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The Conqueror Series
Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose
By LJ Maas
Chapter 18: And Cruel Wrath That Glowed An Ember-Red
I had to nearly shove Torava from the room once Ephiny was shown into our private quarters. I understood the need for the heightened security, around me as well as the palace. My personal guard, Athena bless each and every one of them, took their positions extremely seriously. It was a testament to their training, and perhaps a tiny bit of fear on their part. I would not like to think about what would happen to these courageous soldiers should some harm befall me. Xena was a wonderful woman, but she was also a passionate one. Whether in our bedroom or on the battlefield, when she felt strongly about something, she felt it with her entire being. There was oftentimes a very subtle thread separating the Xena I knew from the madness that was her dark side. I envied no soul a look at her when the beast took hold.
Ephiny didn't look pleased at having to relinquish her weapons, but she stood patiently, allowing Torava to search her. When my guard finally left the room, Sylla went about setting up a midmorning meal at the table. Xena's maid had become mine also, with some reluctance on my part. I had served too long to ever want anyone else to serve me. Sylla and I had a long talk over the situation. She carefully explained her role as a servant, not a slave. She told me that the Conqueror paid her well for the work she did. We made an agreement of sorts. She would keep her curtsies to a minimum, as long as I agreed not to pick up so much after Xena, and leave the cleaning and serving to my new friend.
I watched as Ephiny rolled her eyes at my personal guard once Torava left the room. We were now alone, with the exception of Sylla's presence.
"Meeting with me, alone in your private chambers, My Queen? What will the Conqueror think?" I could hear the teasing tone to her voice.
"Xena trusts me," I answered.
"But not me, eh?"
"Being a warrior yourself, Ephiny, I think you know what a difficult task it is to trust. Especially since two women have been killed in our home."
"Do you agree with the Conqueror? Do you not trust me?"
"I want to, but I have to say that I don't know you. All I can say, at this time, is that if I were told tomorrow that you were guilty of these crimes, it would disappoint me greatly. You see, for some reason, I want to be able to trust you, Ephiny. I just can't say for certain, though. At least not right now."
"Do your guards really think I'd need a weapon, though?" she asked, as if making light of my heartfelt sentiment. "If I intended to kill you, I wouldn't need anything more than my bare hands."
I tried not to react at her words. She had such a dry sense of humor. It was difficult to tell whether she was serious or not. I decided to treat it as a jest.
"If I thought you had any intention of killing me, Ephiny, you wouldn't be here right now." I sat at the table, and thanked Sylla, whose eyes had gone wide at my bold statement. "Please." I motioned Ephiny to join me in my meal.
"It's true then," she said. The Amazon sat down across from me rather slowly, as if her knees had suddenly lost some of their suppleness. "You are an oracle, as they say."
"I'm not sure who they are," I replied as I poured two cups of tea. "I am no oracle. I've learned to be a student of human nature, and that is all. I have an idea Ephiny. Why don't you and I be honest with one another?"
"Do you feel I'm being less than truthful?" she replied with a sly grin.
"Let's just say that I don't believe stoic silence is the same thing as unqualified candor."
Her face took on a serious expression, I assumed because of my remark. Ephiny rested her elbows on the table, and leaned forward. "Gabrielle, no one but Satena knows that I'm meeting with you. I think an Amazon killed Timara and Melosa. Furthermore, I believe the woman responsible is a trusted member of our community."
"The High Priestess," she answered.
"Satena? Why would she kill her Queen?"
Ephiny sighed, and she had that look about her. Xena wore the same expression when she was about to divulge more information than she thought best. It was a look comprised of equal parts sadness, exasperation, and determination.
"Satena didn't do the actual killing, but she was indirectly responsible for the event."
"I think I'm confused, which isn't at all difficult to do to me these days." I offered the Amazon an embarrassed smile, which appeared to calm her a bit. She smiled back at me and rubbed her jaw.
Another deep breath, and Ephiny began again. "Actually, Satena and you are the reason we are here. You know of the Amazons' history with the Conqueror. We have a tenuous arrangement at best with the Empire. We swore our allegiance, but that's not worth the parchment it's scribed on. It only means we agree not to make trouble. The Conqueror wanted fealty from us back then. If we had done that, we'd be oath bound to stand beside the Empire no matter what. Against no matter who. About three moons ago, Satena was given a message from our patron Goddess, Artemis. The message was that that the time had come for the Amazons to begin anew. She was told that our future lay in the hands of the woman who would become Queen to the Empire."
I was a little stunned by the news. Why would an Olympian Goddess that I'd never even prayed to tell the Amazons such a thing? It did explain why the entire royal family had come together, though.
"I'm not sure I understand what that means, Ephiny. Are you sure, I mean, can Satena be trusted?"
Ephiny grinned then, her eyes apparently unable to meet my own. "Yes, I trust her with my life. In fact, I have, on many occasions. Satena was my mother's bond mate."
"You mean she's your parent?" I asked stupidly.
"Yes," she chuckled. "So, you can see why I have faith in her words."
"But, how can you believe she had a part in this then?"
"I think she was an unwitting accomplice. Gabrielle, only three people knew of this news before we journeyed to Corinth. Melosa, Timara, and--"
"Let me guess. Velasca?" I questioned dryly.
Ephiny nodded her head.
"And somehow I have the impression that you don't believe Velasca is the next intended target?"
"No, My Queen, I do not. I only learned of Satena's message this morning."
"She told you?"
"Yes. She fears for your safety." Ephiny's lips curled into a smile tinged with irony. "I think she knew all along . . . what Artemis meant. I think she saw you as our Queen before we ever left Amazonia. It's rather funny, in a strange way."
"You've found some humor in this?" I asked incredulously.
"Not that kind of funny. More like odd. Satena asked me to be honest with you, and tell you the entire story, including my own. I guess I just found it strange that you essentially asked me the same thing. Are you sure you're no oracle?"
I laughed then, even though the idea of people thinking me a seer disturbed me on some level. I wasn't about to tell Ephiny about the occasional dreams that I had. "No, no oracle. So, Satena believes I'm at risk of suffering the same fate."
"She believes in her heart that Velasca is directly responsible for the murders. That she planned to seize the throne while we were away from the Village. Velasca is a different sort of warrior than I am. She's hard and bitter. She has a number of friends among our delegation to Corinth, as opposed to Melosa's supporters in Amazonia. Don't let her sweetness act fool you. I haven't trusted that girl since she was a child. Now, of course, since Melosa gave her right of caste to you, well, you're in the way. In Velasca's eyes, you're blocking the path to her destiny, and you're expendable."
"Well, I certainly couldn't have planned my own demise better, could I?" I asked the rhetorical question, partly from fear, and somewhat out of frustration.
"Gabrielle, I have no intention of letting anything happen to you. I'd give up my own life before that happens."
I looked into her eyes and saw the promise there. She reminded me of Xena just then. I'm not sure I would ever understand warriors, but I thanked Athena for their dogged determination to protect those unable to fight for themselves.
"Thank you, Ephiny." I reached out and lightly touched the top of her hand. "Let's work on it never coming to that, shall we? Now, tell me. With whom might Velasca be working? Xena swears that even an exceptional Amazon archer wouldn't have been able to fire those crossbow bolts from that distance. Do you think it's possible it's one of the Centaurs, that perhaps Kaleipus is lying?"
"It would take a great deal for an honor bound warrior such as Kaleipus to lie. That doesn't come easy to Centaurs. Sure, I suppose they have their characters just as every race, but on the whole, they're an honorable bunch." Ephiny explained.
"Most of your sisters would disagree," I replied.
"They haven't seen what I've seen," Ephiny said in a tired voice.
She stood and walked away, stopping before the open window. I gave her the time she seemed to need. She stood there, not uttering a word. By the winged chatter outside, I assumed she was watching the birds build their nests in the garden below. I joined her, sitting on a chair, patiently waiting for her to tell me why she was the way she was. Why was she so different, almost compassionate when it came to the Centaurs?
"Most of these girls have never even seen live Centaurs, let alone talked with one before," she began. She didn't look up at me. "Rather they only know what they've been taught from their elders. I certainly don't mean it to sound like I'm some perfectly compassionate person. I am a warrior, Gabrielle. I take my orders, and I do my job. Some times the job is unpleasant, but it comes with the territory. Above all else, I think of my people, and always obey my Queen.
We didn't always hate the Centaurs this way, you know. If you read the scrolls--"
"History scrolls . . . about the Amazons?" I interrupted.
"Do you have a . . . library for these scrolls? A place where I would be able to read them?"
"Yes," she drawled cautiously. "Is that important somehow?"
I suddenly realized that I wasn't focusing on the task at hand at all, neither was I paying attention to Ephiny's story. Gods, Xena was right. One mention of scrolls and my mind is off somewhere else.
"Um . . . no, no not really. I'm sorry, please go on." I asked her in embarrassment.
"Well, provided you go back far enough, you can see that the Centaurs and the Amazons were always thought of as allies. At one time we even shared some of the same territories. The trouble with the Centaurs actually started before I was born, but both sides managed to keep it from escalating into much. When I was a young woman, Melosa's sister was killed in a raid. It was near the outer fringes of the territory we shared with the Centaurs. A volley of arrows that were shot at her party killed Terreis. They were Centaur arrows. It was shortly afterward that Melosa learned who committed the crime. We carried out our own justice."
"You found the Centaur who killed Terreis?" I asked.
"We found a Centaur," Ephiny responded.
"Oh." It sounded rather inane, but it's all I could think of to say just then. I took her hint to mean that when the Amazons carried out justice, it was their own particular brand of judgment. "What happened?"
"It was my job to guard the prisoner until his execution. His name was Phantes," she began. The name came back to me as the one that Xena spoke of in her quick description to me.
"I remember that evening as if it was yesterday. We gave the Centaur until the sun was high the next day to confess. Although it didn't really matter, we intended on killing him no matter what he would have said. It was a long night, and I was surprised when the Centaur started talking to me. I think he was bored at first, and then we actually found that we had a number of things in common. He talked about a great deal that night. His family and friends, where he grew up, and what he'd planned for his future. As morning drew closer, he grew more silent. Even I hoped that by some miracle the whole thing could be stopped. I hoped someone else would confess; anything to free him. I'd come to like him, maybe even care for him a little."
Ephiny paused in the telling of her story, and before she turned away to look out the window, I thought I saw tears fill her eyes. She simply couldn't hide the pain as she was once more drawn back to that time.
"When his time came, I asked him. Just before we walked from the jail cell, I asked him if he really killed Terreis or not. She was not only a sister, but she was my friend, as well. At that point, he knew he was going to die. He had no reason to lie to me. He swore, knowing it wouldn't save his life, that he didn't kill her. The last thing he whispered to me was that he didn't want to die. Not that he was afraid, mind you, but just that he wasn't ready to die. Those words stayed with me for a very long time. Actually, I'm not sure they ever left."
"So you had to kill him?" I asked.
"Velasca did it. It was her right, actually expected of her."
"I don't understand. Expected?" I asked in confusion.
"The same way it will be expected of you to avenge Timara and Melosa's death. When you received their right of caste you also became responsible for bringing their killers to justice."
"First you speak of revenge, then of justice. You are aware that they're two different things, aren't you?"
"Not between Amazons and Centaurs they're not," Ephiny answered before turning to face me.
"Ephiny," I began. I knew I was abruptly changing the subject, but I also knew that once this was all settled, then this strange Amazon and I could find time to discuss the meaning of justice. Until then, the subject would have to wait. "Why did Velasca have to avenge Terreis's death?"
"Velasca was one of the young warriors with Terreis's party that day. When they were attacked by the unseen assailants and Terreis was killed, she gave a provisional right of caste to Velasca."
"Velasca hadn't yet reached the age of maturity. That and the fact that she was already Melosa's adopted heir. Existing members of the Royal family can't be placed in line for the throne unless there are no other heirs available. The first elders felt by creating that law, we would be different from the men who lied and murdered to attain power. Timara was just an infant at the time, but she was still in line for the throne before Velasca, since she was Melosa's blood daughter."
"So, that couldn't change, even if Melosa wished it?"
"No. Velasca's only chance at the throne would have been if something happened to Timara. Even then, Velasca would either have to wait until Melosa's death, hoping the Queen didn't give birth to, or adopt any other heirs. On the other hand, she could offer a challenge to Melosa at any time."
"You make it sound as if Velasca's been planning this for a long time, Ephiny." I stood and walked to the window where she stood, and waited for her response.
"The women in Terreis's party, the ones who were attacked that day. It was a random attack, but Terreis was the only one injured. The four other women were all Velasca's friends. Over the seasons these friends have mysteriously disappeared or suffered accidental deaths."
Ephiny finished and I was stunned. "I think I spoiled her plans this time, huh?"
"It looks that way, but we can't be certain," she admitted.
"I think we can. Xena confided to me that before I spoke up to challenge Melosa, she thought for certain Velasca looked as though she was about to do the same thing. I have the feeling she would have let it be a fight to the death."
"You would have been safer, that's for certain."
"Even though Timara gave you her right of caste, Velasca came before you. As Queen, she would have had no reason to hurt you, not right away anyway. I'm sure that if you ever came to live with the Amazons, or if you ever became too interested in the throne, you would have had some sort of innocent looking accident. Now, however . . ."
"I'm all that stands between her and her goal," I finished for her.
"Not all, Gabrielle. I can think of a few people who would stand beside you, and in the case of your Conqueror, perhaps in front of you."
I smiled at that. She certainly was an astute woman. "All these seasons, Ephiny. Why didn't you ever go to your Queen with what you suspected about Velasca?"
"I just did." She smiled.
The smile turned into a frown, as she looked me in the eyes. It looked strangely as if she was trying to tell me something, but I never got the message. Suddenly her arms were around me, and her body propelled me back onto the couch. I did the first thing that came to my mind.
End of Addendum added by Queen Gabrielle
* * * * * * * * * *
I was only a half a step behind the guards who where bursting through the door to my private chambers. Torava and Glandell skidded to a halt and I heard a voice I was growing to dislike more and more.
"An archer, out in the trees!" Ephiny cried out.
It only took an instant for the well-trained Empire soldiers to surround the palace, and search the grounds. Of course, as I would scream at Atrius later, if they were that well trained they never would have let an assassin onto the palace grounds in the first place.
Torava moved aside to let me enter the room and I was met with a sight that took all of my self-control simply to restrain my emotions. Gabrielle lay on the long couch and Ephiny nearly covered the smaller woman's body, lying atop her, carrying her weight on her elbows. The Amazon looked slightly amused when her eyes met mine.
"Good afternoon, Conqueror," she remarked rather flippantly.
I didn't say a word, although some very choice ones were at that moment racing through my brain. My eyes met Gabrielle's, and I could see the entire situation was neither comical nor romantic to her. She looked frightened.
"Ephiny, I think you can get off me now," Gabrielle diplomatically suggested.
Once everyone was in a vertical position, Gabrielle quickly explained what the Amazon had been doing there, and that Ephiny had saved Gabrielle's life. I didn't care how it looked. I walked over to the small blonde and wrapped my arms around her. I could feel her trembling body relax instantly, and I hoped that it would always be so. I hoped that my presence would always be able to calm her fears, that she would always trust me that much.
I walked over and pulled out the arrow, which was embedded in the high, carved back of my most comfortable chair. The chair sat in front of the window so that I could enjoy the sunrise every morning. The arrow hit the back of the seat at about the same height as Gabrielle's chest. Whoever took aim was close enough to see into the room, and whom they were shooting at.
Before I could say anything, I saw Atrius intercept a young officer at the door. When the Captain turned back to face me, he wore a dour expression.
"They found nothing," the Captain said grimly.
"Again," I added.
"Xena, perhaps we could have some privacy," Gabrielle indicated the guards standing about our room. "Ephiny has some very important things about all of this that could help you discover who's behind it all."
It didn't thrill me that this Amazon possessed news that I didn't, but it seemed that I owed her a debt. After all, I don't think it hit me yet how close I came to losing Gabrielle. If she'd been there alone . . . I let my thoughts in that direction trail off. I couldn't think about that right now.
Once a little order had been restored to the palace, and our private rooms in particular, we sat down to discuss what news the Amazon had. Besides Gabrielle and myself, and Ephiny, of course, there was Atrius. He was my most trusted commander, and I considered him my best friend. I trusted his loyalty along with his intellect in such matters.
Gabrielle related the events surrounding Velasca, and Ephiny stopped her at certain points to interject, adding additional detail to the subject. After I'd occasionally interrupted with my own questions, and the tale was over, I sat back in my chair, the one that now held a knot where the arrow had been.
"It all fits, doesn't it?" I asked of no one in particular. Up until this point, I hadn't heard a scenario that felt halfway decent. In my heart, I could discount all the others. There was still the question of an accomplice. Then again, with Ephiny here, meeting with Gabrielle, Velasca might think she'd been all but caught and flee. I voiced those very concerns.
"I can pretty much tell you for certain that Velasca doesn't know that I'm here, Conqueror," Ephiny commented.
"And how can you be so certain?" I asked.
"Well, for one thing, this is an Amazon arrow," she said, as she picked up the shaft lying on the table.
"Yes?" I already knew that, but I had assumed it was simply another clue left to distract me.
"You see the markings, these notches hidden just under the fletches, here?" She gently lifted the feathers near the end of the shaft. There were indeed small designs, simple, yet carved into the arrow.
"And this proves something?" Gabrielle asked in confusion.
"It proves that someone doesn't like me very well. These marking are very personal, a small sign of ownership. This arrow is mine, and I certainly haven't found a way to be in two different places at once. I suspect Velasca sought to blame me for your death, my Queen. It's sort of confounded her plan, me already being here."
"So it would appear," I replied. "Or it would be a very good ruse. Perhaps even you are Velasca's accomplice." I thought about what Atrius and I had been discussing earlier in the day. Could two people so different come together for a common goal, but for two very different reasons?
"After today, and you still don't trust me, Conqueror?" Ephiny asked.
It was odd, but for all the jealousy, animosity, whatever you wanted to call it between this Amazon and myself. For all that, I found myself wanting to believe her. I think it was simply one of those gut feelings. For me, however, the real proof would lie in Gabrielle's intuitive self.
"Yes?" She looked at me, almost anticipating my question, I'm sure.
"Do you trust her?"
Gabrielle looked directly at Ephiny, searching the Amazon's features for what I didn't pretend to know. She smiled then, seemingly caught in some past moment remembered only by herself and the Amazon.
"Yes," Gabrielle said. "Yes, I do trust her."
I would be wrong about many people, and many things, now, and in the future. One thing I would always be right about, however, was Gabrielle's innate sense of people. She could be misled, and even deceived on occasion, but those instances were rare. She felt things in a way that I could never hope to comprehend.
"Then I would say that we have a trap to set." I grinned at those around the table, feeling more in my element than I had since the whole fiasco began.
We set about a plan to lure Velasca into the open. We agreed it would take place the following morning, all of us mindful to take extra care, along with additional guards, at Melosa's funeral ceremony this evening. After Ephiny spoke with Gabrielle, and informed her of the Queen's part in Melosa's funeral pyre ceremony, the Amazon was ready to leave. I agreed to show her out through the tunnels below the castle, in order to keep her visit a secret. One of the passageways exited not too far from the ridge where the Amazon's were camped.
We neared the exit to the tunnel. I could see small bits of sunlight filtering through the cave-like opening. Ephiny and I were alone, but that's what I wanted.
"I haven't thanked you yet for saving Gabrielle's life. I'm in your debt."
"I didn't do it for thanks, Conqueror, but you're welcome just the same. As to the debt . . . what is the going rate for saving one's consort?" She grinned slightly.
"Anything my Empire has to offer," I replied seriously. I took notice of the arch to her eyebrow, and the mischievous smile she now wore. "With the exception of my wife," I added quickly.
We both chuckled. "There you go again, Conqueror, bandying that word, wife, around again. I've still seen no evidence of a ceremony at all."
I glared and she laughed aloud at my discomfort. I couldn't help but join in her laughter. She was good-natured, but could be a thorn in my side, especially where Gabrielle was concerned. I clasped her arm in a friendly warrior's embrace, and suddenly pulled her closer to me with a strength that I believe surprised her. I gave her a full smile, one that looked as if there were more going on here than just a friendly discussion.
I kept smiling, even when I opened my mouth to speak. "You do know, my Amazon friend, if I ever catch you lying on top of her again, and her life is not in mortal danger, I'll see your head drop into a basket on the palace steps."
Her laughter continued. "Aye, Conqueror, I do know, but it's been great fun seeing you squirm in the meantime."
I shook my head as she made her way outside, and the silence of the tunnel surrounded me. I was reluctantly coming to like this Amazon. I certainly hoped Gabrielle's trust in Ephiny was sound.
* * * * * * * * * *
I splashed water on my face to wash the sleep away. The moon was still high in the black sky when a guard bearing an urgent message from the Amazon, Ephiny, awakened us. It had been a most tiring day, and the funeral ceremony didn't make it any less so. The pyre was set ablaze, and Gabrielle handled her part of the ceremony flawlessly. We were both so tired that we fell asleep the moment we laid down in bed after arriving back at the palace.
The guard informed me that Ephiny had two other, unarmed Amazons with her. I ordered the messenger to go and rouse Atrius and another of my officers. I also gave him instructions to have Atrius personally take all three of the Amazons to my study, not my personal study, but the one on the first floor of the palace. I told Gabrielle to remain in our rooms this time, and to let me visit with the women myself. This request didn't endear me to my consort, but I saw her sigh with resignation, warning me to take care. I thanked Athena for such a girl. I could see the day coming, however, when Gabrielle would be my equal in everything, including ruling the Empire. I was certain there would come a time when Gabrielle would never do what she was told.
By the time I reached the study, Atrius was already there. He looked remarkably more awake than I felt, which depressed me some considering he was a few summers older than I was. I clasped Ephiny's arm and she introduced her two companions. They were young for warriors, perhaps fourteen or fifteen summers. There was a distinct resemblance within their facial features, and I guessed them to be sisters. They each shifted nervously from foot to foot, and one of them continually gnawed at the end of her thumbnail. Neither of them raised their eyes from the floor as Ephiny explained why she was there.
"It appeared as though someone were trying to rob my tent as I was sleeping tonight," she began. "I decided to watch the thieves, simply to see what they made off with. Oddly enough, they were after one of my arrows. Since I didn't think one Amazon arrow would bring in much at the market, I decided that questioning them might be a wise thing to do."
I almost smiled, and had the entire situation been less fraught with peril for all concerned, I might have. I could picture the two girls as bumbling thieves, only to be caught by the intimidating warrior. I moved behind the large wooden desk, and sat down wearily on a cushioned chair.
Ephiny tossed the shaft on my desk. I lifted the edge of the fletches and saw the same markings as from the arrow used to attack Gabrielle.
"And when you questioned them about the theft?" I asked.
"Very interesting indeed, Conqueror," the Amazon answered. "It appears that Velasca talked the girls into aiding her in what she told them was a joke. Of course, this isn't the first time Velasca asked them to play this joke. Stealing my arrows is becoming quite a game with these two. So is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Donai here is the older of the two, that's her younger sister there, Inez. It seems that Inez has never been out of the Amazon Village before. So, on the evening of our arrival, the night Timara was killed, Inez decided to sneak out of camp and explore some of Corinth. Upon her return, she realized the gates to the palace had been closed, doubtless as a security measure while the dinner was going on. She found that you have an olive grove running alongside the palace walls, along with some very lax guards. She found it the perfect place to sneak back into the palace."
Ephiny paused, and I waited for her to continue. "And?" I prompted. "I expect she saw something? Perhaps someone there in that olive grove."
"She refuses to say." Ephiny nodded her head in the girl's direction. "Actually, they both do. You see, they didn't tell me about Inez's little escapade. I learned that from one of her bunkmates this evening. I suspect, Conqueror, that whoever they saw had something to do with allowing themselves to be coerced into stealing my arrows."
"I told you we shouldn't have! Didn't I tell you not to get involved with her? Didn't I tell you not to sneak out of the camp?" The older Amazon girl punched the younger one in the arm, which caused Inez to begin crying.
Donai tried to defend her sister. "It's not her fault, Lord Conqueror, she--"
"Quiet!" I roared. I felt badly for the youngest, Inez, who was crying in a most pitiful fashion by this time. I wished to intimidate them into revealing the truth, and I figured my reputation just might do the trick.
"Let me tell you what I know of this situation. Tomorrow, someone will be beheaded in the palace courtyard for the murders of Princess Timara, and Queen Melosa. I'll not think twice about adding accomplices to the list."
"We don't have the death penalty in the Amazon Nation," Donai answered a little too confidently.
I saw it then, the look in her eyes. It became clear to me that Inez must have seen Velasca that night. I'm sure she talked the girl into thinking she had snuck away from the encampment too. Whether Inez had actually seen Velasca participate in Timara's murder, or if Inez had simply run across the older Amazon, it mattered little. Either way, Velasca must have blackmailed Inez and her sister. It was a good bet that Velasca bought their silence, and guileless assistance by threatening to turn Inez in for the murder. There was no motive, but plenty of people in the Amazon camp, and the village, who was sure to have seen the young girl about. Men had been hanged for less circumstantial evidence.
The redeeming factor to Donai and her sister must have been when Velasca assured them that even if they were caught, they were too young to sentence, and the Amazon's had no death penalty. I decided to squelch their last hope.
In a voice dripping with menace I said, "Well, we're not in the Amazon Nation now, are we?"
Her eyes went wide as I leaned back in my chair. Silence now reigned within the room. Inez's sobs instantly quieted, and I watched Ephiny, who was trying to hide the amusement on her face.
"But . . . we . . . I--" Donai began.
Again, I interrupted her frightened stammering, this time with as much concern as I would show for my own child. I moved in front of my desk, seating myself on one edge. "Donai, Inez, I understand the position you've been put in. Inez, you ended up being somewhere you weren't supposed to be, and someone saw you, didn't they?" I asked gently.
Inez appeared as though she wanted to speak, but looked at her sister for guidance. It was then that Ephiny stepped up and began to speak.
"What the two of you have been involved in so far is forgivable, Donai, but don't escalate the problem. You know the truth of what happened on the night of Timara's death. Whatever Velasca told you was really going on, she lied. She is a murderer, and a betrayer of her people. If she's not stopped, more innocents will die."
"Don't fool yourself, Donai," I added. "If Velasca promised you anything, she'll never make good on it. There are a string of bodies over the seasons that prove that she never leaves loose ends. To her, you and your sister will always represent one of those loose ends. Help us put an end to this madness, and I'll see that no harm comes to you or Inez."
When I looked up, Ephiny was staring at me with a strange expression. I could only guess that she'd never seen a gentler Conqueror. It was a new experience for her. Donai looked down at her boots for a few moments, and when she raised her head, she looked at Inez.
Nodding her head in her sister's direction, Donai said, "tell them."
* * * * * * * * * *
For as few candlemarks as I'd slept, I felt surprisingly alert. I think it was the surge of excitement, the thrill of the unexpected one feels right before a battle. It was equal parts exhilaration and terror. Everyone knew their parts in our little play. We hoped to set Velasca up to catch her, certainly, but also to cause her to confess, which would be more difficult. Only Ephiny knew of my other plan, however.
I spent the morning in the Amazon camp, under the pretense of speaking with some of the younger warriors, making a show of good relations between the Empire and the Amazon Nation. I also spent the morning with an unobtrusive eye on Velasca. It was easy to do considering Ephiny had briefed me on the particulars of their tribe. Nearly every question I asked of my tour guides was within Velasca's area of expertise, and therefore she was quite indispensable to me.
Velasca was nervous, especially around me. That was another surprise. I had assumed that anyone who spent more than half their life manipulating, even murdering, those who stood in their way would act somewhat calmer. Her behavior might have come from my reputation alone. She was swimming with the big fish now, and I wanted her to know it.
I warned Ephiny before she left my study this morning. She was to be my eyes. Velasca had a habit of looking to see if I was watching her before she would glare, or roll her eyes menacingly at some underling. My exceptional peripheral vision noticed this tendency. It was apparent that the moments of compassion I had witnessed up to this point, were simply good acting on her part. If Velasca did what I anticipated today, Ephiny would catch her when I would deliberately turn my back.
Initially, I wished Gabrielle to stay safely inside, away from harm's way. I know I could have ordered it to be so, and Gabrielle would have reluctantly obeyed me. A part of me truly did want that, but I had to ask myself, was that the way I wished for Gabrielle and I to rule together? I honestly wanted us to be partners, in every sense of the word. Would that happen if I tried to shelter Gabrielle away like one of the delicate roses in my garden? Did I want a fragile blossom, meant only to be displayed like some prized possession? The answer, of course, was no. Hence, the reason my beautiful consort was on my arm now.
I called all the Amazons and Centaurs together. From among our visitors, I trusted Ephiny, as long as she wasn't around Gabrielle, and Kaleipus. They, Gabrielle, and Atrius were aware of what I'd hoped to accomplish on this day. I was tempted to include Solan among those whom I would place my trust in this situation, but since the Centaurs had arrived, he was suspiciously absent from our lives. Gabrielle pointed out that these creatures were his family, and so it made sense that he would find their company comfortable, and familiar.
Once again, I thought back to a memory, the day I first saw Solan as a child. I remembered how, as a child of eight summers, he attacked me. I also remember where he got his information. That's what worried me the most. If what I suspected today came to fruition, I wondered where Solan's loyalty would lie.
Therefore, our company, or prisoners depending on how you viewed the situation, stood before us. I left Gabrielle on the top of the stairs surrounded by her personal guard. I walked down the first few steps and paused.
"I have brought you here, to the palace courtyard, to clear the air." My voice rang out strongly, and confidently. Public speaking had never been a problem for me. In my younger days, I could incite my men before a battle with my voice alone.
I looked into each and every face as I spoke. I took note of every twitch of their skin, and each nervous shuffle of their feet. "We all grieve the loss of the former Amazon Queen and her daughter. Although, I suspect that there might be one of us who grieves not at all. These were murders, and they weren't fabricated in our minds. They were real, and someone you know, perhaps someone you trust, committed them."
I walked to the bottom of the steps, and stepped out before the mass assembled before me. The Amazons stood to my right, Velasca in front. Ephiny stood in the forefront, but a few paces away from our suspect. The Centaurs stamped, and pawed at the earth impatiently over on my left. In between, and all around them were armed soldiers of the Empire. I didn't intend for a repeat on what happened here the other day, but I was reluctant to disarm these two proud nations of warriors.
"The crimes that have been committed are particularly heinous, and being thus, there will be a swift punishment for the guilty."
"And who is guilty, Conqueror?" One of the Amazons shouted out.
I loved a crowd. They were so predictable. I could have foretold that, at that moment, someone would ask that question. It was the perfect lead in to my plan.
"A very fair question," I answered.
I turned to look up at the top of the palace steps. "With the Amazon Queen's permission, I have some information that should lead us to the traitor in your midst."
Gabrielle played her part perfectly. She looked rather regal, and nodded her head in my direction.
I then waved a hand at Atrius, who stood waiting at the top of the steps, beside Gabrielle. My Captain disappeared momentarily. When he stepped once more from the shadows, the two young Amazons, Donai, and Inez followed him.
My back was turned toward the Amazons, and so I had to rely on Ephiny to see what I could not. I couldn't very well start accusations in the middle of the courtyard. I had to exude the confidence that said I was already aware of Velasca's betrayal. Before I could actually take Velasca in custody, however, I had to be certain in my own mind that she was guilty. If my suspicions held true, her next action would give her away, and name her accomplice at the same time.
Ephiny's job was two-fold. At my request, she had her eye on Velasca's face. I fully expected the Amazon to give herself away, but as to giving her partner in crime away at the same time, well, I simply had to hope that Athena wished to see justice done as much as myself.
Donai and Inez took two steps forward, putting them in plain view. Armed soldiers flanked them. I wasn't about to take any chances with these girls' lives. I turned my head just slightly, placing Ephiny within view. The Amazon simply nodded once. To tell the truth, she looked rather surprised. I wondered if she thought me clairvoyant, but in all honesty, if I had been a mystic, I would certainly have anticipated the next disastrous sequence of events.
As with all unexpected actions, to say it happened too fast to calculate who did what, is perhaps redundant. The first shout I heard was definitely from a male voice.
"Look out, Conqueror!"
I ducked and turned at the same time, hoping to avoid what was obviously either a weapon, or a body, attacking my unprotected back. In the tick of a heartbeat, which was certainly all the time it took for me to spin around, I witnessed Velasca fall to the ground. She had a Centaur crossbow bolt sunk so deeply into her chest that the arrow's head protruded through her back. That's when the courtyard erupted into chaos for the second time in as many days.
It was a controlled sort of chaos, lasting for only a matter of heartbeats. I had carefully set up over a hundred Empire soldiers along the parapets of the castle, and the walls surrounding the courtyard. Every one of those soldiers, including the overwhelming number of foot soldiers on the ground, now had a crossbow trained on the delegations of Amazons and Centaurs. There were many shouts, curses, and cries, but all movement within the courtyard froze as my soldiers took immediate control. I learned long ago that whoever held the playing field, usually took the battle. This instance merely proved my theory.
I motioned to Ephiny, and my soldiers let her pass to meet me at Velasca's body. In the meantime, I could hear Broh, one of Kaleipus's Centaurs, shouting repeatedly.
"She had a weapon, I saw it. She was drawing a dagger from her boot to kill the Conqueror. I saw it, didn't you? Solan, boy, you saw it, surely."
I was kneeling over Velasca's dead body when I looked up to capture Solan's expression, as he was standing beside his old friend, Broh. My son appeared as confused as everyone else did. He rapidly turned his head between Broh, and myself.
"I--I'm not sure . . . I think . . ." he paused and trained his eyes on me. "I think . . . maybe she did. Yes, I think she did."
I turned Velasca's body over, her arms falling limply at her side. I saw the bulge against the fawn colored boots. Reaching into the leather boot, I drew out a throwing dagger. I looked across at Ephiny, who knelt on the other side of the body. I raised my eyebrows in silent question, as I handed over the dagger for her to examine.
"It's hers. Anyone who knows her would have known she carried this in her boot, though," Ephiny whispered.
"Yes," I paused. "Anyone who knows her."
I straightened up and nodded to the Amazon. She called two women forward to care for Velasca's body. The Amazons were chomping on the bit, as it were, to make someone pay for another Amazon death. I am positive that most of the women there had no idea what Velasca was like, but just as certain that there were perhaps a closed-mouth few, who were not surprised by the turn of events. I left Ephiny to explain Velasca's part in the murders to the rest of the women.
I slowly walked to the group of Centaurs. My men, along with the help of Kaleipus's command, disarmed Broh, who complained mightily the whole time.
"I save your life, Conqueror, and this is the thanks I get? Treated like a common criminal?" Broh complained.
"I wouldn't want to be remiss in thanking you, Broh, although it comes as somewhat of a surprise. I would have thought my death would have caused some happiness on your part."
Like Kaleipus, Broh was one of the older Centaurs who remembered me from my siege against Corinth. Many good warriors lost their lives in battle during that campaign, Broh's twin brother, Branah, among them. Broh took to hard drink for many seasons after that, but I remembered him, and the subtle attempts at assassination that he made on my life.
It was when I first went back to the Centaur Nation to see Solan. Only eight summers old, my own son tried to attack me. He admitted that he had been told of me, told that I killed his mother and father. He could have heard those tales anywhere. After all, there were no easy feelings between the Conqueror, and the Centaur Nation. I suspected it was Broh, however, and my suspicions had been confirmed after only a fortnight among them.
It seemed that Broh was a constant companion to Solan, and I always suspected that Broh had discovered my secret regarding Solan. Kaleipus said the boy had been good for the older Centaur, and so I said no more, but now . . . it all caused me to worry.
My suspicions had led me all along to believe that a Centaur was involved in some way, but it seemed evident that Velasca was a part of the plan, as well. I believed it had to be one or the other until my talk with Atrius. He helped me to see that two very different people, even hated enemies, could come together for a common purpose. There was one thing Velasca forgot about, however. Murderers rarely have a conscience, or are willing to think twice about killing their partners. Ephiny confirmed this last bit when she nodded to me.
The Amazons job in this scenario was to watch Velasca. My hidden card in this little game was Donai, and Inez. I played the odds, and hoped that once Velasca thought her plan, if not her very life, was in jeopardy; she would turn to her partner for either help, or encouragement. Ephiny's signal to me told me that Velasca did as predicted.
It took some convincing that morning to talk Kaleipus into helping me. Finally, all I could convince him to do was position Broh at the end or their group, perhaps off to one side. I wanted Velasca to have a clear shot at eliciting his help, but most importantly, I wanted there to be no confusion to Ephiny, that when Velasca thought all was lost, she would look up and over at her accomplice in a plea for assistance.
"Why don't we go into the Great Hall," I directed my words to Kaleipus. "We can sort out who did what, away from the eyes of the Amazons."
"Aye, Conqueror, a good idea," Kaleipus answered.
My Centaur friend's voice was tinged with sadness, though. I think he was just realizing that my suspicions regarding Broh were coming true. I worried more for Solan, though. The boy had been through so much recently. It's a hard thing, to realize your childhood idol has feet of clay.
Once I saw that Gabrielle was properly protected, I agreed when she asked to stay and speak to the Amazons. Who was I to refuse her request? She was their Queen now, but I think it would always be this way between us. It would take many, many seasons before I could convince Gabrielle of her own measure in this world.
* * * * * * * * * *
"A crossbow is your specialty weapon, isn't it, Broh?" I asked as I turned the Centaur's weapon over in my hands.
"I pride myself on my ability with it," he answered arrogantly.
I'm sure he thought he was beyond reach, having killed the only witness that knew of his part in the murders. Then there was Solan. Broh would end up, unwittingly, or not, using my own son against me in this. I don't think Solan would lie. He had recently come to understand, and develop by such attributes as integrity and honesty. He was young, however, and he was being called on to stand up for a friend. I sent a silent prayer to Athena that this young man would be able to live with his part in all of this.
"Tell me again, Broh, what did you see before you shot?" I asked.
"We've been over this six times," he grumbled. "Very well, it was simple. I saw you turn your back, and the Amazon went to draw a dagger from her boot. It was obvious from where I stood, I'm sure you saw the same thing, Antis." Broh asked the Centaur next to him for confirmation.
"I can't say as I was actually looking that closely, Broh. I could have missed it, I suppose," he replied haltingly.
"Well, I know Solan saw it," Broh turned to me once more. "He was standing right next to me, right lad?"
"Well, yes, I suppose I did see it . . . I think."
"You think?" Broh laughed. "Why it was as plain as a blossom in the snow!"
"Well . . . I, um--"
"Solan, come here and look at this," I requested.
Solan left Broh's side to stand before me, and I held out the dagger for him to examine. In truth, I wanted him away from Broh. I was uncertain about the Centaur, his hooves clicked on the stone floor impatiently, as his tail swished about in an involuntarily nervous gesture. I didn't want to take the chance that, if confronted, Broh would use Solan to make an escape.
"Is this the dagger, Solan?" I questioned him.
"Um . . . I suppose, I mean I guess it could be. It was rather far."
"It's all right, Solan, take your time." I placed my hand on his shoulder and allowed myself a small smile at my son. I wanted him to know that his best would always be good enough for me. I could feel the muscles in his back relax a bit at that.
"It could be, but . . . I mean, it happened so fast!" He looked at me, then turned to Broh with his words. I didn't like the expression of hatred I now saw in Broh's face, and I think Solan was noticing it for the first time. "I'm sorry, Broh, but I don't know if I can say for certain."
"She's made you soft, boy! Being with women'll do that to you!" Broh hissed.
The statement surprised me as much as Solan. "Wait a minut--" he took a step toward the Centaur, but I stopped him by grasping his arm.
"Which boot, Broh?" I asked.
"What?" he stopped and looked around.
Kaleipus took a step away from the angry Centaur. Whether the move was intentional or not, it's effect was in my favor. Broh now felt as if he were standing alone.
"Which boot?" I repeated. "Which did she try to draw it from?"
He had half a chance at guessing rightly, but I could see the calculation already going through his mind. It was taking him too long to answer because he was trying to remember which was Velasca's dominant hand. A good warrior kept a dagger in the boot opposite their sword hand, so they could have quick access to it. Broh was trying to figure out something that I already knew about Velasca from the morning I spent with her.
"Well, it was her right. Yes, her right because I wouldn't have seen it from the other side of her body."
He all but grinned at me when he finished the statement. He finally realized that he'd seen her use a sword in her left hand at some point. He answered confidently because he knew if she fought with her left hand, she carried a dagger in her left. As I said, he had half a chance at getting it right.
The small tidbit of information I gathered from Velasca was that she was a two-blade woman, equally adept with both right and left hand. She had no dominant hand. In addition, I had slipped the dagger out of her left boot.
"I took that dagger from her left boot," I said quietly, motioning to the weapon still in Solan's hand.
"Impossible!" Broh shouted as he backed away from the group. "Solan, now's the time to speak up lad. Back me up."
Solan looked confused, but he also wore an expression of pain. More than pain, I believe it was hurt. My son may have been a young man, but he was far from stupid. It took him only moments longer to come to the conclusion the rest of us had already met.
"Back you up?" He repeated in a strangled whisper. "Broh, Timara was . . . she was just a girl."
"She was an Amazon!" Broh spat out.
It was his undoing. It sealed his fate, but he was beyond caring. Every other Centaur, and soldier in the room now had their weapon fixed on him.
"You think you're so much better off now, being that whore's son?" He shouted out and I had to use both hands to hold back the boy this time.
"She's no better. She killed for sport in her day. Killed 'em all! Centaurs, Amazons, women, children! She has no idea the pain she's caused to those of us who lost our loved ones at the end of her blade!"
"I live with the pain, too, Broh." I said in a strong, even voice.
He spat on the floor near my feet. "You're no better than that Amazon. She wanted her own killed just so's she would have all the power. You're just the same."
"She's not!" Solan jerked free from my hold, but held his ground before me. My son would defend my honor? Even though the situation was deadly serious, I found that lovingly amusing.
"Her pain has changed her. You let yours control you, eat you away from the inside." Solan's eyes filled with tears, and no mother could have ever held more pride for a child than I did at that moment.
"Are you admitting the deed?" Kaleipus asked.
"You've become the Conqueror's puppet, old man! Of course, I admit it. The Amazon was too stupid to do it on her own. I killed the girl, but the Amazon killed her own Queen. It was easy, once I shouted out that there was a weapon. I almost avenged my brother's death, too. I had your little slut in my bow sights, Conqueror!" he spat.
"That's what all this was for?" I had to confirm his words. "Two women dead, simply to cause me pain?"
Broh just glared, and I looked over at Solan. The young man was staring at his old friend as if he'd never seen him before.
"If it's pain you want to see, Broh, then prepare yourself." Kaleipus's face was one of determination and anger. "You will learn of Centaur justice today."
The others led him out onto the terrace, to go out to their encampment without going through the throng of Amazons. It surprised me somewhat. I didn't expect him to be led to his death quite so quietly. He neither fought nor said another word. He merely followed his captors along like a docile lamb. Perhaps, a heart as black as his wished for nothing more than death to end his pain. I knew that feeling. I had experienced it many times in the past seasons. Too hurt to go on, yet too afraid to meet the consequences of the afterlife.
To be continued in........Chapter 19: Roaming The Garden Yonder To And Fro