The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 30

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

A willing pupil for a dangerous game. A January - June romance, or let's keep it in the family. A power meeting with the Slavers Guild. Explaining to Daphne her new position in life. Nikolai's night ride is abbreviated. A last night in the palace is bittersweet. Tyra meets Kim in the garden and explains.


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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 30
 
 
It had been more than three weeks since I'd returned to Tulem. As dusk settled into evening, I met Franco for what was to be the last time in Ann's body. Franco preferred me that way, smaller and more controllable, and the extra pounds I'd put on to make the transformation easier didn't affect his ardor. When it was over, he kissed me with more passion than he usually did, and then rolled to the side with a sigh.

“Thank you,” he said.

“I should be thanking you. That was well done.”

“I meant, thank you for being nice to Daphne. You've been good for her, although I have to say that your relationship is unorthodox.”

“It serves all our purposes. Daphne needs discipline and a chance to get her confidence back. She reminds me of Kat a few years ago, needing a nudge in the right direction from time to time. Mainly, I tell her how a Queen should behave. Then she tries it, and we repeat as necessary. When she succeeds I compliment her. We’re getting to know each other very well.”

He grunted. “She does go on about you,” he said.

I grinned. “Worried that she's becoming my acolyte? I like the way she's shaping up, but don't worry, you're the King and her lover. I'm only the Queen and her big sister.” I poked him in the side in a place that made him jump. “I’ll be glad to get my body back. I can’t wait until Daphne sees me with the spear.”

He looked over to see if I was serious. “You are not going to teach her that.”

“Why, of course not, My Lord.”

That morning, Lees’n injected me with Ruk’s Serum I’d brought from Batuk, and I sunk into a dreamless slumber. When I opened my eyes, Lees’n was there again, dressed in different clothing. Daphne stood to the other side, her hand over her child, and Wanda stood at the foot of the bed. I formed a smile to reassure Daphne that all was well.

Lees'n asked me a few questions to make sure that I was all right, then left. I was ravenous. The ten pounds I'd forced into Ann's body hadn't been nearly enough to fill me out, and my body was letting me know it. I ordered Wanda to bring me something from the kitchen, then shuffled to the bathroom.

My breasts were smaller, and my arms were slimmer than I liked. I was too thin but not emaciated.

“I’d forgotten that you were originally blonde -- it seems so long ago,” Daphne said, coming to my side.

I nodded, remembering. Being Drago's slave was nearly a half-lifetime ago. In the mirror, standing side by side, even with Daphne's baby, different hair and eyes, we looked alike, too close to be cousins. I pulled on my nightgown and collapsed into a chair by the balcony, just as Wanda returned with a plate piled high with sausages, eggs, and pastries. I snatched a roll and waved it at my “sister.” ”You know, we can never be seen together again, not like this.”

Daphne nodded sadly. “I know. Will you be staying here, then?”

“Yes. You’ll be Queen for a while longer. You know me well by now. Keep on what you’re doing and the transition will be seamless.”

“I can do this, Dana,” she replied, proud of my confidence in her, “and if I have any questions, I’ll ask you.”

I was proud of her, too. She'd made a horrible mistake, but Daphne, the sweet girl I'd known years ago had emerged again, this time with a little more strength, and for good — I hoped..

***

After my strength returned, I asked to see Stefan. When Wanda let him through, I watched him walk towards me, trying to ignore that he was my son and see him through Ann’s eyes. He was nearly as tall as his father. His wore his clothes well, confidently. Youth-lean, his arms, shoulders, and legs were formed from weapons practice, which he took seriously — he was handsome.

His boyish face hadn't quite developed the character of a man, although his bearing told a different tale: only a trace of nervousness marred the impression of a young man capable beyond his years. That part of it was understandable, though; he must have known why I called him.

By the Goddess, when I worked in the Queen's Cup, young men my son's age took me, and well. Ashtar, help me do right this day.

Stefan grinned when he saw me. “You look like a Borodin, Mother, but at least you're not Ann anymore.”

“And never again.” Now that her name had been aired, it was easier to start. “Stefan, you’re going to have to be honest with me. How do you feel about Ann?”

He was ready for it and barely flinched. “I love her, Mother.”

I rolled my eyes skyward. Oh, Goddess.

“I know the arguments,” he said before I could say anything. “I haven’t reached my majority; Ann is more than two hundred years older than I am; she’s a mundane and I’m a noble. Did I miss anything?”

“As it stands, I’d say that it’s an impressive list! Your majority is less than two years from now. Can’t you wait that long to think about it?”

“I’d wait much longer if I knew that she’d be there for me. You spoke to her last. What did she say about me -- about us?”

I sighed. “You know, I really thought I’d be discussing romance with Kat first. Ann isn’t as rash as you are. Yes, she cares for you — but what did you expect? You know what saving a serum girl’s life does to her.”

“What does it do to her?” he inquired, as innocent as a puppy.

The blood rushed to my face. I'd forgotten that it might not be common knowledge in a city with so few serum girls. Well, you asked for it, Tyra. “There's nothing better for a natural slave than to have a brave man risk his life for her. It makes her melt inside; she feels protected and owned -- in a wonderful way.”

“Owned?” he said, knotting his brow in confusion. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“It’s … it’s a feminine quality, a … never mind. It’s a powerful emotion.”

Stefan looked away uneasily. “Mother, I didn’t really save Ann, whatever she thinks.”

“You would have rushed in to save her, and if I hadn't been there, you would have rescued her, risking becoming a serum girl for her, and I told her so.”

“I don’t feel heroic. I didn't actually do anything. But if I had, it would have been because it had to be done. Father agreed with me.”

His words brought back a old hurt I'd thought long buried. He wouldn't even be talking to me now if Ann wasn't so thoroughly my responsibility. Franco was his guiding light, not me. He and I had never discussed it: it was simply expected that as the boy, Stefan was his, as Katrina was mine. As he grew, I never knew the ties that bound a father to a son. As a woman, I couldn't give him what he needed. I couldn't lift my skirts and march out onto the practice field to correct his form with the sword or spear, and I certainly couldn't talk about my boyhood, give him advice on freewomen, or the ways to judge siolat girls.

I could only be his mother, and try to be an example of what a woman should be. It gnawed at me, although it shouldn't have. Being a mother was important, and after twenty years of being Katrina's mother, any resentment for losing so much with Stefan smacked of selfishness or hypocrisy.

I didn't know what I could have complained about. Franco had been a fine father, and Stefan had grown to be the kind of man Herth Tarr had approved of: "... men who do what needs to be done without thinking of the consequences."

Stefan broke into my thoughts then: "I want to see her again, and she wants to see me. Does anything else really matter?”

At his age, I was chasing priestesses.

“I’ve scheduled a meeting with the Slavers Guild. I won't tell you where she is until the Guild and I come to terms, and then only if Ann says it's all right.”

“I would never risk her life,” he said gravely, as noble and pure as any aristocrat in a romance tale.

I could only shake my head. “You two are a pair of love-sick fools. I have reservations about this, Stefan. I think it’s an infatuation, but I’d rather you find out about it sooner than later.”

“Then you will allow us to see each other?” he asked, his eyes widening in triumph.

“If your father knew what I was doing he’d throw me from the balcony,” I muttered. “When it’s safe, I’ll write her, giving her permission to write you. She is the adult. You'll abide by what she says.”

“Whatever she says, then,” he said, sure of himself and that Ann would reply the way of his dreams. Remembering the look on Ann’s face, he was probably right.

***

That evening, I colored my hair brown, dabbed some brown paste on my face and hands, and wrote myself a pass, stamping it with the Queen’s seal. I left the palace grounds and took a short walk three block west. The Borodin compound was the Giovanni equivalent, similar in size and structure: high gray walls, only two entrances with massive gates, and a courtyard. In some ways it was more secure than a castle. The streets all around were lit at night, and a force of any size would be instantly discovered. Even if I had a crack squad of Eagles’ finest, I wouldn’t have tried to get inside. Nikolai lived there.

The first key to a successful assassination, Ketrick once told me, is knowing where the target is at a particular time. The second is the means to exploit the knowledge. The third is deniability.

Over the years, the palace had observed suspicious men outside the palace grounds; it was also likely that one or two on the inside informed to someone outside. It was the reason why, as Queen, I'd rarely gone anywhere without three guards around me.

Nikolai had also been watched, although Franco had nothing to do with it. Off and on over the years, Wanda and occasionally, I, had casually observed Nikolai’s compound. Even without any known enemies, Nikolai had been cautious with his movements, but not perfect. Certain patterns had appeared, usually minor, sometimes disappearing then reemerging.

The next five days, from early evening to middle evening, Wanda and I watched the compound's gates.

Nikolai liked to ride at night, always taking two guards. He left soon after dinner, breaking from one compound gate or another, although not every night, returning in the same random way. The rides varied in length, often drastically, due to several different routes he normally took. This was nothing new: he had done this for years. Inside the compound I’d always thought he was invulnerable, outside, his unpredictability and a few guards had been his protection.

An old pattern we’d noted years before seemed to have returned. After that, I had gained too much weight, and looked too much like the Queen to risk leaving the palace, but now that I knew what to look for, I sent Wanda out for a brief trip every night to verify what we thought we knew.

We had the first key. Normally it wouldn’t have been a big step forward but, for the first time, if everything went well, I had a chance at keys two and three.

***

Shortly before the agreed upon time came, I adjusted the pillow over my stomach, strapping it several different ways before I was satisfied. My hair and eyes were black again, at least for the day. After a month of eating double meals and exercising, I'd gained back most of what I’d lost. I went down the list, trying to remember if I'd missed anything. The four guards I’d selected were at the palace gate. Wanda had the letters to mail if I didn’t return from the meeting with the men from the Slavers Guild..

“Are you all right?” Daphne asked.

I shouldn't have been close to shaking, but everything hinged on the outcome of this meeting. It had to go the way I hoped it would.

“Of course I am,” I said with cool assurance. “How do I look?” I asked her, giving her my profile.

“Like a pregnant queen about seven months along. I thought I saw worry. Are you sure that I can't help? Maybe Franco...”

“Absolutely not. This is my affair, and I'll see you before dinner.” I waved blithely to her as I walked towards the door.

I headed downstairs, making sure to go slowly because of my “condition.” I picked up the guards on their horses at the palace gate and rode in the carriage that waited for me outside. Abul’s was only two blocks away, but presence was all important.

The coach pulled up to the curb. The coachman opened the door and helped me descend. I gave it a good show for the slavers who must have been watching inside. I'd worked up a foul mood on the way, and with my face lacking any trace of pity, I followed my guards into Abul the slaver’s store, and glared at its three inhabitants. Abul stood to the right, out of the way. Ydren Plade was a man from the South with skin like strong tea and a mouth so compressed it might have been a slash. He liked his black leathers shiny and sat with a posture like a coiled snake. Fera Ramsey wore his white hair stuck out in all directions, a disconcerting style resembling the spikes of a flail. His clever eyes roamed my body in a way possibly calculated to keep a lady off-balance. I ignored him. From what Pel had said, Ydren was the man to talk to.

I sent my guards outside and composed myself into a chair about a dozen feet away.

“Master Slavers Plade and Ramsey, you know who I am. Our business is compatible. To an intelligent person, our mutual strengths and weaknesses should be clear. I want you to leave my family, friends, acquaintances, everyone, alone. They don’t have the information you seek. In return, Scholar Ann and I, the only two people who know the secret to stay free, will pledge to keep it.”

“Queen Dana,“ Plade began, his voice pitched higher than his appearance would indicate. “We need more than a pledge: we need to have the secret itself. We couldn’t possibly allow…”

“You must think I’m a fool. You have no choice, you idiots. I can destroy the Guild, and I will if you force me to.”

Abul cleared his throat before Plade could erupt. “In my opinion, she means it. Queen Dana is not opposed to the Guild, in principal, and I believe she can be trusted to keep her word.”

Help from Abul? It wasn't likely. He could have been there only to advise. I gave him a nod anyway.

“Of course I'd keep my word. The knowledge is too dangerous for Zhor. My guarantee? If the secret leaks, then our value ends, and you would be free to hunt us down and murder us. But try to kill or steal either of us first, and I will make sure that the secret is spread far and wide, a neat way of ensuring a bargain. I think.”

They quibbled and argued a number of points, most of them designed to allow them to know where we were, so they might take us together at some convenient time, force us to divulge how we had planned to disseminate the knowledge, and then kill us. It was so transparent and contemptuous that I didn't bother to reply. After a time, Plade and Ramsey huddled in a corner to argue, then returned.

“Agreed,” Plade said, his face impassive.

“Excellent.” I awarded them a half-smile. It was everything I could have hoped for — originally.

This is for you, Kat, for reminding me where my ultimate duty lies, and for Ann, Lady Katrina, Sephram, and those poor farmers, and Goddess, help me, I think I'm going to enjoy this.

I push myself to my feet and glared. ”Now it’s time for the rest of it, you goat-brolling bastards! Time to pay your debt for murdering four Tulem subjects and for torturing Scholar Ann.”

“What?” Plade dropped his cool slaver cockiness like a hot girl into a pelt. “You can’t expect the Guild to pay for what renegades do, and who, by the way, are already dead.”

I glanced at Abul, who seemed to have grown a sudden fondness for a display of slave manacles on the far wall. Abruptly, it made sense. Abul had reason to pretend that Elsbeth was dead. If the Slavers Guild knew that she was still alive, they would have demanded her return, and if that happened, Elsbeth would have told them about Abul’s cooperation with us when we saved Ann.

I put my hands on my hips and laughed. This was even better! They wouldn’t know how much I knew about them or how.

“Don’t insult my intelligence. I have sources in the Slavers Guild. I know for a fact that you two were personally involved. The restitution will be your lives, or you will do me a service. Don’t think to bargain with me. Your position is pathetically weak: I could kill you now, and then make the same deal you just made with your superiors.”

Plade shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Lunacy!”

“Justice -- of a sort. As you kidnapped Ann, you shall take a man for me. I’ll make him a serum girl, whom you will train and sell. Do it, and I’ll let you live.”

They hesitated too long. I went on, angrier now. “You could have met with me earlier; instead you tried to kill us. You chose this way; I’m finishing it. Decide your fate now. Guards!” I yelled.

The four burst into the room, hands on hilts. I pointed to Plade and Ramsey. “These two men are considering whether they should kill me. Draw your swords.” They did so, bewildered, but ready to obey their Queen. “Kill them on the count of three!” The two closest drew back their blades, preparing to lunge into their hearts.

This was the time to be hard. Ann’s image in the farmhouse when we found her tortured, sliced, and barely alive sustained me. I didn’t care at that moment whether the slavers lived or died; if they died, then at least one set of murderers would get their reward. To men used to gauging the nuance of a woman’s intimate desires, my intentions were as clear as a lash across the face. “One!” The guards positioned the blades sideways, that they might pass easily between the ribs. “Two!” They tensed, flexing for the final thrust. “Thr…”

“Wait! Wait!” Plade screamed for both of them, which was well for Ramsey, whose mouth had dropped speechless in disbelief.

“Hold!” I shouted to my guards. When all was calm again, I sniffed a stench. Urine dribbled under Ramsey’s leathers, collecting in a small pool by his boot. I looked at him, disgusted. “You had better not be wasting my time,” I said through my teeth. “The next time I won’t stop it.”

“All right! We’ll do what you want!” Plade shouted.

I sent the guards back outside then turned back to them.

“Send me a team within a fortnight. I will inform them of their mark. And don’t think you can avoid it by running away, “ I said, concentrating on Plade, judging him to be the greater weasel. “If you take too long, I will seek out your superiors. For putting them in this position, I wouldn’t have to find you; they would deliver your suren to me in a bowl. Go now,” I said, dismissing them with a flick of the hand.

They departed Abul’s without a word. Plade slipped me a backwards glance, but it was flaccid with fear.

After I cautioned Abul to remain quiet about the matter, I chose a serum from his selection, a pretty girl that reminded me of a small Borodin woman. I insisted on paying for it, although Abul did his best to give it to me. I left the way I came.

By the time I made it to the coach, my hands were shaking. To the Slavers Guild, I was now a ruthless bitch. Maybe I was, but I was reasonably sure what I did was necessary. The only way to prove that I was ruthless enough to threaten the Guild was to be ruthless. Kat was right: the slavers had to punished. I couldn't be sure enough about the details to be certain the slavers deserved to die, but there were few penalties more humiliating to a slaver than forcing him to do a serum girl’s dirty work.

***

While waiting for Plade and Ramsey to assemble a team, I spent hours a day writing descriptions of everyone I had ever met in the palace, my relationship to them, and the story of my life in Tulem after I became the Queen.

Ten days after the meeting at Abul’s, I received a sealed message in the Guilds black paper. I sliced the silver seals. Inside, it had a single word written in white, “ready.” I sent Wanda to deliver a message to Abul with the name and appropriate details.

It was time for the rest of it. When I told her that she would be the Queen soon, she seemed nervous at first:

“Ashtar, Holy Mother!”

“I can hardly believe that you're complaining. Wasn't this why you became pregnant in the first place?”

“No! Well, yes, but it wasn't that way. Dana ... Dana, you have to believe me. The way you looked, the way you acted, I didn't think you were coming back. When you returned, I knew it was over.”

She looked in such agony, I put my arm around her. “It's all right. I'm not angry, especially now. Go on, tell me the rest.”

“I was the Queen for a time -- at least I thought so. I understand, now, that I was in more danger than I thought. The differences between us, eventually they would have given me away.”

“Maybe. Likely. Those looks you were getting would have turned to suspicion. One day, someone would have tested you, and then the whole affair would have come tumbling down like a house of sticks in a storm. You lost sight of your goal. You forgot that you were imitating me and became Queen Daphne.”

“You … that's why ... that’s why you wanted me to act like you. Goddess! You were training me to be you.”

“It's the price you'll pay to be Queen in my place. For a long time, years, you'll have to be me in public. My friends will be yours, and my enemies. It would be best for now to forget that Daphne existed. You won't be able to let on to any of your friends, Lady Gwen, Adonna, Randalynn — no one.”

“That's...”

“Cruel? Would you like me to find someone else to be Queen? You could go back to being Franco's mistress. Your child would never be a prince or princess, only a bastard, and a scandal. It's up to you. Of course, Franco may not be too hap...”

“Stop! I'm not as strong as you are, Dana,” she wailed, covering her ears.

“Maybe not, but you've proven that you're strong enough. Do what you've been doing. The papers I've been writing have everything you'll need. After a few weeks or months being me will be second nature, and you can always be yourself in private. By the way, don't say a word of this to Franco. I want to tell him myself.”

It wasn't hard to tell where her thoughts were. Her hand went to her stomach where her baby grew, imagining him or her in royal colors. She was aware that I was using her, so she didn't thank me, but after a while, she gave me a hug. “Be well, big sister, wherever you're going.”

“Thank you.” I left her to her thoughts. I was sure that she would be strong enough. Her child would keep her on course, and sooner or later she would figure out that, unlike a mistress, Franco would need her as much as she needed him. It would grate on his nerves, but he would ensure that Daphne behaved like me, for if she were exposed, then he would no longer be King.

After years of being Queen Dana, I wondered if she would become the part to any great degree. Would Daphne ever be a strong woman on her own? I didn't know, but I didn't think that Franco would ever forget who his wife used to be.

***

It was the second night of waiting, and this time, everything was falling into place. The signal we’d waited for had come ten minutes before from a rooftop in the city five miles away. If his pattern held, Nikolai would be traveling this route tonight. I sat behind a bush, by an empty house not too far from what I still thought of as Alexander’s Castle. I wore dull black pants and a loose blouse. Ordain, the assassin leader, had told me to stay beside him, keep still, and to keep my voice down, and that was fine with me.

“Dredge, Mouth, Worm, move forward into position,” Ordain ordered in a heavy whisper.

Three shapes slipped forward in the darkness like lizards in the grass, slithering towards the trees lining the road, joining the other two, Slice and Eyeball.

It was almost funny: the assassins had field names that were inside jokes, but I refused to ask any of them what they were.

“They should be here in a couple of minutes,” Ordain said. “Our clients must really like you to order this mark. Tulem is a deep hole to get out of; costs extra.”

“I guess.”

He chuckled. “You don’t like assassins, do you?”

“Since I’m benefiting from your services, I suppose you’d call me a hypocrite if I said no. I don’t care. The Overlords are wrong; the Assassins Guild should be disbanded.”

He shrugged. “We keep things neat and tidy. Some say that using the Guild is just a logical extension of power. We can’t be all bad: you wouldn’t believe how many girls go slick when they know who we are.” He took a second to wink at me, his cool gray eyes twinkling in the light of the half-moon.

“Women are unfathomable. Understanding yourself is hard enough.”

“A woman who quotes Herth Tarr,” he grunted. “What a world.” Pressing his hand against my shoulder, he said, “Here they come.” He gave a last look to the road in both directions. “Good timing, and the road is clear. Excellent.” He brought a reed to his lips and blew, producing a warbling like a Fret bird, but an octave higher.

I heard them, a slow, rolling gallop, before I saw them. On this quiet night, voices carried like ghosts. I strained to discern Nikolai among them, but it wasn’t quite light enough. A rope, colored and textured to match the road, lay on the ground between two trees. When the men arrived, three horses abreast, the man in the middle came into the clear for an instant, and my heart pounded. It was Nikolai. It all started with a snap, as the rope was pulled taut. The horses whinnied and bucked as the rope pressed high against their chests. Three assassins swept from positions in the trees behind them, and fired their bolts in metallic twangs, killing the two guards instantly. Somehow Nikolai shrugged off two lassos before they could pull him to the ground..

“Crap,” Ordain muttered, grabbing the single-hand crossbow by his side and running towards the road.

I wasn't happy about it either: the assassins had no horses nearby, and if Nikolai could find a way out of the trap it would be nearly impossible to stop him. Just when I thought they would catch him anyway, Nikolai won free, galloping through the trees by the road. Shouting and lashing his mount from side to side, he pounded across the field towards the nearest village.

But he would have to make it past us.

Nikolai spotted Ordain’s running shadow, and swept past him with an acrobatic wheel and dash that would have done the cavalry proud. The assassin fired his crossbow, wounded Nikolai in the upper arm, but the small weapon lacked the power to knock him from his horse, and only made him cry out in pain.

Damn it!

My dress was in a bag beside me. I shook it free on the run and whirled it like a cloak, tossing it at the horse’s head, confounding him in the night shadows. Already terrified, he reared up in panic, giving me time to go for my calf-knife. With everything moving in the dark, I wasn’t sure if I should throw it at Nikolai and risk all if I missed, or at the horse, and only injure him.

I ran towards them, jumping, dancing from side to side, and shrieking my head off -- anything to keep the horse confused and busy. I made it close enough to stick the poor beast in the hindquarters as he ducked and turned, and then one of the men ensnared Nikolai with a lasso from behind. With a jerk and a lean, he was on the ground, yelling and cursing, until another bound and gagged him.

Ordain stood facing his crew, his hands clenched in fury. “You Gods-damned, sheep-loving shit-cluster!” Then he whirled on me. “Why did you have to scream like that?”

I was about to curse him for his ingratitude when he gestured me quiet.

“That was excessive,” he said, fairness winning out over the humiliation that, I, an outsider -- and a woman -- had just saved their suren. “You stopped the horse, but you screamed like you were being pack-raped. The villagers might have heard you. If they did, they’ll be here soon.” He nodded behind me. “I can give you two minutes with him, but no more. Curse him, gloat, or do whatever you want to do, but do it fast.”

The assassins worked quickly, cleaning the area and dumping the bodies into prepared shallow graves. One rode one of the guards’ horses and tied a leash to Nikolai’s horse, which limped, now, but wasn’t incapacitated. The horses would be found later, tied up outside a well-known siolat tavern in the southern side of the city. Rumors would be spread that lord Nikolai had gone wenching, which he sometimes did, creating enough confusion that the gates would not be closed the next morning, at least not until the assassins, who had entered the valley as traders, were gone with their pelt-wrapped cargo.

I regarded Nikolai. He didn't bother to look around, just squirmed frantically. I found that once he was at my feet, despite all that had happened, I could only pity the rhadus. Helpless, he was an enemy no longer, just an evil man bound with cords and struggling in the grass. After so many years, the end would be less sweet revenge than executing a sentence.

I spoke then. “Your mistake was riding different horses, in case you were wondering. You always took the gray for the longest ride. As soon as you left your compound we knew where you were going.”

He recognized my voice and spun around in panic. I pulled the syringe from my purse and held it up to the light. He eyes expanded to bright blue circles within white.

“Just so you know, this is for Lady Katrina and Sephram.” I pushed the needle into his uninjured arm as he screamed through his gag, and I squeezed the plunger.

Holding his shoulder with my hand, I tried to steady him.

“You’re lucky, Nikolai; Ruk’s Serum is more than you deserve, and you won’t mind being a slave girl.”

From the way he thrashed, he didn't believe me.

“You will enjoy being dominated by men, and I do not begrudge you that, although some in my position would. You may as well relax; you’re already changing; in three days you’ll be a petite blonde with a perky pair of breasts.”

With an immense force of will, he slowed his exertions until the only signs of his anguish, the maelstrom that must surely be spinning in his mind, were unnaturally deep breathing and the wild cast of his eyes, which he latched onto me in fury. Very deliberately, he moved his jaw up and down.

“Would you like to say something?” I asked.

He nodded.

“All right, but don’t cry out, or the gag goes right back.” Pulling his head up, I loosened the cord that held the cloth in his mouth.

“You’re a Gods damned serum girl slut!” he croaked as soon as his tongue was free.

I had hoped for something more profound. “Yes, I’m a serum girl slut, and soon, you’ll be one, too.”

“Someday, I’ll make sure people know what you did to me! I’ll talk and people will listen! I’ll have my revenge, you…”

I retied his gag, cutting off a stream of curses. It was possible that Nikolai could make trouble. An easily swayed master might listen to her, believe she had been wronged, and tell the Borodins that Queen Dana had made him a serum girl. It wouldn’t affect me, but it could hurt Daphne, and I couldn’t allow that.

“Nikolai, you’d have to resist the slave trainers very hard to retain your personality.” I shook my head as if the idea were ludicrous and humorous in the extreme, then eased his locks into place as if he were already a girl. “But we both know how weak you are; you would have no chance at all.”

He willed me dead with his gaze; his only goal now was to prove me wrong. With that resolve, his destiny was sealed: when the slave trainers trained Nikolai, his own stubbornness and fight would ensure that the girl who emerged would be much different than the man we knew. Broken at every turn, his resistance lashed into obedience, he would become a happy slave girl. From that base, she would eventually form a personality completely changed from the old, possibly finding a love master someday, but Nikolai would never hurt anyone again.

***

When I crawled into bed late that night, Franco was still awake. He wanted to brol me, and I wasn't unwilling. The excitement of the evening had my body begging for relief, but I couldn’t let him go without knowing any longer.

“Franco, I have something I must tell you,” I said as he reached for me.

I told him what I’d planned with Daphne, and how well she was prepared to take my place; that I’d already said goodbye to Katrina and Stefan; and then I explained that I was leaving in the early morning.

I thought I knew him well enough. He loved Daphne; the idea of her being his Queen would outweigh all other matters. And so it proved.

He turned over on his back, hands behind his head, and looked up towards the canopy over the bed. He said nothing for a time. “I didn't know if you would do this or not, but I can't say that I'm surprised. You think that Daphne is ready?”

“Yes. She's already agreed. I also had a meeting with the Slavers Guild two weeks ago. We came to an accord. Daphne won't have to worry about them.”

“Ah, yes, the ‘discussion’ in Abul’s store. I wondered if you were going to tell me about that.”

I wasn't surprised that he knew about it. The guards would have told the Master of the Guards about nearly killing a couple of slavers. “I didn’t want to involve anyone else in that business. Anyway, the matter with the Slavers Guild is settled to my satisfaction.”

“Hasn’t everything always been?”

“Franco ... I don’t want to fight on our last night. You have Daphne; you should be happy I’m leaving.”

“Let me decide if I’m happy about it.”

I took a deep breath and covered his hand. “Right.”

“Are you going to return?”

“If I do, it won’t be as me; as soon as I ride out the gate, Daphne will wear the crown permanently. I have a suggestion. The faster the nobility continues to marry outside the valley, the more the Borodin and Giovanni blood becomes diluted. I’d encourage this trend when I’m gone. Over time, in twenty or thirty years, there could be a chance to establish a stable monarchy in the valley instead of an alternating succession.”

“I see the trend, but Nikolai would never allow it.”

“You’re right. What could I have been thinking? As long as Nikolai is around, it’s only a dream. But what a dream: King Stefan or Queen Katrina.”

He laughed. “Another queen in Tulem? Could the valley survive it?”

“Now wait. Katrina is…”

“A jest, Dana. Katrina is something like you but without the spear. She would probably be a fine queen.” He rolled over and kissed me, a long, slow kiss, more tender than usual. The urges sprang to life. “If this is to be our last night,” he said, “then I want it to be special.” He began the well-worn path to bliss, starting at my neck.

But it wasn’t what I wanted, not now.

“Wait! Can I make a suggestion?”

“Another suggestion?”

“Could you make love to me like the first time we were married, as if our whole lives were still before us, and none of this had happened?”

“Dana …” He shook his head. “No. It would be an illusion. I’ll take you the way I believe you are, and not as the woman who only existed in my mind. It’s a pleasant thought, but tonight, of all nights, we should be honest with each other. You were never the one for me. You're a woman, but inside you lives another, someone fierce and demanding, who would never let allow her husband the joy to protect the one he loves, to be the strong man she looks up to in times of need. I don't blame you for anything, Dana. You tried at one time, but a tigress does not become a cat when she is named pussy and laps cream from a bowl.”

I hurt worse than I could have imagined. I just wanted to be loved on my last night in a city that I'd called home for so many years. “Goddess, why? Why must I be me?” I whispered.

“It's all right. You just need a new start where you can leave the past behind.”

He didn’t understand, but how could he? Earlier that night, I'd fought a man, given him Ruk’s Serum, and ensured that his mind would be destroyed. And it hadn't bothered me. Ashtar, what man would want a woman like me?

“Come,” he said, turning me over easily. He held my body next to his, my breasts molding to his chest.

I liked my body. I enjoyed my soft skin and the way it felt against a man, but as a woman, I was a failure. I didn’t fit. I knew myself too well. I wouldn’t deliberately change who I was to become a “normal” woman in this world, and I wasn’t even sure if I could if I tried.

I pushed aside the bile for another time and tried to lose myself in Franco's arms. He still desired me, and that would have to be enough. I sought his lips, and he took me as he desired, the way he saw me, less than his love, yet still holding a place in his heart. The pure female responded as I usually did, as an uninhibited slut.

Wanda shook my shoulder before the sun rose, and I slipped out of bed quietly as not to awaken him. I took a quick bath, removed the dye and eye coloring, applied a darkening dye to my face and hands, and dressed quickly. I gave a last look to my spear. I wanted to take it with me, but even more, I wanted it on the wall in its accustomed place, a reminder to Daphne and Franco of who I was. One of the guards looked me oddly as we passed, because I resembled the Queen, but obviously, that could not be because I was not pregnant. Wanda and I left the palace as the people of the valley were rubbing their eyes and yawning. By the time we made it to road to Tulem’s Gate, the fog over the lake was just clearing.

There is a level cove just off the road about halfway up, where the most of the valley can be seen. Merchants used it to rest their horses before the final push to the gate; subjects leaving the valley sometimes stopped there for a last look back. We pulled into it and dismounted. The valley glowed under in the last traces of morning mist, haze obscuring the outline of the distant city. The six castles stood peacefully, guardians of the villages and fields behind them, and the placid lake between reflected the mountains. After twenty-six years of pretending this was mine, the countless lies the people I'd pretended to be and the lives I'd taken, how much of my life had been an illusion? I'd come to the valley a spy and a killer, and I was leaving like a cur, slinking away without even being able to speak my name.

Tyr spoke then, when it seemed it was a question he could answer. You did what you had to do.

It may have been the truth, but wondered if that were the whole of it. Someday, when I died, when I met the men I’d killed in the afterworld, would they spit and curse at me? “You were a woman, a nurturer, a caretaker of life! This was not your place to kill us. We deny you honor!”

So, be it. I was never in it for the honor, anyway. If nothing else, even if I die tomorrow, I had Katrina and Stefan. No one can take that from me.

We remounted and rode on. I spotted the assassins dressed as merchants among the rest of the wagons in the staging area. With my hood on, I doubted that they recognized me, and when the guards allowed us through, we went our separate ways, the slavers to the west, and Wanda and I towards the sun, attached to a small group of wagons.

***

We waved, and shouted goodbye above the noise to our traveling companions at the Lion Gate late on the second day, and then turned right at the wall road. Even after days thinking about it, I still didn’t know how to approach Kim. All paths seemed to lead to a version of disaster.

“Mistress?”

I smiled. After our years together, Wanda knew my moods better than anyone. I touched her hand. “Yes, I’m all right, Wanda,” I said.

Herth Tarr had called those pesky ironies, “When Gods laugh.” I couldn’t think of a way that Wanda or I could ride onto the estate and talk to anyone in the family without risking Kim knowing I was there. Nearly at Eagles, I still couldn’t come home -- not yet.

I rode slowly as we passed the estate, getting at least a taste of home, but didn’t stop until we reached a nearby tavern with clean rooms and a fair stable. Once lodged and fed, I paid a man to deliver a message to my father, telling him where I was. Then we waited.

Father knocked on my door later that night. “Tyra, it’s me,” he rumbled from the outside.

I opened the door and let him in. Taking me in at arm’s length, he nodded in satisfaction. “At least it’s a look I’ve seen before. Are you finished with Tulem?”

“I am.” While Wanda served tea and siolat, I explained everything I’d done in Tulem and my worries for Kim.

He sat back in his chair and took a long drink from his cup. “Thank the Gods that’s over with. Ann, or Ananisia, as I should call her, is still living at Eagles and took Ruk’s Serum several days ago. Kim is taking care of her. She's anxious to move out and start at the Institute as soon as possible. Ananisia is a sweet girl. Kim, on the other hand, is a bull by the tail. Ron and I think that she knows about you. How she figured it out I don’t know.”

The siolat had been halfway down my throat when he’d said that. When I caught my breath again, I said, “She doesn't just suspect, she already knows?”

“That’s what I said. I’m not happy about it; as far as I’m concerned, she’s a viper in our midst.”

“Goddess. Father, did you talk to Ron?”

“You think we haven’t discussed this? He’ll do whatever you think is best, but you’d better do it quickly.”

So much for the gentle approach.

“Tomorrow morning after breakfast, I’d like to meet her in the garden. Oh, and could you give me a mail shirt before I meet with her? Kim is pretty good with a knife. If you tell Ron that I’m worried about Kim cutting my throat, he’ll know what to do.”

He nodded. “Right. Ron and I’ll be with you.”

I shook my head. “I need to be alone with her. It must be just the two of us.”

He narrowed his eyes. “There is no reason to take risks.”

“She’s been waiting for me. You know her curiosity. She’ll want to hear what I have to say.”

“And when she kills you, daughter, what explanation will you have for us then?”

“I don’t think that will happen.”

“But it’s possible.”

“She’s capable of killing if she must, but not cold-blooded murder, I think. Father, I can’t run away from this. Once I waited for months for Met to make his move. I don’t want to go through that again. I’d rather find out about it now than find out later when the knife is in my back.”

The pain on his face told me that I had reopened an old wound, but he was man enough to understood that I wasn’t bringing it up to hurt him.

“‘She thought she knew better’ seems a poor epitaph, but it will be as you wish.”

***

I came to the garden early, and sat on the bench around the oak tree. My cloak concealed the mail, a heavy steel sheath over the shift. I wasn't at all sure that this would fool Kim, but I wasn’t suicidal.

A rustle of leaves presaged her entrance. Kim wore Batuk-style woolens of gray and blue, non-traditional colors, but they suited her, contrasting her white hair, pinned-up now in Batuk fashion with an onyx barrette, and purple eyes, which teemed with loathing.

I'd thought I was prepared, but not to see that awful look on her face. Kim didn’t seem inclined to speak first, so I began: “How did you find out who I was?”

“Constabulary records. Twenty-six years ago a severely injured woman listed as Tyra l’Fay was brought to Eagles. A man was found in the basement she’d crawled out of, dead from a poison tooth. The woman disappeared the next day before she could be questioned. The dates match the days just before you returned to Tulem.”

“I wasn’t thinking very well then, else I would have never said my real name.”

“Batuk must have known about the invasion from the start. You and your family were involved, as well as a team of assassins in Tulem. You were lucky Tam wasn’t alive to find them,” she finished impassively.

“You’re fishing. I’m not going to speak one more word to you about it unless you promise me that you’ll keep it to yourself.”

She walked right up to my face and glared. “Damn you to Hades, Tyra l’Fay. You will tell me everything!”

“It’s over,” I said, meeting her eyeball to eyeball. “I’m not going back to Tulem. Would you tell them that the Queen they’d known for decades was a fraud, destroying a good King and embroiling the valley in a nasty battle for the succession? Are you thinking of disgracing my children by telling them that their mother was a Batuk spy?”

“I suppose … No, I would not, damn you,” she replied, her gaze wilting. “But tell me this: was your family involved?”

“You mean, ‘was Ron involved.’ Does it matter? Everyone in my family would have defended Batuk with their lives, as would any real citizen of this city. To answer your question, no. Only Tisa knew I was in Tulem; everyone else thought that I had been abducted.”

“And the assassins?”

“There were no assassins, just Ketrick, his two slaves, and me.”

“That’s … that’s impossible.”

“Why don’t I begin from the beginning? Your curiosity must be turning your guts, sister-in-law.”

“Don’t call me that!”

I laughed. “We all have our burdens to bear. It’s what you are, and at least one of us isn’t ashamed of it. If you like, take solace that worrying about what you’d discover about me has made my life hideously complex these last several months. Enough! You want to know what happened, and I want to tell you.”

I started with the raid. I left out a few personal matters that I decided should best go unmentioned, but I retold those far-gone times with Drago, Lady Dana, and the night of death I’d killed in Alexander’s castle, reliving everything in greater detail than I had with Father or Ron. I gritted my teeth and spilled tears, alternating between whispers and raving, perversely pleased that I was finally dropping the mask to one of my closest friends in the world -- even aware that I was losing her with every breath.

“Are you proud of what you’ve done?”

“Proud?” I shrugged. “Satisfied is a better word for it. When I can isolate the dead faces, I know what we did was necessary; it was far better than a war that would have killed thousands and enslaved us under the Borodins. I’d do it again.”

“You were assassins!”

“Call us what you want,” I said, giving the ponytail at my shoulder a tug. “The men we killed were nearly all nobles, those who would have attacked us.” I stepped forward and thrust my arm out towards the Fortress, about to explain what the saboteurs would have done, when I felt her blade at my throat.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you now!”

“I can think of a dozen,” I said, speaking very carefully. “Before you go any further, you should think of how unhappy your husband would be with you if you killed his sister.”

She expelled hot breath at my ear. “You and Ron were in on this together. He married me to keep me from going back to Tulem.”

“Ron could have tied you up until I returned; instead, he married you. What do your powers of deduction tell you about that?”

“Damn you!” she said, thrusting her knee forward, forcing my spine backwards uncomfortably. “You killed Tam Polgher; he wasn’t at war with you.”

“I regret Tam’s death more than anyone else, but if Tam had found us out we would have been dead ourselves; he was too good at what he did.” I was fairly sure that she didn’t want to kill me, now, but I wanted her to hurry up and make that decision: my back was in a lot of pain. “Kim, I was answering your questions before you brought the knife to my throat. Are you going to kill me or let me go?”

“I haven’t decided yet! What are you doing here in Batuk?” she demanded, bending my back even further.

“Ow! Damn it! I came here to visit my family, see Ann -- and you -- and leave in a month or two when I decide what I wanted to do. I’m not going to stay here in Eagles, if that’s what you’re worried about. Let me go and I’ll forget that this ever happened. Ron loves you, and you would be a fool to kill me.”

She withdrew the knife and returned it to her calf-sheath. “I won’t lose Ron over you,” she said coldly. “Here are my terms: You will leave Batuk within a week. If I see you here again, I might reconsider killing you.”

In the middle of stretching my back, I raised my eyebrow at that, but was willing to agree when Ron, as grim as I’ve ever seen him, appeared around the hedge.

“Tyra, don’t say a word,” he said on his way past me.

“Ron,” Kim said, looking puzzled at first, and then angry. “How long have you been listening? What…”

Ignoring her questions, Ron took her shoulders in his hands, gripping hard enough that she gasped. “For someone so smart, you’re an idiot,” he said.

“Ron, it’s all right…” I began, and then snapped my mouth shut at his furious glare.

“Tyra is not an assassin. A man died in a war so that thousands might live. It’s called a hard choice. What would you have done differently if you were her?”

“Well, I…” Kim said, staring at him in surprise.

“That’s what I thought. Until you can give her a much better answer, you don’t have the right to criticize her for it. She'll stay in Eagles as long as she wants. You don’t have to like her, but she’s my sister, and you two will damn well get along.” He spun her around and smacked her sharply on the rear end, and then pulled her against him, kissing her until she stopped protesting. Striding away, Ron soon passing from sight, leaving Kim to stand alone, her breasts rising and falling with each breath, her fingers touching her lips.

It had been some time since my honor had been defended. That and the healthy display of dominance had the usual effect on this serum girl.

Kim swung her attention to me. The steel edge had disappeared with Ron, but she was still angry -- and suspicious.

“Don’t look at me,” I said. “I didn’t know Ron was there. I’m sure he was just concerned for my safety.”

“If Ron was really worried, he would have rounded the bush when I put my knife to your throat.” Frowning, she pulled her knife, and ran her thumb across the edges. “My knife has been dulled,” she said, glaring at me.

“Well, I didn’t do it.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “You and Ron planned this. You allowed me to take you with the knife from behind. You weren't in any danger at all!”

“That’s not completely true: I didn’t know Ron was there, and you might have plunged the blade into my neck instead of trying to cut my throat. You had me worried for a while.”

She thought for a moment; then nodded reluctantly. “Why did you take the chance?”

“I didn’t want your ruin your marriage. What I said is true: I’m proud to be your sister-in-law. Ron couldn't have made a better match. I understand if you hate me now, but I hope that someday you’ll give me the chance to know you as Tyra.”

She stiffened, and stared her eyes blank, a terrible look, like willing me to disappear. I rubbed away a tear and bowed my head. “As you wish, then. I won’t live at Eagles; I’ll try to keep out of your way whenever I’m here, and I’ll leave Batuk when I decide where to go.” I turned to leave.

“Tyra, wait!”

“Yes?”

“Tam was a good man, damn you. He raised me after my mother died; in every way he was like my father. When he was lowered into the ground, a piece of me went with him.”

Oh, Goddess. “Kim, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“It makes no difference if you’re sorry or not!” she shouted, clenching her hands into fists. “Some things you can’t forgive. You were never my friend. I wish we had never met.” Her voice broke on the last, and she twisted away, not permitting me to see her cry, and then walked away towards the hedge, slowly and deliberately, as if I didn’t exist.

Some things you can’t forgive. By the Goddess, I understood that well enough. Sinking to my knees, I wept, sobbing until I could no more.
 
 

To Be Continued…

 
I hope you liked this chapter. It took me an unusually long time to get through, and I was taking a mini-break after days of editing. Poor Tyra, caught between her past and an urge. The last chapter is about a third longer than this and is pretty busy and intense. I'll start on that as soon as I get some sleep. :) ~Aardvark.



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