ketrick, some of the ladies fear to tell you directly, but they understand something of your loss, and your subjects in the valley wish you well.”

Oddly, that helped — and it reminded me of my duty. “Thank you, Katrina. Thank you for coming.”

When she left, I picked up a note left two days ago. In it, Scholar Jillian informed me that she had finished the study I’d commissioned. I called a messenger and granted her an audience in my apartments that afternoon.

The gangly woman in gray scholar’s robes curtsied nervously, and then brought forth a bound leather folder embossed with the Scholar’s Guild symbol, an open book under a ray of sunlight.

“Majesty, I finished the study you ordered -- about the mundanes in the valley.”

I motioned to a chair. “Sit, Scholar, and tell me what you’ve learned.”

“I apologize for taking this long, Majesty. It was harder than I thought. The criminal records for the first few hundred years of our history are missing, denying me the information I most wanted.”

“They’re missing?”

“I... I can’t explain it,” she said, practically squirming in embarrassment. “They disappeared three hundred years ago. I also found references to two studies on crime that more or less duplicated what I wanted to do, but they’re gone, too.”

I didn’t ask her why the records were missing: I could guess. From her posture, she could, too. “Could you come to any conclusions at all?”

She nodded. “I found another way: children.”

“Children?”

“School records go back over eight hundred years. Schools haven’t changed much. They still offer the same fare to mundanes: arithmetic, reading, writing, customs, and so forth.” She opened the book to a certain page and held it up. “Majesty, this is a chart of the behavior in the mundane schools over nearly the entire recorded history of the valley. You can see the gradual decline in fighting, cheating, and truancy -- over seventy percent.”

“Parents might simply be raising their children better.”

She shook her head. “The trend is consistent throughout the Giovanni wars, the Felluchi uprising, and all long-term feuds between the Borodins and Giovannis. The evidence is clear. Children today behaved themselves far better today than in times past. The best hypothesis is genetics. Exiling the radical elements of the valley over the centuries could account for the difference.”

“So, my slave was right. The mundanes in Tulem are more tractable than in other cities.”

She bowed her head, blushing. “I’m sorry, it seems so.”

I glanced through the thick binder idly, noting the graphs, figures and studies.

Why should I care if the mundanes of Tulem were sheep or lions as long as Batuk was safe? Yet it had mattered to me when I’d commissioned the study, and, I decided, it still did. The subjects of my valley were like most well-mannered people elsewhere, just with the rare men and women of initiative, daring, and leadership bred out, the perfect pliant subjects for an aristocracy. It was sickening, and I didn’t have a clue how to fix it. I gave the binder a closer look and read a few pages.

“Jillian, this is well done.”

“Thank you, Majesty. I had to learn much that I didn’t know.” She hesitated, eying me uncertainly. “I learned ... something during the study. It’s a sensitive topic and involves the nobility.”

“With a introduction like that, you mustn’t keep me in suspense.”

“The Giovannis and Borodins have always kept to themselves, marrying within the family to keep the ruling houses pure. When the Giovannis first began their rule a thousand years ago, they started with a dozen members. The Borodins started with ten. After so long, the results of inbreeding have begun to show. Birth defects have doubled over each of the last two centuries.”

I frowned because the Queen would be expected to take that as hard news. “Troubling, very troubling, indeed. Thank you, Jillian. You’ve done Tulem a great service.”

When she’d gone, I sat back with the study in my lap and sipped my wine. That last about inbreeding was interesting. It was the kind of information that could be useful if one could find the proper venue for it, but I doubted that I would ever have the chance. I had one goal left: to make Tulem safe for Batuk, and then I would leave the valley behind and go somewhere where I could start over.

Returning to Batuk had little appeal to me now. Living where I’d been betrayed would only bring back bitter memories of Angel, Ketrick, and who I should have been. It was bad enough now to be reminded of who I'd been whenever I woke up beside a man, squatted to pee, or looked up to every grown male.

***

Days later I had another caller:

“Mistress, you have a visitor. It’s Lord Franco.”

I wondered what the leader of the Giovannis could want. Arriving unexpectedly was not his style, and usually he brought up business at meetings or via messenger.

“Let him in, Wanda.”

He looked good, as always. His shoulder-length hair and his sword made him look dashing. Narrow hips and wide shoulders made an enjoyable feast for my woman’s eyes, and unlike Ketrick, this was a man who had always been honest with me.

“Franco, nice of you to visit. Would you like some wine or siolat?”

He smiled. “Perhaps later, Majesty. I’ve come to take you outside. It’s far too lovely a day to stay inside and mope.”

I couldn’t disagree with his description of what I was doing. My own behavior was beginning to wear on me. “Is there no respect left for the crown? Can the Queen not mope in peace?”

He performed a bow, too elaborate to be sincere. “I defend the honor of the Queen to do as she pleases, but I would be a poor friend if I didn’t try to bring her out into the light of day where she might see the beauty of her valley, or, better still, to break her melancholy on my arm with a walk by the lake.” He finished with a bright smile incompatible with the my determined gloom.

I almost said no, but staying indoors to waste away was the stuff of pathetic love tales, and Franco was good company most of the time.

“I’ll go with you, Franco.”

He took my arm and we left, picking up Zhok and Gerhart on the way. My hand on his arm was foreign. Ketrick’s manner was to let me fend for myself, only taking my hand through a crowd. Franco had a more courtly interpretation, or perhaps he thought of me as a lady and therefor decidedly more fragile. Of course, I'd been trying to act like a lady for some time; possibly I’d succeeded in his mind.

Franco was content to let me just walk with him without speaking. The timeless lake was pretty in early afternoon. The breeze brought scents from the flowers and nearby fields. Loath that I was to admit it, the sun felt good on my face and Franco’s solid presence at my side was welcome. We came to a spot I remembered from the early days when my rule wasn’t secure, a large tree where I used to sit, read, and watch the boats.

“At one time, I used to come here often,” I said.

“I saw you and your slave here occasionally when I was on the road. When you wore white, you glowed in the sun. You were known by it, even across the lake.” I looked up at that; I hadn’t known it.

We walked on, eventually arriving at a dock with a small sailboat. One of the spritely pleasure craft that nobles preferred, it had a bright red hull with a black waterline. The sail, rustling a bit on the boom, was white with Giovanni green trim. I recognized the man tending it from Franco’s staff.

Franco swept his arm towards the boat and made a small bow built for two. “Dana, would you like to go for a trip on the water?”

“This was your intent all along?”

“I’d rather say that I was prepared, just in case.”

I shook my head. It was entrapment, but of the gentlest sort, something a nobleman might do to a lady. He had to have known better than to think that I'd be impressed. “Well, I suppose you can’t abduct me in a boat,” I considered.

He grinned. “Not on this lake, at any rate.”

“Fine, but I’m bringing the wine.” I waved Zhok forward. He had kept the bottle and two glasses wrapped in a soft cloth.

“Excellent idea. Shall we go?”

He stepped into the boat and held out an arm for me for balance, a necessity, as my left hand was occupied lifting my hem over the bulkhead. A push from Franco’s man and we were away. Franco raised the single sail and managed the tiller and sheet skillfully. I hunkered down opposite him on a small seat in the stern, my back to the side. After we were out of earshot, I pulled the wine bottle out and poured us each a glass.

“Dana, do you trust me?”

“As much as I trust anyone in the valley.”

“Then tell me what’s wrong.”

I looked at him long before answering. He had never been able to hide his emotions well. All I saw in him was concern. “I trusted my consort, and he betrayed me.”

“Was it another woman, Dana?”

I wondered if I wasn’t making a mistake saying anything at all. With Katrina, if I'd said anything more than what I'd told her, she would have tried to worm the rest out of me, not understanding my reasons for holding back. And now the old sentiments were coming back, threatening tears. I didn’t want to cry in front of Franco, but somehow this was different, as least to my female side, which was all too aware that Franco was a man.

I looked across the lake to avoid looking at him. “It wasn’t a woman. He used me, and I thought he was a friend.” I lost the battle to still raw emotions and wept. Franco leaned forward and pulled me to him, placing his hand around my back. I hated my weakness, but was grateful for his strength.

“Did you love him, Dana?” he asked softly.

I nodded.

“What’s right and what’s wrong nowadays?” he said, misunderstanding me slightly. “A full quarter of the ladies have already left for mundane men outside the valley. Although I hate to admit it, your consort held himself like a noble, and unlike some others, I do not sneer at love.”

I pulled away to wipe my eyes. “That’s right. You have Sophia.”

“Not really. She and I were never as close as most people think. You might find her at your next encounter, or the one after that.”

“I’m sorry.”

He grinned. “No, you’re not, but I’m not even irritated. It's fair. Although some of our finest ladies are leaving us, you were right to find husbands for those who who could find none in the valley. On the other side, too many nobles were unchallenged. In the end, each man will have his chance to rule, whether it’s in the valley or outside.”

“Well, I’m sorry for crying on your shoulder. I should be stronger.”

His eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement. “Why apologize for being a woman? Women cry easily; it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and after what you’ve experienced: losing a lover, betrayal — it's normal.”

I turned away, not liking what I was hearing.

“Dana ... is it because you’re a serum girl, a woman?”

I glared at him, but he had hit the outside of the mark. “It has something to do with it.”

“Let me guess. You were happy to be a woman when you fell in love with your consort. He betrayed you, and so, in your hurt, you’ve decided that being a woman might not be such a good thing. You curse your bad luck at being transformed, and you resent the feelings and characteristics of your sex.”

“That’s part of it,” I admitted.

“Your loss has confused you. You dream of a time when you were a man who pleased women, instead of the reverse. But we both know the truth, don’t we? Taking you in the silks was possibly the most memorable experience of my life. You were happy to be a woman then.”

“Franco!” But I couldn’t be angry. Some memories stay vivid, especially the passionate ones. Except for Ketrick and Lees’n, only Franco had taken me liked he’d cared for me. Reluctantly, I nodded.

“All men and women risk heartbreak. Your pain is not unique.”

“That not quite it…” I started, but it gave me pause. A warrior would have found the man who’d disgraced him, and punished or killed him. I’d had Ketrick’s life on my spear, but chose instead to give him the lash and send him on his way. By warrior standards, my revenge, whether it was done well or ill, was over. I still hated the bastard, but I was obligated to accept the outcome of my choice and live on. “I need another drink,” I said, reaching for the bottle.

He called on me to go sailing the next day at the same time, and the next. After the first three days, I began to look forward to his visits. When he skipped a day, I found that I missed him. He wasn’t Ketrick, but perhaps that made a difference to the good. Rather than passionate, I was comfortable to be with Franco, like an old friend, yet some ties bound us closer together: his support for me in my old castle when I’d needed him, the attack on the palace, his approval at my coronation. Gradually, I saw him a handsome man, and, when I caught myself laughing, I realized how he'd led me from depression, so slowly I barely realized it.

Two months later, I let him kiss me in my apartments. He was handsome, and being by his side all evening had been intoxicating. I didn’t love him, but he was a decent man and he treated me with respect, albeit more delicately than I was accustomed.

“Are you sure about this, Franco?” I said gently when our lips parted. His hand had strayed to my breast, and my nipple beneath his fingers was already firm. “Even as the Queen, I’m still a serum girl. Your reputation could suffer if word of this escaped this room.”

“I’m sure,” he said huskily.

That was enough for this serum girl, and my dress slipped to the floor not long afterwards. Soon I was on my back being dominated, moaning as he forced me to his will. He lacked Ketrick’s expertise and stamina, but there was much to be said for being with a man who wanted to be with me.

Sometime later I lay beside him, not completely sated — my needs had exceeded his capacity -- but it was enough.

“That was you, Dana?”

I nodded in the darkness. “That was all me.”

“I’m glad of it. Do you still resent being a woman?”

“This is not a time to be objective. Let’s say that I’m less inclined to rail at the gods for my fate. You’ve had a lot to do with that.”

He rolled a quarter turn to his elbow. “It may be that you’ll always resent being a woman. That’s natural, I suspect, for a freewoman who’s been a man. I rephrase the question: Do you accept being a woman?”

“I'll be a woman for the rest of my life. I have to accept it, and so I do.”

He settled back. “That will do for now.”

Those words reinforced the feeling I’d been getting from him. He’d been telling me the same thing in many ways: holding me when it wasn’t really necessary, slipping in a few side glances when he didn’t think I was aware, using double meanings to make me blush. Still, like a woman, I admitted to myself, I would have him tell me outright.

“What does ‘that will do for now’ mean, Franco?” I whispered in his ear, moving my hand over his chest. He stirred uncomfortably. I smiled. It was usually hard for a man to tell a woman how he felt. In the game of silks, especially among the nobility, the first to speak was often penalized. “Speak. I swear that I will not take advantage.”

“I’ve wanted you for years, even before you proved you could stay free.”

“You aren’t speaking of making me your slave or becoming my consort?”

He gazed deeply before answering. “More than that.”

I abruptly regretted asking him this very private question. From a queen to her vassal, it had the force of an order, and there was no putting the answer back in the bottle; the least I could do now was be honest, and I took my time before replying.

He had just declared himself a suitor for my hand. The Tulem aristocracy was more cold-blooded about marriage than in Batuk. In normal days, if he were a normal lord and I a normal lady, his parents would have spoken to mine. They would have bartered, likely consulting us, and the bargain would be struck if it were acceptable.

These were not normal days, and I had no parents to give me away. I wasn’t tempted to do anything insane like accept, but my body tingled all over. I didn’t hate men, just one man, and by any objective standard, Franco was a fine catch. I’d expected to leave Tulem with a few hundred golds, set myself up in a city where they had serum girl clubs, like Bethune or Teshruk, and settle down. I had no illusions: it would be rolling dice for a single foreign woman like me to stay free. To be on the safe side, I’d have to make myself less beautiful, a necessity my vanity abhorred, and I would have to tell any man who was truly interested in me that I was a serum girl.

Yet here was a man who wanted me the way I was.

“If anyone in the valley could become the King by my side, you would be my choice. I like you very much and, more than that, I respect you, but it’s too early.”

“And when would you know more?”

I smiled, tossing back my hair. Except for Malfree, who was a brazen opportunist, here was a man who openly wanted me. Finally, I saw a legitimate advantage to being a woman. I would like, I decided, for Franco to pursue me.

“I’m not one to pine forever about old loves, but it will take some time. The rest depends on you and the whim of my fickle heart. I promise nothing.”

His grinned as if I’d declared a challenge, which, I suppose, I had. He kissed me. I responded and wanted more, but I’d already used most of him up, and he didn’t last as long as before. When he lay back, embarrassed, I held him.

“A man is much more than his twyll,” I said softly. “I’m a serum girl and a slut. You were very good tonight.”

“Your old consort managed to please you completely.”

“He was unusual.”

We slept after that, but I could tell it gnawed at him. A week later he disappeared for five days. When he returned, he was smiling. That night he had me again.

As soon as he took me, I knew something had changed. “Goddess!” I exclaimed after three hours of hot submission that rivaled Ketrick. This time, I lay in his arms holding him, completely satisfied, as I hadn’t been in months.

“Did ... did you have yourself enhanced?” I asked him, barely believing it. Most men refused to admit that they were in any way deficient, and it was rarely done. It could even bring ridicule.

He wore an insufferably pleased grin. “I did. I think the results were satisfactory.”

“They were! But you’re going to have to live with it for several months before you can think of reversing it. You’re going to need satisfaction much more often.”

He shrugged. “I can visit the siolat taverns.”

“Franco, you did this for me?”

“For both of us, Dana. I love you. It’s no price at all if you consent to be my wife.”

I drew back to really look at him. He had tears in his eyes. I was a serum girl and reacted predictably, but this time he was ready.

From that point on I looked at him differently. During the next several months, Franco and I grew closer. In time, my heart beat a little faster when I saw him, and gradually, quiet peace and contentment filled my breast when we were together. It wasn’t the raging love I had known, but it was enough to make me think the formerly unthinkable.

***

It happened in Franco’s dining hall, amidst varnished woods dark with age and tapestries of famous events in Giovanni history. Stately green candles in silver holders illuminated a spread of roast beef on a spit, spiced Fresian pasta, and a dozen other dishes. My stomach was comfortably full, and I dangled a glass of wine between two fingers wondering if I should give in to an impulse that had crept slowly, sneakily, until it had finally lodged in my mind. Watching Franco opposite me at the table, still alternating between a side of beef and wine, I turned the notion over, weighing and examining it for inconsistencies. Breaching the topic was dangerous, momentous -- and incredibly exciting.

“Franco, if we were married,” I began casually, watching him as a cat awaits the movement of her prey, “what would our life be like? How would you see our roles?”

His eyes enlarged, and he nearly expelled a mouthful of wine, barely managing to turn it into a discrete cough. “Well, I think there is a huge difference between consort and a king,” he said cautiously -- a good opening gambit for an uncertain debate.

I nodded. “Granted. A king should not be subservient to a queen. He should have unchallenged power of his own.”

“And a queen should be a lady and follow conventions,” he said, as if one quite naturally followed the other.

That was what I was afraid of. He had always treated me with grace and deference, but in the way of the lady he wished me to be. I enjoyed it, and after years of training to appear ladylike, it wasn’t difficult to fall into the role, but I wasn’t a real lady; it could become wearing.

“I’m not the normal Queen, the wife of a man who inherits the kingship; I hold all the power by right. Conventions would require that I be reduced to a mere figurehead or, as Katrina reminds me, a symbol of womanhood for the valley.”

“So, what do you propose?”

“There are a few things that I’d still want to control: marrying outside of the valley, and the current program of men leaving Tulem.”

He regarded me uncertainly. “Is this an intellectual exercise, or are we actually discussing the terms of our marriage?”

“It’s no exercise.”

He took a deep breath. “Then I’d consent to that. It would come as a power granted from the King, though, not as a right retained by the Queen.”

“Good enough, but I’d need your word.”

He face lit up in a way I’d seen before -- usually just before he took me. “This isn’t hypothetical at all, is it? You’re serious.”

I leaned forward, placing my hands on the table. “Yes. We are negotiating for my hand. “I love you Franco, but I won’t be a queen trapped in her own room sipping tea with her ladies. I’m more than that.”

“You’ve proven it.”

“If I’m to give myself to you as my lord and husband, I must retain some of my old authority and free will. I’ll give you the city, the army, the finances, the audience -- all the rest.”

His eyes lost focus for a moment while he thought. “Very well. You have my word. For my part, order and form are important to me, and not just for the sake of custom. A good example from the King and Queen provides stability and calm.”

“Propriety is important. The form of it is secondary. I won’t walk a pace behind you and wait until you speak before uttering a sound, but I’ll proudly walk by your side.”

He flashed the boyish countenance I’d fallen in love with. “Truth, Dana, I’d prefer you that way.”

My heart leaped at that admission, but I continued. “Two things we can’t ignore: one is the succession.”

He nodded. “Yes. Nikolai would start a civil war if he thought I’d succeed you.”

“I had to make Nikolai next in line, and I can’t reverse it to make you successor. Without the attack on Batuk…”

He held up his hand. “You had no choice. I’d be King only as long as we were married. I accept that. What’s the second thing?”

I blushed. This was something I’d never thought I’d face when I was Tyr, but my body had more needs than just submission and orgasms. “If we had children, a girl could acquire the slave gene from me.”

“A natural slave daughter would be a disaster. It would be best not to have children. I’m sorry.”

Although painful to admit, it was the only wise thing to do. “Life is long,” I said quietly to the empty space within. “Is there anything you want from me?”

“Be a lady, at least in public, and get rid of your consorts.” He grinned in a way that tightened my chest. “You won’t need them.”

I smiled. “Done.”

He pushed back his chair and rounded the table, and I rose to wait for him, heat spreading to my cheeks, breasts and elsewhere, anticipating his embrace -- and more.

He took my hands in his and gazed at me with that unassuming, open face. It was true; he loved me. It was a different love to be sure; Franco was actually a year younger than I. In most ways I though that I was more mature than he, a far cry from the vast gulf between Ketrick and me.

Franco was my future. He and I would meet it together, make a life. He had a nobleman’s arrogance, but it was less than most, and I understood him. In the ways that mattered, he was worthy. After a long kiss, he drew back to look at me. There were tears in his eyes, and in mine.

“My Lady,” he said, testing the new sounds in the air.” I liked it very well.

“My Lord,” I said, and he took me in his arms.

***

Two months later we stood before the before an assemblage of lords and ladies in the great hall of the palace. After a long invocation and the sprinkling of gold dust (the king’s metal) we pledged each other, and the High Priest spoke the words to make us man and wife. After Franco exchanged his Giovanni green for the royal colors of purple and white, the valley celebrated for the entire day and most of the night.

We entered our apartment together very late, where the King did his excellent best to force the Queen to submit. This went on successfully for hours until our royal appetites were appeased.

“My King, you were very good last night.”

“It’s fortunate that you fulfill my needs so well, my Queen.”

I snuggled closer. “We are a matched pair.”

He glanced towards the window. The early dawn was already making shadows. “We should get up,” he said reluctantly.

I stretched and yawned noisily. “Are you ordering me, my Lord?”

“Hmm.” He pondered my nakedness. “Yes. I think I am, as a test, you understand. You did pledge to obey me during the ceremony.”

“Did I?” I asked, my submissive urges tingling pleasantly. “Perhaps you misheard. I could have sworn I said ‘repay’.”

He grinned. “There were over a hundred witnesses, my Queen.”

I frowned. “Then I suppose I must get up. You do need to meet with the ministers and establish your authority. Would you like me there?”

“It would confuse them. Any regrets at giving up power, Dana?”

I shook my head and kissed him lightly. “None. You will make a superb King.” I rolled out of bed and slipped into a short nightshirt. Walking to the wall, I removed the spear.

“What are you doing?”

I twirled it a few times to warm up. “I do this every morning.” I began an easy set, lunging and blocking, concentrating on form rather than speed, and then started a more complex set, blocking from several directions, increasing the pace.

“You’re good,” he said from the bed. “Aren’t you worried about the blade?”

“I did cut myself once with it, but I was very angry at the time. It improves my concentration.” I entered a third set, spinning, and cutting and stabbing imaginary opponents.

“You’re very good. Your form is excellent.”

His words were complimentary; the tone was not. I broke the pattern, and sat by him on the bed, looking him straight in the eye. “This spear has twice saved my life. Our agreement was that I’d be a lady in public, and I will. Please don’t ask me to stop practicing.”

“That was the agreement.” He considered his bride once more. “You showed me that for a reason.”

“To make a point. You knew I practiced before we were married. What bothers you about my practice now?”

“Besides not being ladylike? This is the first time I’ve seen you with it. I’m reckoned fairly good with a staff. It annoys me that you’re better than I am.”

I smiled. “If you’d like I could stumble a few times. I’d hoped that you would be proud of me.”

“A man being proud of his wife’s skill with a spear makes about the same sense as a woman’s pride in a husband who sews well. I won’t ask you to stop. As you say, it’s your choice. But speaking as the King, it’s disconcerting to watch you wield the same spear you killed the last king with.”

I curtsied to him in full court mode, bowing low. “My Lord, the only spear I wish wielded between us is the one between your legs.”

He grinned and reached for me, pulling me down on the bed beside him. “If that’s your wish, then perhaps the ministers won’t mind waiting a little longer.”

“You’re the King,” I pointed out. ”You can make them wait as long as you want.”

“I’ll be a king you can be proud of,” he said as he lifted my nightdress over my head.

“You’ll be a fine king. But I married you because of the man you are. You made me content to be a woman again. For that, my love, I will always be eternally grateful.”

He brushed my loose hair back and gently caressed my cheek. “My Queen, it’s possible that the ministers will have to wait a long time this morning.”

***

A year passes swiftly in Tulem. The seasons are moderate, regulated by the underground spring that refreshes the lake. This last had gone smoother than other years. Franco had assumed control easily and returned the valley to the norm it had always known, save for two brief reigns, aberrations in a millennium of rule by kings. If the ministers did not show me the same deference of authority, they still treated me with the respect of the wife of the King — and perhaps a little more, aware that I’d been a competent ruler in my own right.

In one respect, I had the edge on Franco. My portrait already hung in the Gallery of Kings. I’d had it done by the same balcony, in the same place as Queen Prudence. The artist had either seen something in me that I hadn’t, or he was overly influenced by my history, but I would forever go down in history as the queen with the slightly feral gleam in her eye, and the spear shaft leaning unobtrusively against the balcony door was not there while I’d sat for him.

It proved easier than I thought to accept my role as Queen, wife and lady. Franco demanded little of me, and, although I seemed to be sipping tea with the ladies of the valley more often than I’d hoped, it was a useful function. Whenever Franco took me too much for granted, I need only show him a master’s set with the spear, one that required all my concentration, or throw knives into a target from the bed, pointed reminders of my past. In truth, I think he enjoyed the reminders, for he always took me hard later on, demanding my full submission, which I, of course, was always pleased to do.

***

The morning had gone well in Katrina’s Castle, I thought. Even without Ketrick providing a fine stream of men, the gatherings, or “encounters,” as the ladies liked to call them, were more popular as ever. As the number of ladies dwindled below sixty, I’d thought the reverse would have been more likely, but with enthusiastic letters arriving from outside the valley, more women were willing to try mundanes.

Katrina approached me from across the meeting room in her castle, her hand on a fairly tall, handsome man in a blue and gold tunic in the Ademar style. His eyes were a strange gray-green and his hair was shorter than the valley fashion.

I smiled. At long last Katrina had brought her man to Tulem. He bowed perfunctorily, a proper recognition of royalty not of his own city. I admired his poise, adding it to the things I liked about him, not least of which was his love for my best friend.

“Queen Dana, it’s an honor.”

“Likewise, Commander. I’ve been hoping to meet you. Katrina has spoken of you often -- quite often.”

He broke into a huge smile, and I began to see what Katrina saw in him. He glanced down at the woman by his side. “So, Katrina has been talking, has she?” he said, his eyebrows lifting comically.

I grinned. Katrina did her best to remain a lady, haughtily above such third person banter, but failed utterly. One look at his face and she was radiant.

“How long will you be in Tulem?” I asked him.

“Only a couple of days, unfortunately.”

“We wanted to speak to you in private,” Katrina said.

Katrina knew that I couldn’t leave the encounter early without seeming rude. “Would you join us for a ride by the lake early this afternoon, Commander? That should be private enough.”

“I’d like that very much, Queen Dana.”

After lunch, we rode across the Borodin road to our favorite place between the woods and lake and started north, away from the city. Zhok and Gerhart took their normal positions about thirty yards back, out of normal hearing range. The sun was high in the sky with only a few thin clouds high above the mountains. I was on the outside, closest to the lake with Katrina in the middle. From Katrina's shine, I had an idea what this was about. The only question in my mind was who would tell me.

“Sephram and I are getting married!” Katrina gushed.

The attempt to hug from horseback can only cause injury, so I took her hand, feeling happy for her, enough to cry about it, but sad, too; I’d be losing my best friend.

“Oh, Katrina! When is the wedding and where?”

She gave her fiancé an adoring look. “One month from now in Ademar.”

I started to congratulate her then stopped when I caught motion from the woods about halfway up a tree. I had a glimpse of something moving towards me at incredible speed. I jerked sideways instinctively. The next thing I knew I was on the ground listening to a woman screaming. It wasn’t me because I could barely breathe.

I tasted copper from where I’d bit my tongue. My entire right side was numb; there was a bolt through my shoulder. I had to move! Someone had just tried to kill me and might try to finish the job. I looked up, still dizzy from falling to the ground, but couldn’t find my horse. She was gone, as were the other two. I staggered to my knees, and had a better view. Sephram lay flat on his back a few feet away with a bolt through his stomach, holding onto it with his left hand.

Katrina lay sprawled several feet farther away. From her agonized cries, she still lived, but the bolt sticking in her side looked terrible. That wasn’t the worst of it: three men in close-fitting black hoods walked towards us casually from the wood line, two of them with knives in their hands.

Damn it, where are the guards?

“Sephram, do you have any weapons?” I gasped.

His eyes rolled my way. His face was controlled agony, “No, do you?”

“A knife, but I throw like a girl left-handed. It’s yours if you can use it.”

“I could only use it once.”

“Better than me.” I collapsed by him, biting back a scream when the bolt in my shoulder struck the ground. “Unh! It’s on my calf by your right hand. Take it quickly. I have to get help.”

He found it under my dress and concealed it at his side. “Ready. Go.”

I struggled to my knees, and then to my feet. A horse galloped at the corner of my eye, but it was too far away to mean anything. Jolting in pain with every step, I staggered towards the lake. A man, not Sephram, screamed. I heard a man further away curse and start running. I heard footsteps, then felt a tug on my dress at the edge of the lake, but my momentum and a desperate yank carried me free. I didn’t waste any time looking around, just took a breath and dove over the wall, heading as deep as I could go.

When I came up, I expected a knife or bolt. Instead, Zhok was there, his spear shaft already in the water waiting for me to grasp it.

“Majesty, how bad is it?”

I took the spear shaft with my left hand, and he pulled me in slowly. “I won’t die,” I wheezed. “What about the others?”

“Gerhart and the man from Ademar are dead. Lady Katrina still lives.”

His grim face told me the rest. “Goddess, Katrina! And the assassins?”

“Two ran away. Three are dead.”

Zhok pulled me up out of the lake. I cried out at his hand under my bad shoulder, but to his credit he didn’t hold back. When I was on land, I staggered, but waved Zhok back. “Take Katrina to her castle! I’ll follow.”

“Majesty!” He lifted her to her feet carefully, trying to keep the bolt in her side stable. He took her in one hand and, using his great strength, they swung into the saddle together and rode off. I took the reins of my horse, which had decided to return after the danger was over, and mounted her. My knife was lodged in the abdomen of one of the assassins, and Sephram had a new smile. His killer had tarried over him to cut his throat, giving me the extra seconds to escape.

Katrina’s castle was just over two miles away. I made it to the gate a hundred yards behind Zhok and Katrina where guards pulled me from my horse and rushed me to the infirmary.

“Majesty, please lie still! I must remove the bolt.”

“A few minutes, Physician! I’m not bleeding to death.” I rolled off the table and took a few steps to where Katrina lay, very pale and weak. The bolt in her body, like the one that had passed through my shoulder, was the kind that opened like a deadly flower if removed from behind. To push it through where it was located would be certain death. Even if it could be removed, the damage would be grave.

I slipped my hand through hers and squeezed. “Katrina, I’m so sorry.”

She turned her head towards me, then saw the shaft. “Dana. Your shoulder.”

“Not as bad as it looks. Rest now.”

She said nothing for a moment, then: “I’m dying.”

“You don’t know that! There’s a device that slips over a bolt. Often, a physician can extract a bolt with it without doing too much damage.”

“The men didn’t leave me alone. One made sure of me: he pulled on the shaft as he went by, casually, like opening a door. I felt the spines release. I can talk now is because of the drugs, but I can’t feel a thing, Dana,” she said, her voice tense and frightened.

“Katrina.” There was nothing more to say. I lay my head in my good hand and wept.

“How did my man die?”

“He killed the man who would have killed me before they finished him.”

Tears ran down her cheeks and fell on the soft padding of the infirmary table. “He was a wonderful man. I don’t want to die now, but I’ve lived as long as many; he died far too early.” She looked at me, and some of her old self showed through. “I must ask a favor.”

I squeezed her hand. “If it’s within my power.”

She smiled. “You still speak as a nobleman sometimes, but perhaps that’s what I need now. This is a great favor. I’m pregnant. I ask you to carry my child for me and raise her as your own.”

My mouth dropped. “What?”

“Goddess, Dana, I know what I ask! Do you want me to beg you? I will. Do you want me to call on every good memory we’ve had? Do you want me to demand this on the life of my fiancé, who died saving you?”

My head spun. My stomach felt queasy, and I swallowed hard, but there was only one response I could make. It felt so right, this talk of life in the midst of death that I pushed all objections aside before I could think them through. “I’ll do it.”

She stared through eyes that streamed tears, searching my face. “Don’t just say this! Please mean it.”

I lifted my right hand with my left and guided it behind my back until it met the sharp blades of the bolt. When I brought it around, blood dripped from a fresh cut on my palm. “I swear, Katrina,” I said, shocking myself with the words, “that I will bear your child and raise her as my own. When she comes of age, I’ll tell her about her mother and father.”

She lay back and closed her eyes, exhausted. Taking my hand in a weak grip, she said, “May Ashtar bless you. Would you call my physician for me, please?”

She spoke to him quickly, and he cleared the room. After he locked the door, he grumbled as he prepared us: “The King will strike my head from my shoulders for this.”

I glared at him through raised and open legs; there could be no hesitation at that point. “The King might be furious,” I remarked coldly, “but he’d never punish a subject for obeying an order from me. But if you disobey me, Physician, then I swear that the rest of your short life will be miserable.”

He watched me uncertainly. Sometimes it is good to have a bloodthirsty reputation.

“Yes, Majesty.” He handed me a cup of yellow liquid. “Drink it, please.”

I knew it by the thick sweet taste; it was slave honey, and would counteract the bitters I’d been taking, making me fertile again.

It was over soon enough. He spent a few minutes with Katrina with an elaborate collecting rod, and returned to me with a gray metal cylinder. Pushing the cold thing within me to a preset distance, there was a small click, and I felt a vaguely unpleasant sensation deep inside. Then he backed the tube away and put it aside on a silver tray.

“It’s done, Majesty. It will take a few days to attach properly, but with any luck you are about one month pregnant. Relations will be dangerous for a week.”

I didn’t feel pregnant, however that was supposed to feel, nor did I care at that point; it was a thing that had to be done and now was. “Thank you, Physician.”

Rolling off the bed, I walked to Katrina’s side. As pale as she was, it was a wonder that she had held on this long. “It’s over, Katrina. Your baby is safe inside me.”

She smiled very faintly. “Don’t be afraid, my dearest friend. You’ll be a good mother to her.”

I took my good hand and smoothed back the soft blonde hair over her forehead. Fighting back tears, I forced a smile. “How do know it’s a girl?”

“I know. You will, too,” she said very softly. She closed her eyes. A few seconds later, her head fell to the side and she stopped breathing.

The physician’s hand on my good shoulder shook me from the beginnings of a long, hard cry. “Majesty,” he said gently, “I have to remove the bolt from your shoulder now and open the doors. Your physician and husband might arrive at any moment.”

I nodded and dried my eyes. The numbness had worn off, and the pain in my shoulder was horrendous until he poured a pain-killer over the wound. Franco and Lees’n arrived together a moment later. Franco held me carefully, at first shocked at my injury and the story of the assassination, then furious, wanting to lash out at all of our enemies at once. But he calmed down, as I knew he would, and made the appropriate orders, summoning enforcers to search the area, and sending messengers to the castles and the outer gate.

He kept me by his side the entire time, refusing to allow me to leave until a contingent of guards had arrived from the palace, and then we rode back together, surrounded by a dozen, with my arm in a sling.

I watched my husband with my head high. He’d shown me again that he loved me, and would protect me if he could. Slut that I was, I wanted to be dominated when I returned, bad shoulder or no, and forget everything for an hour or two. Franco, I could tell from certain signs, wished to take me, fill me with himself and make me as much a part of him as possible.

But there was a complication. Goddess, I’m pregnant.

It was impossible, but I would bulge; my breasts would enlarge and produce milk; I would waddle and pee all the time; women would coo and tell me of their own experiences. A baby would actually grow inside me, and I would push her into the world. Sneaking a glance at Franco, I spotted enough raw lust to keep him moving inside me for hours. I spent the time riding back to the palace wondering how to tell him.

***

“Why?” he asked me, finally, looking at me as if I’d betrayed him.

“I owed it to Katrina and Sephram.”

“You owed her nothing!” he shouted. “She was your friend, but she had no right to ask you that. As for Sephram, some foreign mundane I’ve never met, he was a warrior. It was his obligation and duty to kill his enemies and protect you. He would have killed them anyway.”

“She was dying and asked me to do her a last favor dearer than her own life! How could I say no?”

He buried his head in his hands and clenched his forehead with stiff fingers. “It’s not ethical. The Gods had decided to take their lives. I understand why, in a moment of stress, that a weak woman might do what you did, but Dana, you…?”

I put my good hand on his shoulder. “Sephram was a good man, too. He did save my life. I owed him something.”

He stared me straight in the face and trapped my good arm in a powerful grip. “Tell me truthfully, are those the reasons you did it?”

“No,” I said, lowering my gaze.

“Then why?”

I raised my eyes to his grim, demanding visage. “Because I’d had enough of death! Good men fell and my best friend lay dying. I had a chance to save a life on this terrible day and I took it!”

Some of the fire in his eyes cooled. “There wasn’t another reason?”

I shook my head, puzzled. “Such as?”

“You wanted a child, Dana. All women do.”

“You think I planned this?” I asked him in amazement.

“No, of course not,” he sighed, releasing me. “What did you promise Katrina?”

“That I would raise her as my own child, and tell her of her parents when she reached her majority.”

“There’s honor of a sort in that,” he admitted, “but this is not my child. To maintain that promise you made, I’d have to pretend she was mine as well.”

“You could tell the valley the truth. I might be disgraced, but you would stay clean. I wouldn’t fault you for it.”

“An easy thing to say, but the King and Queen are a pair. Your disgrace is mine.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, looking away.

“Would you do it again?” he demanded.

“I wish today had never happened; I’d much rather that Katrina were alive and well and carrying her own child. I want yours inside me, not hers. But given the same circumstances, even knowing what I know now, I’d do it again.”

He nodded, and the sadness in his voice tore at my heart, “At least you’re honest about it.”

“I love you, Franco! If I can do anything to make up for this…”

“You’ve always had this wild, impulsive streak. Who knows? Maybe motherhood will be good for you. This will change things between us in more ways than having a baby. You can’t brol for the next few days, and after that, your desires will be lessened while you carry the child. That’s fine for you, Dana, but my needs aren’t the usual man’s appetite; they were enhanced to match yours.”

I couldn’t imagine Franco going a day without relief. Enhanced as he was, celibacy for any length of time would equal torture.

“Wanda is a skilled passion slave,” I said listlessly. “And I can please you in other ways, of course.”

He kissed me tenderly, making sure he didn’t hurt my shoulder. “I have a twyll that I’d rather use on you. Do you mind if I use Wanda instead?”

“Use her as often as you need, my Lord.” But a few minutes later, when Wanda’s distinctive screams pierced our quarters, I was not so sanguine; during our entire marriage, Franco had never taken anyone but me. I wrote a brief note, and left our apartments for a place where passion slaves weren’t being dominated so noisily.

Franco would have been rightly furious with me if I didn’t protect myself, so I took three of the guards outside, part of the increased security at our doors. The palace was in an uproar with talk of the assassination, with servants and senior functionaries scurrying about more aimlessly than usual. Virtually everyone stared at me; there was much compulsive bowing and curtsying; and a few broke away to speak rumors behind cupped hands.

I’d been on my way to the garden to find a quiet place to think, but that last bothered me. The rumors reminded me that we still knew nothing about the assassins, which gave rise to even darker thoughts -- and an idea. I changed direction in the hall and held up my palm, stopping a lean man dressed in loose gray pants and a purple sash, an assistant to the Chief of Staff.

“Jeck, where is Kernul?” I inquired politely, as a lady might.

“Majesty, he is in his office at a meeting with his staff.” He bowed. “I’d like to say how happy we are that you survived this terrible attack.”

“Thank you. Do you remember an investigator named Tam Polgher?”

“Clearly, Majesty. He was killed mysteriously while investigating Lord Ivan Borodin’s murder several years ago.”

“That’s him. He had an assistant, a woman with white hair.”

“Kim West, Majesty. More accurately, she was his protégé.”

“Do you know where she is now? I’d like to speak with her.”

He rubbed his jaw for a moment. “She still works for the palace. I believe she is the night supervisor of guards in the women’s quarters. I was just on my way home, Majesty, and am free. I’m sure I could find her for you.”

I gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you, Jeck. I’d like to see her in about fifteen minutes in the palace garden, if that’s possible.”

He bowed. “If she is on the palace grounds, I’ll fetch her for you.” He moved rapidly away, honored to perform an errand for his appreciative Queen.

I waited on a marble bench with my back to the central fountain. The sun had already left the garden grounds and shadow crept slowly up the east building. Arrayed before me were layers of flowers, arranged in the ancient pattern of Tress’lan: first the soft green, the color of birth and to sooth the eye; followed by red, to entice and grow; then yellow, the color of joy; then gold, to enrich; then blues, purples and a brilliant orange to signify the shades of a woman’s life; finished with white, death, but always with a bit of green in the rear and a path back to the front, to signify the cycle repeating.

Katrina had told me of it. “This is me, Dana,” she had said, gesturing to the same design in her garden. “All women are found somewhere in here. I’m a part of it, and so are you. We live to continue the pattern; our existence is life; our joy is creating; preserving is the meaning; our bodies the means. This is what I see when I’m in the right mood.”

“And other times?” I had asked.

She had shrugged. “Pretty flowers that smell nice. Tress was an artist of the mind-image. Extend your imagination. You won’t see what I see exactly, as women’s lives are not the same, but within this pattern is the essence of who we are.”

“And how do men fit in? Don’t fathers have something to do with life?”

She’d snorted. “Something. A few spurts and their task is mainly over, a far inferior place in the cycle of life. They are the builders, the strength, and the movers, usually, but only women can create and maintain life. In a way, when we have children, we’re immortal. You’ll find out someday.”

“Majesty?” came a woman’s voice from a few feet to my right.

I looked up. She had changed from when I remembered her. Her long white hair had been trimmed to shoulder length and her tan dress was now the more active split riding variety. Her royal sash, formerly worn decoratively loose and free, was tied closely around her narrow waist, like a soldier’s. One thing hadn’t changed: intelligence still resided within those odd penetrating purple eyes. With her hours, I’d probably rousted her from bed, but there was no sign of weariness in her stance, only readiness.

She bowed when she saw she had gained my attention.

I shifted over on the bench to make room and gestured for her to sit. “Supervisor, I’ve been told that you were Tam Polgher’s protégé.”

Her eyebrow lifted a hair. Whatever she was expecting, it wasn’t that. “Yes, Majesty. Some would have described me that way.”

“He selected you?”

“Yes. We’d worked together for nearly five years until he was murdered.”

“Why didn’t you stay in the department? Why transfer to the guards?”

“My supervisor decided that I wasn’t ready to be an inspector. I asked for a transfer.” She spoke as if it held little meaning.

“Your supervisor?”

“Thermin. At that time he was our department head.”

I smiled, imagining Thermin as a curvaceous blonde slave with large breasts. She had doubtless brought pleasure to many men. I hadn’t thought about her for some time.

“Thermin was a brave man,” Kim said, misunderstanding my happy thoughts.

“Maybe. But he was also a rhadus that hated competent women. That he wanted you demoted recommends you. Let me tell you what happened earlier today.” I told her of the assassination with as many details as I could recall, leaving out the part about my body’s new resident. “What would you do to find out who did it?”

“It would help if I knew who might want to kill you.”

“Lord Nikolai, any of the myriad lords and ladies in the valley who don’t like my marriage or emigration policies -- and possibly the Slavers Guild.”

“The Slavers Guild?” She looked at me oddly. “I’d first make sure that the enforcers and inspectors were doing their job. Five killers means a powerful organization and probably a few loose ends. If I wanted to make sure I got away with it, I might try destroying the investigation from within.”

“The enforcers should be checking the grounds now. I’d like you go with me to watch for any problems.”

A small flame flickered in the back of her eyes. “Yes, Majesty.”

I left a message for Franco. I didn’t want to interfere with or see a brolling that might last two hours or more, and I knew only too well how easy it was to lose track of time with Wanda. Four guards flanked me all the way to the field. For an event that had killed so many, and my best friend, the ten-minute journey seemed obscenely short.

“Majesty, if I may ask a question?”

“Sure.”

“I remember that before you became, um, Lady Dana; you weren’t so impressed with Tam.”

“I wouldn’t say that; I was more irritated that he kept peppering my slave with what I thought were irrelevant questions. But that someone bothered to kill Tam is powerful evidence that he was effective, no?”

“He was the best,” she said, nodding firmly. “Whoever killed him was clever to recognize how dangerous he was, and ruthless to kill him so fast.”

“I’d always heard that King Bruno had Tam murdered.”

She shrugged. “That’s the consensus. It may even be right.”

“It was long ago. Any secrets left from those days will probably stay secrets. Whoever gave me Ruk’s serum and killed my father is long gone. I’m more worried about what happened today.”

“Yes, Majesty. Do you have any more thoughts about the assassination?”

“I know they weren’t expecting an extra man to be along. They expected Katrina and me to ride alone, with two guards, as was our habit. If I were doing it, I would have had an extra crossbow just in case someone missed. They had one, but had to use it on Sephram. I also don’t think they were of the Assassin’s Guild. They were clumsy. They came after us with knives to finish us off. I would have had a loaded crossbow ready in case somebody ran, like me.”

“And two of them ran away. That doesn’t sound like true assassins either.”

“Truth. And they’re still in the valley somewhere. Tulem’s Gate was sealed less than a half-hour later.”

“They must be punished. They nearly killed you.”

“I’ve been hurt worse, but they butchered my best friend and her fiancé. That’s why I want them burning in Hades.” Then I caught a tiny gleam in her eye, and knew the question for what it was. “Kim,” I said evenly, leaning over my saddle, “the Queen does not like to be tested.”

“Yes, Majesty.” She had the decency to blush.

When we arrived, the bodies of the three dead killers had already been laid-out in a row to one side, and we watched them being handled, but there were other places to look. I pointed out the place in the tree where I saw the bolt fly that felled me, and a wiry man in blue climbed to the place to look around. Later, Kim and I went back to the infirmary to examine the bolts. We left as it was getting dark.

“Any ideas, Kim?”

“Not yet. They seemed to do a fair job. Your presence might have had something to do with it. I’d have to see how they write their reports.” She frowned and her purple eyes flashed concern. “It looks like whoever did this covered their tracks well. It might take a long time to find the truth, if ever. Many people need to be interviewed and all facts carefully crosschecked. The enforcers are good at what they do, but this would be difficult for anyone, perhaps even Tam.”

“I’d have to talk to the King first, but do you want the job? You’d have the authority of the crown, and I could find some capable assistants.”

“Would I be independent of the official investigation?”

“I think I could say that, yes. You’d need to be independent and have access to everything they have. It might be dangerous. You could suffer Tam’s fate.”

She smiled for the first time, and for a brief second I pitied whoever had killed Katrina. “I’m at your service, Majesty.”

I nodded. “Excellent. I’ll speak with my husband.”

When I returned to our apartments, Wanda wore the relaxed, dreamy look of the recently well-brolled. My Lord husband appeared similarly free of tension. I was not surprised. When a wife gives her husband permission to brol a slave, he rarely hesitates.

I now understood my mother a little better. My father had always told her that when he was with a slave, it was for relief. While that may have been strictly true, feeling a slave submit beneath you is one of the great joys for a dominant man. Most men, although if they had an ounce of brains they would never admit it to their wives, would rather brol a slave than take a chance with an uncertain, often-moody freewoman.

This is not to say that freewomen don’t have advantages. Only a fool would choose a slave to raise children, and slaves are generally unsuited for business, conflict of any sort, or usually anything that requires much independent thought. They rarely pay for themselves; the pleasure they bring comes at a cost. Still, a shrew knows that a man has an alternative, and the wise freewoman will tolerate a level of freedom in her mate.

My husband, for the first time, had pleased himself with another, and there was nothing I could say, but I refused to be in a bad mood. I walked smiling into his arms and kissed him to show I wasn’t upset.

“Franco, while you were busy, I found help to discover Katrina’s killer.” I told him about going back to the grounds, of Kim and the thoughts we’d had.

“You want me to take her on as an investigator? You should have come to me first.”

I placed my hands on my hips and glared. “You were brolling my slave at the time. I had an idea and I followed it. I come to you now to discuss it, only to find you speaking to me as if I were a child.”

“Why are you angry? All I’m saying is that finding the killers is my responsibility.”

I counted to five. “To be sure. All right, then let’s speak of this as the King and Queen might on any important issue -- unless you’ve decided that I’m not competent.”

He pointed to my stomach, as if that explained everything. “You carry a child; you shouldn’t worry about this.”

“How can you tell someone not to worry about being killed? I’ve only been pregnant for a few hours, yet you speak as if I’m insane. I tell you, Franco, that I’d worry a lot less if I knew that the assassins are being pursued aggressively!”

“Pregnant women don’t become insane, merely irrational,” he clarified, winking to take the sting from it. “If another investigator makes you feel more secure … How many assistants will she need?”

I sighed. It galled that he thought of me as a woman who needed to be mollified, but a victory was a victory. “Probably no more than two or three. I’d also want to meet with her on occasion.”

“As long as it’s in the palace. You won’t be leaving the grounds at all for a while, at least until I can be confident that you’ll be safe.”

I dropped my jaw. “I have responsibilities, too! The ladies expect me at the encounters. With Katrina gone, I’m the only one who can do it.”

He moved a step forward and took my hands. “I won’t risk you when it’s not necessary, my love. At last count, there were only fifty-seven ladies and fifty-four lords left in the valley. You can move the encounters to the palace and get Daphne’s help if you need it.”

Everything he said was reasonable. My urges certainly enjoyed his words; I generally grew moist when he took charge. My freewoman side didn’t care to be penned, though, even if I didn’t really need anything outside the palace. “But…” I protested feebly.

He shook his head. “Think of the child. You made Katrina a promise to raise her. How can you do that if you’re dead?”

My mouth still gaping, I had no answer to that either. He pulled me forward until my body pressed against his. Gradually, I relaxed and allowed his embrace; his big hands and strong arms held me close like I was the most valuable woman on Zhor. While I was there, I tried looking at it from his point of view. I was his wife. I carried a life within my body. Reluctantly, I concluded that any husband worth the name would probably have done what he did.

Goddess!
 
 

To Be Continued…

 
Thanks for all the comments and insightful remarks! Tyra has taken a big step forward, but is all sweetness and light in her marriage, and who tried to have her assassinated? And — could that be her family? Stay tune for the next exciting chapter. ~Aardvark



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