The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 25

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

A Lady is buried, but lives on in the Queen. A marriage begins to crumble. A killer is revealed. Founder's Day brings familiar faces and an unwelcome surprise from an old lover.


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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 25
 
 
Lady Katrina was buried the next day, next to her father, mother and brother. The Borodins from her castle lowered her into the ground led by the new ruler of the castle, Lord Evgeny, a cousin, since Katrina had been the last of her line — except for the child I bore for her. All the lords and ladies who were in the valley came out, the Borodins to the left and Giovannis to the right, separated more by custom now than enmity.

Katrina had been well-liked by practically everyone. Daphne, on my immediate right, cried, then stopped and started again. The men were more solemn, but as moved. Selmin, Kernul, Gherome, and most of the senior staff were to the side. Kim stood with them in her best royal dress, tan with purple silk sash. She had another reason for being there, and missed most of the ceremony looking for nuances in expressions that would help her discover who had done this terrible deed.

Franco, of course, was by my side, his hand gripping mine like a guardian. I wasn't used to this kind of attention, but how could I resent it when it appealed to my feminine side? My husband was a strong presence, a man with the instincts to defend his wife. I gave into the urge, knowing that he would appreciate it, and leaned against him. My other hand, the one in the sling, shifted and came naturally to rest on my stomach, where I sustained Katrina's child.

Face it, Tyra, you need to be protected, at least for now. Even Tyr didn't object.

And as I watched Evgeny throw dirt over Katrina's coffin, I cried, and when my husband put his arm around my waist to pull me closer, I didn't mind a bit.

***

Days later I woke up in the early morning, staggered to the bathroom and threw up. Franco followed me in to see me on my knees. He grinned and patted me on the head. “Welcome to motherhood.”

It’s not easy to glare while heaving. Fortunately, it was over quickly. I washed my mouth out thoroughly and when he was gone I looked at myself naked in the mirror, rubbing my trim stomach and imagining myself large and pendulous. It was too much like a dream.

Franco announced the news that morning. In the time it took to speak the words, I become an icon of motherhood. Instead of my face, people looked lower, expecting, it seemed, that I would swell at any moment and burst.

When the time came to resume relations, I lay nervously in our bed, waiting for Franco. The day came when the physician had said brolling was safe, but he hadn’t known of Franco’s enhancements.

“My Lord,” I said, just before he kissed me in bed, “I’m worried about the baby, that you might be too much for her.”

He smoothed back my hair. “I’ll be careful. Tell me. Do you feel the same? Are your urges as strong?”

“They're no worse than last night. She dictates my urges. But that doesn’t mean I can be neglected. I’ve been waiting long days for this, and poor Wanda has taken a pounding in my absence.”

“She is very good, though.”

“Those aren’t exactly the words I wanted to hear.”

“I'll never neglect you,” he said seriously, “but when my needs aren’t met, I hope you’ll understand when I use Wanda for relief.” He placed his hands on my waist and ran them slowly down hips that I was more aware then ever were designed to pass children.

“Well, I don’t mind it too much.”

“Are you looking forward to having a baby?”

“I wish with all my heart that Katrina were alive and throwing up in my place. But I’ll have her and raise her, and probably love her like all the other babies born to all the mothers before me.”

“You accept your situation well enough.”

“Once I started there was no turning back. But part of having Katrina’s baby to me is like spitting in the face of the animals that murdered her. Part of her shall survive, therefore she didn’t die, not completely.”

“And if the baby were mine?” His hand paused at the soft part of my inner thigh.

I reached up and put my hand on his cheek. “I wouldn’t wish my slave genes on any girl, but the thought of having your baby stirs my urges.”

“Oh, is that why your nipple just swelled? You know it’s odd, but I like the idea of your breasts growing larger.”

“Hah! Men. You all think with your twylls.” I gasped when he lowered his mouth to the nipple under review. “…not that I’m complaining, you understand.”

***

“Thank you all for coming,” I said at the door, ushering out the final pair of ladies who’d come to wish me a glorious pregnancy, all the while describing their own terms in the most horrible way, reducing my experience on the rack to a comparative flash of discomfort. Some, who had always rejected me as a serum girl deviant, now took unholy pleasure in welcoming me to the sorority of pregnant women.

They left me finally, leaving me alone to contemplate swelling, sickness, pain, and the treatment of hemorrhoids.

It was too early in the term to notice anything. In fact, except for times when I had an empty stomach, I still felt completely normal. I even thought of changing into a short shift and picking up the spear. Franco had urged me to stop practicing for the term, but I knew I could handle it.

A tap of a guard's spear alerted me to a visitor in the corridor outside. I nodded to Wanda, and she returned with Kim.

As the Royal Inspector, she had exchanged her riding dress for a more formal tan and gold dress with a loose purple sash, not much different than when I’d first seen her. She curtsied awkwardly, still unused to the customs of her new position.

“Congratulations, Majesty. I wish you a fine pregnancy and a painless birth.”

I knew her well enough to know that it wasn't a social call. “Thank you. Why don’t we sit down?”

She looked around the apartment as we walked towards the table and chairs the matrons had just vacated. Kim’s eye caught the spear on the wall.

“Yes. That’s ‘the’ spear. It reminds me of how bloodthirsty I used to be before motherhood struck me down.”

I poured myself a cup of tea and offered her a selection of beverages. She poured herself a medium sized cup of siolat.

“Majesty, I’ve come to make my first report and to ask for help. I have to warn you, I've seen enough to know that the investigation might take years. There may never have enough evidence to bring it to trial.”

“A span of years is acceptable, and a trial may not be necessary. What do you know so far?”

“All three of the dead men were modified about a year ago, more or less. I’m assuming the two that got away were done about the same time. If that’s true, and I’m almost sure it is, then they could have changed their appearance again safely.”

“How do you know that?”

“Their scars and callouses are consistent with one year of average wear and tear.” She shrugged. “A great deal of evidence needs to be sifted, a lot of paperwork, mainly, and I won’t have the time. I need someone who’s good at organization and has an analytical mind.”

“I'll send you Scholar Jillian — and Zhok to watch your back. He’s not too bright, but solid.”

“I know him. He’ll do. Majesty, why does the Slavers Guild want you dead?”

Damn. “Isn’t it enough to know that they might?”

“No. For all I know it could be one slaver, or the entire guild. Without a motive, I’m hunting in the dark.”

I sighed. She would need to know, naturally. “All right. What I say is sealed to the crown. I’m free because of a technique I learned, not because of some flaw in the serum; that's a rumor I started years ago. The Slavers Guild would know it to be false. For reasons of my own, I’ve taught another serum girl in Tulem to stay free. It’s quite possible that at least one local member of the guild, Abul, knows about her and passed the information on. Two free serums girls connected to each other would be too suspicious, enough to warrant a death sentence.”

She blew softly as the implications settled. “I see. It’s possible that they’d want to kill you, although it would make sense to kill the other woman as well.”

“For all I know they might have planned to kill her if my assassination had been successful. The fewer who know her name, the better. Not even the King knows about her. Is that enough for your purposes?”

She lifted the corner of her mouth into a twisted grin. “I’m glad you’re giving me the guard. I might need him after all. It's enough, I think, for now. Can you tell me anything else about Lord Nikolai and the others?”

“Nothing more than I told you before. Their motives you already know. Nikolai would like to be King, and a few of the nobles and ladies consider my marriage policies and ‘paying the nobles to lose their birthright’ to be treason.” I gave her a few names and what I thought they were up to. “So you see, I have many possible enemies.”

She nodded slowly, threw back the last of the siolat and came to her feet. “Thank you. You’ve given me a few angles to think about. I’ll contact you again when I have something.”

“If you need more help, let me know.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

***

Time passed. I truly began to believe this dream when my dress tightened around my waist. Later, I swelled up too far for my clothes, even after letting them out. I started wearing the maternity dresses that tied under breasts that had lately begun to challenge my halter.

One day, when Daphne was visiting, I felt it: a kick, a push — life. My hand went to the place in shock.

“Dana, what is it?”

I looked up, my eyes wide in wonder. “I’m not sure. I think she kicked me.”

A moment later I felt it again. I sat on the bed and released a few tears. It was proof; a part of Katrina still lived.

Daphne wrapped her hand around my shoulders. “You must have expected this. Why are you crying?”

“There’s a living person in there. It may not be much of a surprise to you, but I didn’t grow up expecting to carry a child.”

She tossed back her black Giovanni hair and smirked. “Pooh. You’ve had years to get used to the idea.”

“I’m going to love her,” I said, knowing the truth as I spoke it. “Katrina will be a spoiled little girl if I’m not careful.”

“You’re naming her after Lady Katrina? Have you talked to Franco?”

“Not yet,” I said, but it was unthinkable that she be named anything else.

At eight months along, I felt like a melon with legs. My breasts ached and continued their relentless advance. Somewhere along the line, Katrina’s baby had become my own. I didn’t care that she wasn’t genetically mine.

At nine months I was waddling, cranky, bloated, and ready. The first contractions woke me up like a jolt from the inside. “Franco!”

He jerked awake. “Is it time?”

I felt it again -- hard and urgent. “Goddess, I think so.”

She was born in the infirmary after a couple of hours of heavy pushing and sweating. There was nothing elegant about it: it felt like expelling a watermelon. Tyr was in shock, but I didn’t have time to think of what this baby made me, the former son of Pol t’Pak. When Beti held her up and put her in my arms, a squalling baby with blue eyes and stringy blonde hair, I gazed down at my little girl. She was never intended to be mine, but she was now, and I wouldn’t have traded her for the kingdom.

***

Franco tweaked my right breast. It was large, swollen with milk, and about to be attached to a hungry infant. “I think motherhood is good for you.”

I laughed. His eyes were like saucers when he looked at my chest. “You just like my big breasts. Enjoy them while they last. The wet nurse is taking over and they’ll be back to normal in a few months.”

“Why hurry? Life is long and I don’t mind. In fact, I like them the way they are.”

I looked at him strangely. My experience as a man, and as a woman with men, had taught me otherwise: men liked trim bodies that they might turn into mothers, not the actual mother. “You don’t want my body back?”

“Eventually, but you should be her mother for a while. There are no wars to worry about; the lords and ladies have nearly reached the numbers you set for them, and Daphne has been doing a fine job of running the encounters.”

“That’s true enough, I suppose. The encounters practically run themselves now.” I peered at him skeptically. “You actually like me like this?”

He brushed my hair back and looked me straight in the eye. “I see Katrina at your breast and can imagine nothing more attractive. I’d prefer it if you nursed her yourself.”

“Goddess.” I blushed. “I could try it for a while, I suppose. My Lord, now that Katrina is here, I think it’s time to leave the palace. It’s been more like a jail then a home lately.”

“Very well — occasionally,” he said reluctantly, “and you'll surround yourself with at least six guards at all times. There's no way of knowing how safe it is.”

I mumbled under my breath. With six guards, I’d never have any privacy, but it was a start. Watching Katrina’s tiny mouth gnaw on my nipple, feeling the milk flow from my body into hers, I found it hard to get upset at anything. “All right.”

It was a glorious year. Katrina grew, crawled, walked and began to talk, calling me, “Momma” and Franco, “Daddy.” My urges had returned, but not as they had been. As long as I nursed Katrina, I was more easily satisfied. Although Franco still used Wanda. I barely minded anymore.

“How is my Katrina today?” Franco would ask her after a long day with Kernul and the other ministers, lifting the squealing little girl high over his head. He was in all ways, save one, her father.

After the day was over, he often he sat in a divan or lounge with me pulling my head to his chest as we watched our daughter at play. At one such time, I stretched my neck upwards and asked, “You enjoy this, my Lord?”

He squeezed my waist and nodded proudly towards the scene. “More than anything else. The kingdom is important, but family is everything. You’re a fine wife and an excellent mother.”

“Thank you, but it’s not so difficult with nurses, and Wanda is wonderful with her. I’m beginning to long for the days when I wasn’t a cow and could look at the stars and moon alone with you by the lake. I miss those times when I could walk the streets at night, speak to the lords and ladies about important matters, and make important decisions.”

“Being a mother is important, my love,” he said, lifting a heavy breast.

I shifted my head to a more comfortable place between his arm and side. “It is, but it’s not everything. Think carefully of who I was. I enjoy the moment, but this will pass. Katrina will grow and need her independence.”

“Give it some time. If you need something to do, there are schools to visit; ceremonies at the temple; dignitaries from other cities to greet... Being a Queen can be as arduous as you want.”

“I know what I’m capable of, and it’s more than visiting children, having my hand kissed, and entertaining priests.”

I gave it a year to please my husband, but when Katrina’s birthday arrived, I started exercising again. When Franco saw me with the spear in my hands, he reacted as I had thought he might, as if I had betrayed mothers everywhere.

He pointed at the offending object angrily. “Mothers do not fight with spears.”

“Most mothers don’t fight with spears,” I corrected him while working on my form in an easy set. “Katrina doesn’t need my breast anymore.”

“I thought you enjoyed being a mother?”

I leaned the spear against the wall and faced him hands on my hips. “I am a mother; it’s not something I turn off and on, and I love my daughter. I fail to see how practice in the morning diminishes that.”

Franco reclined into a chair. He rested his head in his hands for a few heartbeats before refocusing on me. “I have a confession to make. I want to have another child.”

I stared at him, and waved a hand before my face as if to dispel insanity. The same arguments against having a child that we’d had before still applied: my slave gene put any baby girl in danger. “What? You said…”

He raised his hand. “Hold. There is a way, the same way you had Katrina.” I stood there with my mouth open. “You know I love Katrina, but I’ve always wanted a child of my own. Surely you understand that?”

“Of course! A man always wants his own, but ... I don’t mind having another child, eventually, but this is very sudden. And how, exactly?”

“Your closest living relative and I would start the baby, and then, like Katrina, the baby would be implanted in you. He or she would have DNA closest to what we both are, or were, in your case.”

“Daphne.” I put a hand to my forehead. “Does she know that you’re thinking about this?”

“We’ve discussed it, and she has graciously agreed if you approved. I thought you wanted a baby with me. You said so at one time,” he said, confident that I would see things his way.

I found a convenient chair and collapsed into it. “I do. It’s this image of you lying in the silks with Daphne and … Oh, Franco! I want you back with me the way it was before. We were a pair, a king and queen facing challenges together. Goddess! Another child.”

Staring at the hands in my lap, I thought about it. I owed him. I’d made the decision to have Katrina, not him. I didn’t completely object to having another baby: I had the instincts, and the thought of holding another precious baby in my arms made me want another. Nine months wasn’t too long a time in a life measured in centuries, and it would be nice to have a brother or sister for Katrina.

“Franco, lying with my own sister? I’d have to face her afterwards. She might think of the child as her own.”

“It’s the only way that we can both be a part of a child. This is what I want, Dana.”

I could hardly tell him that it would have been closer to brol my real sister, Tisa. He was also decent enough not to bring up how I had forced Katrina upon him. “Very well, Franco. We’ll have another child.”

The joy in his face was nearly worth it. He kissed me like a king and I melted in his arms.

Less than a year later, I bore Stefan. Instead of the blonde hair and gray-blue eyes of my daughter, he had the black hair and slight hook of a pure Giovanni, which he surely was. Franco doted on both, but favored Stefan slightly, I thought. But that was normal for a man. Truth be told, although I loved them both, I was always closer to Katrina.

But when Franco brought up having a third child -- with Daphne again — I refused him cold.

***

I only saw Kim three times during those three years, and that was mostly to report incremental progress, so I didn’t have much hope when Wanda announced my Royal Inspector. I sent the children away with their nurses and pulled up a chair. After she curtsied and took a seat, she smiled. She had a bright smile when she wanted to, and, I noted, she’d let her hair grow. The tail of it fell from a simple brooch halfway down her back.

“Majesty, I have some good news. We couldn’t find a trace of who the three dead men were in the valley. There should have been something: people missing, ‘deaths’ with empty graves, and the like. That was odd, so we looked outside the valley. At least two of the three came from Bethune.”

“Gods and Overlords.” Kim’s simple words described an incredible effort, thousands of interviews and sifting data.

“Both were in the army at one time, both experts with the crossbow. One of them was a man named Fleer Ghedren. The other’s name is unknown, but had been seen with him before he left. It’s certain that a man, a foreigner from Tulem by his accent, had been seen talking to Fleer and two others before Fleer changed his looks.

“We found a man with a good memory of the foreigner’s face and appearance. It’s a matter of time now to match his description with the thousands who left Tulem during that period.”

“Superb work, Kim!”

She shrugged modestly, but her face flushed with pleasure. “The work we still have to do could take years.”

I stood and began pacing, moving my hands around. “But it’s something! Once you’ve found the man, you can gather information about him, find out who he worked for…” I grinned. “By the way, how is Scholar Jillian doing?”

“She was an excellent choice. I’m also using someone else, a young associate scholar. Her name is Ann.” Her gaze examined me closer than I liked.

“Then I hope you find her as useful.” I kept my emotions to myself. I hadn’t seen Ann in years to avoid making the connection between us. I didn’t like putting her in a place where she might be easily seen and noted, like assisting Kim, nor did I think it could be a coincidence that were working together, and definitely not the way she looked at me. I waited for illumination.

“I know who she is, or who she used to be. She was Merton, the former librarian.”

“Kim, why?”

“Why did I try to find out who she was? It wasn't simple curiosity. If the Slavers Guild wants to kill you, I figured that they would be keeping track of the serum girl you helped. If they’re watching her, then they might be planning something. If they didn’t know who she was, then they probably wouldn’t be as concerned about you, and I could eliminate the guild from the list of prime suspects.”

“I see,” I said coolly, and is the guild watching her?”

“Yes.”

I closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “Then I have to get her out of Tulem.”

“I told Ann that the guild is watching her — and I didn’t select her. She volunteered to work with me.”

“She what?”

“She heard that I was asking questions about her, found out that I worked for you and why, came to me, and told me who she was.”

“She’d be much safer out of the valley with a new identity.”

She nodded. “Truth. But she wants to help us. She takes the assassination personally. Ann told me to tell you, ‘To the end.’ I’d like to keep her. She’s a genius at organization.”

Goddess. I had misgivings, but I would not take away her choice. “All right, but take another guard with you. I would be very disturbed if she were hurt.”

“I’ll do that, Majesty.”

***

Most of the time, now, I practiced with the spear in the afternoon to keep the peace. France had made it plain that he disapproved, and he was unlikely to change. Still, even the best plans aren’t infallible. He returned early, while I was in my final and favorite set, a complicated affair of leaps, rolls, spins and thrusts that had taken me more than a year of constant practice to become comfortable with after Stefan was born.

When I finished, perspiration soaked through my practice kit, a short cotton shift with a narrow belt that exposed my legs. After stretching to cool down, I wiped the spear off and returned it to the rack on the wall. I spotted him from the corner of my eye; the look on his face promised an argument.

“You will stop practicing with the spear.”

So, you’ve finally said it. “No, my Lord. I will not.”

“Dana!” he roared.

“Our agreement!” I lashed back.

He sighed. We’d been through this before, but never so directly.

“I’d hoped that you would understand what a queen should be by now.”

This went deep; he’d rarely looked so worn or despondent. I went to his side and touched his face tenderly. “I think I’ve been a good queen and mother to our children. I’ve tried my best to be the woman you want me to be — in public as we agreed.”

He ground out the words, “You’ve done what you said you would do; no more, no less. You’re very strong. You grasp what you were with such a tight fist that someone would have to cut off your fingers to get at it.”

“I am what you see. Even Queen Prudence…”

He laughed. “Ah, yes. Queen Prudence again! Let’s talk about her. Queen Prudence was happy enough to be a lady before her husband died. Queen Prudence never led an attack, pushed a blade through a king’s brain; killed a man in a challenge; killed an assassin with his own poison tooth.” He gazed at me longingly, love for me mixed with sadness. “And she never tried to conquer her femininity.”

My face flushed with anger. “That last was unworthy of you. No freewoman is purely feminine. I don’t try to ‘conquer’ anything. I simply am what I am.”

“Have I been a good King?”

“Better than good. The valley has never been more prosperous, and all Tulem loves you, including me.”

“Any lady in the valley would be pleased to be the Queen with me and take on the traditional role. The sharp killing tools of the warrior would be foreign to her. Her purview would be the gentler things of women.”

This was more of the same in different words. “You knew I wasn’t a typical lady before you married me.”

“I’ve forced your submission more times than I can count. I’ve seen the pure female you are deep inside. I’ve waited patiently for it to appear away from the silks.”

I spread my hands wide and just stared. “Franco, the pure female you see is a natural slave!”

“Perhaps!” he conceded. “But you fight too hard. Instead of the softer attractions any man in the valley might expect in a wife, I see that.” He pointed a hard finger to the spear on the wall. “I recognized that last set you did. It’s a grand master’s set.” He spoke harshly, making it an accusation.

“I won’t apologize for excellence. I’m the woman in the silks, and the mother, and the woman with the spear. Don’t ask me to give up a part of me or become something I’m not. I won’t do it.”

“I admire you, but you’re too strong for me.” He turned away and started to walk off.

I reached out and held his arm. “Franco, wait! What does that mean?”

He looked down sadly. “You’ve done what you said you’d do. I won’t neglect you, but I’m giving up trying to change you.” He walked away, leaving me alone with a terrible sense that I’d just lost part of him.

***

“Stefan! Don’t go too far away. I don’t want you falling into the lake.”

“M’kay, Mommy,” he replied, but I knew his habit of pushing everything to the limit. He was a typical four-year old boy. He would be standing on the wall in ten minutes if I wasn't careful. I nodded to Gerda, one of the two nurses I’d brought from the palace, and she followed him, a blonde, pigtailed woman in palace purple walking rapidly after a scampering Giovanni pure-blood in durable white-trimmed purple pants. I let him get away with a lot; a boy should be allowed to explore and run, a thing his nurses sometimes didn’t understand, but a tumble over the wall into the water could be dangerous.

“Mother.” A small hand tugged on my sleeve.

“Kat?”

“Can I go out in the boat today?”

I looked at the afternoon sky. It was partly cloudy, but it didn’t look like rain. “Well, maybe. But I thought you wanted to have a picnic with me?” I pouted and rubbed away an imaginary tear.

“Mother,” she said, exasperated as only a precocious six-year old girl can be, “that’s what we’ve been doing for an hour.”

“Do you need to go first?” I asked quietly.

She looked around to see if anyone heard. “No.”

“All right. Let’s go sailing.” I stood up and brushed my dress, a close match to my daughter’s white with purple trim.

“You’re going with us?”

“Yes.” I motioned to Odell, a guard we’d sailed with before.

“Majesty?”

“We’d like to go sailing.”

“Yes, Majesty.” He winked at Katrina and put aside his spear and chain mail, selecting a small bow for the boat. After assisting us aboard, he threw off the lines and took the rudder and sheets. I cranked the sail up, and we were away. The wind was perfect and the only sound was the boat slicing through the water.

It was an idyllic scene that might have decorated a wall in our apartments, a mother and daughter in matching finery out for a sail. This was a lady’s adventure. We had no responsibilities, just the freedom to enjoy the wind in her hair, the thrill of water rushing by, and the capacity to decorate a boat.

Katrina stuck her finger in the lake from her place in the bow and smiled back at me in the middle.

“Odell, switch with me,” I said.

“Yes, Majesty.” He took us into the wind and we swapped places. I let the wind take us around and trimmed the sail for an easy beam reach.

“Kat, do you want to learn to sail?” I called to her.

She stared at me as if I had grown a tail. “Mother?”

I shook my head. I knew very well what her tutors were filling her head with. “Yes, even ladies can sail, Kat. Come here and I’ll show you, unless you want your brother to learn first.”

She considered the consequences of that for a fast second before she decided. “Coming!”

An hour later Odell took over and guided us back to the dock. When we were back on dry land, I took her aside before she could spread the news. “This will be our secret,” I said in my “serious” voice. “If anyone tells you that a girl can’t sail, you know better. A girl can do a lot of things if she wants to.”

“Yes, Mother,” she said, looking straight at me.

Like all girls in the aristocracy, she was being brought up to be a lady, and as I watched her run off to play, I wasn’t sure if I’d just done her a favor or not. I had my limits, though. Neither she nor Stefan knew about my spear practice or the knife I always kept on my calf, but as for the rest, she was my daughter, and I would raise her the way I saw fit.

Naturally, Stefan wanted to go sailing, too. At four years old, he was a year or so too young for real sailing, but I let him steer while I handled the main sheet, and that made us both happy. He beamed when I complimented him on steering a straight course. Stefan was too old now for a kiss on the cheek, so I tousled his hair instead.

As we pulled back into the dock this time, I saw two familiar faces just outside our perimeter. My heart beat faster. Meeting them here, outside the palace, had to mean something important.

Stefan had noticed them, too. “Mommy, who are they?”

“One is Kim West, the Royal Inspector; the other is Scholar Ann, who works with her.” I smiled, and pointed to my right. “Get your sister, I want to show you off to them.”

“Oh, Mom,” he groaned.

“Scoot!”

With a grossly overdone sigh, he ran off to do as he was told.

I nodded to the guards holding them back. “Let them through,” I said.

“Majesty,” the senior of the two guards acknowledged, and allowed them past our security.

Once they were through the perimeter, I flashed Kim a smile. It had been six months since her last report, but the other, except from a distance sometimes, I hadn’t seen in much longer, and my attention swung her way. Ann's formerly shoulder-length drab brown hair was now a rich chestnut that fell nearly to the small of her back. The associate scholar’s robe was more tailored than most, revealing her figure to a greater extent than most women in the guild.

Her confidence struck me most. Her eyes were still passages to her inner self, although they weren’t quite so easily read now; in the nine years that I’d last spoken to her, youthful enthusiasm had given way to maturity. Nonetheless, it was a matter of degree: Ann still looked like a woman barely out of her teens.

“Am I the person you thought I might become?” she asked me in a smooth, easy voice.

I wiped a tear away and laughed; sometimes things do go as one hopes. “Well, I thought you’d have platinum hair and blue eyes. Goddess, you look good. It all fits.” I moved forward impulsively and hugged the smaller woman, breaking it off when I heard small footsteps approaching.

I stood between my children and placed an arm around their shoulders. “Kim, Ann, meet Stefan and Katrina.”

“Nice to meet you, Stefan and Katrina,” Kim said, managing an adequate curtsy.

“Lady Katrina, Lord Stefan,” Ann said warmly. She curtsied better, her practice in the palace showing.

I bent low to my offspring and whispered, “Be polite to the Inspector and especially to Scholar Ann. She may be teaching you someday.”

“Pleased to meet you, Inspector West, Scholar Ann,” they each said well and clear.

“All right. Play some more, but leave the guards alone. We’ll be leaving soon.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“’Kay, Momma.”

After the children had gone, I turned back to Kim and Ann, leading them out of earshot. “I’m happy to see you both,” I said when we were safe, “but you didn’t come here for a simple visit. What is it?”

“Lord Nikolai ordered the assassinations,” Kim said. “We traced the contact in Bethune to his inner circle.”

“Wonderful!” I pounded my fist into my hand. “Can you prove it in court?”

“Not a chance. Our link to Nikolai disappeared a few days ago. There will be no testimony.” Kim said, leaving me to work through the implications.

Oh, Ashtar.

“Have you told anyone else about Nikolai?”

“No.”

“Well, don’t. You’ve done your duty by telling me. I’ll tell the King at the proper time.”

She smiled, and a trace of humor glinted in those odd purple eyes. “Yes, Majesty.”

“If the contact is gone, then they must think you know about them. You’re both in danger.”

Kim shook her head. “Not necessarily. They know I was asking about him, that’s all. They can’t be sure what we know. I plan to chase a few dead ends for a while, and then stop working, or work on something else. That will probably fool them into thinking we have nothing.”

“That’s a risky conclusion.”

“If Nikolai thought that I knew he’d ordered the assassinations, then he would assume that I’d tell the King immediately. It would be my duty, after all.”

I nodded. “Reasonable.”

“But the King, while he has many admirable qualities, has a hard time controlling his emotions. If King Franco thought that Lord Nikolai had tried to kill you, how do you think he would react at the next meeting with the castle lords?”

“I don't have to guess. Franco wouldn’t be able to hide it. He’d want to rip out Nikolai’s throat and feed his brain to pigs, but he wouldn’t do it, not with what you have.”

The nobility had developed a code over the centuries. At one time, vendettas used to be common. Suspicion, in those early days, had often been followed by swift retribution. Too often, the wrong target was chosen, which led to more killing. Over time, the families decided to make sure of the perpetrator before exacting revenge. Ultimately, this led to a more peaceful valley, but where a smart killer could go unpunished. After hundreds of years, it had turned into a grim game, where a player might murder and be admired for his skill. Franco was a part of this tradition. He had his suspicions about Nikolai, but he was bound by the code. As King, especially, he couldn’t arrest Nikolai for less than absolute proof.

Of course, I had a less fastidious history, and a little bell was ringing.

“You two planned all along to put this in my lap. You didn’t tell the King about this because you thought I was more bloodthirsty than he is. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

“I’m terribly sorry, Majesty,” Kim said.

“I’m likewise miserable,” Ann replied.

I snorted; their insincerity was thicker than morning fog.

My daughter chose that moment to squeal at something, a happy sound of a girl at play, and I turned to watch. At six, Kat’s hair was a little darker and her father had given her the gray in her eyes, but she would favor Lady Katrina when she was older.

As much as I ached to get Katrina’s murderer, some things were more important. On the other hand, to do nothing would allow a murderer to plot again. If I died then Nikolai would rule. How best to get Nikolai without endangering my children, or causing more harm than good?

I turned back to them more thoughtful. “If anything happens, and I’m not saying it will, it might take years.”

Kim nodded. “That’s up to you, Majesty. You needed to know who killed Katrina, and now you do.”

She had that right. “Kim, isn’t it about time you called me Dana, at least in private?”

“I’d like that, Dana.” She smiled brilliantly.

***

The night had been a disaster, but it wasn’t my fault.

The battle under the surface had gone on too long. Since our last fight in our apartments, Franco was still my husband, but I had become his duty, more as if I were an arranged wife. Having been brought up to expect little in marriage, he was equipped for the role. His obligations were to Tulem, the aristocracy, and his family. His mother, Lady Hanta, was imperious, a euphemism for royal bitch. Somehow, Lord Mario had endured her for one hundred twenty years before Ketrick’s arrow had put him forever out of her reach.

We’d interacted informally several times before. The first had been when Franco had taken me to his castle. She’d disdained me then as a serum girl, although I was Queen. We’d met again before our marriage. She’d relented, but only because she had no choice, and had been encouraging her son ever since to “assert his rightful control” over his unruly wife. To Franco’s credit, he had ignored her.

This last time was the worst. The occasion was Kat’s eighth birthday. After Hanta had admonished me in front of her son and our children for having “uncertain virtue,” I’d snapped that I knew a man with a yurt on the Mondali steppes that wouldn’t mind her contemplating virtue as long as she satisfied his needs.

We left very soon after that.

“I’m sorry, Franco,” I said in bed in the early morning.

He stirred, or maybe he was pretending to sleep all along, as I sometimes did. “What are you sorry for?” he asked me irritably. “I’m sure my mother will forget all about it in a century or so, and you did have cause; what she said to you was unforgivable.”

“It’s not about that. I’m sorry that I’m not the woman you want me to be. I want you to be happy with me.”

“Go to sleep.”

“If there’s a way that I can make this right somehow, or come to some sort of accommodation between us, I’d like to try.”

He rolled over my way. “For the last time, I don’t blame you. I thought that trying to make you a lady would make you happier. I was wrong to try to change you, I admit it. Now go to sleep.”

“I’m going to tell you a secret. You know the way I keep from being a slave, or at least the way I used to before I married you? There’s more to it than what I told you. I can become anyone for a while. I can be a meek submissive woman, a dancer, a very proper lady, even a slave.”

A pause, then: “Really?”

“It's more than a performance. I imagine her and give her a history. Then I ‘step into’ her, becoming her completely. I’m her. If you like, I could become someone you really want, at least temporarily.”

“You can become different people, and not just in the silks?”

“Yes. If variety can break this ice between us, then I’d like to try.” He moved in a way I knew from experience, adjusting his posture to accommodate a new geometry. I smiled. “You know, the idea appeals to me. I suppose I’m just a terrible slut.”

“If my enhanced needs are any measure, you are.”

“Huh!” I pretended to be offended. “I could be a bath girl, or a maid, an Ademar princess, a priestess of the Red Temple -- or a proper lady….”

“No,” he said coldly.

“I’m just trying to…”

“I won’t have it!” He turned over and grabbed my arms. “Now you listen to me,” he snarled. “Enough pretending. You submit to me in the silks like a slave, but everywhere else you’re like steel. Your two sides fooled me for years. I thought the softer side was preeminent, that if only you had time to become your true self, your female side would shine through and I would have the magnificent woman I saw. Instead, this warrior-woman holds on to the one I love like grim death. I have no illusions left. Don’t give me any more.”

“Goddess, Franco, what can I say? I’m many things, but I’ve always been that way. Why can’t we go back to the way it was, to the days before you tried to change me. We were happy then.”

He let me go, shaking his head. “I can’t. I wish I could recapture that moment. You were confused. It was a joy to help you understand the splendid woman you are.”

“You did make me see! I’d forgotten, and you brought it back.”

“During those heady days, I’d forgotten how powerful you were. You came to your rule fighting and killing. You were ruthless. You are a woman, but you have a bloody soul.”

“That’s not fair! I did what I had to do, no more.”

He glared at me. “You would do it again. Even now you practice with a face in front of you. You stab and slice with authority. Your eyes shine with the delight of the kill.”

I wilted under his gaze. “I… I imagine the face of Katrina’s murderer.”

“You are the mother of two children, yet you dream of thrusting your spear through the heart of a man. I find this disturbing.”

“I would never risk our children’s lives.”

He nodded. “Truth, but you would risk their mother’s life.”

“I’d fight to protect Kat and Stefan. But I’m not as reckless as I once was; motherhood has changed me.”

“Not enough. Their care -- and yours -- is my responsibility. The wife I want would understand that. The wife I have does not. Go to sleep.”

I had no answer that would satisfy him, for he was partly right. “I wish I could be the one you want.” I placed my arm over his back tentatively, uncertain if he would fling it back at me.

But he took it and gave it a squeeze. “So do I,” he replied sadly.

***

The great hall is used infrequently, but there are times when the cavernous space is filled and the hall’s grandeur is realized. One is the annual Founders Day celebration. This year’s festivities was little different from centuries past. Rich tapestries of past rulers, heroes, and famous events draped the lower walls. The late afternoon light tinged the scene through colored glass below stone arches more than sixty feet above the white marble floor.

It was customary to invite outsiders of stature. It was even necessary, else the hall would have seemed empty with just the hundred nobles and the senior palace functionaries. And so, a sea of four hundred strolled and hung in groups to talk: Ademar lords in close-fitting tunics and bloused trousers, their ladies in dresses that would be considered revealing in the valley; the strong colors and stripes of Bendar; Teshruk men in silk suits, and multi-layered petticoats for their women; and the superb leathers and fine woolens of Batuk.

A band of lutes, drums and zylar provided accompaniment, and a team of acrobats and jugglers worked their skills, although few of the sophisticates gave them more than one eye. For the aristocrats in the valley, this was the event of the year, where old friends were reacquainted, including some of the former Borodin and Giovanni ladies now married to foreigners, dressed now in new styles at the sides of their husbands.

We stood on the dais in the back and welcomed those who wished to meet us, which was most of the visitors. A line two hundred long had formed an hour before, and we were barely halfway through it, when I saw three familiar faces.

“Pol t’Pak, Fay l’Sain, and son, Ron t’Pol, of Eagles,” intoned Lester the announcer.

I’d known my family was there -- I’d had a hand with the invitations and had seen the guest list -- yet I was near tears when they came into view. Father and Ron wore the brown and orange of Eagles, their tunics worked with polished leather and gold, tailored superbly and functional enough to ride into battle or to be presented to royalty. My mother wore a gorgeous silk dress of beige and the deepest blue, but managed the air and pride of a wife of the leader of a warrior house. Father and Ron bowed slightly -- any more would be considered honoring royalty, a thing no one in Batuk would do -- and my mother controlled an abbreviated curtsy.

My husband did the talking for the moment, speaking to my father as head of the family. “Welcome to Tulem. We’re pleased that you could come. We don’t get many visitors from Batuk.”

While they began a discussion of the various merits of the valley and Batuk, I smiled at Mother. From her open-eyed stare, she knew exactly who I was.

“Fay l’Sain is it?” I said. “I hope you enjoy our peaceful valley.”

“Yes -- Queen Dana, I’m sure I will,” she replied, a trifle flat with disbelief.

I motioned to my left. “Would you like to meet our children?” I asked, and brought her to my daughter.

At seventeen, Kat had grown nearly to my height. Her hair was two or three shades darker than my mother or Ron’s, and her gray-blue eyes were more direct than most girls her age. In fact, I noticed that she and Ron were looking at each other rather more than courtesy allowed. I wasn’t surprised at Ron: as far as he knew, he was sizing up his niece -- and she was a pretty girl -- but I lifted an eye at my daughter’s reaction to it.

“This is Katrina, my oldest.” Kat tore her eyes away from my handsome brother for the moment to smile politely. My mother curtsied again after a shocked pause.

“And this is Stefan.” Stefan was already inches taller than me. At fifteen, it was certain that he would look much like his father.

He bowed slightly and grinned. “Charmed. I’d like to visit Batuk someday.”

They went on to have a few words while Ron spoke a few meaningless phrases of greeting with me until it was time to move on. Before Ron walked off completely, I flashed the word, “later” in Eagles code. He responded with a short chop of the hand, the affirmative.

Once we finished with the line, Franco and I split up to visit our guests informally, my husband bringing Stefan with him. He and I had long ago resigned ourselves to a less than ideal marriage. We met in the silks and were together where we were supposed to be. I suspected that he’d had a liaison or two in the valley, but by the unwritten aristocratic code I couldn’t get too angry as long as he was discreet.

Of course, no such diversions would be permitted for me. I didn’t like to think about what we once were to each other. But my life was tolerable. Franco, even if his love for me was absent, was still considerate.

When we had greeted the final guest, my daughter had tried to escape to parts unknown, but I collected her with a fast hand. “Kat, where do you think you’re going?” I asked her amusedly.

She turned with only the barest hint of a sigh. “I was about to help you meet the guests?”

“And so you shall, Kat -- with me.” I grinned at her expression, so forlorn, so practiced. “Come on. The age of majority will be here soon enough. Besides, I want everyone to see my daughter.”

“Mother,” she groaned.

I waved towards the floor with a ladylike flick of the wrist. “I don’t mind you meeting young men in the proper setting, but not men a century or more older than you.”

“Hardly anyone my age talks to me now,” she moaned, wringing her hands. “How can they without being measured for the kill by my guards? This is one of the few chances to meet someone without a sword or spear in sight.”

When I was seventeen I’d already been with siolat girls and one or two freewomen. Katrina actually had less freedom than Tisa at her age. But girls were different: they needed to be protected. Still, I understood her frustration.

“Come with me first. You'll have some privacy later, but I’ll have someone watching you, maybe Kim. Enough?”

She sighed. “It will have to be.”

“You know I trust you.” I took her hand. “Come on. We’ll meet some interesting people, and I’ll try not to embarrass you too much.”

We knew all the nobility in the valley, of course, so we began with our guests. As we stepped towards a merchant couple from Teshruk I whispered, “Kat, you’re old enough. I expect you to talk.”

She gaped at me. “Mother, what on Zhor would I have in common with any of these people?”

“Maybe nothing. In that case, ask questions and listen. You’re a smart girl; you’ll figure it out.”

She had no chance to reply, for we were there. I applied my finest royal smile. “Destry, Oleda, nice of you to come. I hope you’re enjoying our small valley.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Destry replied. He went on to compare our cultured valley to the more rustic charms of Teshruk, a large city by a lake.

As Destry droned on, Katrina offered, “Do you sail?”

He cocked his head curiously. “Why yes. Do you sail, Princess?”

“I’ve handled small craft since I was six. Of course, that’s nothing like the much larger boats of your fine lake, Merchant Destry.”

“Six years old? A young age,” he said.

“My mother taught me.”

“Indeed? Your mother is accomplished at many things. Her name is well known throughout the region. Why, just the other day…”

“My reputation is exaggerated. Katrina learned to sail at a younger age than I did, and she's quite good at it.”

Destry was hardly stupid; he nodded rapidly. “Ah, yes.”

I left him to talk sailing with Kat while I engaged his wife on Teshruk fashion and their artists’ community before pleading our duty as hosts to move on. While I looked for a suitable group to approach, Kat touched me on the arm and leaned close.

“Mother, you had Destry as nervous as a bug on a tree full of birds,” she said, hiding a giggle behind her hand.

“I didn’t like the way he changed the topic from you to me.”

“I’m seventeen. Nobody takes me seriously.”

“Well, I thought you handled yourself very well.”

“It was probably the only thing we had in common. It was either sailing or a discussion about their famous palace, their crops, fishing industry, or arts and crafts. I know almost nothing about Teshruk except for what I’ve been taught.”

“Soon you’ll be a lady, and old enough to do what you want to do. You’ll be free to visit Teshruk, Bethune or anywhere else.”

“A lady ... about that, the ladies look at me like I’m a freak. I’m a Giovanni, but I don't look like it.”

That didn’t make sense. The entire valley knew that I’d had blonde hair and blue eyes before I’d had it permanently changed years ago. The story was that my old blonde genes had mixed with Franco’s to produce Kat’s mixed traits. She hadn’t complained about it before.

“Why should that be a problem? When you reach your majority, a quick trip to the physician and you can look like anyone you want.”

She hesitated, biting her lip as she did when she was unusually agitated.

“It's not that. Mother, what if I become a slave?” my daughter asked me abruptly. Like most teenage girls, she couldn’t conceal her emotions as well as an adult, especially from me. Those gray-blue eyes couldn’t hide her terror.

I closed my eyes and sighed. I had hoped that I wouldn’t hear that question until her twentieth birthday. The rumor that the Ruk’s Serum used to make me had been somehow defective was good enough for most in the valley, after all, what else could it be? But if one cared to ask the right questions, that explanation would ring false, and my daughter was smart enough to do it.

“You have no more chance of becoming a slave than any other girl, less actually. You don’t have any of the signs.”

“I know you don’t like to talk about your past, but I’ve read about Ruk’s Serum in the library. I know … I know that all serum girls pass on the slave gene like any other natural slave.”

That tore it -- it was time. “Let’s go to the garden. I have a story to tell you.”

We sat on a bench by the fountain, and I took my time and told her about that terrible day eighteen years ago.

“Lady Katrina was my mother?” she asked me in a small voice, tears in her eyes.

“Goddess, Kat. I’m your mother in every way except one. I gave birth to you myself. I told Lady Katrina as she died that I would tell you about her on your majority, but I won’t let you worry about the slave gene until then. You don’t have it.”

“My mother and father are dead?”

I raised my eyes to the sky. “Stop it! Lady Katrina was my best friend. She wanted me to raise you as my own and I did. You’re my daughter.”

“But … by the Goddess!”

“Now listen to me,” I said, holding her by the shoulders. “Nothing has changed. You’re still my daughter, and Franco is still your father. Do you think that it matters one whit to us where you came from?”

She gazed at me for a time, reading me. Her breathing slowed and her face relaxed; then her eyes went wide in dismay. “I’m a Borodin?”

I almost laughed. “You're the same as you always were, Princess Katrina Giovanni, half Borodin and half mixed mundane/noble from Ademar — and no slave gene.” I patted her gently on the back. “I’ll tell you all about Lady Katrina and Sephram sometime soon. They deserve to be remembered. Dry your eyes, now. We can’t neglect our guests for long.”

“Yes, Mother.”

The rest of that afternoon Kat and I visited more guests, by themselves and in groups. The shock at finding out her heritage was overcome by relief that she wasn't a natural slave. Kat relaxed and allowed the conversation to come to her. She caught on quickly; the object wasn’t to make points, unless one wanted to, or to be clever, but rather to put the guests at ease.

“This isn’t so bad, is it, Kat?”

“Not as bad as I thought, and some of the guests are even interesting, but most of them are your friends -- and you’re right, there’s almost no one close to my age. Does age really matter? Before you married Father, I heard that you had a special consort for three years who was over three hundred years old.”

“Ann talks too much. Age matters at seventeen. You need to have some experience with men, and enough to know yourself. That’s the important thing.”

“I’m so glad that we agree,” she said.

“On what, precisely, do we agree, Katrina?”

“That gaining experience with men is important, of course. Naturally, one needs the proper setting, and, as if the Goddess herself had proclaimed her approval, one exists in the hall right now.”

I narrowed my eyes. “You aren’t going to talk to anyone by yourself. That would be a scandal. If Kim agrees to chaperone, you’ll be with her. She’s unattached at the moment and can keep you out of trouble.” She clapped her hands together and turned to go find Kim before I had a thought. “Wait a moment.”

“Yes?”

“I want to be clear. All you’re going to do is talk and get to know them a little. It’s an opportunity to speak with young men without me around. Be polite and charming, but no more. Remember who you are.”

“Yes, Mother,” she said, less enthusiastically and turned again to look for the Royal Inspector. I watched her move away, wondering at our fates. At her age, my instructions from Father had been a sharp warning not to get caught.

Kat’s life struck me as unnatural. I wondered if it might be a good time to show her the mundane side, taking her away from the palace in disguise, with a guard or two to follow at a distance as I used to do with Ketrick. Franco would have a fit, but I wanted her to be well rounded.

As I waited for Kat to return with Kim, a tall man in the bold colors of Bendar caught the corner of my eye. He was alone, which was unusual enough; I also hadn’t seen him in the welcome line, and he walked straight towards me unannounced and uninvited, a breach of etiquette.

All guests had been screened for weapons before being allowed inside, although a man could overpower me and snap my neck in a second if I were caught unawares. Fortunately, he stopped far enough away for me to put away thoughts of reaching for the blade in my calf-sheath.

He bowed low, a point in his favor, I supposed.

“Majesty, forgive me for advancing upon you like this. My name is Jaffar Kelor, a merchant from Bendar.”

I recognized the name from the guest list. He had open, honest features, and carried himself easily. “A belated welcome, Jaffar. What can I do for you? I hope it isn’t business. We do no transactions this day, nor am I the one to see.”

“Nothing like that, Majesty. I bring a communication from an old acquaintance.” He produced a folded tan paper marked with a solid red seal from his tunic, and extended it towards me.

“Who is this from, Jaffar?”

“I know him as Larmas, a member of the guild. He said that you knew him by a different name, that you last referred to him as a ‘braying ass.’ He said that he accepts the name and that he offers you his apology.”

I regarded him coldly. Feelings suddenly lurked and stared from behind bars I’d erected years ago. “Did this 'Larmas' tell you that he’s in permanent exile, that if he returns here he is to be killed instantly?

“He did, Majesty, although he didn’t say why.” His arm remained as it was, Ketrick’s apology still in his hand.

I snatched the paper from his grasp and waved to a servant. When he arrived I held the document out to him, dangling it from two fingers, as if it were a stinking dead thing.

“Dispose of this in the nearest fire. Burn it immediately and ensure that it is consumed completely before resuming your duties.” He took it, bowed and departed.

I must have looked a sight. The old anger that I’d put away for so long had broken free. “You may leave, now, Jaffar.”

“Majesty, he said that he was wrong…”

“Leave!” I pointed to the door. “Leave the valley immediately!” I shouted.

To my shame, I began to weep, tears from a woman who had promised herself that she'd never cry about him again.

“He said he would wait five years…”

I took a step forward and slapped him. “No more! Why did you come here, you bastard?”

He bowed, his face a picture of shock and embarrassment. “I’m very sorry, Majesty. I had no idea this would cause you such pain. I owed him a large favor. Please forgive me. I’ll leave now.” He strode rapidly away, out through the arches of the main entrance.

Four hundred pairs of eyes in the hall followed his progress until he passed from sight. Then they turned towards me, but too late; I had already fled through a side door. There was some rage to work off before I was fit to meet my guests again.

Franco caught me in the garden, halfway back to our apartments. I had stopped crying by then, but still remaining was the kind of anger that makes a person grit her teeth and grind.

He stopped me by moving in front and taking my hands. “By the Gods,” he said when he saw my face. “What happened, Dana?”

I looked up in fury, for the moment, incapable of warmth. “Ketrick.” I spat the name. “After twenty years, the arrogant rhadus decides he wants to apologize. I had his apology burned sight unseen, and threw out his messenger.”

“I saw.” My husband searched my eyes. “You must still hate him, or…”

I laughed harshly. “It’s hate! But — long ago... The messenger just brought it all back for a moment.” I nodded at his concern and strained to seem normal. “Really. I’ll be fine. I just need to cool down. I’ll wash up and be back as soon as I can.”

“I could help you cool down.”

I smiled as nicely as I could; it was a decent gesture from a man who usually brolled me as a duty. “Thank you, but this is one of the few times I’m not in that kind of mood. I’ll be back tonight in time for the festivities. Oh.” I grimaced and told him what I'd said to Katrina.

He absorbed that more easily than I thought, only closing his eyes for a moment. “She had to know sooner or later. How is she?”

“You would have been proud of her. I’m still her mother and you’re still her father.” I answered his unspoken question. “Don’t worry. I didn’t say anything about Stefan, and I won’t.”

“Very good. I’ll talk to Kat later. Whatever our differences, she is not one of them.” He paused before leaving me to return to the celebration. “Take whatever time you need.”

I watched him go. Moments like that only reminded me of how far we had fallen. Over the last several years we’d stopped trying. We might have hated each other except for the bonds of respect and the love for our children. Falling out of love with me would have hurt much worse otherwise. Somehow, through it all, we’d remained friends.

I made it back to our apartments without crying. When Wanda saw me, she opened her arms to me. I took them gratefully, holding the smaller woman as she held me. After twenty years with me, she was far more than a slave.

I separated, wiping my eyes on a napkin. “Wanda, you must tell me when you want to leave me for a master. You can’t be completely pleased to serve a woman.”

“Yes, Mistress,” she replied. It was all she ever said when I told her that. “Mistress, what’s wrong?”

“Ketrick. He sent a messenger to apologize.” I started to unhook my finery and Wanda moved forward to help.

“Twenty years does seem a long time for an apology, Mistress. He is a proud man.”

“I never wanted to hear from him again. Bring me my practice kit.”

“Yes, Mistress. I’ll run a hot bath for you, too.”

I donned the short shift she brought me and looped the leather belt around my waist. Then I went for the spear.

I was halfway into my second set when I heard the door open. Wanda hadn’t announced anyone, so I assumed it wasn’t important. I cared little at that point, engrossed in the discipline and freedom of dance of death, which suited my mood perfectly. I whirled, spinning the blade and thrust into a man with a rugged face, then spun to skewer his twin from my knees. After dispatching that bastard, I rolled and spun the blade in a deadly arc from the floor, hamstringing another.

Immediately, I started a third, even more ambitious set, pouring hot rage into every move, stabbing and blocking furiously against multiple attackers. This was my own set adopted from the ancient master, Meridian, who taught a style based primarily on speed, anticipation, and supple, willowy movement, which my woman’s body possessed in abundance.

“Aaaeeeiii!” I cried, leaping into a back kick to the face, twisting my body in mid-air to block a likely strike from a sword. I landed in a roll and nasty whirl of the blade to keep another attacker at bay. I had just leaped to my feet from my back, when a familiar voice penetrated my world of cold steel and hatred.

“Mother?” Stefan asked in disbelief.

I whirled so fast my tail wrapped around my mouth, and I had to spit hairs before flinging the mass over my back.

Stefan stood close to the door, his black eyes large and staring. Beside him stood Katrina, her hand politely over her mouth covering her shock; and Kim, her arms folded, watching me with interest.

I cleared my throat, and willed my hands to unclench the spear. “Well, this is a surprise. I was just getting a little exercise,” I explained, as I placed the spear back in its holder on the wall.

I found Wanda standing inconspicuously in the corner, and fixed her with a hot glare.

“I’m sorry, Mistress,” she said mournfully, assuming the slave pose, ‘sorrow.’ “I should have called you when they arrived. Please, beat me.”

Part of me felt like doing exactly that; I was sure she’d done it deliberately. “What brings you here, children?” I asked as sweetly as I could.

Katrina recovered first. “You told me to get Kim and ask her about what we had discussed. When I came back, you were gone.”

“Father asked me to come cheer you up,” Stefan said. He shook his head in amazement. “Mother, I had no idea you were so good. Watching you is like seeing the old stories come to life.”

Wanda handed me a robe. What I wore wasn’t much less revealing than a slave tunic and sweat made it more so. It is a paradox that once a male has been weaned, his mother’s breasts, once a familiar sight, become forever forbidden to his view.

Wrapping the robe around me, I said, “Thank you, Stefan. But seeing me with the spear was a mistake, I think.” I showed him my best “I mean it” look. “Don’t tell your father.”

“If you want, but you were great, Mom. Would you show me how you fought Lord Alfredo?”

I looked to the ceiling. My son wanted me to demonstrate how I’d killed a man. “I’ll do it if you promise not to tell your father. Now go. I’m cheered-up now.” And strangely enough, I was. Stefan had been proud of me. The secret of the spear, part of my darker side, was out in the open -- and through no fault of my own.

Perhaps I won’t beat Wanda after all.

“Mother, you looked so angry,” Kat exclaimed after Stefan had left. “What happened in the hall?”

“A message from a man I knew long ago. I shouldn’t have let it bother me.”

She smiled, as if recollecting a sweet romance. “Ah, you must be referring to your old consort, Ketrick. I’ve heard from some of the ladies that he was very attractive.”

I frowned. “Don’t you have someplace to go, Kat?”

“Why, yes, I do,” she replied brightly.

Kim turned to her. “Katrina, I’ll meet you downstairs in the waiting room. Don’t start without me.”

“I’ll wait for you.” She left, leaving just the two of us.

“Dana, do you want to talk about it?”

“It was a long time ago; Kat was right, it was Ketrick.”

She nodded. “You must have loved him very much. Your performance was — dramatic. Your son is correct. I’ve never seen a woman as skilled with the spear.”

“Years of practice.”

She pointed towards a large board in the corner. “From the chewed-up places, I’d say that you practice with knives.”

“You know I have a knife with me wherever I go.”

“Do you mind if we throw some knives while we talk? I find it relaxes me; I was reckoned fairly good when I was with the guards.”

“Sure.” I pulled out the target and had Wanda bring out the drawer of throwing knives, all copies of the one I carried on my calf.

“I remember seeing you with Ketrick at the palace once or twice. A handsome man, very self-assured. It was a surprise when you got rid of him, and in a very surprising way if the rumors are true.”

I motioned for her to start. She threw. The blade stuck, but barely, at an angle about two feet away under the large red circle.

“I loved him, Kim, and then I found out that he had betrayed me. I whipped him with the lash and then exiled him -- you know, the usual end to a love tale between a queen and her consort. Now after two decades, he sends me an apology.” I threw. Mine went hard and solid into the red, about six inches away from dead center.

“Which you had destroyed immediately, I understand. He went to a lot of trouble to apologize and you didn’t even read what he had to say. That’s not like you.” Her second throw was better, striking the target just below the red.

“Have you ever loved someone so much that their betrayal cuts too deep? His messenger told me the gist of his apology, anyway. Ketrick admits that he was wrong and he wants me back.” My second throw went two inches to the right of my first.

Her purple eyes regarded me closer than I liked, but it was her way. “It would help if you told me how he betrayed you.” She took careful aim this time and threw. It flew straight and true, about four inches into the red.

I shook my head. “Too personal.” I threw hard and accurate, missing dead center by an inch.

“Hmm. All right, Dana. Is it possible to say that he didn’t look at whatever he did as a betrayal? If so, then you may have a sincere difference of opinion.” She threw again. She lacked my power, but her blade stuck firmly, just above my first throw.

“He claims that he thought he was doing the right thing, but he’s a master manipulator. I couldn’t ever be sure that his apology was the entire truth, and I’d have to believe for it to have meaning.” I grew angry. “Damn it, Kim, the rhadus sent me an apology and told me he’d wait five years for me, knowing that I’m the Queen and married! Can you believe the arrogance of the bastard? It’s over, I tell you!” I imagined his face in the center of the target, and threw again, harder, this time nailing it dead center, the blade quivering so hard it hummed.

She raised her eyebrow and gave me a lengthy look. “Then life is long. You’re nearly as good with the knives as the short spear, Dana.”

“You aren’t so bad yourself, especially considering that they were my knives. I should thank you for helping me with Kat.”

She smiled. “No trouble at all. I like Kat, and, who knows, I might meet someone tonight, maybe even fall for a merchant or warrior and move to some romantic foreign city.”

She’d said it lightly, but I hadn’t seen her with a man for many months, and before that, only rarely. “I wish you happiness, Kim, wherever you can find it.”

“You wouldn’t mind me moving out of the valley?”

“I’ve played matchmaker for years with outsiders. I’d be a hypocrite if I said there aren’t advantages to men in other cities. What kind of man are you looking for?”

“I want a strong man,” she said, distantly, as if seeing a form in her mind. “He must be a leader whose men would follow anywhere; courageous and true; but not just a warrior, an intelligent man with other interests besides his blades and twyll.”

“Well, that last leaves out 95% of the warrior class.”

She smiled; it was nearly as true as it was a joke. “Most of all, I want him to understand and value me for who I am. I know that I’m not like most women. I have gifts that are hard to see, but I would complement him, a slow burn to a hot fire.” She blushed hard. “My heart and body would be his. Do you know where I might find such a man?”

I thought for a minute and reluctantly shook my head. “You ask for a lot from Tulem. Warrior leaders like that aren’t common and are as generally demanding of their women as of their men. Anyway, the real leaders here are the aristocracy, and even if they considered a mundane woman seriously, their idea of a woman is well known.”

“So, I do well to look outside the valley?”

“Probably. Tulem is static; other cities are more in flux. Leaders rise and fall every day on merit and luck, and women generally have more varied roles.”

“That follows what I’ve been thinking as well. Then I will look outside. And what if I succeeded, Dana? Would you miss me?”

“I’d miss you, but it would be worth it to think of you squealing with joy beneath a man.”

She showed me a small smile. “I see that you’re feeling better. I’ll see you when you come down.”

After she was gone I redid the third set and the fourth. Instead of anger, I finished them in serenity, the kind that comes when the mind is free from concerns, or at least, when those concerns are clear. Despite several incidents that might have been disasters: telling Kat that she wasn’t genetically mine, Ketrick’s apology, and revealing my violent side to my children, the day had freed me.

Kat knew about Lady Katrina, and my daughter still loved me, even respected me a little more, if I knew her. Ketrick had brought up old passions. I still loved him — I couldn’t deny it any longer -- but I could live with the knowledge and use it constructively; someday I would love again. The vision of me in a thin, sweat-soaked, scandalously revealing shift whirling a blade before my children made me grimace, but also laugh. I was good. They hadn’t seen a woman stumbling around, shrieking and stabbing the air like some colossal fool; they had seen me at my best. They hadn’t laughed; they'd accepted it as a part of me.

From deep within the warmth of the bath, I leaned back and smiled.
 
 

To Be Continued…

 
I hope that you liked this chapter. There was a lot that went on here, although much of it won't be apparent until later. The next chapter has a fair amount of action, as Tyra breaks out of her shell in a big way and starts events moving towards the conclusion. ~Aardvark



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