Princess of the Realm by WarriorJudge

warrior woman

LOVE/SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER : This story involves both love and sex (at times some rough/raw play with very mild BDSM elements – all consensual – nothing severe) between two adult women. If you’re under 18 or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it.

Princess of the Realm 
by WarriorJudge

Part 1

It was nighttime and a perfect full moon ornamented the clear, spring sky. Nature was in bloom and a light breeze that sauntered low above the ground carried and spread an assortment of odors from the Imperial Gardens throughout the lands surrounding it. One could smell the imminent arrival of summer and the dryness of future heat waves with a soft acridity like sensing the might of the sun before daybreak.

“Pull it out!” the Conqueror’s voice was laden with urgency. “Pull it out at once!” she repeated as she sat in her favorite armchair in the candle-lit Imperial bedchamber.

“It is already out, my Lord,” the Queen replied, smiling with amusement she simply couldn’t curb.

“Are you sure?” the Conqueror asked suspiciously.

“I am, my Lord,” the Queen confirmed.

“Give it here for me to see,” the Conqueror demanded, trying to master her distress, and opened her hand to her wife.

“Here,” the Queen said, placing a single silver hair in the Conqueror’s palm.

The Conqueror brought the treacherous hair, which dared defy its Master by changing its color, to her eyes. The Conqueror examined it closely with equal amount of uneasiness and disbelief. “Are there any more of… these…?” she asked with concern and her bare foot tapped impatiently if not nervously against the floorboards. The word ‘these’ she uttered with a sentiment approaching disgust.

The Queen chuckled as she wove her fingers through her Lord’s mane several times and inspected the dark tresses fastidiously under the light. “None,” she finally concluded and stepped away from her sitting and robed Lord. She walked over to the balcony and drew the curtains more widely to permit the scent of blossoms to waft inside.

The Queen’s laughter irritated the Conqueror to no small extent. “I envy you for maintaining your beautiful shiny gold,” she finally said and beheld her wife as the latter went to lie in their spacious bed between the crimson satin linens.

“It is only fair for I am younger than you, my Lord,” the Queen smirked and extended her arm, signaling an invitation to her Lord to join her in bed.

The tall Sovereign stood up, mindlessly brushed her fingers through her hair and approached their bed, dragging her feet. When she reached the foot of the bed, the Queen rose to her knees on the bed and threw her arms around the Conqueror’s neck.

“Besides,” she said and kissed the Conqueror’s jaw, “you are the most powerful in the entire world.” She pushed away the robe off the Conqueror’s shoulders, exposing her perfectly shaped muscular body to her appreciative eyes.

The Conqueror untied the silk laces of the Queen’s ivory nightgown with the delight of unwrapping a priceless present.

“And you still swive like a lad in his prime,” the Queen whispered hotly into her Lord’s ear, her own words causing her nipples to toughen. “There’s virile potency in your loins that keeps me at a constant state of readiness to receive you,” she said, kissing the Conqueror’s smiling lips as her hand rubbed the large bulge over the Conqueror’s breeches.

The Conqueror let her hands do the talking for her. She sent them to roam over supple breasts and down to the small swell of the Queen’s belly.

“Can you feel it kicking, yet?” the Conqueror asked as her large palm affectionately caressed the precious mound.

“It is too early, my Lord,” the Queen replied, though the lion portion of her attention pooled lower, between her thighs with a fire that was rapidly amassing there.

“Are the healers pleased with you?” the Conqueror inquired and nuzzled the hollow between her wife’s neck and shoulder.

“They are,” the Queen rasped as she lowered herself to sit on her heels. With raw excitement that she could barely control, she toiled to rid her Lord of her breeches, rendering her completely naked. “Now, please lay on your stomach,” she asked and pulled off the nightgown that her Lord had unlaced, as well.

The Conqueror pursed her lips but complied without protest, folding her arms upwards and resting her high cheekbone over the back of her hands.

The Queen fetched a vial with perfumed oil, which was sent to her all the way from the Realm’s province of Chin. She warmed it over a burning candle and then moved and perched herself in a straddling position on top of the Conqueror’s backside.

She applied the oil to her hands and rubbed her palms together before she began kneading the Conqueror’s sculpted muscles, blissfully releasing some rigid knots along the steel spine created by the tensions that were the consequence of ruling an Empire. Her hands slid skillfully over taut skin, and the feel of the Conqueror’s firmness between her legs aroused her to the point of lubricating it with her natural fluids.

The Conqueror released a low groan under her Queen’s touch and she relaxed her body.

“I have a request, my Lord,” the Queen said as she leaned down till her nipples connected with the Conqueror’s shoulder blades and the swell of her belly with the Conqueror’s lower back.

“So your sweet seduction is merely an inducement designed to mollify my resolve?” the Conqueror frowned in good spirit.

“My ‘ sweet seduction,’ as you so eloquently put it, is for both our pleasure, mine as much as yours, or can’t you feel me dripping all over you,” the Queen asserted and slowly swayed and grounded her womanhood against the Conqueror’s slick backside to demonstrate how wet she was. It occurred to her, then, that it was the fact that the Conqueror could rise at any given moment and overpower her that aroused her the most.

“What is it, then?” the Conqueror asked, amused and anxious to hear the Queen’s answer.

“This summer, let us travel to the Amazon Lands rather than Thira , for I wish to give birth there,” she spoke tenderly and her hands ceased all movement.

“I had half a mind to forgo our trip to Thira altogether this summer. You should not be traveling anywhere in your condition,” the Conqueror replied as she reined in a rush of sudden panic. “I worry about you and my concern for your well-being takes precedence over everything else,” she further said with all the tenderness she forced herself to muster, and inwardly she hoped that her wife wouldn’t be too adamant about it.

“Your concern moves me profoundly and I love you dearly for it,” the Queen whispered and touched her lips to her Lord’s cheek, “Though, I wish more than anything that you would not, for you trouble yourself and suffer without cause. All will be well.”

“The Amazon Lands, you say…” the Conqueror pondered, somewhat jarred and gloomy. Restlessness caused her to lift up her head off her hands.

“Please, my Lord, I beseech you,” the Queen whispered and pelted the Conqueror’s features with kisses.

“Very well,” the Conqueror finally let out and hoped she would not live to regret it. “I will have all necessary arrangements made to guarantee your safety.” She turned around beneath her wife to lie prone on her back. Facing her, she looked upwards to meet her Queen’s gaze. “Any other requests?” she asked while cupping her wife’s hefty breasts and ensnared two perfect nipples between her fingers. She only raised the question as a prelude to lovemaking, but the expression about her wife’s countenance indicated to her that the Queen was considering some other issue quite earnestly.

“I was hoping…” the Queen began to say but hesitation prevented her from finishing her sentence.

“What?” the Conqueror encouraged her to continue.

“This child I should like to keep close to me.” The Queen’s answer was barely audible. Memories of their daughter and heir to the Throne, Princess Athena, being ripped away from her some years ago at the age of four by her Lord for the purpose of attending the Military Academy in Rome thus for the good of the Realm haunted her still and unnerved her.

“It is too early to speak of such matters, is it not? The child hasn’t even been born yet,” the Conqueror answered and released her wife’s breasts from her grasp.

“Perhaps, but it bothers me now,” the Queen argued.

The Conqueror looked into her wife’s troubled eyes. She knew there was precious little she could deny her wife, especially whilst in her delicate condition. She wondered whether her wife took advantage of that fact and timed her requests accordingly.

“This child will be brought up and educated close to us,” the Conqueror pledged.

“Thank you, my gracious Lion,” the Queen said, leaning down and leisurely stretching her body over the Conqueror’s lengthy form. “I wager this time you wish for a son,” she remarked.

“Not at all. All I wish is for you and our child to survive childbirth in good constitution and nothing else.”

The Queen rested her head over the Conqueror’s chest and listened to the steady heartbeats while gazing pensively at the flames burning atop the candlesticks on the nightstand, feeling very blessed.

The Conqueror’s thoughts wandered to Athena. “Athena would probably join us in the Amazon Lands. She has visited with them twice already since our return to Corinth .”

The Queen began to laugh. “Your daughter has lain with half of them by now already and I am persuaded that she is steadfast about having knowledge of the other half.”

“Did she tell you that?!” the Conqueror was surprised, not by her daughter’s liaisons, of course, but by the fact that she had obviously shared details of her escapades, her conquests, with the Queen instead of her.

“Not in so many words. Besides, I know her. She is very much your daughter, my Lord, and she is a rogue,” the Queen smirked.

“Well, I would have thought there were plenty of beautiful women in Corinth and Athens . Why travel all the way to the Amazon Lands for sport?” the Conqueror wondered out loud.

“Perhaps she fancies her women strong-spirited and willful,” the Queen suggested with a taunting smile.

The Conqueror sighed in resignation, and in good humor delivered her Queen with a well-honed remark of her own. “Have I taught her nothing?!”

With her laughing Queen in her arms, the Conqueror rolled them both till she was lying on top of her wife, minding the Queen’s belly.

Sensing the Conqueror’s shaft pressing against her thigh, the Queen instinctively moaned.

“I’ll be gentle,” the Conqueror promised.

“That is most unfortunate, my Lord,” the Queen said with undeniable frustration. “I swear I know how being in Tartarus must be like, for when with child I am always most… concupiscent… Yet I cannot have my desires fully content as they require.”

The Conqueror burst into laughter, and then sucked the tender flesh beneath the Queen’s breast. She empathized with her wife, for the mere sight of her carrying their child signifying her wife’s fertility aggravated her lust for her. “What do you want me to do to you?” she asked with a low hoarse voice.

The Queen needed not a respite to contemplate her particular preference. She bucked and swiveled her drenched need against the Conqueror’s loins above her. “I crave for you to cram your cock into me and swive me as though I was your wench, my dark brute Lord.” It was evident that she derived great delight from the obscenities that came out of her mouth but soon enough, the reality of her condition perforated her overheated haze and she pouted, “But surely you cannot…”

But the Conqueror interrupted her speech. “You speak as if you have forgotten who I am,” the Conqueror playfully scolded her. “Take the vial and pour some of the oil into you palms,” the Authoritarian commanded. Her hoarse voice made the Queen’s slit contract.

“How much should I pour?” the Queen asked, excited.

“The more the better,” the Conqueror suggested then balefully added, “For you.”

The Queen did as she was ordered and when her palms were slick and glistening by the oil, the Conqueror lifted up her own body above her wife, suspending it over her strong arms till her member was dangling in the air like a heavy pendulum.

“Now, take it in your hands and grease it properly,” came another order.

The Queen closed her fists around the shaft and rubbed the oil into the black leather, back and forth along its length.

“That’s it,” the Conqueror groaned. “Nice and slow,” she further instructed as she felt the base of her shaft being pressed repeatedly against her sex. “So, you wish to be my wench, do you?” the Conqueror asked.

The Queen’s eyes widened with surprise and she could hardly wait to see to where the Conqueror would guide them. “I do, my Lord,” she confirmed as her heart began to beat a little faster with anticipation of exploring uncharted territories.

“No one refers to me by that honorific other than her Majesty the Queen, my wife,” the Conqueror berated the woman beneath her.

It started to become clearer to the Queen what was on the Conqueror’s mind and she knew with absolute certainty that she would play her role to perfection. The very idea of her Lord illicitly taking her as a stranger and as a woman of easy virtue nearly made her reach her peak without a single touch to her labia. Catering to her Lord’s desires in such fashion reminded her of distant times when she had been her Lord’s body slave. Only now things were different. Now she knew that she was loved and cherished.

By the Conqueror’s decree slavery was eradicated, yet she was well aware of the differences between a prostitute and a body slave. A body slave wasn’t paid for her services, where as a prostitute was free to determine her fee. A body slave was owned, where as a prostitute was her own master and was merely rented. The laws of the Realm were very protective of women of that particular trade. For example, the Conqueror forbade any form of pimping by law. But by far the greatest difference was that a body slave could not refuse her master, where as a prostitute had the discretion to either accept or refuse a customer. In this game that her Lord had purposed, she could act as a body servant but with some power, the power to refuse and to bargain, and she knew her Lord had intended it to be so. Of course, she couldn’t even imagine herself refusing her Lord her fleshly graces.

“I beg your Majesty’s forgiveness. I did not know that your Majesty was married,” she answered and a brief faint smile across the Conqueror’s lips indicated that her reply was satisfactory.

“Indeed I am, and I should tell you, my wife is by far the best lay I have ever had and I have sampled plenty,” the Conqueror said.

It was at that moment that the Queen truly felt for the first time that she was no longer her Lord’s wife and Queen, but a wench to be used by the great Lord Conqueror and to be made prey to her wanton pleasures, and it drove her mad with desire. “I promise to do all that I can to please and satisfy your Majesty to a higher peak than your Majesty’s exceptionally accommodating wife and Queen,” she answered, her hands still busy on the Conqueror’s member.

“Accommodating?” the Conqueror furrowed an eyebrow.

“Well, her Majesty the Queen ought to be accommodating and forbearing to comply with your Majesty’s infidelities,” the Queen replied and lowered her eyes so not to meet with the Conqueror’s, as an act of humility.

The Conqueror’s response to that statement was a rolling laughter. She thought her wife’s answer was nothing short of brilliant. Keeping with their game, the Conqueror scoffed and said, “My wife would never consent to this.”

“Not observation of a duty but love itself is the pledge that assures fidelity ,” the Queen commented.

“This has very little to do with love and very much to do with lust,” the Conqueror remarked, “Now, state your price,” she ordered.

The Queen was baffled, for she had no earthly idea of the customary tariffs for such services, but her quick mind prevailed. “The usual rate, Majesty,” she replied.

“And if I wish to use your back ring?” the Conqueror persisted and flicked her tongue over a nipple.

“That would cost extra, your Majesty,” the Queen replied and couldn’t help but wonder how many times in the past her Lord had engaged in such negotiations before she had entered her Lord’s service, but quickly decided it wasn’t important anymore and it hadn’t been for a very long time.

The Conqueror patently took pleasure in negotiating the terms. “And if I want to take you roughly?”

“It depends on the measure. How rough is your Majesty’s pleasure?”

“As rough as you allow,” the Conqueror replied with a wicked yet charming smile.

“Let us agree on double the usual rate, for I sense that your Majesty’s need is urgent and I do not wish to keep your Majesty waiting any longer,” the Queen concluded.

“Any restrictions I should know about beforehand?” the Conqueror inquired as she began to turn the Queen and lift her up to stand on all fours.

“For you?! None, your Majesty. I am your Majesty’s, to do as your Majesty pleases,” she replied meekly and stood on all fours, arching her back downwards and making her buttocks accessible.

“Rub oil on the orifice I’m about to fill,” the Conqueror instructed and leaned backwards to better watch the Queen obeying her bidding.

The Queen spilled oil on her fingertips and reached behind her. She could feel the Conqueror’s glare stalking her every move as she smeared the oil over the tight opening. She made quite a show of it, and moaned heavily as her fingers lubricated the hole, nestling between two luscious orbs.

She soon felt slippery hardness pressuring the tight ring of her anus and a slow and cautious invasion into the rear passage by her Lord’s titanic phallus. A wrenching groan escaped her as heat lightening sizzled from her core and soared to her nipples.

“Whatever happens, you will always be mine,” the Queen heard her Lord crooning from above her and it caused her hips to jut out in uncontrollable lunges. The Conqueror snaked her hand to attend to it, her fingers scrubbing over Gabrielle’s vibrating clitoris.

There was no roughness, only deep, raw thrusts that slowly stroked the Queen sensitive sphincter and created delicious friction inside. The Queen wanted more but the Conqueror wouldn’t allow it and so she ignored the Queen’s fevered clawing against the side of her thigh and the thin line of blood wending from the cut designed to spur her on and take her harder. Her wife’s and her unborn child’s safety came before everything else. She unburdened her Queen of that responsibility and took it upon herself.

The Conqueror exerted a strong hold on the lean waist beneath her, so to dictate her own pace and control her wife’s. The pushes into the Queen were almost like gentle rotating nudges, and nothing like a copulation with a whore, for no punter would be as considerate, the Queen thought, as the firm massage to her swollen tough nub brought her to the zenith.

When they came, the Conqueror moved her hand lower and delved her finger into her wife’s sex to prolong and multiply her ecstasy. Weakened by their release, they lay down on their side still as one flesh until the Conqueror detached herself from her wife.

After a short rest, when the sexual act was over, the Conqueror rose off the bed. She opened the middle drawer of her nightstand and retrieved five golden coins. She looked down at her wife, who still lay in bed, basking in the afterglow and the glow of pregnancy, and casually threw the coins at her wife’s feet.

The Queen collected the coins one by one, as her final act in this game they played. “Do prostitutes really earn that much?” she asked curiously and looked upwards to meet her Lord’s eyes.

The Conqueror grinned, “Only those who service me and who are married to me,” she muttered and strutted outside to stand on the balcony to soak her lungs with the nightly, fresh spring air.

After awhile, she stepped back into the bedchamber, careful not to wake her wife. Standing over her, she gently pulled up the quilt and just as she was about to cover her Queen’s nakedness, she heard a drowsy voice calling out to her.

“My Lord?” the Queen stretched her body in bed and yawned.

“Why are you not yet asleep?” the Conqueror whispered.

“I waited for you to return to bed,” the Queen replied quietly. “I sleep better with you in here with me,” she went on to say and tapped the empty spot that was her Lord’s side of the bed.

Pinching the flames burning over her nightstand between her thumb and forefinger, the Conqueror snuffed the light out, making the bedchamber bleaker, and lay next to her Queen. She folded her right arm under her head, signaling to her wife that she was not ready to sleep just yet.

“What is on your mind, my Lord?” the Queen asked with a soft voice, knowing the calming effect it had on the Conqueror.

“Do you ever think about what would have happened if there was no Realm, if I wasn’t its Ruler, if you were never sold into slavery?” the Conqueror asked and wouldn’t spare her wife a glance.

The Queen lifted herself up and leaned on her elbow, as if looking at the Conqueror’s features could teach her about the Conqueror’s strange frame of mind.

“What is this about, Xena?” she asked and purposefully made no effort to conceal the alarm in her voice.

“There is no cause for you to be frightened. I simply wish to know,” the Conqueror’s voice trailed off, “Do you ever wonder?”

“I used to,” the Queen admitted and when she conjured the recollection in her mind she smiled fondly as if reminiscing about ethereal, no longer attainable childhood dream. “Soon after you married me,” she elaborated. “At the time I didn’t much consider the Realm, mind you. It was more of a secret fantasy of mine, really, where I am a young lass, down by the creek with my mother washing sheets longer than my own height and batting them against the rocks. Along comes a tall fierce rider wildly galloping, faster than the winds. Her hair is dark and her eyes are two orbs of blue flames… the kind of blue that is nowhere to be found in nature.

“The warrior dismounts her horse and leads it to the water to quench its thirst. She moves her sword on her thigh to the side and squats down next to me to fill her flasks. I watch her strong arms as her muscles strain to keep the flasks under the purling waters and for the first time in my life I know what want is. I become wet in her smoldering presence. My mother takes one look at the dark warrior and she instantly knows that she is trouble for she would be the one who takes me away from her. My mother puts the damp sheets into her basket and returns home without protest, for she knows I’m already lost to her.”

The Queen interlaced her fingers with the Conqueror’s, who wore a tender smile on her lips as she beheld her wife’s magnificent profile. “The warrior picks a flower, a red Anemone Coronaria, and braids it in my hair. Her low smoky voice speaks to me of my beauty and innocence. She holds out her hand to me and I take it, utterly willing to be guided by her. She takes me to a nearby barn and asks my permission and I give it absolutely.”

The smile across the Conqueror’s lips widened, for she had almost forgotten how gifted a storyteller her Queen was.

“She has her way with me amidst the freshly harvested hay and it is not just passion and pleasure, but a revelation to me.” The Queen noticed her Lord’s eyes become heavy and she planted a kiss against a calm temple. “She asks me to go with her and in my heart I know I would follow her anywhere. Throughout our lives together, she gives me the world by showing it to me.”

The Queen kissed her sleeping Lord one last time before succumbing to a peaceful nocturnal repose.

The very next day, the Conqueror summoned three craftsmen and ordered them to build a large wagon padded with down-filled cushions, thick pallet and furs resembling a mobile-canopied Imperial bed to accommodate and protect the Queen throughout the duration of her journey to the Amazon Lands. Moreover, she ordered the roads leading to their destination cleared of obstacles, leveled and paved to allow safe and steady passage. In later years it would be known as ‘The Queen’s Road” and would be the best and fasted route to the provinces neighboring the Amazon enclave to be used by all subjects of the Realm.

Three moons had passed and the craftsmen, along with the taskmaster who had been invested with preparing the roads to the Amazon Lands, returned to the Lord Conqueror and informed her of the completion of all assignments.

Closer to noon, the Conqueror took another meeting in the War Hall with several of her generals, a master of geography, intelligence advisers and maps draftsmen.

“I trust my orders where executed,” she addressed them.

“Of course, Majesty,” replied one of her generals.

The Conqueror pinned her eyes into the master draftsman and wagged her fingers. “Let me see,” she instructed.

The master draftsman signaled his colleagues to assist him. They all stood up and stepped away from the long wooden table. They carried several rolled parchments, great in size, and began to hang them one by one on a huge wooden board that covered the better part of the wall to the Conqueror’s right. When they were done, a highly detailed comprehensive map of the Realm was spread before the assembly. It was colorful and had many exceptional markings on it that resembled a giant spider’s cobweb. It looked more like an elaborate masterful work of art than anything else.

“Each of these signs represents a beacon, I take it?” the Conqueror inquired and waved her forefinger on which she wore her seal ring at the general direction of the map.

“Indeed, Majesty,” the master draftsman replied.

The Conqueror paced back and forth and examined the map closely. “On our last march to the Amazon Lands, I realized that since the Realm is so vast, a better system of messaging ought to be installed so that either alarm or any other vital and urgent information could travel efficiently between the many provinces and Corinth .”

“Your Majesty was very wise to devise it,” said the Chief Commander of the Imperial Guard.

“Are all the beacons built and manned?” the Conqueror asked another one of her generals.

He stood up as soon as the Conqueror addressed him. “Aye, Majesty. Each post is shielded, well equipped and guarded by three scouts and three guardsmen, a pair to cover each shift of the day,” he answered .

“And the fire signals?” the Conqueror turned to her intelligence advisers.

Both men harried to their feet, pulled out their chairs from behind them and approached the Conqueror. They presented her with a scroll.

The Conqueror opened it and ran her eyes through it.

“As your Majesty can see, we have developed a set of fire signals which is uncomplicated enough to understand and operate. All personnel stationed in each post of the beacons were taught and they all mastered it.”

“Has this method been tested?”

“It has been, Majesty, several times. The trials were a success and the method proved to be easy enough to master.”

Meanwhile, in the Queen’s chambers, the Queen was dressed by her ladies in waiting with a lavish silver-turquoise satin dress with white golden threads sewn into the delicate glittering fabric along with dozens of wild pearls. When fully dressed, one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting placed an arch encrusted with pearls atop the Queen’s head, while the other clasped a pearl necklace around her neck.

“You look marvelous, Majesty,” one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting commented and clapped her hands in satisfaction.

“Thank you, Lady Astraea,” the Queen said and touched the necklace with her fingertips and fiddled with the gold talisman in the shape of a clam holding a single rare blue pearl.

“They complement your great beauty, Majesty,” said Lady Astraea, who was the oldest of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, in reference to the many pearls decorating the Queen’s person and regalia.

“They were a gift from my gracious Lord,” the Queen beamed as if she was really telling her servants ‘Behold how much my Lord loves me.’ A distinct motion in her womb coupled with a tiny swell on the apex of her belly disrupted her thoughts. “That would be all, ladies,” she dismissed her servants.

Her ladies in waiting curtsied before her as Queen Gabrielle made her way out of her chambers and down to the War Hall. As she reached the doors with the two crossed spears and the Conqueror’s banner in the middle of them above the chamber doors, she met with a servant who stood vigilant at the entrance ready should his Master inside issue an order.

“Majesty,” he bowed before his Queen.

The Queen nodded her head in acknowledgment.

“The Lord Conqueror is in council, Majesty,” he said.

“I know,” she replied and he quickly opened the doors before her.

As soon as the Queen’s foot passed over the threshold, the servant announced into the War Hall, “Her Majesty the Queen!”

All present in the War Hall neglected their activities, jumped to their feet and turned immediately to face their Sovereign Queen, who placed a protective touch beneath the lower left side of her grown belly as she walked.

“Majesty,” they all murmured with their gazes downcast as they bowed.

The Conqueror stepped away from the map, the scroll and her advisers. She seemed well entertained by the stunning distraction. She covered the distance between herself and her Queen.

“My Lord,” the Queen curtsied before the Conqueror as deeply as her condition allowed her.

“My Lady,” the Conqueror bowed before her Queen with a gleeful smile that demonstrated just how much she was pleased to see her, and offered her hand to her so that the Queen wouldn’t strain herself.

“I hope my presence doesn’t inconvenience you, my Lord,” the Queen said and the Conqueror waved her other hand, avidly dismissing the Queen’s concern.

“What is it, sweetheart?” the Conqueror asked and lead her Queen to the closest chair available.

Still standing, the Queen took the Conqueror’s hand in hers and guided it to her swollen belly. “I thought my Lord might wish to feel our child moving inside me.”

A jolt of excitement coursed through the Conqueror as her spread palm connected with Queen’s belly with anticipation. The first sign of life pushed against the Ruler’s palm and pinched her heart.

“The child is strong,” the Conqueror said to her wife, very satisfied.

“Any child sired by my Lord would be,” the Queen whispered so that the assembly in the War Hall wouldn’t be privy to it. However, the Queen’s circumspect whisper caused the Conqueror to become aware of the fact that they weren’t alone.

“Commanders, gentlemen, I promised her Majesty a light stroll in the Imperial gardens before supper. Leave it for me to study,” she commanded and glanced at the scroll and the map.

“You are welcome to join us for supper,” the Queen extended a munificent grant.

All eyes turned back to the Conqueror with uncertainty, for at the beginning of the council she had ordered them back to their business once the meeting was over.

“What are you looking at me for?” the Conqueror scolded them, “You heard your Queen!”

“Yes, Majesty,” they all replied with genuine joy and gratitude about them for the great privilege of dining with their Sovereigns and the unborn heir, who would be second in line for the succession.

The Conqueror offered the Queen her hand, resting a gentle hand against the small of her back for support, and as they made their way out of the War Hall and into the Imperial gardens, their subjects bowed before them and humbly mumbled “Majesties.”

The Conqueror led her Queen out to the Imperial gardens to soak in the sunlight, but chose the longer path near the woods at the south end of the palace. She narrowed her gaits for her Queen’s comfort and moderated her pace to a slow saunter. “I have a gift for you, for the one you are about to give me, Gabrielle,” she said and looked at the Queen intently.

“You are too generous, my Lion. This child is as much your gift to me as it is my gift to you,” the Queen argued but then, from a distance, her gaze caught sight of a peculiar looking structure comprised of countless decorative iron bars like huge roofless cages. “What is this!?” her voice was faint with astonishment.

“I have had a menagerie built for your pleasure,” the Conqueror said, anxious to reach the pavilion she commissioned, which stood in the center of the vast iron-fenced arena that was divided by bars into three habitats.

The Queen could barely contain her excitement. “What animals did you acquire to inhabit it?” she asked and fondly pulled at her Lord’s arm.

“Guess,” was the only word the Conqueror offered as an answer.

“Lions,” the Queen gasped. It would be the first time she had ever seen the live animal in the flesh rather than upon a mosaic, a painting or a statue.

Each of the three areas surrounding the pavilion had a few short trees planted in them, an artificial lair built of Egyptian stone and a high level grass and some shrubs. Throughout all three crossed a sluice that channeled water to a watermill to give the appearance of a natural flowing creek with a purling stream.

The Conqueror and the Queen walked together through one of the three paths leading to the pavilion, to each side of them two of the three areas separated by two rows of iron bars for safety.

When crossing the small wooden bridge over the sluice, the Queen saw her first lion.

She halted her advance abruptly. “Look!” she exclaimed with excitement and pointed at the large predator walking with graceful leisure.

The Conqueror cast a glance to where the Queen was pointing and issued a warning, “Do not excite yourself, Gabrielle.”

But the Queen was too ecstatic to mind her Lord’s words. “How magnificent…” she sighed wide-eyed.

“The menagerie is divided into three areas. In each area there are three different types of lions. To your right, there is a dark-mane lion and a lioness brought in from Persia . To your left, there is a gold-mane lion and a lioness brought in from Egypt, and in the third area, which you’ll soon see once we reach the pavilion, there is a white lion and a lioness,” the Conqueror explained, not completely sure that her Queen was even listening. She seemed far too engrossed by the carnivore.

“A white lion?” the Queen asked exuberantly.

“Indeed. They are quite rare, you know,” the Conqueror stated not without some measure of pride. She wanted to impress her Queen.

“Thank you, my only true Lion,” the Queen rose to stand on her tiptoes, anchored her hand at the back of the Conqueror’s head and brought it down so to place a kiss on the Conqueror’s cheek.

The Conqueror delighted in the Queen’s happiness and gathered her tenderly in her arms, both watching the majestic beast. Not before long, the lioness came out of the lair and joined the lion, who was examining its owners and Masters.

“Did you know that lionesses are polyestrous?” the Conqueror asked, “Do you know what polyestrous mean?”

“That lionesses can go into heat several times a year,” the Queen replied with a knowing smile.

“Correct. Lions do not mate at any specific time of year,” the Conqueror said.

“Just like us,” the Queen smirked.

The Conqueror chuckled and went on to say, rather thoughtfully, “And did you know that during a mating bout, which could last several days, the couple copulates twenty to forty times a day?”

“Just like us,” the Queen repeated and playfully jabbed the Conqueror’s ribs with her elbow. “Oh look… it is feeding time,” the Queen said and pointed her finger to the pavilion where the groundskeeper threw large pieces of bloody meat into the cage-like area.

But the majestic animals paid no attention to it. The lioness pranced twice around the dark-mane lion, then lay down, lifted her rear and moved her tail to the side.

“During their mating bout,” the Conqueror continued to tell her captivated spouse, “They are likely to forgo eating.”

The Queen laughed and pressed her body to her Lord’s. “Just like us.”

The lion roared then dipped its nose under the lioness’ tail. Soon after, the lion mounted the lioness while licking its mate’s nape with its large pink tongue and grazing it with its fearsome canines.

“Just like us,” the Queen was compelled to say once more and elicited a healthy laughter out of the Conqueror’s mouth.

The Royals were riveted by the enticing display of mighty nature taking its course and all too soon the lion detached itself from the lioness.

“Over so soon?” the Queen protested. “We never finish so quickly…” her lips pouted.

The Conqueror’s heart overflowed with love for her Queen at that moment. She wrapped her arm around her Queen’s waist, sensing some form of tension in the smaller frame, and they made their way to the pavilion to see the white lions as well.

“Would it be wrong for me to say that…I’m in heat, my Lord?” the Queen spoke quietly, realizing they were well within an earshot of the groundskeeper.

The Conqueror didn’t manage a reply before the groundskeeper closed the distance between them.

“Majesties,” the groundskeeper greeted them and bowed before them.

“They are marvelous, are they not?” the Conqueror sounded exceptionally pleased.

“Very much so, Majesty,” he replied and turned his gaze to the Queen. “I hope they meet with your approval, Majesty,” he said.

“They are wonderful. Thank you,” she answered and hoped she didn’t sound too short with the man, only she wanted to be alone with her Lord.

“You may take your leave,” the Conqueror said to him as if reading her wife’s thoughts.

The groundskeeper bowed again and left their presence. The Conqueror and the Queen entered the pavilion and through the iron bars watched the white lion and lioness together.

“Though they are rare, my Lord, I think I like the dark-mane lion better,” she said and beheld her Lord adoringly.

“Of course you do,” the Conqueror cupped her wife’s beautiful features, “Are you in heat still, my Lady?”

The Queen rubbed the tip of her golden head against the Conqueror’s jaw and nuzzled her neck. She then crouched down and grasped the iron bars, bracing herself while her Lord took her from behind.

“Soon there’ll be cubs,” the Conqueror growled.
Part 2
It was at the beginning of autumn when a convoy consisting of thirty warriors of the Imperial Guard, the Queen’s ladies in waiting, a dozen of the Conqueror’s servants along with her groom, the healers and Princess Athena, began their journey to the Amazon Lands.

The Conqueror rode on her favorite horse in the middle of the convoy. Two Imperial guards holding the Conqueror’s banners in their hands rode before her and two at the back of it. The rest of them rode in two straight rows to each side of the convoy. Princess Athena rode to the right of her Sire. The Queen’s wagon slowly advanced behind the Conqueror. The wagons loaded with previsions for the road and the servants traveled behind the Queen’s wagon. Also in one of those wagons were the chief healer, a healer that had been sent from the Realm’s province of Chin by its governor, the former ambassador and advisor to the Queen, Sing-Xian, and a midwife.

A rain of dried leaves accompanied the Imperial procession. A light lukewarm breeze rustled the ones still attached to the trees and played the music of the season. The moderated clucking sound of hooves beats, the rolling of the heavy wagons’ wheels against the paved road, and the gentle rocking soothed the Queen and lulled her into light slumber for most of the ride.

Suddenly, the left front wheel of the Queen’s wagon rose above a large rock on the road, causing the left side of the heavy wagon to be lifted off the ground. As the horses pulled the wagon onwards, the left front side of the wagon crashed back down to the ground with a loud noise, rattling the entire wagon with a startled, short-breathed Queen in it.

The Conqueror tugged hard at the reins, bringing her horse to a full stop. The entire convoy halted its advance, as well. The Conqueror then pulled the reins to the left and rode back to where the Queen’s wagon stood.

The groom riding the wagon knew in his heart what was coming. As he watched the Conqueror covering the small distance between them with a wild gallop, he cringed where he sat and braced himself, knowing nothing could save him.

When the Conqueror passed him by, the groom was surprised and relieved and the tension that gripped his shoulders abated.

The Conqueror halted when she reached the back of the wagon. Still astride her horse, she pushed the veil draped over the entrance to the side and peered inside.

She saw the Queen lying inside surrounded by soft furs and cushions like a jam inside an extravagant jewelry box, one hand covering her heaving chest and the other secured above her belly.

“All is well, my Lord. I was not harmed in any way, I assure you,” the Queen hurried to inform the Conqueror of her current state.

However, there was no assuring the Conqueror.

“Healers!” She called at the direction of their wagon down the convoy and the two elderly men stepped out of the wagon, carrying leather satchels with tools of their trade, and approached her.

The Queen thought it entirely unnecessary but she didn’t argue with her Lord. As her belly had grown for the past moons, out of care, concern and devotion, the Conqueror had restricted her movements and allowed her less and less as the days had gone by. The Conqueror had delicately yet resolutely prevented her from receiving audience so not to exhaust her and to keep odds of the Queen being infected by others’ illnesses to a minimum; her meals had been brought to the Imperial chambers by her ladies in waiting; scrolls from the Imperial library had also been brought to the Imperial chambers for the Queen’s pleasure; the palace household had been ordered to report to the Conqueror about any event in the Queen’s day, no matter how small or insignificant. In effect, the Queen of the Realm along with her ladies in waiting had gradually become sequestered. Knowing how great her Lord’s fear of losing her had been, the Queen had refrained from complaining or arguing.

Above all, the Queen had rued the dwindling of her Lord’s attentions, which her pregnancy relegated into gentle, lambent, fluttering touches to her bodily tokens, and the fact that her Lord had refused the Queen’s intimate offerings. She knew it wasn’t just her sacrifice, for she had sensed the heat emanating from her Lord’s skin and her Lord’s tongue running over her teeth whenever her Lord would catch a glimpse of her bare swollen belly and ample breasts.

Both healers bowed before the Conqueror.

“Attend to the Queen’s Majesty,” the Conqueror ordered them.

“Yes, Majesty,” they said while a wooden crate was placed at the foot of the Queen’s wagon beneath the entrance by one of the Conqueror’s diligent servants so as to enable them an easy climb.

Once inside, the veil was pulled shut and the entire convoy waited for the healers to reemerge. After awhile, the Chief healer’s head loomed out.

“Well?!” the Conqueror asked impatiently and it seemed as though she passed on her restlessness to the animal beneath her.

“Her Majesty is well. There are not indications of any injuries, Majesty,” the Chief healer said as he noticed the subtle change in the Conqueror’s demeanor from one of anxiousness to one of relief. “With your Majesty’s permission, my foreign colleague and I request to be allowed to remain with her Majesty for a while, only as a precaution.”

“So be it,” the Ruler obliged the healer, then looked over his shoulder and caught sight of her wife. “It won’t be long before we make camp, my Lady,” she promised with a tender voice.

“Thank you, my Lord,” the Queen replied and inwardly she was glad that the healers would travel with her because she welcomed some company more than anything else. The journey reminded her of the times during the Conqueror’s campaign to Persia when, still a slave, she had been stowed away in a plain wagon loaded with supplies for the Conqueror’s pleasure to use. The Conqueror’s appetites during wartime had been unquenchable and the Queen remembered her Master’s visits to the wagon fondly.

The Conqueror led her horse to where the groom was sitting at the front of the Queen’s wagon.

“Knave!” the Conqueror shouted at him so loudly that her voice could have been heard along the entire convoy and it caused a few birds nesting in the treetops above them to flit.

But shouting at the frightened quaking man wasn’t enough, and a powerful blow to the back of the groom’s neck sent his head flying forward and shook the teeth in his mouth and the vertebrae of his spine. It took a few short moments for the world to stop spinning around him and when the initial shock passed, along came a lancing, pulsating pain that began to creep down his shoulders and back.

He was in the Conqueror’s presence. His mind didn’t become too addled by the blow as to forget that fact. He lowered his eyes and bridled an urge to rub the back of his neck to assuage the incapacitating pain.

“A wineskin and a goblet!” the Conqueror ordered to no one in particular, merely stating her demand while still glaring and the cowering groom knowing it would be obeyed momentarily.

There were those who wondered at the somewhat odd demand, especially at that particular time, but none, of course, raised any questions.

A slim-built young servant leaped out of one of the wagons carrying provisions with a full sealed wineskin made of goatskin and a silver goblet. He approached his Master and bowed.

“Majesty,” he muttered to engross the Conqueror’s attention, as he lifted up the wineskin and goblet high above his head so that the Conqueror, who was still on horseback wouldn’t have to lean down in order to reach them.

The Conqueror grabbed the items off the servant’s hand with a crass movement, as her scowling eyes were still fixated on the groom. She uncorked the wineskin and poured the goblet almost to the brim.

The groom imagined either the Conqueror drinking the wine or throwing it in his face to shame him.

But the Conqueror did neither. She placed the goblet atop the Queen’s wagon’s wooden roof, knowing full well that if spilt, the wine would sully the wooden surface with a red stain.

“If I should see a single drop of wine over the goblet’s rim or anywhere upon the wagon, I would have you walk with gravel in your boots for a moon. Do you understand me?” the Ruler yelled.

“Yes, Majesty,” he frantically nodded his head.

“You will not be remiss or neglectful of your duties again. You will keep your mind from wandering elsewhere and your eyes constantly on the road. Lick the pavement with your tongue if you have to but keep the wagon leveled. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Majesty,” he nodded his head again and felt the reigns in his hands slide against his sweaty palms.

Before ordering the convoy to move on, the Conqueror left the groom with this horrifying threat. “Should anything happen to her Majesty the Queen… should she not survive childbirth, I shall view you as yet another amongst those responsible.”

The groom swallowed hard and fought to sustain control over his bladder. When the Conqueror ordered the convoy to resume the ride, the groom pinned his eyes on the road, all the while sensing the presence of the wine goblet behind his back atop the wagon’s roof like a phantom blade to his neck. He prayed the Gods to keep the Queen safe and the wine inside the goblet.

Riding back alongside the Conqueror, Princess Athena thought it a good opportunity to engage her in conversation.

“Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea for mother to be traveling in her condition, Majesty?!” the Heir muttered.

“It is your mother’s wish to give birth on Amazon lands. It is important to her,” the Conqueror replied and kept her gaze straightforward.

“And whatever mother wants, mother gets,” Princess Athena snickered.

“You seem to be in good spirit. Your mother tells me that you’ve been hopping from one bed to the other during your recent visits to the Amazons.”

“She tells you everything…” the young Princess protested.

“That’s what married couples do, your Grace. They talk,” the Conqueror replied with half a grin on her lips, then added, “Occasionally.”

“Do they?!” Princess Athena challenged with faked disbelief. She was well aware of the fact that her parents’ bond was one of an extremely physical nature.

The Conqueror ignored her daughter’s jab. “Why did you not tell me of your doings in the Amazon village?”

The Princess turned her head to regard her Sire. “I didn’t think you harbored any interest to know, Majesty,” she answered. “When in Corinth you talk with me about nothing aside from matters of state.”

The Conqueror didn’t offer a reply. She considered her daughter’s words and wondered whether they were accurate or not.

***

The Imperial convoy’s advancement towards the Amazon Lands was slow. Each day at nightfall, the servants built a tent to shield the Queen from nature’s perils, while the Conqueror fastidiously checked the Queen’s wagon’s roof for wine stains. The Queen’s ladies waited on their Mistress hand and foot. She was never out of the Conqueror’s presence. Even when the Queen needed to relieve herself, she wasn’t out of the Conqueror’s sight. The Conqueror herself escorted the Queen to the private locations for that purpose, both to protect and to assist the Queen because the Conqueror didn’t perceive the Queen’s ladies in waiting strong enough and placing such a delicate task in the hands of a male subordinate was out of the question.

A fortnight had passed before they reached the borders of the Amazon Lands. Standing at the edges of the Amazon territory brought back memories both for the Conqueror and the Queen, who could hardly wait to meet again with her loyal subjects and dear friends.

The Conqueror ordered the groom and her servants to return back to Corinth and her soldiers to remain posted at the border. She took the groom’s position at the Queen’s wagon. The healers joined the Queen’s ladies in waiting’ wagon and Princess Athena drove it. The wagons advanced through the Amazon forest and not before long they reached their destination.

The Queen couldn’t be happier when the Conqueror drew open the veil and helped her to climb down the wagon. She was ill-contented to be cooped up in the wagon for days on end and have others fuss over her and be inconvenienced by her. She wouldn’t have embarked on a journey to the Amazon Lands in her condition if she hadn’t considered it a way to pay her Amazon subjects great honor and give birth on Amazon soil.

“Thank you, my gracious Lord, for indulging me and bringing me here despite all the trouble it cost you,” she said as she straightened the creases of her dress and brushed her fingers through her slightly disheveled hair.

“I would have carried you here on my back if you had asked me to, love,” the Conqueror replied fondly and watched the wagon driven by Princess Athena come to a halt next to them.

The Shamaness, her apprentice Cynna, Mysia and Antiope approached the Royal Company to greet their returning Queen and the Lord Conqueror with accordance to Amazon and the Realm’s protocol.

The Queen’s ladies in waiting climbed out of the wagon, as did the healers and the midwife.

“How glad I am to see you all again, my sisters,” the Queen shone with happiness.

“You have been missed, my Queen,” Mysia was first to reply and both Antiope and the Shamaness nodded their heads enthusiastically in support of Mysia’s warm welcome.

The Queen’s ladies in waiting, as well as the healers and the midwife, launched their exploring gazes and examined the Amazons with a great amount of fascination at the way they conversed and interacted with their Sovereign Queen.

“You look so beautiful, my Queen,” Mysia went on to say.

From the corner of her eye, the Queen registered the Conqueror maintaining her regal, stoic expression.

“Absolutely radiant,” the Shamaness concurred.

The Conqueror caught the Shamaness apprentice and Princess Athena exchanging what she considered some meaningful glances between them, only she wasn’t entirely sure as to their exact meaning or quality.

“How far along are you, my Queen?” asked Mysia while her eyes rested on the swell of the Queen’s belly as if trying to assess by the looks of it.

“Seven moons now,” the Queen replied and mindlessly placed her hand over her belly.

“Two more moons to go, then,” the Shamaness commented with evident excitement in her timbre.

“Indeed,” the Queen confirmed, “my Lord wouldn’t chance a long voyage at a later date closer to birth, and as soon as preparations were concluded we set out to travel.”

Antiope stepped forward and addressed the Queen. “Your lodging awaits you, my Queen,” she informed her. “I’m sure you might wish to settle in and wash the road off you before supper.”

“Thank you, Antiope,” the Queen replied, “I trust my entourage’s accommodations are equally prepared.”

“Of course, my Queen,” Mysia replied.

As the Conqueror and the Queen, along with their entourage, were shown to their lodgings, young Princess Athena elected to stay behind and exchange a few words in private with the Shamaness’ apprentice. She grabbed the young Amazon’s wrist just as she was about to turn and join the others and stopped her from following the others.

“Your Grace?!” questioned Cynna and there was something playful in her tone and mannerism as if she anticipated it.

Princess Athena released the apprentice from her grasp, “Did you miss me?” she asked with an equal measure of playfulness as she towered over the smaller Amazon. Of all the women she had wooed during her visits to the Amazon Lands, the Shamaness’ apprentice seemed the most elusive. She spurned Princess Athena’s numerous advances and all Princess Athena’s attempts to bed the Amazon were met with unwavering rejection.

Young Cynna rested her fists on her waist and with a touch of defiance she answered, “Less than you think and more than you know, your Grace,” and got the distinct sense that her words pleased the Realm’s future Ruler.

“So you admit it,” Princess Athena stated somewhat triumphantly and narrowed the gap between them, almost imposingly.

“In all humility, your Grace, I believe that a lot of my sisters have missed you after having left their beds,” she said with more than a hint of protest.

Princess Athena leaned in and caught a light-brown lock of Cynna’s long hair, inwardly relishing the fact that the young apprentice was far feistier than her deceiving looks had others around her believe.

“Jealous, are you?!” challenged the Heir with her inherent bravado.

“Hardly, your Grace. Merely glad I had the good sense to refuse your persistent and aggressive courting and keep my maidenhood intact,” she answered.

“Keeping your maidenhood…” the words were drowned out with a scoff. “For what purpose, I wonder,” Princess Athena inquired and leaned in even closer till her warm breath tickled the Amazon’s pale skin.

“To grant the privilege of deflowering it to the one I’d surrender my heart to, your Grace,” answered Cynna, who struggled to maintain her resolve with the charming and handsome future Ruler standing so close to her creating within her a whirlpool of emotions she wasn’t sure she cared for.

“Why not surrender it to me, sweet Cynna?” Athena’s voice caressed the Amazon’s ears.

“With respect, your Grace, I know of your reputation. It is the same as the Lord Conqueror’s reputation. My heart will not be safe in your Grace’s keeping,” Cynna answered and lowered her hazel-colored eyes. She found it near impossible to ignore the stunning resemblance between the Lord Conqueror and her Heir.

Athena frowned and the twirling of the ensnared lock of hair between her fingers stopped at once. “You shouldn’t speak of matters of which you know nothing about. The Lord Conqueror worships the ground her Majesty the Queen walks on.”

“Please forgive me, your Grace… I meant before her Majesty’s and the Lord Conqueror’s union…” Cynna quickly replied so to mend the ill-impression she had made. “Of course, I wasn’t even born then…but the rumors…”

“And what about pleasure?” insisted the Heir to the Throne, who opted to change the subject with a husky voice and pierced the Amazon with her smoldering sapphire eyes.

Cynna wore a crafty smile and took a small step backwards, distancing herself from the Sovereign’s intrusive and overbearing presence, and levelheadedly as possible she replied, “I’m a patient lass, your Grace. It’ll keep.”

The Sovereign docked her finger under the Amazon’s chin and tilted her head upwards, forcing their eyes to meet. “How about a kiss, then?” Her voice dropped even lower, “I want to know what your lips taste like.”

Although she thought better of it, Cynna’s limbs seemed to have a mind of their own. They were drawn to the imposing future Ruler and wrapped around the stalwart, strapping body. Cynna’s lips parted like a flower’s petal to sunlight and as the Royal’ sizzling lips moved against hers, Cynna thought to herself that this probably was what a first kiss ought to feel like. Of course, she had never told Princess Athena that she had never even been kissed before, so to not admit to being a complete and utter novice and to not give yet another advantage to the Royal. A tongue intruded into her mouth and awakened a sort of a consuming hunger in her body she had never known before. Strong arms kept her from a sure swoon. Her breath came out in short, shallow rasps and her heartbeats thumped rowdily in her chest.

When the Royal separated her mouth from the Amazon’s, she discerned the blush laced with virgin excitement on Cynna’s cheeks and the vain in her neck pulsing rapidly.

Leering at Cynna’s still closed eyes and slightly parted lips, “Like cherries,” the Royal emitted. She savored the sweetness in her mouth, then added smugly when her arms finally released the young lass, “Pleasure might keep…” Bluntly staring at two firm young breasts rising and falling, she continued with a raise of her left eyebrow, “Question is, for how long.”

When the hazel eyes snapped open at Athena’s boasting remark, Cynna’s could see the Shamaness standing and watching them from a distance. Cynna couldn’t read her mentor’s expression for she stood too far away, but her instincts suggested to her that her mentor wouldn’t approve.

***

Nearly two moons had gone by and while the Queen sat in the Shamaness’ hut and took tea with her ladies in waiting, conversing about the hardships of bearing children and raising them, the Conqueror observed Princess Athena sparring with a few Amazons on the drilling field. However, what she found by far more fascinating was the Shamaness’ apprentice’ gaze, which was stalking her daughter’s every move and every gesture of her weapon. There was no mistaking the meaning of such admiring interest. The Conqueror knew it was neither the look of a warrior evaluating his opponent, nor the look of a student studying a master, but that of a woman appraising the quality of a potential mate.

Resting her hand over the pommel of her sword, the Conqueror recalled that her daughter had pointed the Amazon lass out to her at the joining ceremony and had requested her opinion about her looks. What gave the Conqueror pause was that, knowing Princess Athena, surely she must have approached the lass by now; and if that had been the case, then the young Amazon should already have been aware of Princess Athena’s qualities as a mate and shouldn’t have to deduce them from a combat training. After all, the young Amazon had to be wise, for an Amazon Shamaness wouldn’t have wasted her time training a fool.

Cynna felt the Conqueror’s stare on her and it had the same effect as being dipped in icy water. It unnerved the apprentice, and so as soon as Princess Athena knocked out her opponents on the practice field, Cynna covered the ground between them.

“Your Grace,” she curtsied before the haughty Princess, who didn’t seem to even break sweat.

Cynna felt giddy exchanging banters with the future Ruler. Perhaps it was false hope or an unfortunate misapprehension that these mordant exchanges were some form of a safe terrain for her to venture into without any real peril to her emotional wholesomeness. “Changed your mind, have you?!” the Princess asked and discarded her staff.

“About allowing your Grace into my bed? Of course not,” chortled the Amazon, trying to shirk the Conqueror’s glaring at her through slanted eyes. “In spite of the kiss we shared, your Grace keeps others’ company still.” If nothing else, the fact that Princess Athena’s liaisons with her sisters bothered her should have been an obtrusive indication that she was far from being safe.

“Still keeping account of my conquests, I see. Which is odd, considering how little you claim to care,” Princess Athena scoffed.

“Alas, there is only so much one can avoid hearing during communal bathing, your Grace,” retorted the Amazon, not realizing how much danger she was in.

“Huh, Communal bathing…” the Princess breathed out. “My favorite time of the day,” she stated wickedly, a mannerism which Cynna found most charming.

“I would imagine so, your Grace,” she responded.

Thinking she taunted the lass long enough, Princess Athena presented the Amazon with her arm, “Would you care to join me for a walk?”

“I’d be delighted,” the Amazon sounded more eager than she planned. So as not to give the wrong impression to the arrogant Royal, she quickly explained, “The Lord Conqueror has been gazing at me so intently since I first set foot on the training filed. Truly, I am confident that I haven’t given any justified cause.”

Princess Athena began to laugh as she escorted the apprentice off the training field, deliberately avoiding the Conqueror’s fixated gaze. “The Lord Conqueror is assessing you.”

“What possible reason could I have given to attract such esteemed attention?” the Amazon asked and secretly enjoyed being guided by the future Ruler of the Realm.

“The Lord Conqueror has taken an interest in you, believing that you have taken an interest in me,” stated the Royal.

“I did no such thing, your Grace,” the Amazon protested and halted her steps.

“The Lord Conqueror is never wrong,” Princess Athena proclaimed.

The apprentice afforded herself a few moments to conjure up a fitting reply that would challenge her supercilious companion and take out at least some of the hot air blowing her sails. “Surely, the Lord Conqueror wouldn’t trouble herself with someone as insignificant as I am lest the Lord Conqueror suspected there was some measure of interest on your part as well, your Grace.”

The Princess had to nod her head and smile at the Amazon’s words, for there was more than a modicum of truth in them. She was intrigued by the Shamaness’ apprentice, on top of clearly being physically drawn to her. The fact that Cynna wouldn’t surrender to her stoked the fire in her even further.

“As I’ve said, the Lord Conqueror is never wrong,” Princess Athena reiterated.

Cynna mirrored the Royal’ smile and decided not the press on the matter any further. A few moments passed between them in comfortable silence.

“Growing up with someone that is never wrong can be quite a hardship, I ought to imagine,” Cynna said.

Princess Athena understood what her companion meant. It was by no means any sort of criticism against the Lord Conqueror but an astute observation about her upbringing.

“I know no other way of living,” replied the Royal.

Enjoying the heat emanating from the Realm’s princess, Cynna went on to say, “Your Grace is one day to rule the greatest empire that ever existed. What an awesome responsibility.”

“One which I must never forget and if I do, I will be reminded of it soon enough.”

“It sounds almost too much to bear,” Cynna spoke softly.

“I was born to rule. My entire life was designed to prepare me for it.”

“It must be so lonely, if you don’t mind me saying, your Grace,” concluded the young Amazon with a touch of compassion.

“I don’t mind you saying so,” the Princess dismissed. She thought for a few moments about Cynna’s statement. She had been taught to be self-reliant and keep her own counsel. When in the Military Academy in Rome, she managed to befriend a couple of fellow pupils. They hadn’t been her friends, really. They had been just one level above acquaintances, more like. The gap in their stations had always been present. Now she wondered whether interactions amongst themselves had been different than with her. Had they spoken among themselves about private matters? About chasing after lasses? Or had they gone to their parents and asked as she had done? Regardless, she never thought she’d paid a too big a price, and if she had, then she had been amply compensated by her supreme station. “I was raised and educated to place Realm before self always,” she eventually stated flatly.

“Because the lives of so many depend upon your succeeding the Lord Conqueror…” Cynna’s voice trailed off with a quality of profound understanding in it.

Entering the Amazon forest, Cynna leaned her agile body against a tree trunk and beckoned Princess Athena to stand closer to her. The Princess hugged the tree trunk, trapping Cynna’s body between the rugged surface and her own. Cynna rested her palms against Athena’s chest, conflicted between enjoying the connection and keeping a safe distance between them.

“You are to be the Amazon Nation’s spiritual leader one day. As such, you yourself must be familiar with the weight of responsibility such a position entails,” the Royal said with her features but a hair away from her alluring companion.

“There is no comparison between the burden which lies on my shoulders and the one which lays upon yours, your Grace,” Cynna replied.

That statement of fact endeared the Amazon to the Realm’s future Ruler. “Will you grant me leave to court you, Cynna?” she asked with a low tone of voice and traced Cynna’s lips with her forefinger.

Cynna lowered her gaze to avoid the Royal’ penetrating eyes. “With respect, your Grace, I cannot open my heart to you while you share intimacies with my sisters.”

“These dalliances are nothing more than merely taking care of needs, like eating and drinking,” Athena explained.

“Perhaps your Grace and I don’t view carnal intimacies quite in the same way. My heart and body are one.”

Princess Athena pondered over the Amazon’s words. She deliberated with herself what concessions she was ready and willing to make in order to pursue the Shamaness’ apprentice, who captivated her interest. “And what if I promised you I would cease?”

“Then I would be grateful to your Grace and with all my heart I would gladly permit your Grace to court me,” she smiled with great joy and her eyes shimmered.

Princess Athena mirrored Cynna’s smile, but before long her countenance wore a serious expression. “May I kiss you, little cherry?” her low voice dripping liquid sensuality.

“Please, your Grace,” the Amazon sighed, overwhelmed by the anticipation, and as soon as their lips locked, Cynna couldn’t but wonder how she would be able to resist not submitting her maidenhood to the great Lord Conqueror’s Heir to the Throne.

***

On the training field the Lord Conqueror stood, arms folded over her chest and her eyes closely watching the tutoring of the Amazons’ next generation of hunters, when Mysia came running as if Cerberus, the three-headed hound guarding the gates of the underworld, was after her.

The Conqueror turned her head sharply to the direction from which the hastened footfalls were coming from. As soon as she saw Mysia’s mad rush, the Conqueror neither waited for the regent to bow and speak nor did she wait for her to even reach her. She commenced a wild sprint of her own towards Mysia.

When the Conqueror met Mysia half way, it dawned on all those on the training field what had already dawned on the Conqueror – that the Queen had gone into labor.

“How long ago?” was the Conqueror’s first question to Mysia.

As both were running towards the Shamaness’ hut, Mysia replied under heavy rasping, “A few moments ago, Majesty.”

The Conqueror’s wide gaits carried her further and faster than the Amazon’s. Without so much as throwing a glance backwards, she asked her next question louder than before. “Who is with my Queen?”

“The Shamaness, the midwife and the healers only, Majesty,” answered Mysia.

“My Queen’s ladies in waiting?”

“Waiting outside the Shamaness’ hut, Majesty.” At that point, Mysia had to shout in order for the much too advanced Ruler to hear.

Finally, upon reaching the Shamaness’ hut, the Queen’s ladies in waiting curtsied before her, murmuring “Majesty.”

At the closed door, the Conqueror didn’t linger to catch her breath. Ignoring the Queen’s servants, she sent a determined hand to the door in order to push it open.

“Please, your Majesty,” beseeched Lady Astraea and dangerously positioned herself between the Conqueror and the doorway which led to her Queen.

“Are you not in full possession of your faculties?” the Conqueror growled at her, “Step aside for I do not wish to kill on the day of the birth of my child,” she hissed.

The Queen had probably prepared Lady Astraea beforehand, for her loyal lady in waiting admirably stood her ground and wouldn’t budge from the door, death threats notwithstanding. “Your Majesty, I beg you to grant her Queen’s Majesty’s request and wait outside. It is safer this way.”

The Conqueror finally conceded and not without a powerful urge to launch her fist through something and thus to discharge some of her rage coursing rampantly in her body from head to toe.

A sharp scream hampered by pain drew worried eyes to the door. As the strained screams intensified, more and more Amazons amassed at the Shamaness’ hut.

The Conqueror sealed her countenance with a cold, detached and solemn expression. She felt some of the pairs of eyes on her, especially those belonging to the older Amazons studying her for any reaction to the Queen’s anguish. She gave them nothing, not a spec of emotion to satisfy their curiosity. She had half a mind to order everyone this side of the shut door to get out of her sight, for she wished to be alone and not have to save face for their sake. The Queen’s cries of anguish and labored bursts of sharp gasps filled the Conqueror with dread as if the pit of her stomach was forcefully stuffed with piles of snow and then tied up tightly.

The Conqueror wasn’t sure how much time had gone by before the Queen’s cries stopped and the crying of a newborn egress from the other side of the door, but to her it felt like an eternity. She mustered every ounce of patience she had not to push the door open.

A few nerve wrecking long moments had elapsed before the door cracked ajar as if on its own. The Conqueror stepped in, leaving the door opened behind her. Her hands were cold. She saw the Chief healer and his Chinese colleague standing still along with the midwife and the Shamaness, who was carrying the newborn in her arms, rooted motionless in their place. It was quiet. Too quiet, the Conqueror thought. None in the Shamaness’ hut uttered a single syllable. It seemed as if the infant appreciated that something terrible had happened and perceived the threat of a dark presence at the vicinity and upon instinct akin to that of an animal in the wild had the good sense to keep quiet.

The Queen lay stagnant, palsied under a large thick dark brown blanket, in all likelihood to conceal blood, the Conqueror surmised.

With torpid steps, the Conqueror neared the bed on which the Queen was laid as if sleeping so very peacefully, not caring whether she had a boy or a girl.

“How did she…?” she asked with a low voice barely registering above a whisper. She couldn’t bring herself to speak the word “Die” as if by saying it, it would make it real.

None present volunteered to answer. The Shamaness was perhaps more paralyzed by fear than any of the others, for she foresaw the grave danger and devastation and their full potential scale better than the rest of them.

“Her Majesty bled out extensively,” the Chinese healer eventually replied.

“We did everything we could but there was no stopping it,” the Imperial healer was quick to add.

“Did she say something before…?” the Conqueror’s voice sounded corroded and a mist of boiling unshed tears fogged her vision as she rested her gaze on her Queen. Bangs of her golden hair stuck to her forehead by sweat and her eyes were still open. The Conqueror thought that now they truly looked like emeralds – Green, glazed, cold and lifeless.

“It was too sudden, Majesty,” the Shamaness answered. “When we finally managed to pull the child out of her, she was no longer with us.”

The Conqueror pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. She leaned down over her wife, placed her fingers over her eyelids and closed the vacant orbs forever. She then placed the most tender of all kisses upon her wife’s lips and tasted salt in her mouth; A final act of loving kindness.

The Conqueror didn’t remember how her sword came to be gripped in her right hand or how her dagger ended up in her left. As she beheld the polished blades almost mesmerized, she realized she couldn’t even recall the familiar metallic sound of the unsheathing of the weapons. Her Queen was dead and along with her died the promise she had made to her. Besides, had she known how impossible it would be to keep it, she would never have made it in the first place.

The Chief Imperial healer didn’t even try to flee. He dropped to his knees and craned his neck, offering it to his Master, exposed. He knew that he had been a dead man the moment the Queen drew out her last breath.

The Conqueror accepted his offering and her well-whetted blade sliced through his flesh like through butter. Spurts of blood flew out of the gash in his neck as high as the ceiling, spraying the Conqueror with crimson rain.

In what seemed like a fraction of a moment, both the Chinese healer and the midwife laid dead in a pool of their own blood and with their throats slashed from ear to ear, as well. It happened so fast that the Conqueror rued not deriving all the pleasure out of the kills that could have been had.

The Shamaness snapped out of her shock. She took a few steps backwards and placed the infant in bed next to the dead Queen, assuming that the Conqueror wouldn’t bring a blade to her Queen’s bed. “Run for your lives!” she shouted wide-eyed at the top of her lungs to all those who waited outside her hut and struck chilling horror in them.

“This is all your fault!” the Conqueror accused and pointed the tip of her sword to the elderly Amazon’s chest. “If it weren’t for your false prophecy, I would never have allowed my Gabrielle to conceive another child!” she bawled out. It was a lie, of course, but only the Conqueror knew it, so it didn’t matter to her. In her inconsolable rage, she wanted the miserable old Amazon woman to feel guiltier than she should have been before snuffing her out, so she assigned greater blame on her than she actually deserved.

“Majesty,” was all the Shamaness was able to mumble.

A curve made by the most skillful killer in the entire civilization to the Shamaness’s lower abdomen made her bowels splatter at her feet while still alive and standing. As easy as gutting an old goat the Conqueror thought as her booted foot stomped repeatedly over the pink fleshy stain hanging out of the Shamaness, mashing it beyond recognition.

When she was done, the Conqueror plunged her sword through the Shamaness’ chest till its tip loomed from the Shamaness’ back.

The Conqueror was far from being satisfied. She thought that there wasn’t enough blood in the world to quench her thirst for it and not enough victims to feed the beast clawing inside her.

Covered in blood, she averted her eyes from the dead Shamaness and cast a glance to the doorway. A pair of blue, dancing, cold flames peered through a red chiseled mask of death and glared at the terrified women outside. They looked to her like a herd of antelopes stampeding, frantically scattering in all directions at the first sighting of a predator on the prowl in their midst.

“Do you know what runs?” she shouted after them mockingly, not expecting any of them to stop their flight and answer her. “Food runs!” she provided the answer herself as she strode out of the hut, still clutching her blood-dripping sword and dagger in her hands.

The Amazon village was in chaos. With blood pumping in her veins and beating like war drums in her ears, she heard a muffled voice she supposed belonged to Mysia ordering the Amazons to attack.

The Conqueror burst into laughter. What good were weapons against the Ruler of the world, against the Destroyer of Nations? She couldn’t comprehend.

She moved among them as if floating above the blood-soaked ground, stabbing and slashing through flesh and bone. Fountains of blood shot jets in the air like hot geysers for her to bathe in. The pungent odor and the metallic taste of it flooded her senses. She saw nothing but red, neither faces, nor people, nor even weapons, for the Amazons disobeyed Mysia’s order, apparently believing they stood better chances surviving by escaping rather than staying and fighting. It was a massacre, not a combat.

Her body knew the moves. As her blades tore through the frailty of human tissue she thought about the dagger in her hand and how she had come by it. It had been a gift that had been presented to her by Cleopatra before she had conquered Egypt many years ago. Her mind took her back to that time. She had spent seven days and nights in the Queen of the Nile’s bedchamber, alone save a few slave girls attending to them. The Conqueror had engaged in fevered fornications with her and had committed unspeakable depraved sexual acts on her till her domination over the wanton Queen had been complete and Cleopatra hadn’t been able to even remember her own name.

After reemerging from Cleopatra’s bedchamber, all Egypt’s ministers and generals had been assembled along with several of the Realm’s nobility and generals as well. The Lord Conqueror had taken Cleopatra to that council. She had had the Egyptian Queen walk naked on all fours and on a leash. The assembly hadn’t been able to believe their own eyes. In their presence, the Lord Conqueror had ordered Cleopatra to bark and roll over and the latter had done exactly as she had been ordered. While the Realm’s entourage had laughed their hearts out, the Egyptians had realized that Egypt had fallen. Since that day, Cleopatra had been known as ‘The Lord Conqueror’s bitch’ and the world had learnt that the young ambitious Greek Conqueror was driven by lust, not just bloodlust.

To the Conqueror, there was a calming effect to slaughter. It was nearly quiet in her head; nothing but random thoughts that had no earthly reason to arise at that moment, like the latest steep rise of the prices of iron, or that her mother, the lady Cyrene, had gained some weight lately, and that she really ought to say something to her about not overstepping her bounds with the Imperial cook and cease bickering with her, for after all the palace kitchen was the cook’s domain. Killing was familiar, was organized and methodical, and when committed with such abandonment and without any real resistance, was a great contributor to the clearness of mind.

Through idle thoughts about nothing, and unswerving acts of butchery the Lord Conqueror felt her sword-arm begin to shake.
Part 3
The Conqueror felt something tugging at the sleeve of her shirt. She tried to steady her sword-arms to better satisfy her lust for blood, thinking the fabric must have caught on something, but the shakes grew stronger and more persistent in hindering her will. Through the pounding in her ears, a voice calling out to her perforated the clamor and reached her.

The Lord Conqueror lurched upwards, her sword-arm reaching forward and her eyes opening wide into darkness so thick she couldn’t even see her arm in front of her. Her entire body was sodden, not by blood but by cold sweat.

“My Lord!” the voice called out to her again.

She quickly realized it was her wife and Queen’s voice calling to her out of the darkness.

“It is just a dream, my Lion, nothing more. A silly nightmare,” the Queen whispered and rose from the bed to fetch some light.

Seated on the bed, the Conqueror drew in a deep breath and gained back a grip on her surroundings, beholding a single flame illuminating her Queen who carried it.

“Gabrielle,” the Conqueror whispered out to her wife with cracked voice and outstretched both her arms to her.

“I’m right here, my beloved Lord,” the Queen placed the burning candle next to her side of the bed and hurried to recapture her place at the Conqueror’s side. “Tell me what you dreamt about,” she requested though she thought she had an idea.

The Conqueror recounted her dream in great detail. The Queen was correct in suspecting it would have something to do with her losing her life but nothing prepared her for what the Conqueror told her it had instigated.

“It breaks my heart to see you torturing yourself so,” the Queen said, inwardly wondering what part of the dream had troubled the Conqueror more, her death during childbirth or the events that followed it. “No harm shall befall me,” she assured and hoped she could put her Lord’s mind at ease, though she assumed that with little success.

The Conqueror trenched herself in the Queen’s bosom and as the Queen gently rocked her and stroked the dark mane, the Conqueror wept like a scared little child in the arms of his mother.

The following night, the Conqueror and the Queen retired early to bed and while the Queen was fast asleep the Conqueror remained awake in the dark, dreading falling asleep and having the nightmare from the previous night come back to haunt her.

Close to midnight the Queen awoken to a popping sound like a cork being screwed out of a bottle and the sensation of a warm current flow of fluids streaming out of her.

Before the Conqueror had the chance to ask, the Queen simply stated, “My water just broke, my Lord.”

The Conqueror leaped out of bed and on her way to the door nearly forgot to grab her robe and cover herself. Immense tension settled in her body and she felt as though millstones were tied to her legs, they felt so heavy. She opened the door to their hut and met with a drowsy lady in waiting who had been posted outside, slouching on a small stool near the entrance.

The lady in waiting jumped to her feet. Before she managed a customary curtsy the Conqueror declared, “It is time.”

The lady in waiting ran to fetch the healers, the midwife and the Shamaness to the hut, while the Conqueror returned to her wife’s bed.

“How are you feeling, sweetheart?” she asked gently, kneeling next to her wife’s side of the bed and taking her hand in hers.

“Very well, my Love,” the Queen replied and arrested the pain of contractions from appearing on her features with no small amount of effort.

“Is there anything I can do for you? Name anything at all and I’ll do it.”

“Nothing, my Lord.”

“I know we’ve discussed it already, but…”

The Queen placed a quick forefinger against the Conqueror’s lips and straightened up to a half sitting position. “It would be best if you weren’t here with me, for your engrossing presence might distract me from all the pushing and breathing that I need to do,” she jested and smiled. The wise Queen knew that appealing to her Lord’s pride and vanity was the best venue to convince her.

“It’s not because of the dream that I’ve had that you…” the Conqueror began to say, her lips moving beneath the Queen’s finger.

“Of course not, my Lion. You must perish the thought. In your heart you know that I trust you, which is why it would give me great comfort if you waited right outside the door,” she paused then added, “and besides, nothing will happen to me.”

The Queen’s hand squeezed the Conqueror, indicating to the latter that her beloved was having another contraction.

“They’ll be here soon,” the Conqueror calmed her wife and tenderly stroked her hair. “It grieves me to see you in so much pain.”

From the other side of the door, the Conqueror heard footfalls approaching.

“It won’t be long now,” the Queen said and looked intently into the Conqueror’s eyes as if asking her to be brave.

The Conqueror stood up then leaned down and planted a kiss against the Queen’s forehead between a couple strands of hair.

“I love you with all my heart, my Lord,” she whispered, hoping her words didn’t sound like last words to her Lord.

“Don’t leave me,” the Conqueror said almost commandingly just before the knock on the door.

“I won’t,” the Queen promised.

“Enter,” the Conqueror exclaimed.

The door opened and the healers, the midwife and the Shamaness entered. The Conqueror discouraged them from bowing before her, before looking one last time at her Queen, who managed to muster a smile, and leaving.

Outside the hut, the Conqueror paced back and forth in front of the closed door. She was glad that she had no audience. In the chilly night’s air her ears were pricked up. She listened to the Queen’s overwrought cries and tried to find dissimilarities between them and the ones she had heard in her dream. She had to remind herself over and over again that it was nighttime, unlike in her dream, thinking if there were enough dissimilarities the outcome ought to be different as well. She looked around at the sleeping village, which was dimly lit by very few torches. From a distance she heard an owl hooting above the constant chippers of the nocturnal insects. She envied the night its peacefulness. She looked up to gaze at the moon and stars and wondered whether this would be the night when her world ended.

It didn’t take very long this time and soon enough the crying of a newborn ushered in the beginning of a new life and a second in line for the Lord Conqueror’s succession. The door was opened after a few long nerve-wracking moments had gone by and the Chief Imperial healer came out.

“The Queen has delivered of a healthy daughter to your Majesty,” he immediately said and bowed. Judging by the expression of great relief on his face, the Conqueror knew that her Queen was alive and well.

Nevertheless, just to make sure she asked him, “And the Queen?”

“Her Majesty is doing wonderfully well and is currently being made presentable for your Majesty,” he replied, implying that the Conqueror would have to wait just awhile longer before seeing her wife.

But the Conqueror wouldn’t wait. Her Queen, she thought, could never be un-presentable to her. She strode into the hut, shoving the elderly man wearing black aside as she did.

The Shamaness was just about to finish attending to the Queen while the midwife held the infant in her arms.

“Majesty,” all in attendance bowed.

The Conqueror didn’t linger but kept on walking, passing the midwife by as though she and the newborn were air and proceeded straight to her wife first.

“My Lady,” the Conqueror whispered and seated herself atop the bed next to where her wife was laying.

“My Lord,” the Queen whispered back as tears of joy slid down her pale features.

“How are you feeling?” the Conqueror asked and touched gentle fingers to the Queen’s forehead and temple.

The Queen thought she saw the weight of the world being lifted from her Lord. “Exhausted, sore and deliriously happy, my Lord,” she chuckled and beckoned the midwife to bring the child to her.

The midwife rushed to the Queen and placed the infant in her mother’s cradling arms.

The Conqueror felt as though she could begin to breathe lightly and easily again, something she hadn’t done in nine moons, so it seemed to her. It was finally over and no calamity had befallen her family. She rose to her feet and faced the healers, the midwife and the Shamaness.

“I wish to thank you all for attending to her Majesty with the greatest of care and for the excellent performance of your duties and trades.”

“Thank you, Majesty,” they all said in unison. There wasn’t a greater honor than to receive thanks and praises from the Lord Conqueror.

“With your permission, Majesty, I wish to bring her Majesty some broth and a strong, sweet cup of tea,” said the Shamaness.

The Conqueror nodded her consent and they all left the Royals’ hut bowing and muttering “Majesties.”

When alone, the Conqueror asked her Queen yet again, “Are you absolutely sure you are well?”

“Completely,” the Queen answered as they both looked at their new daughter.

“This one is the living likeness of her mother,” the Conqueror said as she carefully observed the newest addition to her family and her heart doubled its size to accommodate the great love that was born at that moment for her second daughter.

The infant briefly opened her eyes and revealed her mother’s shade of deep sparkling forest green.

“She even has your nose and your chin and best yet, your golden hair as well,” the Conqueror went on to say with extreme pride. “Honestly, have you ever seen a more beautiful child?”

“Athena was just as beautiful,” the Queen replied and lightly stroke the infant’s cheek with a single finger.

“Of course,” the Conqueror was quick to respond.

“She needs to be told about her new sister,” the Queen said.

“I would send someone to inform her if I knew which bed she was spending her night in,” the Conqueror snickered, still reveling in her daughter’s beauty.

“Have you thought of a name, yet?” the Queen asked as she unlaced her gown and pulled out her enlarged breast to nurse the infant.

The Conqueror was riveted and mesmerized by the sight before her, as if she was beholding something awe-striking and extraordinary. On her face she wore the same expression she always got whenever watching the Queen preening herself. “I wish to name her after you, Gabrielle,” she answered, almost distracted.

“With your permission, I should very much like to also name her after the late Princess Terreis and honor her memory.”

The Conqueror planted a kiss atop the Queen’s head, then touched her forefinger to the suckling infant’s petite hand and enjoyed the small soft fingers closing around it. “The Ruler of the World is utterly in love with you, Princess Gabrielle Terreis,” the Conqueror whispered and the smile that spread on her lips and the perfect warmth and tenderness in her eyes overwhelmed the Queen, who thought she had never seen such sentiments about her Lord before.

It seemed as though the Conqueror couldn’t keep her eyes off her little Princess. She anxiously waited for her to finish nursing so that she could finally get the chance to pick her up, hold her in her arms and shower her tiny face with countless kisses.

“You look tired, my love,” she said to her Queen as the latter covered back her breast. “Here, let me take the little one off your hands,” she volunteered quite eagerly and took the infant into her arms.

To say that the Queen was stunned was an understatement.

“I say, have you ever seen such perfection before?” the Conqueror said as she brought her lips to the infant’s cheek.

The Queen halfheartedly shook her head in the negative.

“Well, I have… only once…” the Conqueror told her wife, “You, sweetheart.”

A knock on the door drew their attention to it. The Shamaness, carrying a tray with steaming broth and tea, and Princess Athena entered after hearing the Conqueror’s voice inviting them to do so.

“Majesties,” Princess Athena and the Shamaness bowed before the Royal couple.

“Your Grace,” the Conqueror greeted her eldest back with a raised eyebrow.

“You look surprised, Majesty,” Princess Athena pointed out as she stretched back up to her full stature.

“I am. I am surprised that the Shamaness knew where to find you at this late hour,” the Conqueror jauntily replied.

While the Shamaness placed the tray in front of the Queen, Princess Athena said to her parents, “Congratulations, Majesties.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” the Queen replied, then turned to the Shamaness as she was about to leave and give the Royals their privacy. “With my Lord’s permission,” she began to say and presently searched for the Conqueror’s approval, “It is my desire to give my daughter, Princess Gabrielle Terreis, my right of cast.”

The Queen knew perfectly well that naming her successor in her capacity as Queen of the Amazons was entirely her decision to make. The Conqueror rarely ever intervened in inner matters of governors’ appointments of officials in the provinces under their rule. However, she was also aware that her newborn daughter was also the Lord Conqueror’s progeny. As such, the child’s duties, appellations and destiny were solely in the Lord Conqueror’s discretion, for they were matters of state.

The Conqueror did not hesitate. “My permission is gladly granted, my Lady,” she stated.

The Shamaness was moved profoundly by both the Queen’s gifts of honor. She first addressed the Conqueror and bowed in gratitude, “Thank you, your Majesty,” and only then addressed the Queen. “Thank you, my Queen, for naming the Princess after Terreis and for giving her your right of cast. It is a tremendous honor. I will assemble the council for your announcement as soon as you’re ready and able, my Queen.”

“Thank you,” the Queen said, “for everything.”

“You are most welcome,” the Shamaness smiled in kindness and just before she left for the night she cast her glance at the Conqueror who stood next to the Queen’s bed, completely enthralled by the newborn in her arms. It made for an odd sight, the old Shamaness thought before closing the door behind her, like watching a bird flying backwards.

“Athena, come and have a look at your new sister,” she said and tilted her arms just slightly to better Athena’s view.

Athena stepped closer and gazed at the slumbering infant. “She’s adorable, I guess. Aren’t all infants?!” she asked.

“You understand nothing,” the Conqueror retorted, “She is beyond adorable. She is perfection and sublime beauty.”

Athena simply shrugged and approached the Queen’s bed. She wrapped her strong arms around the Queen. “I am so happy for you, mother,” she whispered, protectively and lovingly engulfing her mother’s smaller frame.

“Thank you, my beloved Athena,” the Queen embraced her eldest as tightly as she could.

“Are you feeling well, mother? Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked.

“Nothing at all,” the Queen replied.

“I shall leave you alone, then,” the Princess told both her parents and on her way out she stopped next to her sibling and said to her, “Welcome to life, little sister, and welcome to the most powerful family on earth. I can promise you one thing, you will not get bored,” she chuckled as the Conqueror shook her head disapprovingly.

“So we’re calling her Princess Terreis, yes?!” Athena asked before vacating her parents’ hut.

The Conqueror joined her wife in bed, still cradling the little Princess in her arms like the most precious thing in the entire world. “Your daughter has some more growing up to do,” she remarked and reclined against the pillows, carefully laying the fragile infant against her chest and covered them both for warmth.

“Perhaps you are being a bit too hard on her, my Lord,” the Queen suggested and rested her weary head against the Conqueror’s shoulders and cuddled against her.

The Conqueror encompassed the Queen’s body with her free arm and pressed her closer to her. “Perhaps,” the Conqueror admitted, “But I must be.”

“I know,” the Queen sighed. “And I also know that she will not disappoint you. I am so very proud of her.”

“I am too, my love.”

Suspecting the Shamaness had mixed some herbs that induced sleep in her tea, Queen Gabrielle fell fast asleep, but the Conqueror was unable to shut her eyes just yet. She remained awake for a while longer and watched her wife and daughter sleep.

***

Not seven days had gone by since the birth of Princess Gabrielle Terreis and the Queen appeared before the Amazon council and publicly announced her daughter’s name and gave her the right of cast for all to witness. With accordance to Amazon tradition, the Shamaness with the assistance of her apprentice conducted a ritual accepting the infant into the tribe.

The Queen’s favors, the naming of the Princess after the dead Princess Terreis and the bestowing upon her the right of cast, were received with profound gratitude by the Amazons and taught them about the true and genuine commitment of the Queen towards them.

The days were getting shorter and colder and the Conqueror didn’t wish to expose her wife and newborn child to the elements on the road. So after another seven days had passed, she decided it was high time they all returned to Corinth, which hosted a kinder winter than the Amazon lands, and embarked on the journey home before the arrival of snow.

Three moons after returning to Corinth , a grand and extravagant banquet was held in the palace. Anyone who was anyone in the Realm was invited to pay respect and tribute to the Conqueror’s second in line to the Throne. Hundreds were gathered in the Great Hall in the presence of the Throne and thousands were amassed outside in the Imperial gardens for lack of space. Jesters, musicians, dancers and bards were commissioned to entertain the masses.

Not far from the menagerie, which the Conqueror opened for her guests’ pleasure to visit and behold, a vast and specious arena stood surrounded by corridors and Corinthian pillars amidst a wild olive tree grove to host sporting events such as boxing, javelin, discus throwing, wrestling and running and equestrian events such as two and four-horse chariot races and riding. The athletes flexed their muscles and wrapped their leather himantes around their hands and wrists, preparing for the opportunity to make a name for themselves and draw the Lord Conqueror’s attention and favor to them.

Lady Satrina, the household steward, had hired extra helping hands to prepare for what many believed to be the greatest celebration ever held in Corinth since the marriage between the Conqueror and the Queen. If ever there was a demonstration of unimaginable wealth, that banquet was it.

The Conqueror and the Queen sat at their Thrones standing atop a dais with a table fully set before them, on which a centre-piece was placed with peacocks’ feathers and green branches to which were tied violets and other sweet-smelling flowers. The Conqueror was in full regalia of red and dark blue and with her crown on her head, as was the Queen who wore a green and grey velvet dress with emeralds and pearls titivating the rich fabric. Princess Athena was in full battle regalia and the newest addition to the Royal family wore a tiny regal dress and a tiny diadem on her petite head, both personally commissioned by the Lord Conqueror with the same colors, fabric and stones as those worn by the Queen.

And the feast was artistically arrayed upon silver platters on the stretches of crimson cloth-covered tables. It was lavish and sumptuous. New foods and spices had been imported and unusual recipes had been created, which made use of the finest foods and freshest ingredients. Civets of hares, quarters of stags which had spent a night in salt, stuffed chickens, legs of lambs, loins of veal and fish were served along with freshly baked breads and vegetables. Exotic fruits from all around the world also were served, but the amounts of various brands of wines, ales, spirits and mead were even more impressive.

The Lord Conqueror rose to her feet and all conversations and merriment ceased immediately. She raised her golden goblet, which was nearly overrun with the finest wine from the province of Gaul , high in the air and exclaimed so that all could hear her, “Subjects of the Realm, distinguished guests, raise your goblets to her Majesty, your Sovereign Queen.”

Every single one in attendance raised their goblets.

The Conqueror then turned to her right to where the Queen sat holding their child in her arms and went on to say, “To you, my beautiful wife and Queen.”

“To her Majesty, the Queen,” enthusiastic cries erupted from all corners of the Great Hall and echoed in between its walls and rafters.

The Queen raised her own goblet filled with sweet wine and with a smile in her glittering eyes, replied, “To you, my gracious and honorable Lord, and to our family.”

“To the Lord Conqueror,” all seemed pleased with yet another toast to pour down their gullets.

The Conqueror blew a kiss to her Queen as the masses cried, then she laid down her goblet and picked up the infant, who opened her green eyes for the auspicious occasion, in her arms and said, “I present to you, our daughter, Princess Gabrielle Terreis!”

As the Conqueror seated herself back on her Throne, and with high spirit and a heart warmed by wine and love, she said in good humor, “It is my lot in life to be surrounded by beautiful women.”

When all the nobility raised their goblets and cheered in mirth, the Conqueror’s ears intercepted a statement made by one of the noblemen, who probably didn’t think he uttered it loud enough for anyone else other than the nobleman next to him to hear, remarking: “The Conqueror’s blood produces female issue only.”

Those foolishly uttered words incurred the Conqueror’s notorious wrath. She was angry not just by the content of the words but because it spoiled the festivities. “Nobleman Likos,” her voice roared and silence quickly descended throughout the crowd.

He immediately stood up on shaky legs, wondering how on earth the Conqueror had overheard a single statement under so many clamors. Nobleman Likos was the governor of the province of Thessaly . The Conqueror had appointed him to govern the province after its former governor and primary supplier of weaponry to the Realm, Nobleman Delos had requested to be appointed as governor to Britannia once he had heard of it richness of iron ores. For Nobleman Likos it was a promotion, since Thessaly was by far more lucrative than his former province and he ought to have been grateful to his Sovereign.

“Majesty,” he bowed and his voice betrayed him.

“How are your three sons?” she asked him.

“Well, your Majesty,” he replied and feared that the Conqueror would execute them just to punish him for his transgression that had slipped out of him by too much ale and for her envy, so he believed.

“Did you not bring them here to partake in their Sovereigns’ celebration?”

“Of course I did, Majesty. They are sitting right over there,” he answered and pointed them out to her, “Sitting with their commanders.” With a nervous wave of his hand, he signaled the three young men to stand up as well and they did.

The Conqueror’s gaze followed Nobleman Likos’ finger and saw all three officers bow respectfully before her. “I see they serve as officers in the eighteenth legion.”

“Indeed, Majesty.”

“Then I propose a match between my daughter and your three sons… to entertain our guests.”

“Majesty… My apology… It won’t be…”

But the wide-eyed glare that the Conqueror shot at him as if scolding him for daring to disobey her extinguished his protest. “Is my progeny too much against three of yours?” she asked him as all around them watched the exchange. Those who sat closely to Nobleman Likos understood what it all had been about. However, those who sat afar hadn’t a clue, but knowing that the Lord Conqueror wasn’t one to make a capricious decision, surmised their Ruler had a score to settle with him.

“With a staff?” his words sounded like the bargaining of a coward.

“Do you fear my daughter’s blade would cut down your line?”

He didn’t reply for he didn’t have any words to offer. The Conqueror beckoned all three officers to come out from behind their table and stand before her and when they did she ordered them to unsheathe their swords. At first they were slightly hesitant to draw out their weapons in the presence of their Ruler but an order was issued and so it had to be obeyed.

“Your Grace,” the Conqueror called out to Princess Athena.

“Majesty,” Princess Athena replied, approaching the Conqueror and standing to her left. She beheld her would be opponents and recognized the eldest as one of her teachers in the Roman Military Academy she had attended not too long ago.

The Queen arrested her initial instinct to protect her firstling and remained seated, trusting in her Lord’s judgment.

“Guard, hand me your spear,” the Conqueror commanded one of the guards who stood behind her to the right of the Queen’s throne.

When the weapon was handed to her, she turned it up-side-down so that the blade at its apex would be pressed against the ground and with a kick of her leg she broke its sharp iron-head and handed the now staff to her daughter.

“Kick their arses,” the Conqueror said then whispered so that only Athena could hear, “And teach their father a lesson about my blood.”

“I shall even do it blindfolded, Majesty,” the Princess answered.

As Princess Athena removed her armor and gantlets, tables were pushed aside and backward to give space for the combatants to spar. Some of the audience went so far as to stand upon chairs, stools and benches to gain better view of the impending match. Others even tried to place bets but none were willing to gamble against Princess Athena.

Princess Athena extended her chest, surveyed her surroundings and pushed back her shoulders.

To show good sportsmanship she addressed her opponents, “Are you fit and in good form?” She then snapped her fingers and a strap of cloth was given to her by one of the servants and she tied it over her eyes.

“We are, your Grace,” the oldest replied. Of all three sons, being her teacher and privy to his former student’s abilities, he was in a position to know far better than his brothers that Princess Athena shouldn’t be underestimated. However, seeing her discarding her armor, holding a staff to their swords, and blindfolding herself, they didn’t underestimated her either.

“Begin,” the Conqueror ordered, turned her back to them and casually sauntered back to her throne, showing all how confident she was in the Princess.

The silence in the Great Hall grew thicker and more deafening. It enabled Princess Athena to hear the sounds of the three men’s breaths, the knocks of their military boots against the floor and the sound of their blades cutting through air as they wielded it in their hands. She waited for them to strike first, but they didn’t so she feinted an offence motion of her shoulder to draw their instinctive reaction to strike and they did.

Princess Athena toyed with them, forced them to move with accordance to the combat she mapped in her head. That match, many would later claim, had been better than any other boxing or javelin match later displayed in the arena.

When all three men were lying defeated, bloodied and crippled around her, and when she detected no further movement from them, Princess Athena removed the blindfold from around her eyes, and dropped the staff to the ground next to them.

Their subjects cheered for her as she strutted back to her place to the Conqueror’s left. The Conqueror signaled two of her servants to clean up the mess and the blood off the floor and remove the men from the Great Hall and escort them to the infirmary. Nobleman Likos didn’t lift a finger to help his boys to their feet.

“Music,” the Conqueror exclaimed and the musician accompanied by a choir of singing women produced enchanting melodies.

Lady Cyrene and Lady Lila approached the Thrones to offer their congratulations to the Conqueror and the Queen and to marvel at the little Princess. The three women incessantly chattered about the little Princess, and quite unexpectedly the Conqueror, without giving any indications she was doing so, eavesdropped on the conversation with great interest.

After the conversation had ended, the Conqueror signaled the Princess’ nurse to take the child off her mother’s hands.

“My Lady,” the Conqueror stood up and extended her arm to the Queen in an invitation.

“My Lord,” the Queen replied, knowing full well that her Lord desired to dance with her.

When they finished dancing, the Conqueror took back Princess Terreis from the arms of the nurse. As soon as the little infant recognized the Conqueror’s features, she smiled wildly and waved her hands and legs with absolute joy and excitement.

“I was just telling Lady Cyrene and Lady Lila that the two of you are completely besotted with one another, my Lord,” the Queen smiled.

Her wife’s comment wasn’t something the Conqueror hadn’t already known. “Did you, now,” she muttered with half a smile across her lips, still beholding her beloved daughter.

The Queen hanged herself on the Conqueror’s arm and they both exited the Great Hall. While their subjects bowed and curtsied before them, they made their way out and up to an open balcony facing the Imperial Gardens where the rest of their subjects were gathered in order to present their new offspring to them, as well.

The Royals waved to the riled up masses before returning back inside.

After the banquets and the games ended, near midnight the Queen and the Conqueror, with their infant daughter cradled comfortably in the Conqueror’s arms sleeping peacefully, walked down the corridor leading to their chambers with the Princess’ wet nurse not far behind them.

“The banquet was magnificent. Thank you, my Lord,” the Queen said and rested her head against the Conqueror’s bicep.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it and you needn’t thank me, my love,” the Conqueror replied and stroked the fair down adorning her daughter’s head.

“Are you fit and in good form, my Lion?” the Queen smiled a seductive smile as she asked the Conqueror the same question that Princess Athena had asked Nobleman Likos’ boys.

The Conqueror averted her gaze from her daughter to her wife and with a raised eyebrow asked her, “Am I to glean from it that you are?”

“I am, my Lord. Please let the wet-nurse put little Terreis in her crib and have her sleep there rather than sleep again in our bed tonight. It’s been too long… I miss you, and I can wait no longer.” The Queen nuzzled the hard bicep.

“I yearn for you, too, my love,” the Conqueror whispered then turned around and called to the wet-nurse. She placed little Terreis in the arms of the full-figured lady, leaned down and kissed her daughter goodnight.

It was time to put her wife to bed as well, she thought as she felt the pounding awakening in her trousers and in her heart.

In the Imperial bedchamber, they undressed each other slowly as they often did to sweeten and prolong the anticipation. Once divested of clothes, the Conqueror lifted her Queen in her arms and gently laid her down on the bed. Their lips met in a tender kiss that quickly grew more passionate. The Conqueror’s tongue delved again and again into the Queen’s mouth lavishing it with barely controllable desire and receiving nothing less than the same.

When the writhing Queen felt the Conqueror’s need slither against her creamy thighs she moved to turn beneath the Conqueror’s body, bucking her hips to encourage her Lord, but the Conqueror stopped her.

“I want to see my beautiful wife in all her glory, tonight,” she said as she slowly inserted herself into the hot depth of the woman lying so trustingly and lovingly beneath her. “Let me know if I hurt you,” she went on to say and began to pleasure them both.
Part 4
During the first year of Princess Terreis’ life, the more she grew the more beautiful she became and the striking resemblance between her and her mother the Queen became even more apparent.

The child was the apple of the Conqueror’s eye. Her nurses and her governesses could tell stories of how the Lord Conqueror would often visit the Princess’ chambers during nighttime just for the chance to pick her up and play with her should the child awake.

The Lord Conqueror coddled and cosseted Princess Terreis beyond any measure of reason, to the point of cutting meetings short just to spend time with her. She acquired many elaborate toys created from the finest materials from all corners of the world for her; more than the young Princess knew what to do with. The Conqueror didn’t stop at toys, but commissioned various garments for her daughter as well. However, what perhaps signified her spending and spoiling to the excessive was the fact that she hired musicians and women singers to play and sing music almost throughout all the waking moments of the child.

One evening, when the Conqueror was sitting in her armchair by the fire holding the child in her arms, tickling her chin and belly, and eliciting a conquering laughter out of the infant, the Queen, who was lying in their bed reading, said to her mate: “She brings unblemished softness out of you, my Lord,” and the Conqueror found herself unable to deny her wife’s assertion.

“I dote on her, don’t I?!” she finally admitted.

The Queen smiled. “Take pleasure in the knowledge that she adores you above anyone else. You are the sun, the moon and the stars in her world as you are in mine.”

“And as you are in mine, Gabrielle,” the Conqueror replied, lifted herself from her seat and walked over to the bed to recline next to the Queen.

The Queen took the child from the Conqueror and began to nurse her. The Conqueror watched the infant latch her mouth around the Queen’s nipple and rest a tiny pale hand against her mother’s breast and instinctively try to clasp the smooth ample flesh. The Conqueror positioned herself between her wife’s thighs and began to rain kisses over the Queen’s bare shoulder and neck.

“Looking at the two of you…” the Conqueror rasped between kisses, “It frightens me to think what I am capable of doing to protect you,” she went on to say, enjoying the Queen’s fingers that rifled through her hair, “Now I think that was the point to it all… my conquering and building this great Empire… For our daughters to enjoy and my only regret is that I prevented us from having more children.”

“It is not too late to have more, my Lord,” the Queen’s voice carried a subtle plea as she spoke.

The Conqueror did not respond. The fear of losing her wife and Queen was still too fresh in her mind and wouldn’t release its firm grip just yet.

“When they rule the Realm…” the Queen began to say but the Conqueror cut through her speech.

“They won’t. There can only be one Ruler. An Empire cannot have two heads. My reign will be passed on to Princess Athena.”

“Of course, my Lord,” the Queen replied.

***

Very much like her older sister, Princess Terreis learned to walk at a very early stage. The Conqueror spent a significant amount of time with her youngest in order to teach her to say the word “Sire,” but regardless of her efforts, Princess Terreis’ first word was “Mama” as is all infants’ simply because it is easier to pronounce. However, not long afterwards, and the Queen could have sworn it was only for the reason of pleasing the Conqueror, Princess Terreis uttered the word “Sire.” It earned the young Princess a pony of her own.

By the age of two, she was already speaking fluently.

“She is very bright,” the Queen once pointed out to the Conqueror.

To which the Conqueror responded, “Of course she is. She’s ours.”

One afternoon, when the Queen was in her own chambers with her ladies in waiting, along with Princess Terreis and the governess, teaching her daughter to read and write at her black alder desk with the marble surface, the doors swung open.

“The Lord Conqueror,” announced a servant as the Conqueror, who had adjourned her meetings earlier than expected that day, strode in.

The Queen’s ladies in waiting and the governess curtsied, and muttered “Your Majesty.” The Queen stood and stepped away from behind her desk and curtsied before the Conqueror, as well. “My Lord,” she delightedly greeted.

“My Lady,” the Conqueror bowed before the Queen.

All present curtsied — All but one. Princess Terreis hobbled as quickly as her little legs allowed her towards the Conqueror and cried out with her characteristic enthusiasm, “My Sire, my Sire!” eager to be lifted up high in the air and into the Conqueror’s secure and engulfing arms.

But the Queen thought the child was old enough to be taught the correct protocol.

“Princess Terreis!” the Queen called out to her.

But the toddler went on ahead, determined to reach the Conqueror like nothing else existed.

The Conqueror stood unmoving. “Your Grace,” she spoke firmly, “Her Majesty is speaking to you.” Her tone of voice gave the Princess pause for she had never heard it aimed at her before. Nevertheless, she knew well enough not to disobey the Conqueror, for she had never seen anyone disobey the Conqueror. She stopped her advancement towards the Conqueror, turned around and approached her mother.

“We do not address the Lord Conqueror by anything other than ‘Your Majesty’ ,” the Queen instructed her.

“But you call my Sire, ‘My Lord’ ” argued the Princess.

“Mind her Majesty the Queen, child,” the Conqueror castigated her and the Princess was on the verge of tears for obviously displeasing the Conqueror.

“I am Queen and it is my prerogative,” the Queen explained then went on to educate her daughter. “When in the Lord Conqueror’s presence and when we leave the Lord Conqueror’s presence, we curtsy, like so,” she said, demonstrating the gesture while further explaining, “To show our respect and humility before our Sovereign Lord.”

The Princess imitated the gesture, trying desperately to succeed.

“Then we wait for the Lord Conqueror to address us,” the Queen concluded instructing her daughter, “Now go and greet the Lord Conqueror properly.”

The Princess walked over to stand before the Conqueror. She curtsied before her and said “Your Majesty.”

The Conqueror couldn’t curb a faint smile from appearing briefly across her lips. “Your Grace,” she greeted back then opened her arms. “Now come here,” she invited her with a broad smile.

Princess Terreis mirrored the Conqueror’s smile and resumed her running towards the Conqueror, who knelt on one knee to enable her daughter, till she fell into her arms with gleeful eyes and a rolling laughter.

“You may leave us,” the Conqueror said to the Queen’s servants and the governess and they all curtsied and said, “Majesties,” as they vacated the Queen’s chambers.

At the doors, they met with Princess Athena who was about to enter the Queen’s chambers. “Your Grace,” they curtsied before her as well before leaving.

“Ladies,” Princess Athena greeted back as she went in.

“Majesties,” she bowed before her parents.

“Your Grace,” they replied in unison.

Princess Terreis paid closer attention to protocol this time and studied it.

When the Royal family was alone, the Conqueror kissed Princess Terreis on her blushed cheek. “When outside the company of others other than our family, you may call me ‘ My Sire’ little one,” she softly said.

Princess Terreis looked around to make sure there were no others save for her family. “Thank you, my Sire,” she giggled and wrapped her wee arms around the Conqueror’s neck.

Princess Athena saw the exchange between the Conqueror and her sister with some interest. “How are you, your Grace?” she asked.

“Well, thank you, your Grace,” the toddler replied then buried her face in the hollow between the Conqueror’s neck and shoulder.

“Come here, little sister,” Princess Athena said, stretching out her arms and wagging her fingers in an invitation.

Princess Terreis leaned her body towards her older sister, signaling her to pick her up. So to amuse her sister and make her laugh, Princess Athena threw Terreis in the air and caught her back several times, but Terreis wasn’t amused but terrified. Her tiny hands tried to grab a hold on Athena’s shirt and her chin quivered as it always had just before she began to cry.

Seeing her little Princess’ distress, the Conqueror intervened and grabbed hold of her again, taking her away from her eldest.

“What are you doing?!” she admonished Princess Athena.

“I thought she would enjoy it. When I was her age I used to when you did it to me.”

“She is not like you. She is smaller and more fragile than you were. You must always treat her like a delicate flower, do you understand me?” Austerity was very much evident in the Conqueror’s voice as she gently rocked little Terreis in her arms to calm and sooth her.

“My apologies, Majesty,” Princess Athena said then turned to address the Queen . “You wished to see me, mother?”

“I did,” the Queen replied then turned her attention to her sister.

“Then we shall go and visit little Terreis’ new pony,” the Conqueror said.

Princess Terreis clapped her hands with exuberance. She was always excited taking little trips to the stables with the Conqueror, who patiently explained to her all there was to know about the different breeds.

The Conqueror tightened her embrace around Princess Terreis. “I love you so very much, little one,” she said.

“I love you, too, my Sire,” the toddler replied.

The Conqueror put the toddler back on the ground to stand on her own feet. “My Lady,” the Ruler said to the Queen, lodged her forefinger under her chin to guide the Queen’s features to hers and kissed her lips.

“My Lord,” the Queen replied in kind and curtsied.

“Majesty,” Princess Athena bowed as well.

“Sire, I want a kiss, too,” Princess Terreis protested and repeatedly pulled at the Conqueror’s leather trousers about her knee, which was as high as the toddler could reach.

“Haven’t you been kissed enough, my little Princess?” The Conqueror chaffed her youngest.

“I want a kiss on the lips, like mother received,” Terreis insisted.

The Conqueror leaned down and took the Princess’ hand in hers as her laughter roared while exiting the Queen’s chambers.

“Come and sit with me, Athena,” the Queen invited her eldest and tapped atop the upholstery of the armchair next to hers.

Athena seated herself and leaned backwards into the armchair, stretching out her extremities.

“It’s been awhile since last we’ve had a private conversation,” the Queen remarked.

“The Lord Conqueror occupies a substantial portion of my days with matters of the Empire.”

“And what available time you do have you spend in the Amazon Lands,” the Queen teased.

“I’ve only visited the Amazon Lands four times this passing year, for lack of time.”

“Any particular lass you visit?” the Queen asked knowingly.

“What has the Lord Conqueror been telling you?” Athena raised her left eyebrow.

“I’d rather hear it from your own mouth.”

“Cynna, the Shamaness’ apprentice,” Athena answered and studied her mother’s features for her reaction.

The Queen smiled, because she had already known and Princess Athena gathered as much.

“Are you courting her?”

“I am.”

“And does she reciprocate your sentiments?”

Princess Athena paused to consider her reply. She rubbed her chin, thinking for some time then answered, “She hasn’t yielded her body to me, yet.”

“That’s not what I asked,” the Queen commented.

“Well,” Athena cleared her throat, “It would seem that she’s quite taken with me.”

“I see,” the Queen muttered pondering. “How long have you been courting her?”

“For over two years now.”

“And in all this time you haven’t taken her to your bed…”

“That is correct.”

“Does it not bother her that you… visit her Amazon sisters’ beds?” the Queen asked as delicately as possible.

“I made her a promise I wouldn’t.”

“Have you kept your word to her?”

“In action if not in spirit,” Princess Athena admitted. She had always gotten the impression that she could tell her mother anything. “Since I made her the promise I’ve refrained from taking her sisters, but I have attended to my needs elsewhere. I cannot be expected to go without for so long.”

The Queen suspected as much. Princess Athena’s little confession didn’t come as a shock to her. Very much like her Sire, she thought, her appetites were great and couldn’t be expected to be contained for such long periods of time. “Does she know?”

“We don’t speak of such matters. She’s either wise enough or naïve enough not to ask and I certainly wouldn’t tell her.”

Hearing her daughter’s reply, the Queen thought to herself that had the Lord Conqueror heard those words she would have considered it odd, if not disturbing, that her daughter didn’t seem to know which. “What is keeping her from becoming one in flesh with you?” the Queen inquired.

“She is adamant about surrendering her maidenhood to the one who conquers her heart.”

“And haven’t you?”

“She claims that in light of my… reputation, she cannot trust me with her heart. She persists that once I would have my way with her, I would no longer desire her and move on to the next. I’m hard pressed to say I can blame her.”

The Queen contemplated her daughter’s answer. “Is she correct in her assumption?”

“What you meant to ask me was whether I loved her or not,” Athena smiled, appearing a tad embarrassed.

“My brilliant child…” the Queen sighed and smiled back.

“I crave her. I enjoy her company and I miss her when I’m away from her. I care deeply for her. That is all I know. Does that mean that I love her?”

The Queen chuckled softly. She looked at Athena with loving and adoring eyes and said, “Alas, my sweet child, I cannot answer that for you. No one can.”

Then there were a few moments shared in silence.

“If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell the Lord Conqueror?” Athena asked and before the Queen managed a protest Athena raised her hands in the air and went on to say, “I know you won’t keep secrets from the Lord Conqueror, but I’m in need of an advice from someone I trust, and I trust no one more than I trust you, mother. Please,” the Heir pleaded, rendering the Queen unable to refuse her.

“You have my word,” the Queen gave in and hoped it wouldn’t be a too big a secret to keep from her Lord.

“Cynna hinted about marriage,” Athena stated with a heavy heart.

The Queen took a deep breath. “What were her exact words to you?” she asked nearly out of breath.

Princess Athena was taken aback by the Queen’s reaction to the notion of marriage. “She said that marriage was a way of demonstrating honest and earnest intensions. I took it to mean that if I proposed marriage to her she would give her heart and body to me.”

“Marriage is a very serious matter to consider, Athena. It is serious for ordinary people but for you… You are to rule the Realm one day.”

“I am well aware of it, mother.” Athena’s heart sank even deeper and she realized that never before had she felt the burden of the Realm so heavy upon her.

“Do you even incline towards marriage?”

“I am not entirely sure. I cherish and prize my freedom dearly. How inclined towards marriage were you before you consented to marry?”

The Queen wasn’t sure why but her daughter’s question made her laugh. She gracefully covered her mouth until her laughter ceased. “It was very different for me than it is for you, I ought to imagine. As you know, I was my Lord’s slave back then, not a freewoman. I hadn’t even contemplated marriage until my Lord’s proposal. Marrying a body slave was unheard of.”

Princess Athena listened carefully to her mother’s reply without interruptions, though she had many questions she wanted to ask.

“At the time, Princess Lao-Ling obtained audience with my Lord and suggested marriage between the house of Lao and the Realm, but my Lord declined her offer. I never expected my Lord to ask my hand in marriage instead, for I knew I was not worthy of such a match.” The Queen’s expression took one of pensiveness. “One does not refuse my Lord anything or rejects my Lord’s graces, but that is not why I accepted my Lord’s proposal of marriage.” The Queen closed her eyes, momentarily picturing in her mind the events of that fateful night. “I accepted it because I yearned for my Lord. Do you understand what the word ‘yearning’ means?”

“To want, to crave,” Athena answered.

“No. It means to want till it hurts. It has to hurt to be worthy of the word. I was sold at a young age. I had no mother to explain the ways of the world to me. I didn’t know what love was. All I knew was that I ached for my Lord and couldn’t suffer life without her. I accepted my Lord’s proposal of marriage without a moment’s hesitation, because I needed more than anything to insure my place in my Lord’s life.”

Another question stood on the tip of Princess Athena’s tongue and she contemplated whether it would be appropriate to ask her mother or not.

“What is it?” the Queen affably prompted her.

“Do you think that the Conqueror’s treatment of you when you were her… servant… well… trained you or rather conditioned you to have these sentiments toward her?”

“I know for a fact that it did not. I began to suffer the pain of wanting when I’d first seen my Lord in a parade some years before she acquired me.”

Princess Athena did not expect her mother’s answer.

***

A fortnight had gone by, and at the Amazon Lands, the Shamaness and her apprentice took tea in the Shamaness’ hut. Cynna was scheduled to travel to Corinth the very next day and stay in the palace as Princess Athena’s guest.

“I think that you are overreaching yourself, Cynna,” the Shamaness made yet another effort to prevent her apprentice from pursuing a romantic connection with the Realm’s future Ruler. She had genially yet incessantly tried to dishearten Cynna’s ambition to couple with Princess Athena, but to no avail.

“Do you not consider me as worthy of her Grace?” Cynna sounded offended and laid down her cup.

“Of course you are. That is not what stands in the basis of my reservation,” the Shamaness claimed.

“Do you not view me as eligible to becoming Queen of the Realm one day, then?” the apprentice inquired further, persistent in getting to the root of the Shamaness’ reluctance to grant her blessing.

That was not what stood at the basis of the Shamaness’ reservations but since Cynna had brought it up, she asked, “Do you not see the substantial difference in your stations?”

“What of it? The current Queen sitting on the throne began her ascendance from an even lower and more disadvantaged starting point than mine,” Cynna argued.

“You misunderstand. It is your soul I worry about. There’s darkness in her Grace.”

Cynna scoffed at the elderly woman with youthful ill-founded overconfidence and certainty. “I can handle her Grace well enough,” she sipped her tea and went on to offer her proof for her latest assertion, “I have yet to succumb to her desires, which is more than I can say about many of my sisters.”

“Then you know nothing of her darkness, you silly girl,” the Shamaness was on the verge of losing her patience. “Her Grace’s darkness is the same as the Lord Conqueror’s darkness. You have yet to witness it, but trust me when I tell you it is there just as sure as the mint in your murky tea before you.”

By the disbelieving expression across the young apprentice’s features, the Shamaness realized she was far from reaching reason.

“Remember my next words to you,” the Shamaness went on to say, a tad overdramatically, Cynna thought. “Her Grace will… demand things of you; Things that you might not be able to provide her with. She will consume your soul with her darkness just as the Lord Conqueror consumes the Queen’s.”

The apprentice traced the rim of the ceramic cup as casually as she could so as not to betray her true feelings to her mentor and stated, “More than anything in the world I want to be her Grace’s wife.”

The Shamaness leaned in over the table between them, her eyes piercing her apprentice’s. “The Queen lives entirely for the Lord Conqueror. Are you capable of living entirely for another?” she challenged, confronting her pupil with what she considered a sobering truth.

Cynna leaned backwards till she was pressed against the back of her seat and downed what remained of her tea into her mouth without answering the Shamaness.

***

Several days came and went. Princess Athena and Princess Terreis both sat in the Queen’s chambers and watched the Queen preening herself at her toilet table. As the Queen applied rouge to her lips, Princess Terreis observed her mother with great interest and when curiosity got the better of her, she asked:

“What are you doing, mother?”

The Queen refrained from smiling so as not to spoil her careful labor of coloring and beautifying her lips. “I am making myself pretty,” she answered.

“But you are already pretty,” argued the toddler.

“Then I am making myself prettier,” replied the Queen and in her heart she cherished the sweet compliment that her daughter paid her.

But Princess Terreis was still not satisfied. “Why?”

“It is my desire and duty to please my Lord,” the Queen averted her gaze from her own reflection to her young daughter.

Princess Terreis moved to stand on the chair on which she sat and when on level with the Queen, she reached for the rouge. “Please color my lips, mother, for I wish to please my Sire as well.”

Upon hearing her sister’s words, Princess Athena folded her arms over her chest and shook her head, sullenly.

From the corner of her eye, the Queen saw Princess Athena’s countenance, but she elected not to comment on it.

“I have invited Cynna to the palace as my guest,” Princess Athena informed the Queen.

“When is she expected to arrive?” the Queen asked as she added some faint blush to her cheeks with a small brush pinched between her fingertips.

“Later on today… Tomorrow, at the latest,” Princess Athena answered and with inquiring fingers touched the dark substance her mother used to adorn her eyelashes with.

“Did you ask for my Lord’s permission?”

“I wasn’t aware that I needed permission,” Athena said.

“This is my Lord’s house…” the Queen began to say, but the doors to her chambers were opened and one of her ladies in waiting announced the Conqueror’s arrival.

The Queen and her two daughters rose to their feet and greeted the Conqueror with accordance to proper protocol.

“Just in time, my Lord,” the Queen’s features shone with delight at the sight of the Conqueror, who covered the distance between them. The Queen handed the Conqueror a necklace encrusted with rubies, which the Conqueror took as the Queen turned her back to her and lifted up her fair hair to expose her nape.

The Conqueror glided her fingers against the soft skin then planted a lingering, caressing kiss there before fastening the necklace around her wife’s neck as she had always done.

“That is how I want you before I pounce on you…” the Conqueror whispered in the Queen’s ear so that their audience would not hear her playful words. Her mind was riddled with images from the previous night.

She was sitting in her armchair, reading various reports, when the Queen, who was tyrannized by her lust for her Lord, unbuckled the Conqueror’s belt, reached inside and took out the Conqueror’s shaft, then lodged each of her feet to each side of the Conqueror on the upholstery next to each armrest and lifted up her nightgown, exposing her clandestine treasure to the Lord’s hungry eyes. She squatted over her Lord and lowered her body till her womanhood swallowed the Conqueror’s phallus whole. The Queen grounded herself against the Conqueror’s loins, riding her to satisfy her lust, but not before long her Lord lifted them both off the armchair and deposited her Queen into the armchair while still connected together. Grateful for the delicious distraction, the Conqueror grabbed hold of the armrests and patiently stirred herself repeatedly inside the Queen’s wet slit.

“How is that, my Lord?” the Queen whispered in reply and sent her hand backwards to cup the back of the Conqueror’s head and press it harder against her.

“Calm and relaxed before the kill, otherwise it spoils the meat,” the Conqueror chuckled with a low voice and her warm breath bristled the Queen’s skin.

The Queen turned around in her Lord’s engulfing arms with laughter upon her lips.

Princess Terreis pulled at the Conqueror’s trousers to draw her attention, but the Conqueror ignored her effort.

“Have our guests arrived yet?” the Queen asked.

“They have, my Lady,” the Conqueror answered with a nod of her head, “We shall afford them time to recover from their long journey and grant them audience tomorrow . ”

“Very good, my Lord,” the Queen replied and returned back to her seat.

Only then was the Conqueror’s attention free to be turned onto little Terreis. She picked her up in her arms. “When I speak to her Majesty the Queen you are never to interrupt me, is that understood, little one?” she asked in authoritative tone of voice that left no room for misconstruing her meaning.

“Pardon me, my Sire,” the toddler replied with sad eyes for displeasing the Conqueror.

“Would you like to visit the lions today?” the Conqueror asked with a smile to let her youngest know she had been forgiven.

“Very much. Thank you, Sire,” Terreis made no effort to hide her excitement.

“You are to join us, your Grace,” the Conqueror informed Princess Athena with some measure of sternness.

“Of course, Majesty,” Princess Athena confirmed the Conqueror’s command.

“My Lady,” the Conqueror bowed before the Queen.

“Majesty,” Princess Athena bowed before her as well before leaving.

“My Lord,” the Queen curtsied in return.

The Conqueror and her daughters left the Queen’s chambers and went to the menagerie. Upon arrival, the Conqueror ordered the groundskeeper to open the gates of the area that was inhabitant by the new cubs. With confidant strides she entered it and went to the lion’s cubs. She seated herself atop a tree trunk and seated Terreis on her knee with a protective arm around the tiny frame. With her free hand she petted the cubs.

The cubs rubbed the length of their bodies and groomed their heads against the Conqueror’s legs.

“May I play with them as well, my Sire?” Terreis asked exuberantly and reached downwards trying to touch one of the cubs.

On an instinct, Princess Athena nearly darted towards her sister to stop her from reaching the animals.

“These are dangerous beasts, little one,” the Conqueror said and tightened her hold around Princess Terreis’ body, rendering her unable to reach her intended goal. She then picked up a cub and brought it to stand on her other knee so that Terreis could have better view of it. She pry opened the cub’s jaw, “Observe its canines,” she instructed while exposing the cub’s canines for her daughter to see.

Princess Terreis inquisitively looked at the sharp canines.

“Notice how its eyes are in the front of its head. Do you remember where your pony’s eyes are located?” asked the Conqueror.

Princess Terreis made her best effort to recall so to impress her Sire and envisioned her pony in her mind’s eye. “To the sides of its head,” she answered only after being sure she was correct.

“Very good, little one. Do you know why?”

Princess Terreis shook her head in the negative. “No, my Sire.”

“Predators such as lions and wolves need their eyes in the front of their heads for when they hunt so to keep track of their prey, where as the prey’s eyes’ location affords them wider range of sight so that when they eat and drink they can see a predator approaching,” the Conqueror explained then gripped the cub’s nape, paralyzing its motion.

“Now, you may pet it,” the Conqueror said to her youngest, and as the young Princess weaved her little fingers through the cub’s soft fur, the Conqueror proceeded to educate her daughter. “There are neither mistakes nor flaws in nature’s design. For everything that comes before you, you must ask yourself; what is its nature? What are its motives? What does it seeks? What is it capable of doing?”

As the Conqueror spoke, Princess Athena got the distinct feeling that the Conqueror was aiming her words at her as much as she was aiming them at her sister, and she was correct, for not long afterwards the Conqueror averted her gaze from Princess Terreis to her and said, “It was brought to my attention that a guest of yours is expected to arrive here soon.” It was Lady Satrina who had informed the Conqueror soon after Princess Athena had asked her to make the necessary arrangements.

“I informed her Majesty the Queen a short while ago,” Princess Athena said. “Her Majesty told me that I should have obtained your Majesty’s permission beforehand. I pray you to accept my sincere apology for not doing so. It was an honest mistake.”

The Conqueror nodded her head to signal Athena that the apologies were accepted. “I was told the guest in question was a young Amazon woman. Is it the Shamaness’ apprentice?”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“I see,” the Conqueror said, lowering the cub back to the ground and releasing her grasp form its nape. She rose to her feet with young Princess Terreis in her arms. “Tomorrow, her Majesty and I will receive our own guests in the Great Hall. Your presence is required. Make sure your guest is not in the way of it.”

“By your will, Majesty,” Princess Athena confirmed.

Come evening, as the Conqueror and the Queen were taking supper in the privacy of the Imperial chambers. The Queen loaded her Lord’s plate with slices of red meat perfectly grilled and asked, “Do you know what the purpose of King Olof’s emissaries’ visit is?”

King Olof ruled over lands further north to the far end of the Realm’s province of Northern Gaul , beyond Germania and Britannia, known as the Nordic Lands.

“I have my suspicions but I am not entirely sure,” the Conqueror answered and poured sweet red wine into the Queen’s goblet.

“Your suspicions have a habit of coming to past, my Lord,” the Queen commented, “and so I view your suspicions as nearing certainty.”

“My spies in his kingdom have been reporting to me for the past year or so that King Olof is in poor health and is surely to die soon. His rule over the Nordic Lands is hanging by a thread.”

“Has he no heirs to continue his line?” the Queen asked.

“A son and a daughter,” the Conqueror replied. “The son, so I’m told, is a bit of a weakling and perhaps too young and inexperienced for the throne and his daughter is nothing like ours.”

“So what might he want from you?”

“My help, to keep his kingdom in one piece after his imminent death, I would imagine.”

“And will you help him?”

“Of course not,” the Conqueror scoffed at the notion. “There is no gain in it for me,” she said and sank her teeth into the juicy meat. “He is a wounded deer who comes asking for help from a lion. What do you think the lion will do?”

“It will devour,” the Queen answered and already the dread and the longing that always followed the Conqueror’s going off to war began to nestle in her heart.

“Then, why grant his emissaries an audience?”

“For information, of course. I can learn more about the seriousness of his predicament by looking in his men’s eyes and by observing their mannerisms, than by listening to anything they have to say,” the Conqueror replied.

The Queen laid down her goblet. She rested her elbows atop the table, interlaced her fingers and regarded her Lord. “You are keeping something from me,” she finally stated.

The Conqueror wiped her mouth and held her wife’s gaze. “Like what?”

“I know you. You never take a meeting without meticulously examining all the options. It must have crossed your mind that King Olof means to suggest marriage between his daughter and Athena. The domestic opponents to his rule wouldn’t dare undermine his line when it is so closely and directly connected to the Realm’s Throne. Such marriage would make the Nordic Lands a de facto province of the Realm.”

“Clever you,” the Conqueror sighed, inwardly wishing it wouldn’t have occurred to the Queen.

“What I do not understand is why you didn’t deem it noteworthy enough to mention to me.”

“I deemed conversing about it premature at this point. An offer hasn’t been made yet.”

The Conqueror’s tone of voice had an overt shade of finality to it, which disheartened the Queen. They both spent the remainder of their supper in silence.
Part 5
The following day, as soon as dawn spread its pale arms across the sky, Princess Athena and Cynna took a stroll in the Imperial Gardens . It was Cynna’s first meeting with real grandeur and splendor. All her senses absorbed the vast richness and the intricate beauty of the Imperial Gardens and its marvelous array of colors.

“I’ve always wanted to see the palace in Corinth and its legendary gardens. Thank you, your Grace, for your generous invitation.” Cynna said, drunk from the sights. To her, even the air in the gardens smelled rich.

“Her Majesty the Queen adores the gardens as well. I’m glad they please you,” remarked Princess Athena and wrapped her arm around Cynna’s waist.

“Truly, they are magnificent,” Cynna sighed with amazed delight and leaned down to smell a rose.

“What if I told you that you could visit these gardens whenever the fancy takes you?” asked Princess Athena with glee in her eyes.

“Do you mean…?” Cynna lurched back up, wide-eyed and stricken by surprise.

Princess Athena took both Cynna’s hands in hers. “Cynna, will you marry me?” she asked, smiling with joy knowing her proposal would make Cynna happy.

“Yes, I’ll marry you!” she exclaimed and with shimmering eyes leaped into Princess Athena’s arms. As they embraced, Cynna asked, “Would the Lord Conqueror and the Queen give their permission and their blessing to our union?”

“I’m confident that my mother would, and I’m sure she’d persuade the Lord Conqueror to do the same if need be.”

The young couple kissed.

“Will you take me to see the famous Great Hall? They say it is spectacular.”

The Royal chuckled at her betroth’ exhilaration.

When they entered the Great Hall, the servants toiling in order to prepare it for the Nordic emissaries’ visit halted their actions and bowed before Princess Athena, emitting ‘Your Grace’ as she passed them by, then went on about their business, scrubbing and polishing vigorously.

Cynna looked all around her, at the marble Corinthian style pillars, at the murals and the carpets, even at the unique brass torches along the walls, and she could hardly breathe from excitement. She stepped up the dais and felt as though she was standing atop a giant’s shoulders and was almost giddy. She knew that this spot where she stood was the highest on earth, higher than any mountain. She touched the armrest of the Queen’s throne with her fingertips and sensed a jolt coursing through her.

“There is something I need to ask of you…” Princess Athena said, gently touching Cynna’s back.

Cynna turned to face Athena and stepped down the dais and from the look on her face, Cynna gathered that the matter about to be discussed was serious.

Words did not come easily to the future Ruler. “I wish to remain faithful to you throughout our lives together, and so I hope to receive from you, all that I require. Do you understand what I mean?”

Cynna’s features turned grave for a moment. “I’ve heard the stories… about the Lord Conqueror… and about you.”

“I don’t think you truly understand. You might understand the words but you cannot comprehend…”

“I will try and tolerate it,” Cynna said quickly as if she couldn’t wait to get rid of the words, as if uttering them fast enough she wouldn’t be beholden to them one day when the time came.

“And if not, the darkness will be directed elsewhere and it will have nothing whatsoever to do with us and what is shared between us,” Princess Athena promised sincerely.

Cynna didn’t care for the dark cloud in her skies that morning and couldn’t wait for it to pass them by already. Sure in her abilities and strength, she smiled and simply repeated, “I will try and tolerate it.”

Princess Athena took Cynna in her arms and kissed her lips and never before had she felt it so hard to resist taking what had been withheld for so long.

“I love you, Cynna.”

“I love you, too, your Grace,” Cynna nearly ingratiated herself with the sweetest of voice and tongue then went on to casually ask, “When will you speak to her Majesty the Queen?”

“This evening after the meeting, which reminds me, I must leave you now and prepare myself for it.”

“Your Grace,” Cynna curtsied before Princess Athena bidding her farewell.

“My Lady,” Princess Athena bowed with a smile and left the Great Hall.

***

Later that day, the Conqueror, the Queen and Princess Athena were sitting on their thrones in the Great Hall, when the ceremony master announced the arrival of the Nordic emissaries. A party of seven men entered the Great Hall. The Conqueror’s advisers, several of her noblemen, and military commanders whose presence the Conqueror had demanded, stared with great interest and fascination at the foreigners who passed by them on the way to stand before the Thorne.

Each of the men wore an over-tunic made of dark blue or grey wool with long sleeves which reached past the wrists and a single button to fasten the garment at the neck. Complicated braids decorated the keyhole neckline and cuffs. Long trousers covered their legs along with puttee-like leg wrappings from knee to foot and leather-made boots. Over their heads were caps made of sheepskin with fur around the rim. Dense woolen cloaks fastened by a penannular brooch were draped over them. They were dressed far too warm for the pleasant Corinthian climate.

When reaching close to the dais, the men bowed before the Conqueror and the Queen. “Majesties,” they all spoke in unison with a heavy foreign accent.

The Royals nodded their heads.

“Welcome to the Realm,” the Conqueror announced.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” spoke the representative of the Nordic delegation, an elderly man with blush cheeks and a thick grey beard, “For your generous hospitality and for the honor of granting us an audience. I’m Jarl Albrich,” he introduced himself. A Jarl in the Nordic kingdom was the equivalent of a Nobleman in the Realm.

“King Olof’s Chief of Jarls,” the Conqueror stated, letting the man standing before her know she was aware of the Nordic Kingdom ‘s internal affairs and hierarchy. “And how is your master these days?” she went on to inquire.

“Alas, King Olof’s health continues to fail him.”

“So I’ve been told. It is most unfortunate.”

“His Majesty wishes to extend his belated greetings to both your Majesties for the birth of your second in line, Princess Terreis,” the grey-bearded Norseman replied, letting the Conqueror know he was equally well-informed.

“The Nordic Kingdom is on the brink of a civil war between the Jarls who support King Olof and his next in line and the Jarls who appose them. Isn’t that about the shape of it?” The Conqueror’s words and manner in which they were delivered could almost be considered aggressive.

“Perhaps it is not quite that dire, your Majesty,” the Jarl replied.

“Isn’t it?!” the Conqueror questioned as she moved forward to sit closer to the edge of her throne, making the Norseman feel more agitated. “What does your master want?” she asked him.

The Nordic Jarl cleared his throat. “My master is a wise and reasonable King. He wishes to make an offer to your Majesty which would benefit both parties.”

“I’m listening,” the Conqueror urged him on with an impatient swivel of her hand.

“My King proposes a marriage between his nubile and maiden daughter, Princess Sieglinde, and your Majesties’ Princess Athena,” he said and as he spoke he directed his attention and words to the Conqueror only and nowhere else.

Princess Athena fought to keep a stoic and regal expression frozen about her and it took more effort than any of her most exhorting trainings. She realized then that never before had she felt so strongly that control over her own destiny was less in her hands than she’d ever allowed herself to think.

“And what do I get out of it?” the Conqueror sharply asked, her demanding eyes focused on the Norseman, making him feel as though he was standing in the Great Hall alone with her.

“A handsome dowry, of course. Peace between the Realm and the Nordic Kingdom, trading treaties and of course a close and fruitful alliance between us which naturally follows the union of such marriage. As a show of good will, his Majesty is willing to pay the Realm twenty of the best battleships in his fleet.”

The Conqueror rubbed her jaw and wore a thoughtful expression about her countenance as if she was giving serious consideration to the offer. All in the Great Hall waited silently for the Ruler’s verdict. After some long moments had gone by, she leaned back into her Throne, casually resting her back against it.

She shook her head. “Your King Olof negotiates beyond his means given his circumstances and the state of his kingdom, Jarl Albrich.” Her voice sounded almost scolding, like she was berating him for taking her for a fool.

“I meant no disrespect, Majesty. The offer is sound and fair. I hoped to find your Majesty well-disposed towards my master’s offer.”

“Fairness, Jarl, is immaterial, as well you know. Here is my counteroffer. It is the only one I’m willing to entertain. It is final and nonnegotiable,” the Conqueror stated. “Pursuant to the marriage, the Nordic Kingdom will become a province of the Realm. As all provinces, it will be under my rule and law. Its army will be dismantled. Taxes will be paid to the Realm.”

Both Queen Gabrielle and Princess Athena sat unmoving like statues in their seats; both hoping that the Conqueror’s outrageous offer was a part of some clandestine plot not yet revealed to them.

“And what will my King receive in return?” the Norseman asked, masking a protest in his voice.

“Peace and prosperity for his people. Making the Nordic Kingdom a province of the Realm by marriage would prevent the outbreak of a civil war and the bloodbath and mayhem which would inevitably follow, and it would prevent me from conquering what is left after the dust is settled as I did in Chin, now a province of the Realm. As in all provinces of the Realm, free hospices and academies for the welfare of his people will be built at my expense, and to sweeten the deal, I will appoint his son, Prince Baldr, as governor to the Nordic province. Having his sister married to my Heir would stifle any opposition.”

Jarl Albrich remained quiet. His forehead became wrinkled with deep lines fraught with concern. He harbored no misconceptions in regards to his homeland’s frail situation and both he and his master had known before his journey to Corinth that the Conqueror would have taken advantage of it; they had held no false hopes.

“I trust your master had given you sufficient authority before he sent you here,” the Conqueror urged his response.

“Yes, Majesty,” he replied.

“What is your answer then?”

“On behalf of my King, the Nordic Kingdom accepts your Majesty’s offer,” he gave the only response he could.

“Good. Before a treaty can be signed, I first must see Princess Sieglinde. How soon can she appear before me?”

“Princess Sieglinde is currently lodging in Athens . She did not wish to impose her presence upon your Majesty should your Majesty were to decline the marriage.”

The Conqueror was impressed by the Nordic Princess’ etiquette. “Very well. I will see her tomorrow, then.”

The Conqueror signaled one of her advisors, who turned to Jarl Albrich and announced, “Your audience with the Lord Conqueror is over. You are excused from the Lord Conqueror’s presence.”

The Nordic emissaries bowed before the Throne and vacated the Great Hall. Next, the Conqueror ordered her advisors to draft an agreement before dismissing them.

When no one but the Royal family occupied the Great Hall, the Queen and Princess Athena rose from their thrones and stood facing the Conqueror.

“This is all a ploy, is it not?!” Princess Athena wanted to know immediately.

The Conqueror kept the same expression she had worn during her negotiation, such as it was – severe aloofness.

“Majesty,” Athena implored, “Please tell me that you are not forcing me into marrying the Norsewoman.”

“Athena,” the Queen intervened, calling out her name to remind her daughter to whom she was speaking.

“You will marry whom I say you will marry,” the Conqueror informed her Heir as clearly and as unequivocally as possible.

Princess Athena could no longer suffer being in the Conqueror’s presence. Defiantly, she turned on her heels, showing her back to the Conqueror and commenced a demonstrative striding towards the Great Hall’s exit.

The Conqueror jumped off her Throne, stepped down the dais with a single gate and grabbed her daughter by her elbow, preventing her from walking away.

“I pray you, my Lord,” the Queen rested her hand over the Conqueror’s forearm with a soft touch. She had to stop the conflict from escalating any further.

“I haven’t even seen her,” Athena claimed fiercely, her words being sifted through gritting teeth.

The Conqueror released Athena from her grip. “Which is why I have arranged for us to see her, tomorrow!”

“Athena, I wish to speak with my Lord in private,” the Queen said.

Princess Athena was only too happy to oblige. The Conqueror’s stance enraged her, and so, rather than do or say something she might later regret, she gladly opted to get as far away as she possibly could from the Conqueror.

Alone in the Great Hall, the Queen knew her best course of action was to plea to her Lord’s heart. “Although she is strong and aware of her responsibilities, it will be hard on her to accept your choice of a wife for her.”

“My mind is not entirely made up, yet. I must see the lass before making my final decision.”

“I understand, my Lord. All I ask of you is to recognize that Athena is very much like you. She is every bit as passionate and as proud as you are.”

From her Queen’s words the Conqueror gathered two things, equally disconcerting: the first, that her wife and Queen would be on their daughter’s side in this matter, and the second, that the Shamaness’ apprentice was a bigger problem that she had initially thought.

Meanwhile, Princess Athena went straight to Cynna’s assigned chamber for the duration of her stay in the palace. As soon as she caught sight of Cynna, she rushed to her and fell into her arms.

“What is the matter, your Grace?” Cynna asked bewildered and distressed for she had never seen the great Heir to the Conqueror so upset.

“The Conqueror means to command that I should marry the daughter of the Nordic King Olof, Princess Sieg… I cannot even speak her name!” she replied, fighting back tears. Even in her distraught mood there was only so much weakness, she thought, she could demonstrate.

“I thought we were going to be married,” Cynna said, trying to make sense of things.

“Apparently ruling more lands is more important to the Lord Conqueror than her Heir’s, her flesh and blood’s, happiness!” Athena exclaimed as she tore herself from Cynna’s arms.

A few moments passed in silence between them.

“What will become of us, then?”

Princess Athena slumped herself into a nearby armchair and covered her features with her hands.

“I have no idea. The Norsewoman is to come to Court and appear before us tomorrow. Perhaps the Conqueror would deem her unfit,” Athena clung to hope.

“And what if the Conqueror wouldn’t? What if the Conqueror decides that you should marry her? What then?!”

Princess Athena rubbed her forehead and let out a heavy sigh. She had an idea but she worried it would be ill-received. “Then I shall take you as my mistress.”

By the looks of Cynna’s reaction, Princess Athena quickly learned just how appalled the Amazon was.

“I thought you loved me!” the apprentice exclaimed, mortified.

“It is because I love that I’m willing to consider it. Can’t you see?”

“A mistress?! Do you think so little of me?!” Cynna was offended.

“You will receive all my love, I promise you. You will live here at Court and have anything you want.”

“And what status will I have? What kind of a reputation?”

“We’ll be together. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that what’s important?”

“With all my heart I love you, your Grace, but I cannot nor will I be your mistress while you have a wife and Queen.”

***

The next day in the Great Hall, Princess Sieglinde was announced to appear before the Throne.

In complete silence, all eyes were glued to the entrance as a young lass walked inside, accompanied by Jarl Albrich. She was quite tall but shorter than Princess Athena by a head or so. Her skin was as pale as the light of the moon and her cheeks were blushed. She had big grey eyes and a pointy nose not unlike most of her race. She was just above plain looking but pleasing enough on the eye. Her features were delicate and gave out warmth, majestic modesty and affable kindness.

The lass wore an ankle length red linen under-dress with the neck closed by a brooch. Over it she wore a shorter length blue woolen apron-skirt, longer at the back than the front, suspended by shoulder straps fastened by brooches as well with decorative fabric panels hung from them over the suspended dress. A heard-dress with eight ounces of gold woven into the fabric adorned the lass’ head, but in closer look one could detect a few strands of fair golden hair peeking out. Over her shoulders was a crimson silk cloak.

She stopped her graceful paces when she reached the dais.

“Majesties,” she knelt before the thrones and remained kneeling with her head down.

With accordance to his Mistress’ show of humility, Jarl Albrich knelt before the Conqueror as well.

Slowly, with her examining gaze pinned on the kneeling young princess, the Conqueror rose to a stand and stepped down the dais with deliberate steps. The Ruler leaned down and offered her hand to the princess at her feet.

Princess Sieglinde tilted up her head just slightly and kissed the Conqueror’s seal ring, before looking further upwards but not meeting the Conqueror’s eyes.

The Conqueror touched Princess Sieglinde’s shoulder, signaling her to stand up and the Princess complied, still evading the Conqueror’s gaze.

“Princess Sieglinde, welcome to my Court,” the Conqueror said.

The Nordic Princess nodded her head and with a heavy Nordic dialect replied, “Thank you, your Majesty.”

“Allow me to introduce my family,” the Conqueror continued and gestured with her right arm to the direction of the Queen. “My wife, her Majesty Queen Gabrielle.”

The Queen rose from her throne, stepped down the dais and approached to stand at the Conqueror’s right.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Princess Sieglinde,” the Queen extended a heartfelt welcome.

Princess Sieglinde curtsied, and then said with some measure of effort and apparent concentration, “Your Majesty is very kind and very beautiful.”

“Thank you. So are you, your Grace,” the Queen returned the favor.

The Conqueror outstretched her left arm to the left.

“My Heir, her Grace Princess Athena,” the Conqueror continued and Princess Athena approached to stand to the Conqueror’s left.

Princess Athena seized the opportunity to closely study the Norse Royal, but she was predisposed to disliking her. Her heart was hardened and there wasn’t a sliver of chance for an affinity to be formed.

“Your Grace,” Princess Sieglinde curtsied, meekly trying to steal a few curious and inquiring glances at the Conqueror’s Heir and her countenance revealed nothing of what she thought and felt.

“Your Grace,” replied Princess Athena as chilled and as apathetically as possible.

“And Princess Terreis,” the Conqueror said with a smile on her lips.

The governess whispered in the child’s ear and Princess Terreis walked over and stood to her mother’s right.

Princess Sieglinde’s expression brightened with a smile on her lips and in her eyes as soon as her gaze rested on Princess Terreis. She knelt down to face the little Princess. The striking resemblance between the child and the Queen was not lost on her. As she watched Princess Terreis curtsy and greet her by her title, Princess Sieglinde thought that Princess Terreis was the most beautiful and most adorable child she had ever seen and in her excitement she momentarily forget herself and the occasion and began to speak in her native tongue.

It did not, however, deter Princess Terreis, who smiled back at the Norse Princess even though she did not understand a single word.

Princess Sieglinde apologized and said, “It is a delight to meet you, your Grace,” to Princess Terreis before rising to her feet once more.

The Realm’s Royals returned to their seats.

Princess Sieglinde signaled to Jarl Albrich and the latter addressed the Conqueror on her behalf.

“Majesty, my Mistress wishes to inform you that regrettably she does not yet master the Greek language. On our journey here I tutored her some to the best of my ability. With your permission, my Mistress requests your permission to allow me to translate your communications for the time being.”

“Granted,” the Conqueror agreed, then added, “Should I decide in favor of the marriage, I shall appoint my best tutor to her Grace so that she may learn as quickly as possible.”

Jarl Albrich translated the Conqueror’s words to his Mistress, and she answered him back.

“Your Majesty is most generous,” he said.

“Tell me, your Grace, how do you spend your days?” the Conqueror inquired.

After translating the question, Princess Sieglinde replied in her tongue with the Jarl repeating her words in Greek.

“I spend considerable time almost every day in the orphanage not far from our palace that my mother, Queen Ortlinde, had my father the King build for her before she died. When she was still alive, my mother took me there to help her care for the misfortunate children. After her death, I gladly took it upon myself to continue her legacy. Being orphaned from a mother myself, caring for the orphans there, who had neither mother nor father, provided me with great comfort and sense of purpose. I adore children, Majesty. They are resilient, honest and sweet.”

Princess Sieglinde halted her speech for a few moments then continued with a touch of embarrassment. “I apologize if the answer I’ve given might not sufficiently impress your Majesty, but it is truthful. I also read and knit every day, and I’m proud to say that in my homeland, I’m well known for my knitting.” A fierce red blush colored her cheeks as if her words caused her even further embarrassment. After all, she thought to herself, what interest knitting, caring for children, or other such trifles could be to the great Lord Conqueror.

“Who do you admire above all else?” the Conqueror posed her second question.

Princess Sieglinde did not hesitate. “My late mother, Queen Ortlinde, your Majesty, for setting an example for me to follow with her charitable way of life.”

“And lastly,” the Conqueror went on with her final question, “What is your gravest concern?”

“To see brothers raise arms against brothers in my homeland, Majesty.”

As soon as the Conqueror rose from her throne, the Queen knew that her Lord’s mind was made up. Fact was, she had suspected as much as soon as she had seen the way Princess Sieglinde had knelt before her Lord.

“Her Grace Princess Athena will marry you, Princess Sieglinde,” the Conqueror announced. Jarl Albrich translated the Conqueror’s words to the Norse Princess and demure mirth touched the blushed cheeks.

“The wedding will take place a moon from today, in Corinth , of course. In the meantime, you are welcome to stay here as my guest. Educators and instructors will be hired to teach you our language, customs and traditions. You may choose your own ladies in waiting. My household steward, Lady Satrina, will assist and advise you.”

Princess Sieglinde rushed to kneel at the Conqueror’s feet once more and repeatedly kissed her seal ring.

“Thank you, Majesty,” she said over and over again before starting to speak in her native tongue again. “Thank you, most gracious Majesty for this great undeserved honor. I shall spend the rest of my life proving myself worthy of your Majesty’s trust and honor given. I vow to be a good and true wife to her Grace.”

Jarl Albrich translated her words to the Conqueror.

The Conqueror ordered the Great Hall cleared, thus concluding the meeting.

***

On their way out, after attending to the Queen, the Queen’s ladies in waiting curtsied before the Conqueror as the latter strode into the Imperial chambers.

The Queen was lounging on a settee by the fire in her nightgown, her gaze pensive and distant.

The Conqueror took off her crown and placed it on the desk. The clouting sound made by the meeting of metal and wood brought the Queen out of her deep pondering.

“You are awfully quiet, my Lady,” the Conqueror remarked in order to provoke a conversation, pacing slowly to stand between her wife and the burning hearth.

“I know that Athena’s marriage is a matter of state first and as such at your discretion, but I wish you’d consulted with me before making your final decision, my Lord.”

“You have already made your position on this matter clear. I saw no point to it.”

“Will you not even explain to me why?”

“Wars sometime have the habit of seeping outside the borders of the territory in conflict. Should a civil war were to break out, the Realm’s northern borders might not be safe. The marriage will prevent it and our subjects in the north will be safe without the need for military intervention on my part,” the Conqueror explained.

The Queen noticed that the Conqueror didn’t name her desire to rule the Nordic Lands as a reason. She couldn’t help but thinking that her Lord had been less than forthcoming with her about her entire motives and it bothered her. “And what of our daughter’s happiness?” she asked.

“What of it? Princess Sieglinde is a suitable match. Perhaps her Grace has taken a liking to her now that she saw her.”

But the Queen harbored no such assumption.

The Conqueror kissed the Queen’s temple before making her way to Princess Athena’s chambers.
Part 6
“She seems pleasant enough, does she not?” the Conqueror asked Athena as she was standing in the antechamber in the Princess’ suite opposite her.

“I do not care for her. I love someone else,” Athena proclaimed.

“Cynna. Your little Amazon guest,” the Conqueror stated knowingly and folded her arms over her chest.

“Yes, Majesty.”

“What do you know about her?” the Conqueror asked.

It was a question that Princess Athena did not expect. In it of itself, the question suggested that the issue was actually open for a discussion, but it couldn’t be, Athena thought, for the Conqueror never discussed but ordered. “She is my age,” she began to say slowly as one would when being caught off guard. “Her mother died in childbirth. The Shamaness took her under her wing and cared for her as a mother. She was born and raised Amazon. She has no…”

The Conqueror did not afford her daughter a chance to finish. “Then you know nothing about her – Nothing of real importance.”

“How do you mean?” Athena was irked by the fact that the Conqueror clearly didn’t place much value on her judgment and held in low esteem her power of perception.

“I knew more about your mother before I married her than you know after courting Cynna for over two years now.”

“What could you have possibly known about a body slave?” came Athena’s angered outburst.

“I knew she had a pure and kind heart and that she’d sacrifice herself for me. I knew that she had seen the very worst of me and had accepted it with astounding equanimity. That was all I needed to know.”

“And what do you know about the Norsewoman?” Athena challenged.

“She’s a king’s daughter,” the Conqueror stated. “She was born into royalty. Like you, she was brought up a Ruler’s progeny. She already knows the taste of power and wealth and so is not dazzled or swayed by them. She knows her place and her duties and what’s expected of her.”

“With respect, Majesty, you took one look at her, asked her a total of three questions and already you know who she is?”

“I’m surprised and troubled by the fact that you do not. You should be able to do it as well if you’re ever going to be a successful ruler.”

“I ought to be free to choose my own wife,” Athena firmly contended. “As free as you were to choose yours, Majesty.”

“You are not me or there wouldn’t be a need for us to have this conversation,” the Conqueror replied. “You are bound by your duty and by responsibility to your station and our subjects.”

“I don’t fancy the Norsewoman,” Athena repeated again what was abundantly evident at that point.

“So when our subjects ask me why did I allow their blood spilled – what would you have me tell them? That you didn’t fancy the Norsewoman?!”

“You refused Princess Lao-Ling!” Athena answered as if she was landing a winning blow.

The comparison angered the Conqueror, but she maintained control of her temper. “Chin posed no threat to the Realm and Princess Lao-Ling would never have waged war against the Realm. The only thing to be gained by the marriage was the fattening of my purse and the Realm’s nobility’s purses, nothing more.”

“She doesn’t even speak our tongue! Like you, Majesty, I speak five languages and I have neither the will nor the inclination to learn another,” Athena protested, not trying to hide her disdain.

“She will learn yours. Besides,” the Conqueror was slowly yet steadily becoming angrier, “best you put her tongue to better uses than talking.”

“Since your Majesty has brought the subject up…” Athena pointed out, “What if she refuses to cater to my cursed darkness?”

The Conqueror’s response to her Heir’s question shot out of her mouth, seemingly without a moment’s thought, as though either she had anticipated the question or she had been firm in her convictions. “Then you take your need elsewhere and she will bear it in silence, as I’m sure she must have seen her mother bears it in silence countless of times, for no king has ever been faithful to his queen.”

Then there was silence. It took Athena quite some time to contemplate her Sire’s blatant if not crass answer. She wondered just how sure the Conqueror truly was in her belief. She knew enough to suspect that the Conqueror had never been unfaithful to the Queen, but what of the Conqueror’s darkness, she wondered. She remembered the marks she had seen on her mother’s body the day she had learnt of her parents’ great love, so she knew that the Queen had had an occasion of being on the receiving end of it, indeed. Did her mother suffer?

“Her Majesty the Queen…?” she spoke hesitantly.

The Conqueror understood the unspoken. “What is between your mother and me is none of your concern, but to put your mind at ease, I am prepared to tell you only this – your mother doesn’t suffer it, but welcomes it. The darkness is willingly shared.”

“Cynna promised she would tolerate it,” Athena said. Inwardly, insecurity pinched her along with genuine envy towards the profound bond her parents shared between them and how perfectly suited they were for one another.

“And you believed her? She has no concept of what she consented to.”

“She has. Our darkness has amassed all the notoriety it so richly deserves over the years.” As she spoke, Athena knew full well that the answer she was giving was complete and utter drivel. The expression on the Conqueror’s face told her that her Sire thought as much as well. Both knew that hearing the stories was one thing, but that actually facing the dark, vicious, growling beast of the Destroyer of Nations and her progeny struck harrowing terror in professionals, and Cynna was no professional. “Cynna is willing to receive my darkness. How many women do you know that are willing to receive it that don’t charge a fee for it?”

The Conqueror didn’t reply for she knew all too well that the answer to her Heir’s question was: ‘very few’. “Keep Cynna as your mistress,” she finally spoke. “It is acceptable, expected even.”

“Would you subject my mother to being your mistress while you shared a bed with your lawful wife and queen?” Athena inveighed with passion. She would later realize that the Conqueror’s suggestion enraged her, mainly because she herself had suggested it to Cynna before.

The question, which to the Conqueror sounded more like a provoking insult, ignited her ire anew. “Let me tell you something about your mother,” she hissed, ominously taking a step closer to her daughter. “When princess Lao-Ling offered her hand in marriage to me, that very night, your mother asked me if her service to me would be required still and when she spoke I heard her voice barely noticeably tremble with sadness and I saw death in her eyes. And I’ll tell you this, as sure as I’m standing here before you, if I had told her she was free to leave, she would have stayed… as my mistress… nay, lower than that – as my slave and endured! That’s how much your mother loved me.”

“Cynna is too proud to become my mistress.”

Athena’s reply nearly sent the Conqueror’s hand flying to strike a slap to her face, for it suggested that the Queen of the Realm lacked the pride to reject such a position and it galled the Conqueror beyond measure. “Mark my words,” she hissed with hazardous glare, “If Cynna thinks herself too good to be your mistress then she is not good enough to be your wife.”

“With respect, Majesty, I will not marry the Norsewoman. I refuse to marry her. I cannot!” Princess Athena spat, blazing with anger and determination.

“You speak as though you have a choice,” the Conqueror retorted. “Yes, you can and you will do as I command. I will remind you that I have another daughter whom I shall have no qualms naming as my successor instead of you, whereas you’ll be imprisoned for treason.”

That was all the Conqueror had to say.

The Conqueror returned back to the Imperial chambers, only to find her wife and Queen still sitting, still gazing at the flames in the same position she had been in before the Conqueror had left, on the settee in front of the hearth, deep in her own grave thoughts.

The Conqueror disrobed of her regalia, down to her breeches and undershirt.

“She didn’t take a liking to Princess Sieglinde, did she?” the Queen asked and turned her head backwards to look at her Lord.

The Conqueror didn’t answer right away. Her silence confirmed the Queen’s assumption, not surprisingly.

“Athena loves another,” the Queen went on to say and returned her gaze back to the flames.

A quick frown flushed the Conqueror’s rigid features. “The Shamaness’ apprentice. I know. Well, I wouldn’t have approved her as wife to her Grace in any event.”

“Why? Because she’s presumably from a lower breeding?” the Queen sounded resentful. Inwardly she carried more anger towards her Lord than she was willing to admit even to herself.

The Conqueror found her wife’s accusation offensive. She had half a mind to remind her wife of where she had found her, but decided against it. She wouldn’t hurt the woman she loved, whose reservations she understood, simply to make a point. “You know me better than this,” the Conqueror finally said.

“Why then?”

“Because, I don’t like her.”

“You don’t like her,” the Queen repeated her Lord’s words, emulating the manner in which they had been uttered. “May I ask, my Lord, what it is about her that you do not like?” she asked.

“I cannot really say, and it doesn’t matter. Marriage to Princess Sieglinde would benefit the Realm far better.”

“The Realm?! And what of our firstborn’s happiness?” The Queen stood up and faced the Conqueror who sat in her armchair, holding her sword and a whetstone in her hands.

“My responsibility is to my subjects. I leave the responsibility for the happiness of our firstborn to you, my Lady,” the Conqueror stated and began steadily sharpening the blade with long even strokes. The monotonic motion coupled with the sounds of stone against metal calmed her.

“Her happiness should concern you as well, my Lord.”

“And it does,” the Conqueror muttered sharply, yet her hand’s movements against the long blade remained perfectly steady and even. “Very well, tell me, did you know that Cynna hasn’t granted Athena her consent to have carnal knowledge of her yet?”

“Athena told me. Yes,” the Queen replied, making an effort to sound as unconcerned by it, as if it was of insignificant importance.

“Why do you think she hasn’t?”

The Queen didn’t answer. She first wanted to hear her Lord’s explanation for Cynna’s refusal.

“You seem to think you know…”

The Conqueror raised the blade to eye level then looked down the length of the blade’s thin edge, inspecting it. “Has it not occurred to you that the Amazon merely withholds so to manipulate Athena into marriage?”

“It has crossed my mind, but I do not think it is the reason. She told Athena that she withholds because of Athena’s reputation.”

The Conqueror scoffed and resumed the manual task.

“Do you not think it is a reasonable and quite a plausible explanation, my Lord?”

“Then answer me this – Would you have been able to resist me for so long?”

The Queen wasn’t sure what answer she should give.

However, the Conqueror interpreted her wife’s silence as a ‘No.’ “I didn’t think so,” she said triumphantly.

“Have you spoken to Athena about your concern?” the Queen asked.

“I haven’t,” the Conqueror replied, “And before you ask me why, I’ll tell you. Because she ought to obey me unquestionably.”

“Well, regardless, Athena loves her, and it is my wish that my child knows and experiences the happiness of love as we do.”

The Conqueror momentarily stopped honing her blade again as if she needed to better concentrate in order to compose a good response.

The Queen knelt at the Conqueror’s feet and rested her chin atop the hard knee.

“Please, my Lion, I beseech you to reconsider. You can order armed forces to protect the northern borders instead, as you did in Chin.”

The Conqueror recommenced sharpening her sword. “Then, if civil war were to break out and if it were to seep into the Realm, it would still mean the loss of my soldiers’ lives.”

The Queen understood the Conqueror’s logic but it still irked her that her beloved daughter should be the only one to make sacrifices to prevent civil war from occurring far, far away that had nothing to with them and might not even happen. It irked her even more that the Conqueror wouldn’t reveal to her what she believed was an even weightier motive. She lifted herself up from the ground.

“That’s not the only reason, is it?!” she argued, demanding her Lord to speak the truth.

“Very well, I’ll admit it.” the Conqueror raised her voice and stood up as well, letting the sword fall between them to the ground. “I mean to have these lands, and this is an excellent way to conquer them without spilling a single drop of blood. Do you understand?”

“And the love Athena carries in her heart for another woman doesn’t figure into your cold calculations?”

“Princess Sieglinde is a proper match to her Grace and the wedding will take place as planned.”

“Then you leave me with no choice, my beloved Lord,” the Queen sighed in resignation.

“Oh?!” the Conqueror emoted, anxious to hear further about what sounded to her like a threat.

“I owe you fealty, my Lord, and so I give you my word that I shan’t speak my disagreement with you on this matter in public, not even with Athena, but I will no longer share a bed with you.”

“Won’t you?! Why?” A simmer of rage began thudding under the Conqueror’s skin and deep in her veins.

“If there should be no pleasure, bliss or joy in my daughter’s marital bed, then there shouldn’t be any in mine,” the Queen stated simply and oddly enough quite calmly, perhaps even too calmly.

“I don’t believe you. You’re doing it to spite me, to punish me for my decision.”

“You know me better than that, my Lord,” the Queen replied, then walked over to the door and ordered a servant to fetch the Lady Satrina to her.

A few short moments later Lady Satrina appeared before the Queen.

“Have my private bedchamber prepared. I shall be sleeping there till further notice,” the Queen informed her matter-of-factly.

Lady Satrina received the instruction as one would receive news of a death in the family. Too fearful to rest a glance upon the Conqueror, “Yes, your Majesty,” she said with a heavy and worried heart.

The Conqueror donned her robe over her shoulders.

“You are making a grave mistake, my Lady,” she jeered on her way out of the Imperial chambers.

She walked down the long corridor, reviewing over and over again the exchanges she had had with her wife and with her daughter and found no flaw in her conduct. Distracted, she opened the door leading into a chamber that her legs had mindlessly carried her to.

“Majesty,” Princess Terreis’ governess curtsied as soon as she caught sight of the Conqueror.

“Governess,” the Conqueror muttered, and strode towards her daughter’s bed straight away, “How is my little Princess?” she asked.

Hearing the Conqueror’s voice in her chamber, Princess Terreis, who was somnolent on the brink of falling asleep, awoke into complete sobriety and stood up excited and alert in her crib.

“I’ve just put her Grace to bed, Majesty,” the governess answered, inwardly thinking about all the trouble she had had to go through putting her charge to sleep the first time and all the trouble it would take her to put the child back to sleep later on for the second time, especially in an exceptionally high state of stimulation that the child had always gotten after a visit from her Sire.

“Majesty,” still in her crib, little Terreis curtsied and made the Conqueror smile.

The toddler stretched out her arms, wordlessly requesting the Conqueror to pick her up.

“I shall take care of her tonight. You may retire,” the Conqueror told the governess as she lifted up her giggling daughter in her arms.

“Thank you, Majesty, and goodnight,” she curtsied again before leaving the Sovereign’s presence, thinking that the Conqueror was spoiling the apple of her eye far too much and instilling bad habits in her that would later be difficult to discourage and get rid of.

“Did you miss me, little one?” the Conqueror asked and touched her lips to Terreis’ forehead.

“Yes, my Sire. I’ve been wanting to see you all day long but the governess told me you were indisposed.”

“I’m here now,” the Conqueror whispered and carried the Princess back to the Imperial chambers.

The Imperial bedchamber was empty.

“Where is mother?” Princess Terreis asked, turning her head at all directions in search of the Queen.

“She’s sleeping in her own bed tonight, little one,” the Conqueror said, fighting to keep her sadness from pouring out of her through her words.

“Why? She always sleeps with you, my Sire.”

The innocent question of a beloved daughter not old enough to understand was almost the Conqueror’s undoing. To protect her daughter and the wholesomeness of her carefree world, she conceived of a little white lie. “Because I snore at night when I sleep and her Majesty needs her rest.”

“You snore?!” Terreis asked.

“Don’t you know?! All Conquerors snore,” the Conqueror smirked.

Realizing that her Sire was jesting, Terreis burst into a rolling laughter. “You are the only Conqueror!” she admonished the Conqueror for teasing her.

To further humor her daughter, the Conqueror began to produce snoring sounds and tickled her daughter’s belly with the tip of her nose. “You are too clever for me,” the Conqueror conceded.

“No, I’m not. No one is more clever than you, Sire,” the Princess replied and inadvertently caused the Conqueror’s heart to shrink in pain.

“Will you keep me company tonight?”

The Princess enthusiastically nodded assent. If she could have her way, she would keep her Sire company every moment of every day.

“Will you tell me a story?” the Princess asked as the Conqueror gently deposited her tiny frame onto the Imperial bed.

“I’m not much of a storyteller.”

“Mother tells me about the golden lass and the lion.”

“Does she? Well, tell me a little about it and I will try my best to continue the story,” the Conqueror suggested and laid her tired body down next to her daughter, while the latter was busy chattering away about the lass and her lion, till both fell asleep.

The very next morning, Princess Athena nearly stormed into the Queen’s chambers.

“Ladies, you may leave us,” the Queen instructed her ladies in waiting, and after the doors to the entrance closed behind the Queen’s servants, Athena addressed her mother.

“The Lord Conqueror is making me marry the Norsewoman,” she charged.

“Keep you voice down, your Grace,” the Queen requested.

“I am too upset to mind the servants, Majesty,” Athena replied, then took a deep breath to compose herself for her mother’s sake. “I don’t want to marry the Norsewoman. I want to marry Cynna.”

“You must obey my Lord’s will,” the Queen said and in spite of the raging tempest in her very soul she maintained cool and determined exterior.

“Have you no opinion in this matter? Do you not care at all what I want?”

“Of course I care, but the matter of your marriage is solely for my Lord to decide. I can only tell you this, my beloved Athena – I have done all that is in my power to do.”

***

During the following fortnight, all could feel a major shift in the Corinthian palace. The Queen slept each and every night in her own bedchamber, which the Conqueror had had built for her before their wedding, and the Conqueror slept in the Imperial bedchamber, most nights with her daughter, Princess Terreis. It appeared as if the Sovereign and her youngest were inseparable. The air in Corinth and beyond it became rife with rumors.

Breakfast in the Dining Hall was eaten in almost complete silence, safe for the clinking of silverware and the clanking of dishes. The Conqueror seemed reluctant to talk and dispensed no more than a few short words, despite the Queen’s several attempts to engage her Lord in conversation.

Princess Athena didn’t care at all about the wedding preparations. She was not interested in the ceremony, the feast, her attire or the entertainment for that matter. In her mind, the wedding was yet another one of many banquets which demanded her presence and nothing more. When not preoccupied by her duties, she spent every available moment she had with Cynna, exploring the Imperial Gardens, riding through the streets and markets of Corinth, and sharing kisses and passionate embraces within the palace walls and outside of it for all to see. She lavished Cynna with expensive jewels and garments to wear as tokens of her love for her. In all that time she spoke not a single word to her betrothed.

Princess Sieglinde, on the other hand, was immersed in her studies. After her tutors and instructors finished stuffing her head with enormous amounts of knowledge each and every day, the Nordic Princess kept herself up every night to learn and exercise everything she had been taught during the day to the point of exhaustion. After consulting with Lady Satrina, Princess Sieglinde picked three of the ladies suggested by the household steward to serve her as her ladies in waiting so to show good faith and trust in the Realm’s noble women. She sent for three more of her own, who had accompanied her from the Nordic Lands and been waiting for her in Athens, and ordered the rest to return to her homeland.

Everything around her was unfamiliar, strange and new to her and so very different from everything she had ever known. The feeling of being an alien in a place where she had the good sense of knowing she wasn’t really wanted lay heavily upon her, but she took it all in stride with dignity.

The Nordic Princess was no fool. She had occasion to see her betrothed and Cynna taking intimate strolls in the Imperial Gardens, and understood the nature of the relationship between them. The fact that Princess Athena made no effort to be discreet in her dalliances or show the smallest of interest in her future wife made it easy enough to identify it for what it was.

The construction of Princess Sieglinde’s chambers next to those of Princess Athena, which the Conqueror had commissioned, was progressing in good time.

One morning, closer to the date of the wedding, the Conqueror returned unexpectedly to the Imperial chambers to retrieve her seal ring, which she had forgotten by the nightstand. Through the partly opened doors she heard two feminine voices emanating from within, one belonging to an older chambermaid and the other belonging to a younger chambermaid, unfamiliar to the Conqueror.

“Her Majesty the Queen has always had a soft spot for her Grace, Princess Athena, ever since she was a child, yay tall,” the older voice claimed. “It is plain as day that her Grace loves the Amazon, Cynna. I’ve seen them with my own eyes going at it in the corridor leading to her Grace’s chambers. She doesn’t care for the Nordic Princess, I tell you. The poor foreign child… I think she is a bit of a simpleton, or else she wouldn’t stand to be the mockery of the Realm. Worse yet, since the announcement of her Grace’s marriage to the Nordic Princess, the Queen has been sleeping in her own bedchamber. I reckon she disapproves of the Conqueror’s decision regarding this sham of a wedding, too. This wedding is nothing but trouble, nothing but…”

“I will hear no more of it!” the younger voice cut through the older chambermaid’s speech. “The Lord Conqueror is our just and honorable Sovereign, as well as our benevolent employer and benefactor. Obviously, the wedding has caused some conflict, which troubles the Lord Conqueror,” the younger voice paused then went on to say in loud anger, “And it offends me,” another pause for the purpose of reigning in the anger, “that you and other members in the household staff gossip about the Lord Conqueror’s private affairs for your amusement!”

“I didn’t mean…” the older voice was heard again.

“I know what you meant. We are most fortunate to serve the great Lord Conqueror and we ought to repay the Lord Conqueror’s generosity with our loyalty and discretion rather than with the spreading of vicious tittle-tattles. In the future, I bid you kindly to refrain from sharing these rumors with me.”

Then there was silence followed by the noises of the hearth being scrubbed and the carpets being brushed.

Only a few long moments later, the Conqueror entered the Imperial chambers. Both chambermaids halted their chores and curtsied before the Conqueror, unaware that their Master had listened in on their earlier conversation. The Conqueror dismissed the older chambermaid and ordered the younger one to stay.

The chambermaid that stood before the Conqueror wiping her hands against her soot stained apron was no more than twenty years of age. Her appearance was uncommon. She was of small stature, with lush red wavy hair, red eyebrows and eyelashes surrounding greenish-brown eyes that looked like the depth of a moor. Her skin was as white as milk.

“You’re new here.” The Conqueror’s question sounded more like a statement of fact.

“I am, your Majesty,” the maid relied, “I’ve been in your Majesty’s service for a moon, now.”

“What is your name?”

“Thetis, your Majesty.”

“I know that name,” the Conqueror said thoughtfully while trying to recall where from.

“I’m Nobleman Timaeus’s niece’s daughter, your Majesty. My father, Pestimus is from Britania and is a captain in your Majesty’s fifth legion.”

“Now, I remember. Last I saw you, was when good Nobleman Timaeus brought you to Court when you were a child. You barely reached my knees. How you’ve grown.”

A somewhat frivolous laughter was released from Thetis mouth.

“You are of noble blood. What are you doing here scrubbing my floor? You could be a lady in waiting to the Queen’s Majesty,” said the Conqueror to Nobleman Timaeus’s kin, thinking it’d been awhile since last she’d seen her governor to Athens and the closest thing to a friend she had ever had.

“I came here with a letter of recommendation from my great uncle but Lady Satrina told me that noble women serve only the Queen as ladies in waiting and that noble men served your Majesty only as grooms. But I wanted to serve your Majesty like my great uncle and my father, so I chose to be a chambermaid instead of being a lady in waiting.”

The Conqueror clasped her hands behind her back. “I owe Lord Timaeus better than to have you cleaning and dusting like a commoner. Tell Lady Satrina that you’ve been reassigned to serve as my personal attendant, then bring her Grace, Princess Terreis to me.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Thetis sounded most pleased, “Thank you, your gracious Majesty.” Thetis curtsied and left to do her Master’s biddings.

When Thetis returned to the Imperial chambers with Princess Terreis, the Conqueror said to her, “Tell her Majesty the Queen, her Grace Princess Athena and her Grace Princess Sieglinde that they are to join me for supper in the Dining Hall at dusk and also inform the cook.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Thetis said and curtsied. When she turned to leave, from the corner of her eye she caught sight of the Conqueror playing with little Terreis and felt privileged indeed to be privy to the redoubtable Lord Conqueror in an informal capacity.

Thetis went first to the Queen’s chambers. One of the Queen’s ladies in waiting welcomed her in.

“Majesty,” Thetis curtsied before Queen Gabrielle.

The Queen acknowledged her greeting by a slight nod of her head. Unlike her Lord, the Queen recognized the young woman as a chambermaid of the Imperial chambers. She was surprised and curious to see her appear before her.

“The Lord Conqueror wishes that your Majesty would join her for supper in the Dining Hall at dusk,” Thetis said.

The Queen didn’t care for it, not one bit. With the thought that the servant looked too pretty and in an exotic manner with her red hair picking mercilessly in her head, she rose from her seat and approached the young woman who did her best to avoid the Queen’s gaze.

“You are a chambermaid, are you not?”

“I was until a short while ago, Majesty. The Lord Conqueror made me her personal attendant.”

Oh, the Queen didn’t care for it at all.

“Who are you?” she asked, uncharacteristically.

“Thetis, Majesty. Nobleman Timaeus’s niece’s daughter,” Thetis answered.

The Queen cared for it even less, exactly because she liked old Nobleman Timaeus and she knew that her Lord did, as well.

“You may leave,” the Queen dismissed her.

From the Queen’s chambers, Thetis went next to Princess Athena’s chambers to find Princess Athena and Cynna, appearing quite blushed, panting and disheveled.

“Your Grace,” Thetis curtsied, “The Lord Conqueror wishes that you would join her for supper in the Dining Hall at dusk.”

Cynna appeared very excited. “Did you hear?! We are invited to dine with the Conqueror,” she said to Princess Athena.

“The invitation is extended to her Grace only,” Thetis corrected Cynna’s misunderstanding.

Princess Athena took one step forward. Her eyebrows nearly met above her nose when she slanted her eyes in anger. “How dare you offend my guest!” she scolded the servant.

Thetis, like the entire household staff, knew exactly who Cynna was and just what sort of a ‘guest’ she was. Most of the household staff either showed kindness to her or at the very least indifference, because most sided with the Queen and Princess Athena. Thetis was one of the very few who held the belief that Princess Athena ought to respectfully obey the Conqueror and accept her judgment without reservations.

“I meant no offence. I merely delivered the Lord Conqueror’s message.”

“I ought to appoint you as servant to my Lady Cynna,” Princess Athena refused to be appeased.

“With respect, your Grace. I am the Lord Conqueror’s personal attendant.” It was Thetis’ intention to convey to Princess Athena that she had no authority to interfere with her duties, for she was the Conqueror’s servant and as such only the Conqueror could either dismiss or reassign her.

“Personal attendant?! Did the Conqueror invent a position just to employ you?!”

Princess Athena’s response was rude and implied something sinister, Thetis thought. It spoke volumes of Princess Athena’s resentment towards the Conqueror and her decision.

“It was the Lord Conqueror’s show of favor to Nobleman Timaeus. I am his niece’s daughter.”

Princess Athena scoffed as Thetis left her chambers.

As she made her way to Princess Sieglinde’s chamber, Thetis thought about how much she pitied her. Some of her fellow servants gave her unkind looks. Others went as far as speaking ill of her, sometimes even in her presence thinking she couldn’t understand them. They all blamed her as if she was the root of the division within the Royal family. When she invited her to the Conqueror’s table for supper, she thought how wretched it was to be held responsible for something one had absolutely no control over.

***

Soon after dusk, in the Dining Hall an eerie and awkward silence was present amongst the Royals like a fifth person sitting around the table with them.

“I was sorry to hear about your father’s health taking a turn for the worse, your Grace,” the Conqueror spoke softly and slowly so that Princess Sieglinde would comprehend.

“Thank you, Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde replied.

The Queen looked at her Lord, curbing a displeased expression. She wasn’t aware of King Olof’s deteriorating condition due to the lack of communication between herself and her Lord that the latter had imposed on them. It pained her to be so distant from her Lord.

“I understand that your brother will not be attending the wedding so to keep your father company during his last days.”

Princess Athena’s expression was lukewarm at best.

“Yes, Majesty.”

And then it was quiet again.

“How are your studies coming along?” the Queen inquired.

Princess Sieglinde smiled, “Well, I think, Majesty.”

The more of the Nordic accent Princess Athena heard, the more she detested it.

“Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde addressed the Conqueror, “I wanted to thank you for putting Nordic furniture…” She struggled with the words.

The Queen shot a questioning look at the Conqueror.

“You wish to thank me for decorating the chambers I’ve had built for you with furniture I’ve imported from your homeland. You are most welcome, your Grace,” the Conqueror replied.

The Queen melted for her Lord inside. She thought it was a considerate and generous gesture.

“Yes, Majesty. I saw the furniture this morning. It makes me… miss home… less,” she finally managed as best she could to express herself.

“I am pleased,” the Conqueror said and poured a second goblet of wine.

“Are you being treated well, your Grace?” the Conqueror asked.

“I am well, Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde answered. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the Conqueror’s question, but she couldn’t and wouldn’t admit to the Conqueror about some of the servants’ behavior and about the way that Princess Athena had been carrying on, but she wouldn’t lie to the Conqueror either, so she gave the only answer she could.

After they finished eating, Princess Athena went back to Cynna’s arms and Princess Sieglinde retired to her own chamber to continue with her studies. The Queen lingered behind so to speak to the Conqueror still at the table.

“Will you visit my chambers tonight, my Lord?” She asked, her voice smothered with longing.

The Conqueror wiped her mouth with a cloth and rose from behind the table.

“What for?” The Conqueror’s voice sounded almost practical.

“I miss you, terribly. We don’t speak like we used to.”

“Are you willing to return to my bed?” the Conqueror asked.

The Queen let out a deep sigh. “Princess Sieglinde is a wonderful and virtuous lass, but Athena loves another. Will you reconsider the marriage, my Lord?”

“I will not, my Lady.”

“Then forgive me, my Lord, but I cannot return to your bed, though I ache for you every night,” Queen Gabrielle’s voice quivered and her eyes shone with unshed tears.

“Good night, my Lady,” the Conqueror concluded and left the Dining Hall.
Part 7
It was two nights before the wedding and the Queen was about to visit Princess Terreis’ chamber to tell her a bedtime story and kiss her goodnight, when Lady Cyrene requested an audience with her.

The Queen dismissed her ladies in waiting and offered the Conqueror’s mother a seat. The elderly woman pulled the chair to stand closer to the Queen then heavily seated herself.

“What are you doing, my dear child?” she asked softly and looked imploringly at her daughter-in-law.

“I don’t know what you mean,” the Queen made an attempt at denial but her downcast gaze told Cyrene that the Queen understood her meaning all too well.

Cyrene rested a gentle hand atop the Queen’s knee. “There’s no avoiding the surreptitious whisperings throughout the palace. Tis all they ever talk about in the kitchen… And it’s not confined to the palace only. They talk about it in the markets, too. ‘The Queen sleeps in her own bed,’ they say.”

The Queen cleared her throat, still not meeting Cyrene ‘s eyes. “One must learn to ignore malicious rumors.”

“Oh, my dear child… these sorts of rumors cannot and must not be ignored. There is talk that you won’t share the Conqueror’s bed due to a disagreement regarding the marriage of Princess Athena to the Nordic Princess.”

With the promise she had made to her Lord in mind, the Queen replied: “I will not discuss this matter.”

“Whether you confirm or deny it makes no difference at all.”

But the Queen remained silent, holding back tears as best she could.

“Sweet Gabrielle,” Cyrene whispered even softer than before, “You know I love you as my own daughter, and I understand your need to protect your child with every fiber of your being, believe me.”

The Queen turned her head away from Cyrene as if refusing to listen, as if Cyrene ‘s gentleness was too much for her to bear, as if it might weaken her resolve.

Cyrene continued, “You won’t prevent Athena’s marriage by destroying your own.”

The Queen maintained her reluctance to speak.

Cyrene stood up and delivered her final words to the Queen. “You must reconcile yourself to the Conqueror and put a cease to the upheaval.”

After Cyrene had left, the Queen made her way to Princess Terreis’ chambers only to find that her daughter wasn’t there.

“Where is her Grace?” she asked one of the Princess’ nurses.

“Thetis came and fetched her Grace for the Lord Conqueror a short while ago, Majesty,” the nurse replied.

The very mention of Thetis’ name disturbed the Queen and it was all she could do not to frown.

In order to conceal the severe lack of communication between herself and her Lord, the Queen feigned an expression as if she’d just remembered something, and muttered absentmindedly-like, “Of course.”

She exited Princess Terreis’ chambers and walked over to the Imperial chambers. She stood at the closed doors and rested her ear to them. All she could hear were muffled voices and her daughter’s rolling laughter. She looked sideways, making sure no one was watching her, and peeped through the keyhole. She saw the Conqueror, Terreis and Thetis all sitting on the Persian carpet by the fire, playing with little figurines of animals carved from wood, and it soured her heart. She hoped and prayed that her Lord would cancel the wedding and that everything would revert back to the way it was. To say that she missed her Lord would be an understatement. In some ways things being as they were between them were worse than when she had decided to stay with the Amazons, for seeing her Lord every day only demonstrated to her just how far apart they really were.

***

The day of the wedding finally arrived and with it disappeared any hope that the Lord Conqueror would call it off.

Princess Sieglinde stood in her chamber surrounded by her ladies in waiting who were hovering and fussing over her, preparing her for the greatest event of her young life. They dressed her in the white dress, which the Queen had given her the day before, encrusted with pearls at the bustle, on the long wide sleeves and on the hem. One of the Greek ladies in waiting cut a lock of Princess Sieglinde’s hair signifying her Mistress’ virginity and dedicated it to the Goddess Aphrodite as an offering to guide her Mistress from childhood and into adulthood. One of her Nordic ladies in waiting then gathered Princess Sieglinde’s long hair after brushing it fastidiously, braided it and twirled it atop her Mistress’s head before placing a white Nordic traditional cap ornamented with several thin chains and medallions of gold. It was customary in the Nordic Lands for women of age and of standing to cover their hair, and so Princess Sieglinde and her Nordic ladies in waiting wore traditional caps at all times except for bed.

When she was all dressed and ready, the Queen was announced and Princess Sieglinde along with her ladies in waiting all curtsied before the Queen.

“You look so lovely, your Grace,” the Queen gasped as she examined the young lass from head to toe, pleased that the dress she had ordered fit the Nordic Princess perfectly and complimented her figure.

“I wish I was as beautiful as your Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde replied, gazing adoringly at the Queen, who wore a mauve silk dress with gold and silver embroidery and the polished crown on her head.

“You must be so excited,” the Queen commented.

“Frightened, Majesty. I don’t wish to cause embarrassment,” the Princess almost whispered and downcast her gaze.

The Queen chuckled. “That is exactly how I felt before my Lord married me. I was a foreigner myself only in a different way,” she explained, “A foreigner to the Realm’s nobility and lacking any social stature. But I am confident that you’ll do well, your Grace, so you needn’t worry.” The Queen wanted to say more to Princess Sieglinde, but she wasn’t sure how much of it Princess Sieglinde could understand. She wasn’t sure she understood what little she had already said to her. Princess Sieglinde was by no means easy to read. At times she seemed to the Queen like one of the many frozen lakes in the Nordic Lands she had read about: cool, pale, firm, almost flat on the surface so that one could hardly see the depths hidden just beneath.

“Thank you, Majesty.”

The Queen closed the gap between herself and her soon to be daughter-in-law, and took both her hands in hers. “With all my heart I wish you true happiness, love and contentment in your marriage.” The Queen’s voice quivered as she spoke. Her blessing was genuine but she feared it wouldn’t come true.

“Thank you, Majesty. I am so grateful to you and the Lord Conqueror. Your blessing is very important to me,” Princess Sieglinde said, and though she maintained reticence of expression and mannerism, her sincerity could be noticed by the slight hint of it in her voice.

“Your Grace,” the Queen muttered.

Princess Sieglinde and her ladies in waiting all curtsied as the Queen and her entourage turned and vacated the chamber.

The Queen, accompanied by her ladies, went to Princess Athena’s chambers, next. When the doors opened before her, she was greeted by the sight of her eldest in the arms of Cynna.

“Majesty,” Princess Athena bowed before the Queen and Cynna curtsied, as well.

“Excuse us,” the Queen asked of Cynna.

“Of course, my Queen,” the Amazon replied and left. It sounded odd, almost distasteful to the Queen’s ear to hear Cynna address her as ‘My Queen,’ for Cynna looked nothing like an Amazon anymore but like a noblewoman of the Realm, with her dress and her jewelry that Princess Athena had been generous enough to give her as gifts. There was something troubling about the entire thing, the Queen thought.

Cynna left and closed the door behind her.

The Queen wore a despondent expression on her features as her eyes ran over Princess Athena dressed in white as her Lord had worn to their wedding many years ago.

“Athena,” the Queen whispered and tried to muster up a smile despite her morose eyes.

Athena wrapped her strong arms around the Queen. “Be of good cheer, mother,” she said as she released the Queen from her embrace, “for today is my wedding day . ”

The Queen was too overwhelmed to speak.

“Leave us,” Athena ordered the servants around them.

When they were alone, the Queen looked intently into Athena’s eyes, no longer capable of stopping her quiet tears.

“Don’t cry mother. All will be well, you’ll see,” Athena tried to comfort her. “I’ve heard that you’ve been sleeping in your own bedchamber. I cannot allow you to ruin your marriage over mine. I no longer mind it. I will marry the Norsewoman and try and fix my heart to sway her way.”

“Even if it is true, it cannot be done. We cannot make our heart love someone anymore than we can force it to stop from loving another,” the Queen said and wiped her tears away.

Athena thought she heard a touch of bitterness in her mother’s voice.

“It is almost time,” Athena pointed out as she placed a gentle hand against the Queen’s lower back.

“Beloved, I exhort you to be kind to Princess Sieglinde, for none of this is her fault,” the Queen requested. As much as she loved her daughter, in her heart the Queen could not deny that Athena took much after her Lord, including her capacity for vindictiveness and cruelty.

“I will try and do my best to be civil towards her,” Athena promised. “Now, will you not bless me, mother?”

The Queen’s blessing had become quite a myth over the years. Many of the Realm’s soldiers and commanders had developed and nurtured the belief that it had been due to the Queen’s blessing to the Conqueror before waging war that their forces had suffered less casualties in battle. Some even had gone as far as believing that their Mistress had been touched by the Gods or the Fates, for what other explanation could there be for a body slave winning the Great Lord Conqueror’s heart and becoming wife and Queen to the Sovereign.

“I wish the very best of everything for you… that you’ll rejoice in what you have and that your heart will know real peace that comes with wisdom.”

“Thank you, Majesty,” Athena leaned down and kissed her mother’s forehead. Athena wasn’t sure whether she believed in the power of her mother’s blessing or not, for on the one hand she had faith in the Queen’s many extraordinary abilities, but on the other hand, the Conqueror had taught her to rule her own destiny, yet Athena knew with certainty that she’d rather have it than not.

When the Queen reached the entrance, she turned to face her daughter again. “Athena, I pray you not to invite Cynna to the wedding. It’ll be unseemly and in poor taste and will provoke my Lord’s wrath.”

“She will remain in her chamber, mother,” Athena assured.

***

Downstairs, at the entrance to the Great Hall, the Queen met the Conqueror dressed in her regalia with the Realm’s colors, her crown on her head, a gilded ceremonial sword against her right thigh with a ruby encrusted in its pommel, and a gilded dagger with a similar design on her left. The sight of one another in regal, festive attire stole their breaths away.

“My Lord,” the Queen curtsied before the Conqueror.

“My Lady,” the Conqueror bowed in return.

The governess, holding Princess Terreis’ hand, approached the Royals. Upon seeing Princess Terreis in her own ceremonial bodice and with a diadem on her head, the Conqueror’s heart overflowed with great love.

“Majesties,” the Princess curtsied.

“Your Grace,” both parents greeted back with wide smiles.

Princess Terreis hurried to the Conqueror, reached up and took the Conqueror’s hand in hers. The Conqueror knelt down on one knee. “When we enter the Great Hall you must walk to your mother’s side along with Princess Sieglinde, little one,” she whispered in the child’s ear.

“But I want to go with you, my Sire,” Terreis whispered back.

“Come now, sweetheart… Don’t you want to make Princess Sieglinde happy? Her family is far, far away and won’t be attending the wedding…” the Conqueror explained.

“Then I shall be her sister, Sire,” Terreis answered, still whispering.

Her youngest, the Conqueror thought, truly had her mother’s heart in every sense. “I’m very pleased,” the Conqueror kissed her daughter’s cheek and rose back up to her full stature as little Terreis went to stand to her mother’s right.

Princess Sieglinde walked down the corridor with her ladies in waiting behind her straightening the trail of her white dress. She greeted the Conqueror and the Queen and they greeted her back when Princess Athena approached them from the other end of the corridor.

“You look so beautiful, your Grace,” Princess Terreis said to Princess Sieglinde as her eyes appreciated her white dress with wonder and excitement.

“So are you, your Grace,” Princess Sieglinde replied and lowered herself down to face the little Princess, mindful not to dirty her dress.

“I will be your sister,” Princess Terreis said and closed her little arms around the Nordic Princess.

Something deep inside Princess Sieglinde moved. A child’s honest and unreserved willingness to embrace and befriend her pierced her heart with a ray of sunshine and brought light and warmth into her life in the Corinthian palace.

“And I will be yours,” Princess Sieglinde replied with a faint smile.

The Conqueror signaled the ceremony master posted at the doors to the Great Hall. He opened the doors and with his deep, potent voice he announced the arrival of the Royals.

Princess Athena and Princess Sieglinde walked together side by side in the middle. The Conqueror was to Athena’s left while the Queen and Princess Terreis were to Princess Sieglinde’s right. All in attendance bowed and curtsied in silence as the Royals passed them by.

The silence in the Great Hall was deafening, more deafening than the Queen could remember from when she and her Lord had gotten married. It was as if each and every one of their noble and distinguished guests knew about the contention that had been surrounding and dividing the Royals and the palace’s household.

“I hope for your sake that your little friend is not here,” the Conqueror whispered to Princess Athena as they made their way alongside one another to stand before the High Priest of the Realm.

“She is in her chamber, Majesty,” Princess Athena whispered back.

The elderly High Priest, who was the one that had wedded the Conqueror and the Queen, presided over the ceremony with his frail and much aged voice.

Princess Athena vowed to honor and to cherish Princess Sieglinde and Princess Sieglinde vowed to honor and to obey Princess Athena.

From her inside pocket, the Conqueror produced a wedding band, which Athena had never bothered to even pick out herself for her future wife. Princess Athena took the ring and felt its heavy weight, far greater than any rock on Mount Olympus , and slowly put it around Princess Sieglinde’s finger, mindful not to let her fingers touch those of her wife.

The High Priest pronounced them bonded in wedlock.

It was silent again after the High Priest uttered his last word and all in the Great Hall waited anxiously to see whether Princess Athena would kiss her bride or not, so much so that Princess Athena could feel the pressure of expectations weighing heavily on her. So as not to cause an embarrassment, she touched her lips to Princess Sieglinde’s forehead.

A red flash ruddied the Nordic Princess’ features, for it was the first time she was touched by Princess Athena and the kiss, however brief and modest, made her heart pound painfully in her chest and up her throat that she could hardly breathe.

The Conqueror nearly sighed in relief when the ceremony was over.

There were no cheers of joy but quiet strain. It was as if all waited to see how the Conqueror acted so to know what manner of behavior was required of them.

“Music,” the Conqueror ordered. The silence was too difficult to bear.

The musicians and singers filled the void in the Great Hall where merriment should have been. Before taking her seat on the Throne, the Conqueror pulled Princess Athena aside and handed her a decorative silver box.

“What’s this?” Athena asked as she rested her eyes on the box.

“This is the jewelry I’ve had made for your wife,” the Conqueror’s voice was overwrought with asperity. “It was your obligation to gift your bride with jewelry, but since you’ve neglected it like everything else, I took it upon myself to have them made for you to give to her.”

Princess Athena decided not to allow the cultivation of sentiments like awkwardness or pangs of conscience, despite the Conqueror’s formidable efforts. She looked at the Conqueror with almost insolent indifference and said nothing. As she was about to turn and walk to her seat, the Conqueror grasped her elbow and hissed at her, “I deducted their cost from your allowance.”

Athena’s expression did not change.

“Best I don’t see these on your Amazon friend,” the Conqueror concluded and strode to her Throne.

As the Royals sat at their thrones, with a table set and loaded with the very best of every food and drink, their noble and distinguished subjects approached one by one to offer their gifts and congratulations to the young couple, who were sitting next to each other to the Conqueror’s left. Princess Athena felt grateful for those countless distractions, for it provided her with a great excuse to avoid exchanging words with either her new bride on her left or the Conqueror to her right. However, said distractions and commotion surrounding them could not have lasted forever and not before long the Conqueror leaned to her left and whispered to Princess Athena to dance with her wife.

Despite the whisper, Princess Athena didn’t mistake it for anything but the order that it was. Slowly, she rose to her feet and took her wife’s hand in hers without giving her a glance.

The Queen stalked Princess Sieglinde as the newlyweds made their way to the center of the Great Hall. She saw the familiar vacant expression and the colorless cheeks. The Nordic Princess seemed a bit out of sorts, overwhelmed and alone, so much so that the Queen couldn’t but empathize with her.

As she danced, Princess Athena spared every effort she could, barely moving her limbs, nearly dragging her feet and keeping physical contact with her bride to the absolute minimum.

Thetis approached the Conqueror.

“Majesty,” she whispered, letting her Master know that the information she had to convey was private.

The Conqueror tore the meat off the pheasant leg she was holding, then laid it back down onto her plate and wiped her mouth while still masticating the succulent meat in her mouth. She beckoned Thetis and the redhead leaned forward over the Conqueror’s right shoulder and whispered something in her ear.

“Thank you, Thetis. You did well,” the Conqueror praised the attendant for her discreet conduct.

With disapproving eyes, the Queen shot the Conqueror a questioning look.

“Send the messenger on his way and tell no one what you’ve just told me,” the Conqueror ordered Thetis and the latter curtsied and went on to carry out her orders.

“King Olof is dead,” the Conqueror whispered to the Queen then sternly added, “I’ll be the one to tell Athena.”

The Queen felt deep sorrow for the poor Nordic Princess, but what equally saddened her was the fact that though her Lord was sitting next to her, emotionally they were leagues apart.

The dance ended and before Princess Athena had a chance to return to her seat, the Conqueror pulled her aside.

“Your wife’s father is dead,” the Conqueror spoke quietly. She saw no change upon Athena’s face and she didn’t expect to find any. “I leave to you to deliver her the bad news but I urge you to spare it from her on her wedding day.”

Princess Athena nodded wordlessly.

***

Soon after dusk, when the wedding was finally over, the Conqueror retired to the Imperial chambers to attend to a few pressing matters that demanded her attention. Upon entering her chambers, she saw Thetis arranging a few scrolls atop her desk in perfect array.

“Majesty,” Thetis curtsied.

“Is it all there?” the Conqueror asked.

“Everything you ordered, Majesty,” Thetis replied.

The Conqueror moved to sit behind her desk and began reading the documents. She failed to hear the young redhead bidding her goodnight. However, before Thetis made it to the exit, the Conqueror laid down the scroll.

“Stay here,” the Sovereign said. It was somewhere between a request and a command.

Thetis removed her hand from the metal door-handles and immediately turned to face her Master again.

“Should I go and fetch Princess Terreis for you, Majesty?”

“Her Grace is already asleep. Best not to wake her,” the Conqueror replied, rubbing her chin.

“Anything else I can do for you, Majesty?” Thetis asked.

The Conqueror let out a deep sigh that sounded more like a groan. What could she say? That she felt lonely? That she had the need to converse with her wife and Queen especially on an eventful day such as this but things being as they were, anyone would do no matter how poor a substitute?

“It was a beautiful wedding, was it not?” the Conqueror asked.

“It was magnificent, Majesty, and it was a testament of your Majesty’s legendary bounteousness,” Thetis said, still standing by the door, not entirely sure what was on the Conqueror’s mind.

The Conqueror stood up, moved from around the long desk and as she walked towards her armchair she gesture with her arm for Thetis to join her.

Thetis’s legs trembled a little. She was revering, if not nervous, to sit in the armchair next to the Conqueror where she realized the Queen must have sat countless times, and so she seated herself on the edge of it.

“And Princess Sieglinde looked very fetching, don’t you think?”

“Very fetching, indeed, Majesty,” Thetis agreed.

“The Queen chose the dress for her, did you know?”

“No, I did not, Majesty. Her Majesty has an excellent taste.”

The Conqueror chuckled. “That she has,” the Conqueror nodded her head slowly as she looked at the burning fire.

A few moments passed between them in silence, in which Thetis was trying still to understand the Conqueror’s strange mood.

“Was it a happy wedding, do you think?” the Conqueror was the one, of course, to break the quiet.

Thetis wasn’t sure which answer her Master was seeking after. “It was very formal as such occasion requires, I think.”

The Conqueror appreciated Thetis’ reply. It was honest enough without sounding critical. “It should have been more joyous,” she said and after a few moments she let out a tad more gravely, “I wish it were… more joyous.”

Thetis kept her lips sealed. She marveled at how rare an event that very moment was, getting a glimpse of the private thoughts of the Great Destroyer of Nations, Ruler of the World.

“It reminded me of my own wedding,” the Conqueror smirked with a touch of sadness. “Of course you weren’t even born yet,” she said and rested her gaze on the redheaded servant.

“My uncle told me about it, Majesty,” Thetis smiled as she recalled her uncle’s tale in her mind.

“I will tell you a little secret not even the Queen knows,” the Conqueror said like a mischievous youth.

“Pray, do tell, Majesty,” Thetis urged her Master on as she moved further to the edge of her seat.

“I was a little nervous myself that day… getting married and all…” she said with half a smile stretching the right angle of her lips upwards.

“And her Majesty never suspected?” Thetis said, surprised and amused.

The Conqueror shook her head. “I was too busy being the Lord Conqueror for her,” she admitted with a roguish glint in her eyes.

Thetis burst into laughter.

At that moment in the corridor leading to her chambers, the Queen was passing the Imperial chambers’ doors, when her ears caught Thetis’ laughter emanating from inside. The sound of it crawled under her skin and irked her. She retired alone to her own chambers but sleep would not come to her.

Princess Terreis, who had miraculously managed to fall asleep despite the wedding noises in the Great Hall, was carried by one of her nurses to her own bed.

Princess Athena and her Nordic bride walked together in grim silence to their marital bed that waited for them like the gallows waiting for the condemned. Once inside Princess Sieglinde’s chambers, the awkwardness tightened its grip around them. Princess Sieglinde sat at the edge of the bed and waited for Princess Athena to address her.

There was no place on earth Princess Athena wanted less to be in than where she stood at that moment. She took out the jewelry box that the Conqueror had given her at the wedding to give to her bride from her inside pocket and tossed it casually near where Princess Sieglinde was sitting, muttering: “For you.”

“Thank you, Min Herre,” Princess Sieglinde responded before opening the box and seeing what was inside.

Princess Athena didn’t bother to ask what the meaning of the words that her wife spoke to her in her native tongue. She assumed they meant ‘Your Grace’ but couldn’t care less.

Princess Sieglinde tentatively opened the box and saw an exquisite necklace with sapphires and diamonds set in silver gold along with a pair of earrings, a bracelet and diadem with the same design. The magnificent jewelry stole her breath away, but even more than that she was impressed with Princess Athena’s generosity towards her, not knowing, of course, that Princess Athena had had nothing to do with it. She took out the jewels in her hand and marveled at them in the firelight.

“They are beautiful, Min Herre,” she said and despite her heavy accent, her excitement could be detected. “Min Herre is most generous.” While holding up the earrings she went on say with a tinge of amusement, “My ears are not…” she couldn’t remember how to say ‘pierced’ and so she paraphrased, “I have no holes in my ears.”

Princess Athena showed nothing but a lukewarm expression. It was as if nothing Princess Sieglinde did could do anything other than irritate her.

Upon receiving no response from Athena, Sieglinde returned the jewels back to the box, thinking she would ask one of her Greek ladies in waiting to assist her with the earrings and that she shouldn’t have bothered Athena with it.

Athena turned her back to her bride and began disrobing of her regalia and then put on her night garments.

Sieglinde did the same with her back also turned to Athena.

Once in her night garments, Athena pulled the covers off the bed and gestured to her wife to climb in. She wasn’t even curious enough to lay an examining look on her wife’s bodily tokens in her rather revealing nightgown.

Sieglinde climbed into bed. Athena climbed into bed after her. They laid next to each other stiff and unmoving, both staring at the ceiling in silence. The difference between them was that Sieglinde waited in anticipation of Athena’s touch, where as Athena could muster neither a drop of will, nor a speck of desire.

They lay like that with their lifeless extremities close to their bodies for a long time gazing aimlessly at the lights coming from the flames dancing randomly on the ceiling, which were the only thing that contrasted the stagnant stillness in the bedchamber. Sieglinde’s hopes, however slim, faded away and gave their place to sad, poignant disappointment. On the other side of the bed, Athena’s indifference turned into anger.

When she had enough, Princess Athena tersely darted out of bed and donned her robe over her shoulders. It almost surprised her to discover that her wife provoked no lust in her. Until that point in her young life, never had there been a time where she would lay next to a woman in bed without lust burning, however low, in her.

Princess Sieglinde’s mute eyes tracked Athena’s strides toward the door. She tightly clutched the hem of the covers, pulling them, just so, to cover and hide half her face.

Before exiting the bedchamber, Princess Athena rendered her final words to her wife for the night.

“Your father is dead.”

Alone in her bedchamber, in her barren marital bed, Princess Sieglinde shed grieving tears for her dead father, who lived to see his kingdom conquered, and miserable tears for her wedding night, which was a disgrace. The merciless sting of her own failure to invoke what a young bride ought to in her mate gnawed at her and tormented her.

Meanwhile, the distraught Heir made her way to Cynna, who had confined herself to her assigned chamber for the duration of the wedding. Princess Athena stormed into the chamber without so much as knocking, startling Cynna, who jumped to her feet with her hand pressing against her heaving chest.

Princess Athena quickly covered the distance between them and gathered the Amazon into her arms.

“Your Grace,” Cynna sighed into Athena’s hard chest.

“Be my mistress,” Athena pleaded as she started to rain passionate kisses all over Cynna’s neck and down the valley between her breasts. “Be my mistress,” she repeated hoarsely, “Prove the Conqueror wrong,” she whispered a longtime clandestine wish under her breath, ” For once let someone prove the Conqueror wrong.”

Cynna wrapped her arms around Athena, raking her fingernails over her back, cupping the back of her head to press Athena’s mouth more firmly against her.

“I will be your one and only mistress, my love,” Cynna promised and with that consented all heartedly to what she had withheld for so long.

Princess Athena tore the dress off Cynna, exposing the unfamiliar sight to her eyes for the first time. She pushed the Amazon onto the bed and disrobed with extreme urgency.

Cynna’s eyes uncontrollably drifted to focus on Athena’s harness and the swinging phallus between her thighs. Never before had she seen such a device but was quick enough to realize its function.

As she prostrated herself on top of Cynna, Athena kept reminding herself to pace herself, for Cynna wasn’t some slattern in a brothel. She sent her fingers to roam between Cynna’s thighs and explore virginal flesh that swelled at her touch. Cynna’s sharp intake of breath accompanied the Athena’s strokes along with warm oily wetness.

“It might hurt being that it is your first time,” Athena whispered before unleashing her tongue onto Cynna’s rosy nipple.

Cynna couldn’t imagine pain as waves of pleasure and need such as she’d never known before raged through her writhing body, making her heart palpitate inside the depth of her womanhood, rendering her unable to think or speak.

Athena looked into Cynna’s eyes and watched the moderate stab between Cynna’s thighs cleave through maidenhood and knock the air out of her lungs. She remained inside Cynna stiff and still, allowing the woman beneath her to get adjusted to the intrusion.

“Finally mine,” Athena claimed with a growl.
Part 8
The morning after the wedding, two lovers were lying leisurely in bed enjoying the warmth of the sun and the aftermath of a fulfillment long overdue. Athena’s cheek rested on Cynna’s bare stomach, as she relished the softness of her skin and the idle play of Cynna’s fingers through her hair.

“Athena,” Cynna drew her lover out of her musings.

“Yes?” the Heir answered as she thought how strange it was to hear her name being spoken outside her family.

“Did you come to me from her bed?” Cynna asked.

Athena began to laugh, “I can assure you, I left her very much intact…,” she paused. “Which is more than I can say about you,” she then teased and began to tickle Cynna’s sides, forcing Cynna to fend her off with little success.

When the playfulness subsided and the lovers resumed lying in each other’s arms, Cynna raised another question that had been gnawing at her. “What happens now?”

“You will stay here, of course… With me.”

“And what about her?”

“What about her?!” Athena asked, but she understood what Cynna was really asking. “This palace is huge. Avoiding her is quite possible. The Conqueror seems to manage avoiding my mother easily enough.”

After exploiting the remaining short time they had together to the fullest, Princess Athena went about her day and Cynna slipped into a bath to wash herself.

***

Two moons had passed since the wedding and absolutely nothing had changed in the Corinthian palace.

As the Conqueror was walking in one of the corridors after she had spent the better part of the morning in the menagerie, Thetis accosted her and informed her that Nobleman Drusus, governor of the province of Rome , was awaiting her in the Great Hall.

“I stink of the animals,” the Conqueror remarked as she sniffed the sleeves of her tunic.

“Then by all means wash yourself first, Majesty,” answered Thetis with a smile at the sight of the Conqueror smelling herself. “He’ll wait.”

The Conqueror smirked. “You are learning pretty quickly,” she pointed out. “Inform her Majesty the Queen that I will see her after supper in my chambers,” she concluded before making her way to the Imperial Chambers.

“Yes, Majesty,” Thetis said and curtsied.

A short while later the Conqueror strode into the Great Hall all clean and still smelling of the bathwater. The ceremony master announced her presence.

“Your Majesty,” Nobleman Drusus bowed before his Sovereign as she seated herself on the Throne.

“Nobleman Drusus,” The Ruler greeted him with a sealed face. “What is the reason for this visit?” She asked him, forgoing pleasantries.

“Well, Majesty, it’s the current rate of taxes…” he seemed hesitant.

“What about it?” the Ruler asked.

“Well, it is too steep and is becoming a bit of a hardship on your subjects in the Roman province.”

“As I’m sure you know, managing the Realm requires substantial funds. I have many expenses, and I rely on the province of Rome to pay the amount I set for it.”

“May I make a suggestion for your Majesty to consider?” he asked.

“You may,” the Conqueror muttered with a wave of her hand.

“Thanks to your Majesty’s infinite wisdom, we live in a golden age of peace. There is no need to maintain and sustain such large armed forces in the Roman province. Why not disperse the legion in Rome and assemble a smaller militia to keep order at a much cheaper cost, which I’m willing to finance in exchange for a reduction of taxes.”

The Conqueror was amazed by the audacity and temerity of Nobleman Drusus’ proposal. She couldn’t understand what possessed him to submit such a preposterous idea for her consideration.

“Do you know what an army is?” the Conqueror asked him as anger began to brew in her.

The Nobleman wasn’t blind to it and he remained mute, thinking it best not to present the Sovereign with a wrong answer and exacerbate it.

“What is an army?” The Conqueror deflected the question to one of the guards.

“An army is first and foremost a political instrument, your Majesty,” the guard answered.

“That is correct,” the Conqueror confirmed what to her was the obvious as she stepped down the dais and closed the gap between her and the Roman governor. “An army is first and foremost a political instrument,” she repeated. “A simple guardsman knows this and the governor to the province of Rome does not,” she roared, displeased. “The mightiness of my army coupled with the fact that it is the only one in my Realm is what ensures the peace under my rule. Do you think I would part with my power? That I would just give it away? That I would allow any man other than me to finance my soldiers?!”

Nobleman Drusus lowered his head and shook it.

“Go back to Rome and tell my loyal subjects that peace costs!” she shouted at him in anger and articulated the word ‘loyal’ with a good amount of sarcasm.

Later on, after retiring to the Imperial chambers, Thetis, carrying the Conqueror’s supper, knocked on the doors and entered only after she had been invited inside. She laid down the tray she was carrying and set the table for dining. The Conqueror approached the table and invited Thetis to join her at the table.

“There’s enough food for both of us,” the Conqueror said as she pulled back the chair next to hers for Thetis to sit.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Thetis said with immense gratitude and took the seat offered.

As they dined together, the Conqueror told Thetis a small anecdote from her childhood, about the time when upon her brother’s Lyceus urgings she had tried to ride a sheep and had fallen off it. Thetis freed herself to laugh as she was made to linger at the Imperial chambers.

It was then that the Queen opened the doors to the Imperial chambers. Thetis’ cachinnation, which she thought was annoying and frivolous, rang in her ears along with the Conqueror’s. It thoroughly nettled her.

“My Lord,” the Queen curtsied.

Thetis sobered up immediately and stopped laughing. Quickly, she rose to her feet, twisting her ankle against the table-leg in the process, and curtsied before the Queen.

“Leave us,” the Queen’s tone of voice lacked its characteristic softness and sounded firm and decisive, almost metallic.

Thetis glanced at the Conqueror, who was still sitting at the table drinking her wine. “Do as you’re told,” the Conqueror said to her servant.

Thetis curtsied before the Sovereigns and left their presence.

“You wished to see me, my Lord,” the Queen stated, hiding her sadness as her eyes rested on the half empty plate and the vacant chair next to the Conqueror.

The Conqueror rose slowly from her seat and covered the distance between herself and the Queen. She stood behind the Queen and wrapped her arms around the Queen’s waist, embracing her longingly against her.

The Queen’s body reacted even before her mind and heart did. She melded into the warm, long missed touches that dissolved, even for a brief moment, her stance and her defenses. The scorching breath of her beloved Lord prickled the delicate skin of her nape and neck as it streamed down the apex of her breasts.

“How long are you going to continue to deny me?” the Conqueror spoke gently.

“My Lord,” the Queen sighed deeply when against her will her rear pressed harder against the Conqueror’s lengthy strong body.

Small kisses began to randomly drop over her exposed flesh, and in between them, the Conqueror’s seductive words worked to further weaken her wife’s resolve. “Do you not miss my attentions?”

The Queen’s hands involuntary moved backwards and cupped the Conqueror’s muscled backside as the Conqueror’s larger hands cupped her heaving breasts against the bustle.

“You will never know how much I miss your attentions… all of them, my Lord,” the Queen moaned as she felt a long finger stroking between her legs above her dress.

“Then put a stop to this nonsense and return to our bed, Gabrielle,” the Conqueror uttered the Queen’s name as if it was a magic word, a spell that would win her, her seduction.

Knowing her answer would deprive her of her Lord’s craved touch, the Queen dallied before she asked, “Will you annul the marriage, my Lion?”

And it did. The Conqueror took her hands away and as she stepped backwards the Queen felt the chill trading places with the warmth she had felt a few moments before.

“I will not annul the marriage!” the Conqueror informed her matter-of-factly, trying to control her anger.

“Then I cannot return to our bed even though it pains me and tears up my soul to be apart from you,” the Queen’s voice trembled. “I cannot rejoice in our union when my daughter doesn’t in hers.”

The Conqueror waved her arm sideways scornfully and dismissively, “It’s because you think you know better!” she accused, the enceinte around her heart firm again . “And what is it exactly that you think you know about the ways of women?”

The Queen absorbed her Lord’s belittlement of her. “And what of Princess Sieglinde…,” she began to say but was once again met with a disregard.

“She knows her duties, which is more than I can say for my own flesh and blood.”

“Forgive me for angering you, my Lord,” the Queen said and left for her own bedchamber.

***

A fortnight came and went and Princess Athena, who hadn’t visited Princess Sieglinde’s chambers even once since the wedding but instead had spent her nights with Cynna, was summoned to appear before the Conqueror. As she crossed the Great Hall she noticed there was no one there besides the Conqueror, sitting on her Throne with a severity about her. It occurred to her that she had never taken a close look at the Throne and its elaborate design. Its fittings were made out of bronze. Each of its frontal legs and armrests was a statue of a lion with solid gold coating the mane and sapphires as eyes. Its backrest alone was approximately five feet high and concave, circular-like with intricate ebony and ivory designs along with gilded bay leaves at the top and the upholstery was red shiny velvet.

“Majesty,” Princess Athena bowed before the Conqueror.

“Your Grace,” the Conqueror tipped her head in acknowledgment. “It was brought to my attention that you keep your wife in her maidenhood.”

Princess Athena’s eyebrows jumped upwards over her eyes in astonishment. She couldn’t decide what stunned her the most: the fact that the Conqueror knew her private business or the fact that the Conqueror raised the matter with her, evidently feeling no qualms about meddling. Left speechless, Athena neglected to respond.

“You haven’t taken her yet, have you?” The Conqueror pressed on, demandingly.

But her Heir wasn’t ready to answer the charge just yet.

“How do you know?” she asked, unable to resist.

“Never mind how I know,” the Conqueror glared at her eldest. She would not be sidetracked.

“Did she tell you?!”

“She is a King’s daughter!” The Conqueror’s voice thundered. She was clearly irked by the fact that she had to explain what she thought her Heir should have known. “She knows better. She’d rather have her tongue cut out than speak ill of her husband.”

The Conqueror wasn’t lying. Fact was, upon her order, a chambermaid had been keeping a watchful and detective eye for bloodstains on the newlyweds’ sheets and had been reporting back to the Conqueror every day since the wedding on its flagrant absence.

To Athena, it sounded like the Conqueror thought Sieglinde perfect, like she could do no wrong.

“Answer my question!” the Conqueror demanded.

“It is a private matter, Majesty,” Athena tried to argue.

“You are my Heir. You have no private matters,” the Conqueror retorted.

“She seems… slow… Far be it for me to take advantage of her,” Athena replied, conscious of her attempt to mislead her Sire.

The Conqueror frowned. “I will hear no such poorly contrived excuses.”

“She makes me dead from the waist down, Majesty,” Athena finally gave in. “With Cynna it is very different,” she added in an adversarial manner, as though she was meaning to win an argument.

The Conqueror leaned forward in her Throne, both hands clutching the armrests, and went on to issue a warning with a visible scowl. “You will not make a mockery of your marriage and you will not publicly shame your wife. You will place your mistress in a discreet lodging in Corinth. Cynna is not welcome here and will not continue to reside under my roof.”

Princess Athena was absolutely livid. She had to bite down hard on her tongue in order to prevent herself from pointing out to the Conqueror her hypocrisy, allowing the little redheaded attendant to reside in the servants’ quarters in the palace, thus shaming her mother the Queen. She did so more out of honoring her word she had once given to her mother that she’d always be respectful towards her Sire, than out of any actual respect she felt towards the Conqueror at that particular moment.

When she trusted herself not to let her initial thought slip, she asked the Conqueror, “Would there be anything else, Majesty?”

“Yes. You will honor your obligation to your wife… Do you take my meaning?”

For a moment Athena wasn’t entirely sure that she understood what the Conqueror meant, and so she asked, “Is your Majesty ordering me to have carnal knowledge of the Norsewoman?”

“I’m glad you understand,” the Conqueror concluded.

Princess Athena got another reminder that day that she had very little control or power over her life and her frustration and resentment grew tenfold.

That very night she burst into Princess Sieglinde’s chambers as the Nordic Princess’ ladies in waiting were preparing her for bed, making them jump in their skin with a startle.

“Your Grace,” they mumbled and curtsied.

The Heir signaled with a wave of her hand for Sieglinde’s ladies in waiting to leave and they all hastened out.

“Min Herre came to visit with me,” Sieglinde, already dressed in her nightgown and with a plain nightcap covering her hair, smiled and beamed with honest joy, for it was the first time that Athena had come to her bedchamber since their wretched wedding night.

But Princess Athena didn’t smile back. Instead, and without even looking at her wife, she signaled Sieglinde to climb into bed.

“Do I have your consent?” Athena asked flatly, with all the passion she would have asking about the weather.

Princess Sieglinde did not comprehend.

Impatient, Princess Athena simplified her question, “Are you willing?”

Understanding finally spread over Sieglinde’s face. She nodded her head. “Of course,” she answered, “I am your wife.” She prohibited herself from wondering why of all nights Athena chose to come to her that specific night.

Sieglinde laid herself prone on her back amidst the cold, fragrant linens and waited with a strange and inexplicable excitement brought on by misplaced expectations. Left without her mother’s guidance, she had but a vague idea as to what was about to transpire or as to what was required of her. Before her wedding day one of her Greek ladies in waiting had taken it upon herself to offer Sieglinde some of her experience, such as it was, which had added up to a few scarce words about taking the Heir’s member between her legs and waiting for it to be over.

Athena went on to unbuckle her belt, not bothering with the rest of her garments. When her trousers were dropped around her knees, she crassly grabbed Sieglinde by her ankle and roughly turned her to lie on her stomach. With her gaze fixated on the bed’s headboard, she pushed Sieglinde’s nightgown upwards and exposed the crevice she was about to enter. Darkness ate her from the inside and out when, without any graceful gentleness or considerate preparation, she penetrated Sieglinde’s sealed womanhood and heartlessly thrust deep into her as though she was skewering a lamb. All the while the act was in play, Princess Athena held her breath so as not to breathe in Sieglinde’s scents and tried to block her ears from hearing Sieglinde’s whimpers as she wriggled beneath her by drowning her mind with thoughts of trivialities, half successfully only. What little sounds that did reach her, however, Athena wasn’t the least bit curious to know whether they were those of pleasure or of pain. All she knew was that they nearly made her laugh. ‘The Nordic Mouse’ in reference to her wife became the only thought circling in her head.

Princess Athena treated the Nordic Princess, her lawful wife, worse than she had ever treated any other woman she had rented. With whores she was at least courteous. But that was all the Great omniscient Lord Conqueror’s fault, she thought, and she was hardly the one to be blamed for it.

When she finished, she got off her wife’s back as quickly as her body allowed her, still not gracing her wife with even the briefest of glances, not caring in what state she was in. She took a piece of clean cloth and dipped it into a basin containing fresh water then wiped her phallus clean before discarding the now soiled cloth to the ground.

“Let no one claim that I do not honor my obligations to you, Madame,” The Heir spoke at the general direction of the bed as she pulled her trousers back up again.

As she made her way out of Princess Sieglinde’s chambers, she was resolute in her mind to neither forgive nor forget what the Conqueror had forced her to do that night.

Princess Sieglinde didn’t move, not until the doors to her chambers were closed behind Athena. She then moved her aching and sore body slowly to sit on the bed. She discovered the blood of her virginity when her bare foot touched a wet spot on the sheet. She examined it and wondered whether she would bleed again next time, if there would be a next time. The words of the poets singing about love and desire remained inexplicable to her. Her heart was heavy. She felt it sinking inside her without understanding why. It made her feel worse than the wound to her body did. She felt too gloomy to cry. She slipped under the covers and laid awake in the quiet darkness.

When Princess Athena entered Cynna’s chamber, Cynna had already fallen half asleep. With a tender nudge and delicate whisper, Princess Athena woke Cynna up.

Cynna greeted her with a kiss against her jaw.

“You must get dressed and come with me, beloved,” Athena urged her.

Cynna got out of the bed, still stupefied from slumber, and began to dress. “Where are we going?”

“You must spend tonight and the following days in an Inn until I find you proper lodging in Corinth .”

“Why? What happened?” Cynna asked while packing her belonging with great haste.

“The Conqueror wishes that you no longer reside here,” Athena answered.

“So, I’m banished from Court… discarded like a woman of ill-repute? And you’ve agreed to it?” Cynna protested. “I shall return back to the Amazon Lands.”

“Cynna, please… How can you think that I’ve agreed to it? One does not agree or disagree with the Conqueror’s orders. The Conqueror’s orders are to be obeyed.”

“Nevertheless, I will not subject myself to live in shame,” Cynna argued.

“Please, beloved, don’t leave me,” Athena pleaded and inwardly she resented the Conqueror for placing her in this position, “I couldn’t bear it.”

“How do you think it makes me feel when the woman you’ve married lives with you with all the comfort and grandeur of the palace while I, the woman you claim you love, am to live elsewhere… like a commoner, a dirty secret?”

“I shall buy a magnificent villa in the best part of Corinth for you to reside in and furnish it with all your heart’s desire. You will have as many servants as you wish, I promise you… You’ll live like a queen.”

Cynna took a few moments to consider Athena’s promises and eventually nodded her consent to remain in Corinth .

***

The following morning, Princess Athena rode her horse by the Corinthian palace’s wall and through its gates after she had spent the previous night in an obscure Inn with Cynna. On her way to the Imperial stables, she passed by the practicing field where she saw the Conqueror placing a practicing sword in Princess Terreis’ hand. She halted her horse, climbed down and handed the reins to the stable boy.

That morning, not far from the practicing field and in sight, as the sun marched into the Imperial gardens, the Queen and Princess Sieglinde strolled on the gravel path amidst the blooming flowers with their ladies in waiting walking respectfully behind them, enjoying the fresh air mixed with the fragrance of blossoms and the salty scent wafting from the sea.

As the Conqueror was giving young Princess Terreis her first lesson in swordfight, one of the Imperial Guard’s commanders approached the Conqueror and requested a few words in private.

The Conqueror stepped off the field and with her back turned to her youngest, spoke with the commander.

Princess Athena seized the opportunity and stepped onto the field, underestimating the rage that plagued her on account of the Conqueror. She picked up a practicing sword and faced her little sister, Princess Terreis, who had been waiting for her Sire to continue her instructions.

And then it happened. Princess Athena struck a too powerful a blow for little Terreis to handle and the toddler was knocked down hard against the ground, sustaining bleeding bruises to her elbows and legs. Aching with throbbing pain, Terreis began to cry.

Athena immediately took a step back, a tad rattled by her actions.

As soon as Terreis’ cries burst out of her mouth, the Conqueror rushed to her, and when the cries reached the Queen and Princess Sieglinde, they made haste to the practicing field as well.

The Conqueror knelt next to Terreis and gathered her in her embracing arms. She stroked her gold hair, trying to calm her youngest down so that she could examine her injuries.

The Queen and Princess Sieglinde reached the sobbing child. The Conqueror deposited her daughter in her mother’s arms.

The Queen asked Princess Sieglinde to hold Terreis so that she could tend to her wounds.

Princess Sieglinde was only too keen to oblige. She cradled Terreis in her arms and gave her, her bracelet so to occupy her while the Queen attended to her wounds.

The Queen was relieved to realize that Terreis wasn’t severely injured. There were nothing more than a few flesh wounds that would require no more than ointment and dressing.

“Terreis is just fine, my Lord,” the Queen informed her Lord, easing her concern. “Nothing is broken. She was more startled than anything else,” she went on to assure.

Immediately, after sufficiently confident that no serious harm had come to her youngest, the Conqueror turned her attention to her eldest.

When the Conqueror’s flaming glare was fixed on her, Princess Athena took another step backwards.

The Conqueror lunged at Athena and launched a tight fist into Athena’s stomach.

Athena felt as though she was kicked by a wild mule. A painful pressure amassed in her chest, rendering her almost unable to breathe. She dropped to her knees at the Conqueror’s feet.

But the Conqueror wouldn’t have it. She grabbed Athena by her lapel. Fuming, she hoisted her to stand back up on her feet.

Through clenched teeth she muttered angrily, ” She is but a young child. She possess not a tenth of your strength – what is the matter with you? I truly hoped that by now you would possess the judgment of an adult!” The Conqueror then hissed into Athena’s ear so that none other could hear, “You did it on purpose and with malice.”

“My Lord,” the Queen tried to appease her Lord and tenderly touched the broad shoulder, while Princess Sieglinde, who was privy to the altercation, gently rocked Terreis in her arms. She knew it wasn’t her place to intervene and fact was, she bore profound respect and awe towards the Lord Conqueror. However, an urge flickered inside her to stand by Princess Athena.

The Conqueror did not grace her wife with a glance but kept them pinned onto her eldest. “Go inside and tend to Terreis, my Lady, and take her Grace Princess Sieglinde with you.”

With a heavy heart, Queen Gabrielle and Princess Sieglinde left the practicing field with Princess Terreis, while the Conqueror was still clutching Princess Athena’s lapel.

Once alone, Athena looked into the icy cold eyes of her Sire. “I am you and Terreis is my mother, your Queen.”

The Conqueror understood her Heir’s assertion only too well, and she could not entirely deny the truth in them. “You are both our children,” she replied.

“And yet, throughout my childhood, I don’t remember you ever telling me stories, or putting me to bed, Majesty. You were always so stringent and so harsh with me… so… formal and correct… and too stingy with your affections towards me.”

“I am giving you my Empire!” stated the Conqueror, finally releasing her eldest from her tight grip.

“You will give me your Empire because that is your will – For your bloodline to preserve your accomplishments – not for my sake. That is why you had me in the first place. You needed an heir and for no other purpose,” Athena passionately claimed. “Terreis was conceived out of love. She is your love child.”

The Conqueror rejected the accusation. “You were both conceived out of love.”

Athena scoffed and wore a disbelieving expression on her features. “When I was conceived my mother wasn’t even aware of your love,” she spat, and in an attempt to cause the Conqueror grief she went on to say, “I’ve always wondered… Just how was I conceived, exactly?”

“Same way as your sister,” the Conqueror answered.

“I don’t believe you.”

The Conqueror didn’t care one way or the other whether Athena believed her or not. “Never come near your sister again or I swear to you I will break every bone in your body,” she warned with a chilling voice. “Believe me when I tell you, you don’t want to test me.”
Part 9
It was nighttime. Princess Athena lay idly in Cynna’s arms, resting her head against her mistress’ bosom. She told her about all that had happened earlier that day on the practice field.

“My sister bears the same sentiments towards the Lord Conqueror as my mother does,” she stated matter-of-factly. “They are the only ones in the entire world who not just love but worship the Conqueror without an ounce of fear or judgment. They bear the Conqueror pure love and worship… the kind not even the Gods receive from their most devout followers.” Her words dripped of bitterness.

Cynna fondly brushed her fingers through Princess Athena’s hair and said, “Even the most devout defy their Gods, sometimes.”

Athena sighed deeply and shook her head. “Not these two.”

Meanwhile, in the palace, the Queen was restless, tossing and turning in her bed. Her longings for the Conqueror knew no bounds. She was experiencing the same excruciating hunger as she had felt when she had been with the Amazons. Behooved by them, she lurched upwards, and opened the doors of her antechamber, which led to the corridor. However, as soon as the doors were ajar, she saw her Lord leaving the Imperial chambers, cloaked in her dark brocade robes and holding a burning torch in her hand, the orange glow accentuating the outlines of her exposed biceps, exhibiting power that the Queen lusted after. Her eyes followed her Lord as she made her way down the corridor then down the staircase till the Conqueror disappeared around the corner and out of the Queen’s range of sight.

That wasn’t the first time the Queen had witnessed her Lord leaving the Imperial chambers at the dead of night. The begging question as to the Conqueror’s activities and whereabouts at that time of night mercilessly pecked her mind and soul. She had half a mind to follow her Lord and spy on her, but she knew that her Lord would catch her in a matter of moments. A profound, ominous sensation of dread rendered the Queen unable to form a single rational thought or a reasonable explanation.

She called for the lady in attendance that night, who was dozing off on a stool near the entrance of the Queen’s chambers.

The lady in waiting jumped off the stool with a jerk as soon as she heard the Queen’s voice calling out to her.

“Majesty,” she curtsied, too embarrassed to rub her bloodshot eyes.

“Tell the Lady Satrina I wish to see her,” the Queen ordered.

“Now?” the servant asked, momentarily forgetting herself, for it wasn’t the Queen’s habit to trouble the household staff during the small hours of the night.

“Yes, now,” the Queen confirmed, impatiently.

The lady in waiting curtsied again and scurried out to do the Queen’s bidding. A short while later Lady Satrina requested entry to the Queen’s chambers.

“You wished to see me, your Majesty?” Lady Satrina asked.

Now that Lady Satrina was standing in front of her, the Queen felt incredibly foolish, but was unable to stop herself.

Her longtime friend and servant saw the distress and embarrassment about the Queen and in the name of their friendship and despite the differences in their stations, she decided to ignore the gap and reach out to the Queen.

“You seem troubled, Majesty,” she encouraged the Queen to speak.

“Has my Lord taken a mistress?” the Queen asked bluntly, applying no restraints whatsoever.

Lady Satrina swallowed hard. “I cannot say, Majesty,” the steward replied, all the while thinking it was unfair of the Queen to be placing her in such an impossible position.

“Cannot, or will not?” the Queen demanded the distinction be made.

“With respect, Majesty, I honestly do not know,” the steward answered.

The irritated Queen turned her back to the steward. “I don’t believe you!” she exclaimed. “You know everything that goes on around here, even when the rats in the dungeons below are breeding!”

If there was one place one should never find oneself, it was between the Lord Conqueror and the Queen, Satrina had learnt that hard lesson a long time ago, and now the Queen pushed her to that very spot.

“Majesty… I don’t know.”

“It’s that young redheaded harlot, isn’t it?”

Lady Satrina didn’t recognize the regal, usually gentle woman who stood before her as her friend and Mistress. Never before had she seen her in such a state. It pained her to see the Queen being destroyed by her own hands.

“Thetis is but a servant, I think,” Lady Satrina tried to offer reason and some relief.

“Never speak her name in my presence again!” the Queen’s words were uttered firmly.

Lady Satrina suspected that the Queen fell victim to fear and therefore was beyond reason. “Majesty, the Lord Conqueror loves only you, I’m sure. You mustn’t torture yourself…” she said on the verge of frustration.

“I can’t help it. I cannot lose my Lord’s heart… I’ve seen my Lord leaving the Imperial chambers every other night… It torments me to the point where I think I shall go mad.” There was no denying the severe distress in the Queen’s voice. “Make inquiries as to my Lord’s activities…ask the Imperial guards,” she frantically ordered and grabbed Lady Satrina by her shoulders nearly shaking her.

To Lady Satrina, the Queen indeed appeared like a woman on the brink of losing her senses. “I cannot dare investigate the Lord Conqueror’s private affairs,” she claimed then added more softly with beseeching eyes, hoping to get through to her Mistress, “As your friend, Majesty, may I suggest that you reconcile with the Lord Conqueror and put an end to it?”

“I wish I could,” the Queen broke down in tears. It was then that she realized she could not allow things to continue the way they had been, and that she must recruit all her efforts to reestablish some form of communication with her Lord, or else, she would lose the singular, greatest love of her life.

The following evening, the Queen ordered the cook to prepare lamb chops for the Conqueror’s supper, and as the cook carved the meat, the Queen herself stood over the burning stove and prepared her famous stock, which was her Lord’s favorite, nearly offending the cook by doing so. She did not care what the servants might think, seeing her slaving over the pots… a woman of her position, and all.

At dusk, when all was prepared the Queen herself took the tray to the Imperial chambers, hoping that her peace offering would earn her back her Lord’s affections and favors.

She opened the doors to the Imperial chambers and saw the Conqueror hovering over some documents at her desk.

The Conqueror, engrossed by the documents, failed to notice that it was the Queen, rather than a servant, who entered her chambers.

The Queen laid down the tray and curtsied before the Conqueror.

“My Lord,” she called out softly.

Surprised, the Conqueror lifted her eyes from the scrolls and beheld her wife.

“I thought you might be hungry, my Lord, so I’ve cooked supper for you,” she spoke with an appeasing quality in her voice.

The Conqueror stood up and moved around from behind the desk. She ran her eyes over the perfectly roasted meat with its succulent pink centre and the steaming mouthwatering stock.

The Queen anxiously awaited her Lord’s response.

“My Lady…” the Conqueror eventually said almost softly, in a way planting false hope in her wife’s heart. “In the event that you might have forgotten, I will remind you that I can snap my fingers and have a banquet prepared for five hundred guests within three candle-marks, or have ten legions fully armed and ready for battle within less than a day. I can alter the lives of millions in my Realm with nothing more than my breath.” The Conqueror paused, carefully examining the Queen’s reaction to her words, wondering if she could anticipate the point she was trying to make, but soon realized the Queen did not. “These are not the sort of things I need a wife for,” she went on to speak, calmly and slowly, “I need a wife… in my bed. Is that what you are offering?”

The Conqueror’s words tore the Queen’s heart into countless pieces, but they also generated anger, anger that her Lord, who was supposed to love her, rejected so callously her effort to become close once more.

Every sense of self-dignity she possessed demanded that she should point out to the Conqueror that she could snap her fingers and have a hundred courtesans for that as well, but her sense of reverence and submission before her Lord barred her tongue, and she vacated the Imperial chambers without speaking another word.

Once alone in her chambers, the Conqueror slumped down into her armchair, defeated.

The next day, the Conqueror sat on her Throne in the Great Hall, with Princess Terreis, whose wounded elbows and legs were meticulously dressed, perched on her knee. A choir of women singers and musicians preformed for the Royals’ pleasure.

After a few songs, the singers and musicians began to sing the melody that sounded like hello and ended in goodbye, which the Conqueror had caught the Queen singing in the kitchen the first time they had traveled to Thira on the very day that they had finally spoke their love for one another.

The Conqueror felt something cracking inside her, like a small breech in a robust dam and torrents of pain rushing and gushing upwards strangling her throat.

“Enough!” Her sonorous voice roared and bounced off the Great Hall’s walls and over the singing voices and the voices of the instruments. “Leave now! All of you! Out!” She shouted at the trembling musicians and they all ran out on buckling knees.

Princess Terreis was the only one who demonstrated no fear. She looked upwards and saw boiling tears running down her Sire’s eyes, and although seeing a parent crying is a frightening sight for most children at that tender age, Princess Terreis felt nothing but pain and empathy for her silently weeping Sire.

She stood on the Conqueror’s knees so to reach her face and collected a single tear in her wee finger.

“Don’t cry, my Sire,” she said, her voice laden with comfort, “I will cry for you.”

The Conqueror lowered her watery gaze and beheld the daughter, who epitomized her wife and Queen to her, and embraced the child tightly against her body.

***

Another fortnight had gone by, and Cynna settled in the extravagant villa that Princess Athena had acquired for her. It was one of the largest structures in the best part of Corinth . True to her promise, Athena spared no expense. The finest of furniture and the finest of fabrics were used to decorate the bare walls. A dozen servants were hired to attend the Amazon, whose roots and origins could no longer be seen upon her.

When the Conqueror confronted Princess Athena about her lavish spending, Athena merely replied: “Well, she’s out of the palace. Isn’t that what you wanted, Majesty?”

Needless to say, in all that time, Princess Athena spent not a single night in her wife’s bed.

When one of Princess Sieglinde’s Nordic ladies in waiting could bear it no longer and said something about it to her Mistress, feeling her national pride being trampled over by the Realm, Princess Sieglinde hushed her, stating in her native tongue only this, “Search all you wish, and you would be hard pressed to find a single woman in my station or near it whose husband has never cheated on her. That said, I would forgive Min Herre all but one thing. That is, if she would be anything but the just and honorable ruler the Lord Conqueror is. As for me, I am well-contented to be in a position where I can do some good for the welfare of my subjects.”

One evening, the Conqueror was reclining on the carpet and over a pile of cushions not far from the burning hearth in the Imperial chambers, with a map of the Persian province spread before her, teaching Princess Terreis the battle strategies while moving small figurines in the shape of soldiers, catapults, horses and chariots over it for demonstration.

Thetis, who was also present, sitting on the carpet as well next to the Conqueror listening riveted to the Conqueror’s words, asked, “Majesty?”

“Go ahead,” the Conqueror encouraged her onward.

“Does your Majesty think that everyone is capable of… killing a man?” Thetis asked.

The Conqueror smiled a half smile. “Before I answer your question, I will ask you this. Do you think you are capable of killing?”

“I am sure I cannot, Majesty,” Thetis replied.

“Then you are wrong,” the Conqueror said as she stroked Princess Terreis’ gilded hair while the child played with one of the figurines, not paying attention to the adults speaking over her head. “Truth is, no one really knows whether they are capable of taking a life or not until they are facing the test. Some are certain that they are, but they don’t have it in them, and some think they cannot until they do. It is my experience that in each and every military campaign I ever lead, there would be a few soldiers on the battlefield who discovered that they were not capable of shedding blood, even though they had exhibited excellent skills on the training field. On the other hand, when I sat in judgment of some who had been accused of committing murder, I often heard them claim that they never thought they were capable of it. So there you have it.”

“May I ask, your Majesty,” Thetis inquired further.

“You may,” the Conqueror permitted.

Neither the Conqueror nor Thetis realized that the Queen was briefly listening in on their conversation from the other side of the closed doors, on her way to her own chambers.

“How did your Majesty feel after shedding blood for the first time?”

“I did not feel a thing. I did what had to be done to protect my homeland,” the Conqueror said. Thetis thought that the Conqueror’s answer matched exactly what she had expected to hear, however, her Master thought that that had been all that her servant needed to know.

The next morning, even before breakfast, when the Queen was just finished being dressed and prepared for the day by her ladies in waiting, Thetis was announced as she entered the Queen’s chambers. She was led through the antechamber and into the Queen’s main chamber, which was the largest in her suite.

When first she had received the summons, before she had retired to bed the previous night, she had wondered what the Queen could possibly want with her.

The Queen was expecting her, dressed in her regalia facing the entrance, with her crown on her head and with her fine jewelry sparkling all around her features like a luminous frame, and with her ladies in waiting standing behind her. Everything about the display was designed to clearly convey, ‘I am Queen’ .

“Your Majesty,” Thetis curtsied before the Queen.

The Queen acknowledged her with a slight nod of her head.

Thetis lowered her eyes as she spoke to the Queen, “You wished to see me, your Majesty?”

The Queen did not answer. She closed the gap between them with small, slow, almost deliberate gait, with her glaring eyes fixed on the redheaded attendant, like an archer would keep its target in his sights.

It was then that Thetis felt a twinge of uneasiness and she searched her mind for a cause as to why the Queen might be crossed or displeased with her, but she failed to come up with any offence she might have committed against her Sovereign Queen.

The Queen, still silent, began to sluggishly circle around the servant in a way she had occasion to watch her Lord do countless times over the years.

Thetis had never imagined that the Monarch, who was by all accounts, including that of her uncle, of well-disposition, could strike fear in anyone’s heart, which was the Queen’s intent exactly.

The Queen’s ladies in waiting watched their Mistress in fascination, and the expression on their faces hinted to Thetis, who found herself nearly holding her breath, that they had a decent idea as to the reason for their Mistress’ vexed state.

After completing a full circle, when once more facing Thetis, the Queen leaned in closer towards the nearly cowering attendant till the latter was forced to look away to escape meeting the Queen’s gaze and thus not exhibiting barefacedness.

“Has my Lord taken you as a mistress?” the Queen asked plainly.

Nothing prepared Thetis for the Queen’s flagrant question. The shock alone tied Thetis’s tongue up.

Her lack of a response angered the Queen further like dousing burning fire with oil. It made the Queen even more distressed, as if Thetis’s silence was an admission.

“Are you sleeping with my Lord?” the Queen asked with an elevated tone of voice and Thetis could feel the Queen’s fuming breath singing her cheek.

Thetis couldn’t for the life of her understand where this foul accusation stemmed from. Her mind was reeling in effort to make sense of it all but to no avail. Of course she knew that the Conqueror and the Queen were no longer sharing a bad over their dispute regarding Princess Athena’s marriage, but the Conqueror had never been anything but appropriate with her.

Lady Astraea, head of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, scolded Thetis, “The Queen’s Majesty is speaking to you!”

Avoiding the Queen’s glare was becoming harder and harder to do. Thetis wasn’t completely ignorant as to why the Queen would ask such a question. She realized that had there been a reason to lie, she would have done so, gladly, for her Master’s sake with accordance to her duties as a servant. She was scared. The Conqueror, she knew, would not defend her against the Queen. “Of course not, your Majesty,” she finally answered with a quiver in her voice, which made her wonder whether she sounded less convincing or sincere because of it. Since she wasn’t looking directly at the Queen’s eyes, she couldn’t be sure if the Queen believed her of not.

“Do not think that you can win my Lord’s heart,” the Queen hissed, “Get out of my sight!”

Thetis curtsied before the Queen and quickly left her presence, resolute in her mind not to speak a word of it to her Master.

***

Another season gave way to a new one taking its place. At dusk, Princess Athena came to dine with Cynna and to spend the night in the villa, which had become more of a home to her than the palace she had been born in.

As they sat at the table, conversing between them about the day that had gone by and who they had met and what they had done, being waited on by Cynna’s servants, Cynna requested Athena for a new chariot, four horses, a groom and a stable to be built on the villa’s grounds, so that she might travel wherever her fancy took her.

“Tell me when you wish to travel and I shall send one of the Imperial grooms with a chariot to you,” Athena replied and signaled a servant to pour her a second goblet of wine.

“Surely you wouldn’t want me to trouble you whenever I wish to travel,” Cynna said.

“It’s no trouble at all, sweetheart,” Athena replied and took the filled goblet in her hand.

Athena’s answer didn’t satisfy her lover. “Don’t you want me to have my own means to travel as other ladies do?”

“Dearest, I cannot afford it at the moment,” Athena replied with a touch of impatience, hoping Cynna would take the subtle hint that she had no desire to continue discussing the matter any further.

Cynna understood as much but chose to ignore it. “What do you mean you cannot afford it? Aren’t you the Princess of the Realm?!”

Athena emptied the goblet and with a sharp motion landed the empty goblet on the dining table. “What I own is what the Conqueror is generous enough to furnish me with.”

“Can’t you ask the Conqueror to increase your allowance, then?”

“And when the Conqueror asks me what for, what answer should I give, do you reckon?” Athena’s control over her temper was wearing thin. “The Conqueror dislikes you, to put it mildly, as it is.”

“So I am to be treated as some middle-class concubine?” Cynna protested.

“Of course not,” Athena said and placed her hand over Cynna’s hand, which rested atop the table. “But would you have me begging the Conqueror for more means to support you?”

“You promised me that I should live like a Queen…” Cynna spoke with cloying sweetness, and as if the word ‘Queen’ had given her an idea, she proceeded to ask, “Why not ask her Majesty the Queen? She refuses you nothing.”

“My mother has a lot on her mind these days and I shan’t bother her with such matters, can’t you understand?!” Athena rose to her feet. Her hands were fisted at the side of her body.

“Back to the Nordic mouse, is it?” taunted Cynna with a questioning look and arched eyebrows.

“I lost my appetite. I think it best if I slept in my own bed tonight,” Athena informed Cynna with narrow eyes and stifled fury.

Cynna made no effort to stop her, believing her stance just, for what would her neighbors and acquaintances think if they saw her living below the means of other nobility in the Realm?

Princess Athena rode back to the palace. She was disappointed in Cynna for failing to see and comprehend her view and position. Wandering through the palace’s corridors, she didn’t wish to be alone that night and she was in great need to speak with someone, but there was no one. The Queen was troubled with her own plight, her grandmother was already asleep; her sister too young and she resented her for the love that the Conqueror showered on her, and the Conqueror… well, the Conqueror was the last person Athena wanted to speak with these days.

And not before long Athena found herself standing in Sieglinde’s bedchamber.

“Min Herre,” Sieglinde curtsied, showing none of her surprise at Athena’s unexpected visit.

Princess Athena said nothing, but just stood there.

“Min Herre seems troubled and tired,” Sieglinde spoke softly, doing her best to conceal her native accent. With hesitant steps she approached Athena, tentatively slipped her hand into Athena’s and led her to bed.

Athena offered no objection or resistance. Sieglinde’s tender care soothed her more than she cared to admit. Heavily, the Heir slumped onto Sieglinde’s bed.

Sieglinde knelt in fort of Princess Athena, who was still sitting on her bed, and began taking her boots off.

“Being brought up as royals, we quickly learn early on in life that comfort is scarce. There aren’t many places we are safe receiving it. We are expected to pretend like we have no need for it, but we do. I will be grateful to you, Min Herre, if you would be willing to receive it from me, your unworthy servant,” Princess Sieglinde said and poured water into the basin she had placed at Princess Athena’s feet.

Athena listened to Sieglinde’s voice as much as she did to her words. It was soft and placating. It was like slipping into a warm bath. She beheld her wife as she was washing her feet and she wondered what her hair looked like beneath the cap she was constantly wearing.

“Tell me about the Nordic Lands,” Athena requested.

Sieglinde smiled and as she handled the clean towel in her delicate hands, she knew she was happy not just because she was granted an opportunity to talk about her homeland, but because it was the first time that Athena showed kindness towards her and interest in her.

“The Nordic Lands are vast, Min Herre. There are staggering, snowy and rugged mountains with icy sea, wide rivers and some of the highest waterfalls in the entire world… If I could only show you, Min Herre, how beautiful, wild and pure-white my homeland is… It would take your breath away,” Sieglinde spoke as she dried Athena’s feet and her face was beaming. “I’m afraid I cannot do it justice in your language, Min Herre, for I don’t fully master it, yet…” She then chuckled and went on to say, “I don’t think I can do it justice even in my own native tongue.”

After she finished washing Athena’s feet, Sieglinde rose back up to her own. “Anything else I can do for you, Min Herre?”

“Have you any funds of your own?” Athena asked, feeling wretched as she did.

“I do, Min Herre,” Sieglinde answered, masking her surprise for Athena’s question was quite unexpected.

“I am in need of a substantial sum,” Athena muttered.

Sieglinde pulled out a wooden chest from beneath her bed. She opened and revealed a handsome amount of gold coin. She had her suspicions as to what Athena needed the funds for, but it made no difference to her. “What’s mine is yours to do as you please, Min Herre. Please, take it.”

Athena took the chest with her and held it under her arm.

“If you need more, Min Herre, you can take these and sell them,” Sieglinde offered as she handed Athena the small chest containing the jewelry that Athena had given her on their wedding night, the jewelry which the Conqueror had given Athena to give to her.

It was then that Athena felt shame stabbing her guts. She kept her features sealed with no small measure of effort.

“That won’t be necessary,” Athena rejected her wife’s offer, equally out of shame and out of fear of her Sire, since she would inevitably find out about it, for nothing escaped her Sire. “Good night,” Athena bade Sieglinde before she left, thinking that her Nordic wife was no mouse.

“Good night, Min Herre,” Sieglinde replied with a warm smile and her gaze escorted Athena as she made her way out of the bedchamber.

The following evening Princess Athena arrived at Cynna’s villa with a new four horses chariot.

***

A knock on the door to the Imperial chambers interrupted the Conqueror and Thetis’ conversation. A servant entered and served them supper. The Sovereign and the attendant, who was invited to join the meal, went to sit at the table.

Thetis waited for the Conqueror to begin eating before she started herself. She poured wine into the Conqueror’s goblet and from the corner of her eye, Thetis studied the Conqueror’s expression and realized it seemed troubled.

“Nobleman Sirus suggested to me earlier today that I should lower taxes in his province by dispersing the tenth legion and assembling a small militia to diminish costs.”

Thetis wasn’t sure what her response should be. She wasn’t required to give any so she held her tongue and waited.

“This is the second time since the wedding this type of thing has happened…” the Conqueror groaned as she held the knife in her hand and vigorously cut the meat in front of her, bruising its texture.

“Your Majesty suspects the two events are linked,” Thetis said.

“They must be. The two noblemen are plotting against me. It is no coincidence.”

“May I make a suggestion, Majesty?”

“You may.” The Conqueror was curious to see just how clever Thetis was and how her mind worked.

“Your Majesty might consider sending Lady Lila so that she may join them under the guise of a coconspirator. It is a well-known fact that… Well…” Thetis wasn’t sure if she should speak her mind, worrying she might overstep her bounds and insult her Master.

“Go on…” the Conqueror urged her on, even though she already knew what her servant was about to say.

“All know that there is no love lost between the Lady Lila and your Majesty, despite her kinship to her Majesty the Queen. She is in a high enough position to approach them and the Noblemen might not suspect her at all.”

The Conqueror was quite impressed with Thetis’s idea. She was truly her uncle’s niece. “There is one major flaw in your plan,” the Conqueror remarked, “I do not trust Lady Lila.”

“Pardon me, your Majesty, for failing you,” Thetis downcast her gaze and rested it on her plate.

“There is nothing to pardon you for. The flaw can be remedied.”

“How, Majesty?”

“You know the servants in my household pretty well, do you not?”

“I do, Majesty,” Thetis nodded her head, and already she could guess the Conqueror’s strategy.

“Find me one that is reasonably wise whom you trust… you may consult with Lady Satrina… We shall order Lady Lila to hire her so that she could attend Lady Lila at all times when she meets with Nobleman Sirus and Nobleman Drusus, and thus she could be privy to everything and report back to me.”

Thetis smiled widely, her adoration towards her Master overrunning. “I already have someone in mind, but just to be sure, I will consult with Lady Satrina as your Majesty suggested.”

“Very good. I leave it to you to set it up, Thetis.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Thetis replied quite proudly, proud of herself for earning the Conqueror’s trust and esteem, but when she watched the Conqueror’s countenance again she realized that the Conqueror was upset still. “Is there something else that is troubling your Majesty?” She carefully inquired.

“Noblemen coming to me with unreasonable demands…” the Conqueror’s voice grew irate,

“Her Grace, Athena displeases me…And all the while my wife… the woman whom I married,” her voice turned even louder than before as she slammed the knife down hard against the table’s surface with great noise that startled her staunch servant . “Twice!” she continued more enraged after the pause in her speech, “Refuses me the warmth of her bed.” She paused again with raging fumes coming out of her nostrils. “She has made a eunuch out of me!”

It was like all the Conqueror’s frustrations reached the end of their tether and erupted at the dining table.

Thetis froze in fear in her seat. She stopped breathing. She didn’t move a muscle but rather kept her hands folded on her lap, and quickly averted her eyes away from her Master. She didn’t even conceive of making a sound.

“I did not mean to frighten you,” the Conqueror let out from between clenched teeth like she was trying to control the rage. “You may leave my presence now, dear Thetis,” the Conqueror attempted to sound less intimidating.

Thetis nodded her head, curtsied before the Conqueror and left the table.

When the Conqueror could no longer hear her attendant’s footstep, she got off her seat and strode decisively out of the Imperial chambers and to the Queen’s chambers.

The Conqueror barged into the Queen’s antechamber.

The Queen was about to enter her bedchamber for a night’s sleep but as soon as she saw the feral wrath across her Lord’s face, she proceeded to her bedchamber and locked the doors behind her, denying her Lord entrance.

The Conqueror pommelled her fists against the heavy wooden doors, nearly knocking them off their hinges, “Do you think these doors could keep me away from you?!” she shouted through them. “Do you think they could save you from me?!” the Sovereign exclaimed as the doors were halfway to tumbling down, “Have you forgotten who I am?!”

The sound of the key turning inside the keyhole halted the Conqueror’s poundings. The doors were calmly opened and the Queen appeared, taking a step forward to stand on the threshold.

“No one can save me from you, but you, my Lord, but I never needed saving from you,” Queen Gabrielle spoke with an unreadable expression.

The Conqueror observed her wife for what seemed like an eternity, as if she was contemplating whether she should take her Queen, by force if necessary, or let her be, till she finally turned on the axis of her heels, un-rooted her feet from the floorboards and returned back to her own chambers.
Part 10
A moon after the wedding.
Disguised as commoners, Noblemen Drusus, Sirus and Likos, who could still taste the grand humiliation he and his sons had suffered at the hands of the Conqueror and Princess Athena, convened on the road leading to an obscure little village not far from the province of Rome .

“This sort of an opportunity comes once in a lifetime. We must seize it!” Nobleman Likos asserted and added another log to the small bonfire they had built.

Nobleman Drusus didn’t feel that confident. He looked around in the dark and pricked up his ears to make sure no one else was there, lurking in the bleak wilderness, hiding behind a tree or laying low in the high grass at the side of the desolate, shabby road.

“This is madness!” he hissed. “Have you forgotten already what happened to other Noblemen who conspired against the Conqueror?!” He stopped and looked at his fellow Noblemen’s faces for a response. “I, for one, do not wish to die such a horrible death and I do not wish for my family to suffer the Conqueror’s special brand of calamity.”

Nobleman Sirus, the governor of the province of Epirus , stopped picking his teeth. “I agree with Drusus. Bringing down the Conqueror is definitely a wonderful and satisfying notion, but there’s a reason why the Conqueror had managed to conquer the world and rule it for so long.”

Nobleman Likos waved his arm in dismissal. “My sources at Court tell me that the Queen no longer spreads her legs for the Conqueror.”

“Neither does my wife. What is your point?” asked Nobleman Sirus.

Nobleman Likos scoffed, “The entire Royal family is divided over Princess Athena’s marriage to the Nordic princess. The Queen sides with her Grace, against the Conqueror. I was even told that Princess Terreis surrogates the Queen to the Lord Conqueror. It’s pathetic!” he sneered, “We have all forgotten a fundamental fact!” he declared.

“Which is?” asked Nobleman Drusus.

“The Lord Conqueror may have all the freedoms, the mannerisms, the appetites and the instruments of a man, but you all seem to have forgotten what the Lord Conqueror really is.”

“A God?” Nobleman Sirus suggested.

“A woman, you fool!” Nobleman Likos growled. “She squats to piss!”

The Noblemen guffawed at Nobleman Likos’ last remark.

“She is no longer the blood thirsty lion,” Nobleman Likos continued. “With the Queen living apart from her, love and lust have long left her… The Conqueror rules us all yet she cannot even control her own wife! She has never been weaker. Now is the time to strike!”

Nobleman Drusus nodded assent. “I shall send word to our friend and ally then,” he muttered.

Nobleman Sirus scratched his baldness and asked, “I still do not understand why Drusus and I must go to the Conqueror and ask her to dismantle her legions and lower taxes. Wouldn’t that make the Conqueror suspicious of us and draw unnecessary attention to us?”

“Years of dealing with the Conqueror and observing the Conqueror deal with others have taught me that the Conqueror is more alert when everything seems to be running smoothly. We shall raise the alarm so that she may sniff around and when she’s satisfied that there’s nothing to it… only then will we be safe and free to carry out our scheme,” explained Nobleman Likos.

***

As the Queen sauntered along the banks of the lily pond, which she loved so much, listening to the brush of the soft breeze against the water, she recalled how the Conqueror had pounded against her chamber doors the previous night and the dark shade of blue in her glaring eyes. She remembered herself almost wishing that her Lord had lost her imperious control and had copulated with her hard right where she had stood on the threshold. Feeling her Lord inside her would have sated her and her awesome need to be one flesh with her Lord, and she wouldn’t have had to lose face, doing so.

“Your Majesty.” It was Princess Sieglinde’s voice accompanied by the voices of her ladies in waiting, who also curtsied before her, that pulled the Queen out of her lugubrious musing.

“Your Grace,” the Queen greeted her daughter-in-law as did her ladies in waiting.

“I hope I’m not intruding on your Majesty’s stroll,” Princess Sieglinde said.

“Not at all, your Grace. It is such a beautiful morning we’re having. Would you care to join me?” the Queen asked.

“Very much so. Thank you, your Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde answered and began walking with the Queen.

“Truth of the matter is, your Majesty, that I came here looking for you,” Princess Sieglinde began to say. Through gossip within the palace, she, like everyone else, was well aware of the discord between the Queen and the Conqueror, rooted in her marriage to Princess Athena. It grieved her to be the cause of the division between the Sovereigns, for whom she cared most profoundly. Rationally, she knew it hadn’t been her fault. Nevertheless, had it not been for her none of it would have happened. She deeply desired to see joy and happiness exist once more between the Sovereigns, and she rued the fact that she had never known them in better times, for when she had first set foot in Corinth the wedge between them had already existed.

“What can I do for you, your Grace?” inquired the Queen.

“My ladies in waiting and I wish to entertain your Majesty and the Lord Conqueror at supper tomorrow evening,” Princess Sieglinde said and smiled. “Will your Majesty kindly grant us the privilege?”

The Queen mirrored her daughter-in-law’s smile. “I would be delighted, your Grace.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.” Princess Sieglinde appeared pleased beyond measure.

“Tell me, what have you in store for us?”

“A modest taste of my homeland,” Princess Sieglinde answered cryptically so as not to spoil the surprise. “I hope that the Lord Conqueror, Min Herre and her Grace Princess Terreis would join us.”

The Queen was quite impressed with how improved Princess Sieglinde’s Greek had become. “I’m certain none would refuse you, your Grace,” the Queen spoke with an assuring tone of voice.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde said.

Closer to noon, accompanied by her ladies in waiting, Princess Sieglinde met with the Conqueror on the practice field as the latter was instructing young Princess Terreis in the art of combat.

“Your Majesty,” they all curtsied before the Conqueror.

The Conqueror lowered the practicing sword she was gripping and Princess Terreis emulated her Sire.

“Your Grace , ” The Conqueror greeted back and wiped the beads of sweat from above her brow against the sleeve of her shirt.

“My ladies in waiting and I will be honored if your gracious Majesty might agree to honor us with your presence at the Dining Hall tomorrow evening?”

The Conqueror was immensely pleased with Princess Sieglinde’s refreshing initiative, and curiosity tickled the pit of her stomach.

Princess Sieglinde quickly added, “Her Majesty the Queen has already accepted.”

The Conqueror kept her countenance solemn but the spark of glee in her eyes was unmistakable. “It would be my pleasure, your Grace,” she finally replied.

“Thank you very much, your Majesty. The special Nordic recipe for mead is already brewing.”

The Conqueror’s mouth began to water. “I shall look forward to it,” she said and slightly tipped her head to show her daughter–in-law her appreciation.

Princess Sieglinde felt her dress being tugged. She downcast her gaze and found Princess Terreis standing next to her looking upwards. “May I attend as well, your Grace?”

Princess Sieglinde knelt on one knee to level with Princess Terreis. “Of course you may, your Grace. I was just about to invite you. It wouldn’t be the same without my little sister.”

Princess Terreis clapped her hands with excitement. She was too young to comprehend it, but she was clever enough to know things hadn’t been right and well in the palace. Her parents had barely been speaking to one another and her older sister hadn’t been kind to her. She didn’t know the name of the bad sensation that had been lurking inside her, but she had been feeling it all the same and it was starting to take its toll on her.

Princess Terreis wrapped her small arms around Princess Sieglinde’s neck, and Princess Sieglinde embraced her in return.

Just before dusk, as Princess Athena left her chambers on her way to dine and spend the night at Cynna’s villa, Princess Sieglinde intercepted her in the corridor, knowing Princess Athena’s destination all too well.

“Min Herre,” she spoke softly, and inwardly she sensed an ugsome feeling flooding her. She realized she feared that Princess Athena would reject her invitation.

“Yes?”

“I have invited our family for a Nordic supper and entertainment in the Dining Hall tomorrow evening. I beseech you, Min Herre, to grant your humble servant this tremendous honor and attend the gathering,” Sieglinde said with a quivering small voice and without meeting Princess Athena’s eyes in reverence.

Princess Athena considered it and shortly after nodded her consent, saying only, “I will attend.” She found it impossible to refuse such tender supplication and quickly realized she had absolutely no desire to refuse it, either.

“Thank you, Min Herre, for your generosity,” Princess Sieglinde said, kneeling before Princess Athena and briefly touching her lips to Athena’s seal ring.

Princess Athena turned and left to meet with Cynna.

While soaking in a warm Roman bath in Cynna’s villa after a long night of passion, Princess Athena, who was cradling Cynna in her arms, placed a finger under Cynna’s chin and gently lifted it up, making Cynna look at her.

“I shan’t be spending tomorrow’s evening and night with you,” she informed her.

“Why ever not?!” Cynna asked confrontationally.

“I have other engagements,” replied Princess Athena, deliberately avoiding telling the specifics to Cynna.

“Will you be spending tomorrow night in another woman’s bed?” Cynna demanded to know.

Princess Athena didn’t reply, and ire began to seethe.

Cynna lurched upwards, creating splashes in the bathwater. “I knew you couldn’t be trusted… I knew of your reputation before I gave myself to you,” she reproached indignantly and threw her towel at Athena.

“Careful,” Athena warned her, “That’s enough!” The verbal line that Princess Athena drew was registered and it was clear that it shouldn’t be crossed.

Cynna simmered down.

“I shall remain in the palace tomorrow. I was invited to take supper with the Conqueror and her Majesty.”

“You mean to attend with her, aren’t you?”

In order to keep the peace between them, Athena thought it best not to mention that it was her wife who was hosting the evening.

Athena’s silence confirmed Cynna’s suspicions.

“Well, why can’t I join you?”

Athena rolled up her eyes in frustration. “Do you not think it just a bit inappropriate?”

“I’m the one you love,” Cynna argued.

“Which is why I wouldn’t want to see my Sire slit your throat over the dining table!”

Cynna frowned and allowed the fact that she was offended to be known.

“You must understand, Cynna…” Athena explained softly and patiently and took a deep breath to muster calmness. “It is imperative that my mother see the Norsewoman and me in some semblance of normality, and then perhaps she would be willing to forgo denying the Conqueror her intimacies… Her Majesty the Queen may wear a strong front but she needs the Conqueror like air to breathe and I know she has been dying a little inside each and every day since the wedding. I have seen her wither before and I don’t ever wish to see it again.”

“Will you sleep in the Nordic mouse’s bed again?!” was all Cynna had to say and it didn’t go unnoticed by Athena.

Hearing Cynna refereeing to her wife as ‘the Nordic mouse’ irritated and bothered Athena to a point where she wished she had never uttered those words to her mistress in previous conversations. It annoyed her especially since it was Sieglinde’s funds that paid for Cynna’s new chariot, horses, groom and stable, and although Cynna didn’t know it, she owed a debt of gratitude to Sieglinde rather than ridicule.

“I will not,” Athena said but already seeds of doubt were sprouting roots in her that she might not keep her word.

***

The sun sank into the Aegean Sea and the moon hung low over the water. Inside the Corinthian palace the torches were lit in the corridors, as were the oil lanterns, the candles and the hearth in the vast Dining Hall. The Conqueror and the Queen, sitting at the head of the long chestnut table, were dressed in their regal attires. Princess Terreis sat to her mother’s right side and Athena sat to the Conqueror’s left on the other side of the table.

A meticulous hand had set the table before them, that much was clear. Plates, goblets, knives, urns and other dishes, which Princess Sieglinde had had brought to her from her homeland, with illustrations of Nordic myths such as Valkyries and Sol, the Sun and Mani, the moon being chased by the wolves Skoll and Hati, the Gods Odin and Thor, and the cosmological tree Yggdrasil ornamenting them, stood in perfect array atop the table’s smooth surface.

The doors to the Dining Hall were opened and in came Princess Sieglinde accompanied by her ladies in waiting not three feet behind her. All of them, including Sieglinde’s Greek ladies in waiting, were dressed in the Nordic traditional attire with exquisite gilded caps covering their hairs.

Princess Sieglinde looked especially radiant in the jewelry she had received as a wedding gift.

“Majesties,” Princess Sieglinde curtsied before the Conqueror and the Queen first, and her ladies in waiting behind her followed her lead.

“Min Herre,” Princess Sieglinde curtsied before Princess Athena. “Your Grace,” mumbled her servants.

Finally, Princess Sieglinde curtsied in honor of young Princess Terreis. “Your Grace,” she greeted, as did her ladies in waiting.

“Your Grace,” the Conqueror tipped her head, returning the honor to Princess Sieglinde.

“Majesties,” announced Princess Sieglinde, “This evening I should very much like to introduce to you some of the tastes, sounds, and culture of my homeland, if it pleases you.”

“Of course,” the Conqueror welcomed the intriguing offering with a kind smile. She had always been fascinated by the various cultures under her reign.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” said the Nordic Princess with a decent amount of pleasure and pride, and signaled her loyal ladies in waiting.

Her servants went to the palace’s kitchen then one by one, and all six of them returned one by one carrying the best of the Nordic Land ‘s delicacies. As they placed the various rich foods on the table before the Royals, Princess Sieglinde explained all there was to know about each and every dish. She told the Royal that she had instructed the Imperial cook on how to make the Nordic delicious delights.

The Conqueror and the Queen marveled at the Rullepolser, which was made of lamb, and the Lapskaus, which was a stew, and the various fish dishes. They both praised Princess Sieglinde till a blush colored the latter’s pale cheeks.

Next her ladies in waiting, along with two of the Conqueror’s grooms, pushed a large barrel filled to the brim with warm mead into the Dining Hall.

Princess Sieglinde went to stand to the Conqueror’s left. “As promised, your Majesty,” she announced, taking the Conqueror’s goblet and dipping it into the thick warm honey wine. When full, she carefully took it out of the barrel and wiped the dripping goblet with a white serviette. She handed the Conqueror the goblet and anxiously waited for the Conqueror to taste the mead she had brewed herself and to pass her judgment.

The Conqueror swigged in a mouthful of the mead and rolled it over her tongue, tasting the smooth honey, the body of it and the perfectly balanced amount of spices, along with the soothing warm spirit in it. “Honestly,” the Conqueror said and watched Princess Sieglinde’s nervous features, as she lingered just so to tease her. The Queen knew that her Lord bothered to tease only those she found agreeable. Eventually, the Conqueror went on to say, “This is the best mead I have ever tasted, your Grace.”

Princess Sieglinde sighed in relief and in pleasure. She then addressed the Queen. “With your permission and pardon, your Majesty, I wish to serve Min Herre next,” she requested.

“By all means, do,” the Queen granted her permission as she carefully observed her firstborn.

“Majesty,” Princess Terreis demanded her mother’s attention, “What does ‘Min Herre’ mean?”

“It means ‘Your Grace’ in the Nordic language,” Princess Athena replied.

Princess Athena was wrong, but her wife did not correct her. She had decided when first she had addressed Athena by that moniker not to reveal its meaning until such time that Athena would inquire as to its meaning of her own volition. Besides, she would not contradict Princess Athena in public.

As the Royals consumed the superb, somewhat sweet mead and became ever so slightly inebriated by it, Princess Sieglinde’s Nordic ladies in waiting took Nordic musical instruments, such as a drum and a lyre, and began to play and sing Nordic melodies. Princess Sieglinde joined them in song, as did her Greek ladies in waiting whom Sieglinde had taught the Nordic songs when first she had conceived of the gathering.

The air itself was joyous and saturated with mirth, laughter and ethereal Nordic music, which sounded so pure and heavenly. Princess Athena was quite taken with her wife’s excellent, clear, divine voice, as she listened to her singing, engrossed and riveted.

As they sang, Princess Sieglinde and her Greek ladies in waiting who weren’t playing the instruments approached the table, and urged the four sitting Royals to join them in dancing.

Princess Sieglinde demonstrated to them the steps of the Nordic traditional dance with unblemished grace, and before long they were all dancing together, embraced by the foreign yet fine music.

Princess Sieglinde took Princess Athena by the hand and danced with her.

The Queen watched them dancing together. She then averted her gaze to her Lord with a mute plea in her eyes.

The Conqueror took the Queen’s hand in hers and danced with her. It was the first physical contact they had shared in a long time, and it was welcomed with the same passion a starved man would receive a loaf of freshly baked bread.

It seemed as if for at least one evening the palace broke free of a bleak curse that had been plaguing it, destroying it from the foundations to the rafters along with everyone inhabiting it, and for that evening they had all the seeming of a family, once more. Princess Sieglinde, in her wisdom and kindness, provided much needed relief from the strain laying heavily on the Royal Family.

Even Princess Terreis could feel it, the lightness. The carefreeness of her world was restored for that one evening. She couldn’t stop smiling and clapping her hands when she watched her beloved parents dancing together. Inwardly, Princess Athena felt profound gratitude to her wife as she saw the Conqueror and the Queen engaging in an act of intimacy.

When the music subsided, Princess Sieglinde dismissed her ladies in waiting for the night, with her thanks and praises. She then joined the Royals at the table and sat next to Princess Athena.

Princess Terreis raised a good amount of protest when her governess came to take her to bed, for she did not want the evening to end. She wasn’t alone in her wish. The Queen didn’t wish for the night to end, either. This was the closest she had been to her Lord in moons.

As they were all sitting at the table, the Conqueror addressed Princess Sieglinde. “You have many talents, your Grace,” she said.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde replied.

“It makes me wonder what other hidden talents you possess,” the Conqueror wondered aloud.

“I fish, your Majesty,” said Princess Sieglinde, “And I enjoy it.”

The Queen’s smile widened on her lips. “My Lord is an avid fisherman and can discuss the many methods and techniques from dawn till dusk.”

Princess Sieglinde chuckled, and a smile graced Princess Athena, too.

The Queen told Princess Sieglinde about the first time that her Lord had taken her fishing and the story about the wolves and how her Lord had overpowered them. The Queen also told Sieglinde how she had cooked the fish they had caught that day and that it had been on that day that she and her Lord had decided to conceive a child. When she spoke she laid an adoring gaze upon her Lord.

Princess Athena knew it was one of her mother’s favorite stories and that it had always seemed to give her pleasure telling it, and although she experienced some embarrassment that now her wife heard it as well, she maintained good humor about it.

Princess Sieglinde told them about how in her homeland they fish through a hole they make in the ice and the type of fish indigenous to the Nordic Lands.

When it was past midnight, the Conqueror and the Queen thanked Princess Sieglinde for the wonderful evening and complimented her on the brilliant execution.

The Conqueror and the Queen left the Dining Hall together. They moseyed through the corridor leading to their chambers because each of them felt that the further they got from the Dining Hall, the quicker the small miracle that had taken place there was fading away.

“Princess Sieglinde is an extraordinary lass,” the Conqueror was the first to break the silence.

“Indeed, my Lord,” the Queen replied as too soon they reached the entrance to the Queen’s chambers.

The Conqueror opened the doors before the Queen, who wondered whether her Lord would follow her inside or not. She heard the doors closing behind her and two strong arms running around her waist and engulfing her body. The Conqueror’s body, its chiseled muscles, pressed against her back. Absolute thrill jolted her body when she felt the Conqueror’s hardness slide against her buttocks, so present, and so cocksure it was regnant.

Singeing breath that smelled like honey ensnared her. “I do not wish to part with you tonight.” Long gentle fingers brushed the golden hair away from her neck, clearing the path for a soft pair of lips, mouthing against the Queen’s delicate skin. “On this night neither one of us should be alone.”

The tempting voice was weakening and seemed too irresistible, too convincing, so that the Queen thought that if it commanded her to fling herself into the sea, she would have done so.

And it continued to relentlessly mollify and to mold her own wants and thoughts. Her hand lifted itself up to delve into a lampblack mane, and her head tilted itself backwards to rest against a comforting, buttress-like shoulder. Her neck stretched itself to enable better passage for the warm tongue that caressed it. The Queen’s breasts swelled themselves to inveigle a Warrior Lord’s hands to ply the flesh. The Queen’s limbs moved unimpeded.

The raucous voice kept on inciting her to succumb. “Come to bed, Gabrielle,” it solicited, “I need you,” it whispered.

“Do you, though?” the Queen asked in a moment of sobriety, “Do you really need me, my Lord?”

“Of course I need you. What do you mean?” the Conqueror asked.

“You leave your chambers late every other night.” The Queen stepped away from the warm strong body she pined for and turned around to face her Lord.

“Keeping watch of my comings and goings, are you?” The Conqueror frowned and her eyebrows quickly furrowed.

“My ladies in waiting tell me that they’ve been seeing your grooms carrying buckets of water for your bath to be ready for when you return in the middle of the night.”

The Conqueror understood the Queen’s insinuation, and she realized how her nightly activities might be construed, but she would not grant her wife relief. She folded her arms over her chest and square-shouldered she remained still.

“I want you to dismiss that runty, licentious doxy from your service!” the Queen firmly demanded and folded her arms over her breasts, as well.

It was the first time the Conqueror had ever heard about the Queen’s reservations regarding her personal attendant. No one had dared, of course, to scrutinize her about any perceived improprieties regarding other women in general or Thetis in particular. The Conqueror’s viciousness and cruelty surfaced in her like two fierce warriors obediently reporting to their commander’s call.

“You forgot – redheaded!” she tormented the Queen.

“That would be the one.” The Queen refused to be browbeaten. “I want her dismissed!”

“Is that so?! Why?”

Not a shred of the intimacy they had shared earlier that evening remained.

“She performs my duties as wife to you,” the Queen asserted with grave rancor.

The Conqueror scoffed and snidely retorted, “I can assure you not all of them, Madame.”

That answer the Queen hadn’t anticipated. Her Lord might have kept certain things from her during their years together, but she had never lied to her, not ever, not once. If the Conqueror hadn’t been sating her needs with Thetis, it must be with some other young female servant in the household staff or some wench that had been brought from the nearest brothel, the Queen deduced. Yet, Thetis was considered still her greatest threat.

“What you are doing with her is far worse, Majesty. Sometimes I wish you did have her, then you could wear yourself on her flesh and finally grow tired of her and that would be the end of it. As such, I want her out of our house.”

“I decide whether she stays or not,” the Conqueror stated.

“Then I do not want her anywhere near my daughter!” Desperate defiance was written through and through on the Queen.

The Conqueror scowled at her wife, letting her know she had taken one step too far.

The Queen did not misjudge her Lord’s unmistakably drawn out limit. Her face softened and the hurt that had been her lot, be it justified or not, was beginning to drown her. She needed to appease her Lord for both their sakes, and she knew she could not win a war against the Master of War.

“I cannot bare your silence, my Lord. You once made me a promise that you should always speak freely what is in your heart with me,” the Queen reminded.

The Conqueror recalled the conversation they had had after their reconciliation at the Amazons Lands. “Your memory is selective for I only promised you that I would try. However, you, Madame vowed before the High Priest to be my wife in bed and in board.”

The Conqueror was not going to either soften or relent, the Queen realized. “You consult with her. You confide in her,” she sighed deeply and relinquished any tatter of anger and indignation and spoke the truth in her heart. “You talk with her. You do not talk with me.”

The Conqueror listened to her wife’s words. The battle had not yet been won. “I cannot talk with you for you no longer share my bed.”

And like that, anger returned to rule the Queen. “Evidently, that does not stop you from talking with her .”

The Conqueror glowered at her wife and enraged, she delivered her final argument, “She is not my wife!”

The Conqueror had enough. She stormed out of the Queen’s antechamber, shutting the doors behind her, leaving the Queen to ponder on her circular logic.

Meanwhile Princess Athena escorted her wife to her chamber.

“I am very pleased, Sieglinde,” Athena said when they reached Princess Sieglinde’s chambers.

Sieglinde couldn’t curb a chuckle.

“Are you mocking me?!”

“Never, Min Herre,” Sieglinde answered. “I am simply happy, for this is the first time I have ever heard you speak my name, and it is beautiful.”

Athena smiled.

“Will you not enter my chambers, Min Herre?”

Athena nodded assent and they both entered Sieglinde’s chambers with excitement wired in them.

“I envy you, Min Herre,” Sieglinde said as they sat together by the burning fire.

“Why?”

“In my homeland, daughters are brought up very differently than sons. They speak to you like you have goose feathers in your head. I was taught to read and write, to knit, to sing, play music, to dance… As if all I was capable was securing a proper husband.”

“So do all of the noble ladies throughout the Realm.”

“Not you, Min Herre and neither does her Grace Princess Terreis.”

Athena began to laugh. “Indeed, we are the exceptions.”

“If I was lost in the woods I wouldn’t be able to find my way out. I wouldn’t survive the night. If I was attacked by wolves as the Lord Conqueror was… What could I have done against them? Knit for them?”

Athena burst into laughter, which infected her wife so it seemed.

“You would never be lost and even if you were, you would survive it. You are so very lucky to be equipped with the tools that the Lord Conqueror has provided you with.”

“Well, you were taught to fish,” Athena pointed out.

“I was not, Min Herre,” Sieglinde said and gazed pensively at the flames dancing in the hearth.

“My father used to take my brother fishing when we were children, before my brother was sent away to the Military Academy. I wanted to go with them but my father forbade me, claiming it was not appropriate for a Princess. So one night, I sneaked out of our palace and went to the lake. It was so dark and so cold. With nothing but half a moon to illuminate my path, I somehow managed to find my way. To this day I don’t know where I found the courage to do so. When I reached the lake, I sat too close to the hole in the ice and as I rolled the fishing rod down the shaft, I heard a cracking sound and not before long the ice broke from beneath me and I fell into the icy water. I remember thinking that I ought to be frightened out of my wits but I wasn’t. The darkness calmed me and engulfed me with its bleak arms.”

As Siegline told her story, Athena listened fascinated.

“I felt life leaving me. Suddenly, I was pulled out. I do not know who or what took pity on my life, but I was saved from certain death. When I returned wet from head to toe, nearly frozen and shaking, a servant took me to see my father.”

“He must have been happy to see you,” Athena commented.

Sieglinde scoffed and shook her head. “He took one look at me and realized what I had done and that I had disobeyed him. He took off his belt and hit the soles of my feet with it. I couldn’t walk for five days. But as soon as I recovered I went back to the lake again.”

“You are quite the rabble,” Athena teased in good humor.

“I can be,” Sieglinde laughed and looked intently into Athena’s eyes.

Athena thought Sieglinde’s laughter was enchanting.

When her laughter subsided, Sieglinde went on to say, “Within the limits. One must always recognize one’s limits.”

“I was brought up to believe I was not bound by any limits. I am the Lord Conqueror’s Heir, but therein lies the paradox.”

Sieglinde downcast her gaze. She understood Athena’s meaning.

“I will be a sister… or a wife to you, with accordance to your will, Min Herre. Either way, I will be loyal to you before all others.”

Athena couldn’t remain indifferent to her wife’s words. In fact, she was profoundly overwhelmed by them. She rose to stand on her feet.

Sieglinde harbored a wish that Athena wouldn’t leave her that night, and as if the Fates granted her wish, Athena offered Sieglinde her hand and helped her to her feet. She led Sieglinde to bed.

They did not disrobe but rather lay in bed together next to one another fully clothed till they both fell asleep.
Part 11
On the evening after the gathering in the palace’s Dining Hall, Princess Athena paid a visit to her mistress. When she neared the villa, she could hear loud and merry voices coupled with music emanating from it. It appeared that Cynna was hosting a gathering of her own. Princess Athena didn’t take kindly to it. A servant announced her presence as Princess Athena strode into the main chamber where the banquet was taking place, looking around at the strangers that had been feasting at her expense.

All in attendance bowed and curtsied before her as she was striding towards the hostess. Cynna seemed in a good mood. Her cheeks were blushed by the wine she had been consuming, while being surrounded by her guests, who were also engaging in a vigorous libation.

When Princess Athena reached her mistress, she leaned in close to her and whispered in her ear “I will speak to you in private,” so as not to cause a scandal.

Cynna rose from her settee and accompanied Princess Athena to a nearby private chamber, all the while feeling the Heir’s hold on her tight against her elbow.

When alone in the chamber shut away from the clamors, Princess Athena shot a questioning look at her mistress. “What is the meaning of this?” she demanded to know.

Cynna feigned an innocent look with little success and simply answered, “I was lonely last night and I thought…”

“It is unacceptable, do you hear me?” Princess Athena admonished her, “You ought to ask for my permission before you bring guests, strangers into this house!”

Cynna would not be made to feel like a bereft child. “You danced with her and you spent the night in her chambers,” she accused the Heir, not referring to Princess Sieglinde by name or even an honorific.

“How do you know?!”

“One of the Conqueror’s grooms sleeps with my chambermaid. You were seen slinking into her chambers.”

Princess Athena could barely believe Cynna’s audacious behavior. “You have overreached yourself and have become too highhanded. I owe you no explanations, Lady Cynna. You ought to be grateful and content with what you have and leave well enough alone!” Princess Athena raised her voice in anger.

Cynna realized she had pushed the Heir too far, and so for the sake of peace between them she opted not to further aggravate Princess Athena.

“You will dismiss your chambermaid at once and you will refrain from ever inquiring after my affairs, is that understood?”

“Yes, your Grace,” said Cynna in less than a docile manner, feeling the scathe of her pride.

Princess Athena left Cynna’s villa that night and returned back to the palace.

On her way to her chambers, distraught, she chanced upon the Queen, who was making her way back from the Imperial library to her own chambers.

“Majesty,” Athena bowed before her mother.

“Your Grace,” the Queen replied as she observed her daughter’s stiffness and impatient strides. “You seem vexed,” the Queen pointed out as she walked side by side with Athena. “Join me in my chambers and tell me all about it.”

Princess Athena was in no frame of mind for conversing about anything that night, least of all about Cynna, who had exhibited complete disrespect towards her, but Princess Athena honored her mother’s request as she had always done.

In the Queen’s antechamber they sat together, when the Queen rested a gentle palm on Athena’s knee, encouraging her to speak what was on her mind.

“Cynna forgets her place and takes liberties,” the reluctant Princess stated.

“Though she no longer looks it, she is an Amazon and they are strong-minded, unruly and willful,” the Queen answered spryly and snickered.

Athena dropped her shoulders and breathed out slowly in resignation. “Yes. I know, mother,” she said, and after a while she added, “I wager the Conqueror rues the day any of us ever set foot on Amazon Lands.”

The Queen let out a bitter chuckle.

“How is she being willful?” the Queen inquired.

Athena contemplated her mother’s question. She wasn’t sure just how much she wanted her mother to know about her relationship with Cynna, for before her mind’s eye stood her mother’s great sacrifice.

“She is quite demanding and confrontational when she does not get her way. Have you any advice for me?”

“You should talk to her about it, but you must be firm and make it clear to her absolutely that she owes you respect and obedience as I owe my Lord, for you are my Lord’s Heir.”

“She is not my wife,” argued Athena.

“It does not matter. Hers is still a position of great power. She is your mistress and one day she will be the mistress of the Ruler of the world,” the Queen said. “Do you not see how powerful and influential she’ll be?”

After a few moments passed between them in silence, the Queen asked, “Do you still bear love in your heart for Cynna?”

“Of course I do,” Athena replied.

“And does she love you?”

“Yes, she does.”

Athena wore a pensive look about her.

“What else is troubling you?” the Queen gently inquired.

“Nothing,” Athena was quick to deny but after a few short moments she felt an urge to admit, “I no longer bear any ill-feelings or resentment towards Sieglinde.”

The Queen did not expect her eldest’ confession, but kept silent so to allow Athena to divulge more.

“She is no dunce as I first thought her to be,” Athena went on to say and the more she thought about it the more she wanted to reveal. “And she is generous and kindhearted.” Suddenly , memories of the night of their consummation sprang to her mind. Knowing that her parents hadn’t been speaking to each other, Athena suspected that her mother had no idea as to what the Conqueror had demanded of her to do. So as not to upset her mother, she elected not to speak about it, thinking things had been awful enough between her parents as it was. “I did enjoy the gathering that she prepared for us.”

“As did I,” the Queen agreed.

“She is decent despite the fact that I haven’t given her any reason to be.”

It was as close as Athena was willing to admit to two things: the first being that despite her mother’s request she had been cruel to Sieglinde, and the second being that the Conqueror hadn’t been entirely wrong in her choice.

Of course the Queen knew that Princess Sieglinde was indeed generous, pleasant, wise and kindhearted, for she had occasion to pass time with her learning to knit and taking long strolls in the Imperial Gardens. The Nordic Princess greeted all around her with a warm smile and shining eyes. She never complained, never demanded a thing, and never had an unkind word to speak about anyone. What was a novelty to the Queen was the fact that her firstborn was finally aware of Sieglinde’s qualities and virtues.

“And she adores your sister,” the Queen smiled.

“Doesn’t everyone?” Athena emitted.

The Queen could not ignore her eldest daughter’s ill-tempered response. “She asks after you, you know… Terreis. You haven’t been visiting with her for quite some time… Ever since that day on the practice field.”

“Well, the Conqueror has made it pretty clear that I am not to come anywhere near Terreis.”

“You know perfectly well what my Lord meant by that. I shall tell you what my Lord did not mean… My Lord never meant for you to pay no attention to your sister…”

“Your Lord…” sighed Athena impertinently and one could not miss the derision in which her words were uttered.

She had half a mind to tell her mother that her Lord was paying her little personal attendant far too much attention these days to notice anything else, but she reconsidered so to spare her mother pain and grief.

“Mind your tongue, Athena,” the Queen rebuked her, “I will not hear you speaking in a disrespectful manner about our Sovereign Lord.”

Athena became vexed. “After all the Conqueror has done to us… still you won’t challenge or criticize the Conqueror’s actions . ”

“It is not your place to pass judgment on what transpires between my Lord and me,” the Queen asserted. “Besides, my Lord committed no offense against me.”

In her turbulent state, Athena scoffed in dismissal and disbelief before she had managed to stop it and there was no taking it back.

The Queen noticed it and understood that Athena’s scoff wasn’t without merit or a reason. Hence, she deduced that Athena must have entertained the notion that the Conqueror had been seeking satisfaction in others’ bed, as well.

“How dare you?!” the Queen scolded her, hurt, for Athena’s scoff confirmed to her what she had already known.

“For once I wish you could see that the Conqueror is not superior to me,” Athena replied. But, what she really meant to claim was that the Conqueror wasn’t better than her in a sense that she was bedding other women besides her wife, just like her.

The Queen took Athena’s words to mean just that.

“You are wrong. It was I who broke my vows to my Lord,” the Queen muttered.

Realizing that there was no point in trying to dissuade her mother, Athena conceded. “Very well… I will speak my mind about matters that do concern me. Do you know why I steer clear of “the Conqueror’s little princess ‘?” she spewed the venom which had been welling and festering inside her for quite a while. “Because I hate it that the Conqueror loves her little princess and not me!”

“Athena!” the Queen exclaimed in anguish, completely shocked at Athena’s raging words. “Your Sire loves you both equally!”

Athena was too angry at that point to mind her mother’s fragile feelings. “How would you know? You haven’t exactly been speaking to the Conqueror lately, have you?” The frustration about being forced into an arranged marriage, about her parents’ estrangement as a result, and about the Conqueror’s treatment of her juxtaposing to her treatment of Terreis, had been eating away at her. It rallied to the surface and there was no stopping it. “Do not throw empty platitudes at me.”

“It is the truth,” the Queen claimed with complete conviction.

“Is it?!” Athena was too angry to keep sitting. “Do you love the Conqueror so much that you are blinded to the fact that the Conqueror is treating Terreis and me differently?”

“Stop it!” the Queen begged.

“I will not stop. You wanted to know, so I will be painfully truthful with you.”

“My Lord treats you differently because you are her Heir and because you and your sister are inherently different, but my Lord loves you both the same with all her heart.”

“Is that so?! Then tell me this, mother… Why is it that the Conqueror has never said to me that she loved me? Not once!”

Princess Athena didn’t wait for her mother’s attempts to defend the Conqueror and vacated the Queen’s chamber.

The next day not long after the aurorean star washed the world with bright warm light, Cynna left her villa and made her way to the largest market in the center of Corinth to choose new drapes. As the Fates would have it, at the same time Princess Sieglinde, accompanied by her ladies in waiting and three Imperial guards were leisurely roaming through the market, as well.

“Make way!” one of the guards, who was walking ahead of them, exclaimed . “Make way for her Grace, Princess Sieglinde!” he yelled, clearing a path through the vendors and the crowd, who were trying to gather around them with some pushing and shoving so to descry the Royal.

However, Princess Sieglinde did not try to avoid the masses surrounding her and bowing before her, but the contrary. She waved at them and received their displays of respect with a warm, albeit embarrassed smile, and their adoration towards her uplifted her heart and her spirit.

As Princess Sieglinde advanced through the many stalls, from the opposite direction came Cynna with one of her servants, who was holding a basket filled with fruit in her hand.

With all the people around them overcrowding the thoroughfare, the eyes of the two young women met only when they stood not four feet away from one another.

Abruptly and at once, all movement ceased in the crowd. Awkward silence, extremely uncharacteristic of a marketplace, descended over all those present in the market that morning. It was obvious to the royal entourage that all in Corinth knew who and what Cynna was. Every man, woman and child waited in anticipation to see what would happen next.

Cynna stood erect in front of the Nordic Princess with her shoulders pushed back and stared her right in the eye.

“Bow before her Grace,” said one of Princess Sieglinde’s Greek ladies in waiting, who simply couldn’t tolerate such a show of bald-faced disrespect.

Princess Sieglinde, being brought up as a royal, did nothing to discourage her servant, knowing she must not pardon any display of shameless audacity towards her.

Cynna’s eyes opened wider, wordlessly browbeating the servant as if saying ‘ don’t you know who I am? ‘ But as soon as she saw the Imperial guard tighten his grip around his spear, she finally made a gesture, which appeared more like a sorry excuse for a curtsy.

Seeing that Cynna at least lowered her head and gaze, Princess Sieglinde thought it to be enough.

A young boy, seizing the opportunity when all eyes were engrossed by the meeting of the Nordic Royal and the mistress and were not paying attention to anything else, snatched an apple from Cynna’s servant’s basket and started to flee.

But he failed in outrunning Cynna, who sent a quick hand and grabbed the boy by his dirty, worn shirt, which seemed too small for his size. “Give it back, you filthy thief!” she shouted at him.

The impoverished boy, who did not expect to get caught stealing, looked absolutely horrified, as he desperately tried to release himself from Cynna’s grip while the people around him were all staring at him and shaking their heads.

“Come here, child,” Princess Sieglinde called to him and beckoned him to approach her.

Cynna let go of the boy, who took one look at Princess Sieglinde and how she was dressed, and the Imperial guards and the staunch servants around her, and suddenly realized who she was. He straightened his shabby shirt and bowed before her, feeling more ashamed to have been caught red-handed and in her esteemed presence, no less.

The Nordic Princess leaned down and took the apple from his hand. “Where are your parents?” she asked him with a soft, almost maternal tone of voice.

“Dead, your Grace,” the boy answered.

“I’m sorry for you,” she said and fondly stroked his hair. “Mine are dead, too. I wish to thank you for giving me this beautiful apple , ” she said so that he wouldn’t feel embarrassed about his misdeed. “However, next time you must first ask for permission before you take something.”

“Yes, your Grace,” he nodded his head, inwardly understanding the gentle grace she had bestowed upon him.

She placed the apple back in his palm, and when he closed his fingers around it he felt something cold, rounded and metallic against them. As Princess Sieglinde winked at him knowingly, a wink so brief he was the only one who noticed, he snuck a peek into his hand and caught a glimpse of a gold coin in it. He quickly realized what she had done. She gave him charity in secret so that he would not feel humiliated in public. He was too young to understand that she had done another thing in this one act of benevolence. By giving him charity in secret, she had concealed her own kindness and had given up the reward of earning the crowd’s praises for it for herself.

“Now return the apple back to its owner and apologize,” she told him. “There is no shame in admitting your mistake, child.”

Stealthily, the boy pocketed the coin, turned around to face Cynna and handed her back the stolen apple. “I’m sorry,” he said to Cynna.

“Run along now, child,” Princess Sieglinde said and leaned back to her full stature.

“Thank you, your Grace,” the boy bowed again, then disappeared into a nearby alley.

An expression of repulsion crossed Cynna’s face as she rubbed the apple clean against her dress, as if it had been touched by a leper. “I don’t understand why the Conqueror doesn’t just get rid of these vile brats.”

Knowing who she was, no one in the audience talked back to her, but the first seed of dislike was sown that day in the Corinthian market.

“I wish the honorable Lord Conqueror and her Majesty the Queen long lives,” Princess Sieglinde began to say, “But one day when I’m Queen, I shall have an orphanage in each province in this great Realm and they will bother you no more.”

The message Princess Sieglinde conveyed was clear and was clearly received by Cynna, who nearly fainted with gall as she heard Princess Sieglinde referring to the time when she would be made Queen of the Realm.

“At least my bed is warm,” Cynna wouldn’t, couldn’t contain and muzzle the noxious retort or negate the need to shame Princess Sieglinde.

A few gasps could be heard from the crowd surrounding them. All eyes were averted back to Princess Sieglinde in anticipation for her response. Some thought she would deliver a sound slap to Cynna’s insolent face, others thought she would order the Imperial guards to arrest her; the rest thought she would render a retort equally noxious.

None expected what happened next.

Princess Sieglinde looked right into Cynna’s eyes, and did nothing but smile an artless, peaceful smile. She was a king’s daughter. She would not take part in a vulgar, undignified brawl like a dealer market.

That smile, that calmness unnerved Cynna, to the point where she began to believe that Princess Sieglinde had something over her, something of which she was not yet aware. In her distress, Cynna lowered her eyes.

Princess Sieglinde signaled her ladies in waiting and they all passed Cynna by and went ahead with exploring the market.

“May the Gods bless you and keep you, your Grace,” a few spontaneous cries erupted from the crowd as the Nordic Princess was walking amongst them.

By noon, the events of what had happened in the market reached Princess Athena and by dusk it reached the Conqueror and the Queen.

The Conqueror decided not to intervene, for she was in the opinion that berating Athena would only cause her to defend Cynna. She was confident that Cynna would expose her true colors soon enough, and besides, Princess Sieglinde more than held her own and conducted herself with dignity and stateliness.

As for the Queen, her suspicions that she might have misjudged Cynna only grew.

That evening, when Princess Athena came to the villa, Cynna greeted her at the door with smiles and kisses as if nothing had happened.

“Athena,” Cynna whispered and looked into the Heir’s eyes.

But the Heir was too angry to reciprocate the affection displayed.

“At least your bed is warm?!… Is that what you told my wife for all of Corinth to hear?” she demanded to know before she even took off her cloak.

“You’ve heard about that…” Cynna commented and already set her mind to work on an excuse. “Well, can you imagine how it made me feel having to bow before h–”

But the Heir wouldn’t let her mistress complete her sentence. “I believe you are victim to an erroneous misconception which I shall presently rectify. You are not my equal, Lady Cynna, nor are you my wife’s equal. You are our subject.”

“Well, she provoked me first…” Cynna tried to argue.

“I abhor any disrespect towards my wife. A slight against my wife is perceived as a slight against me, do you not understand?!” Princess Athena paused to rein in her temper. Her jaw was tightly clenched when she delivered her next words to her mistress, “Do not expect me to believe that her Grace, Princess Sieglinde provoked you. I know her well enough to know that that is simply not true, and even if she had, you would show her nothing but respect as her station demands.”

The Princess didn’t spend that night with Cynna either. She rode back to the palace, galloping like a savage through the wall gates and enjoying the cool night sea breeze blowing in her long smooth gilded hair, which she had inherited from her mother. A lady in waiting announced her presence in Princess Sieglinde’s antechamber.

“Min Herre,” Princess Sieglinde curtsied in her nightgown. “What an unexpected pleasure,” her face lit up with genuine joy.

“Am I welcome to stay or do you wish to retire?” Princess Athena asked almost tentatively.

Princess Sieglinde smiled. “Min Herre is always welcome here,” she answered then addressed her ladies in waiting, “Good night, ladies.”

Her servants curtsied and left the Royals alone.

Princess Athena looked around and saw a checkers board with all its pieces in perfect array set for a game atop a small rounded table not far from the hearth.

“Do you play?” Athena asked.

“A Greek lady in waiting of mine is an avid player and was kind enough to teach me,” Sieglinde replied.

“Are you any good?” Athena inquired with a taunting smirk.

“Min Herre is welcome to find out,” Sieglinde answered playfully and gestured an invitation to the table.

They played a few games together, laughing and chattering about nugacities. Princess Athena lost as many games as she won. She found a match in her wife.

“The air about you is very deceiving, Sieglinde,” Athena remarked in good humor and leaned back against the back of her chair, beholding her wife intently.

“Then I beg your forgiveness, Min Herre, for it was not my intention to deceive you,” Sieglinde replied with joyous eyes.

Princess Athena could not understand why, but suddenly sadness descended on her and she averted her eyes from her wife to the flames and gazed at them pensively. Thoughts about the conversation she had had with her mother, the events in the market and Cynna surfaced and she failed to stifle them. She had to be impressed with Princess Sieglinde for not raising even a drop of protest about the altercation she had had with Cynna, despite the fact that it would have been just had she done so.

Princess Sieglinde sensed the change in the Heir’s mood. She got off her seat and went to kneel at Princess Athena’s feet, placing a tender, hesitant hand against her knee. “Min Herre’s wisdom is far greater than mine and I do not presume myself worthy of giving you advice, but perhaps Min Herre might find relief just by sharing the burden with me.”

Athena covered Sieglinde’s hand with hers. “I’ve had a row with my mother,” she said and let out a deep sigh. “I feel closer to my mother than anyone else and it pains me and grieves me to argue with her.”

Princess Sieglinde listened and nodded her head in solidarity. She was closest to her mother as well, so she could easily identify with Athena. “May I ask, Min Herre, what was the disagreement about?”

“My sister. My mother complained to me that I don’t pay her any attention.”

Princess Sieglinde recalled the incident that had taken place on the practice, and she carefully inquired, “And is there merit to her Majesty’s complaint?”

Athena rubbed her forehead, almost embarrassed to admit the truth. “Yes, there is,” she replied eventually.

“Is it because of the Lord Conqueror?”

Athena looked at her wife with surprise, for never before had she considered her wife to be astute and perceptive. “So you’ve noticed my Sire favoritism as well, have you?!” she said with a good amount of self-pity.

“With your permission, Min Herre…”

“Given,” Athena welcomed her wife’s opinion on the matter.

“Between you and Princess Terreis, and I say it with profound respect, the Lord Conqueror needn’t matter.”

“How do you mean?”

“My brother is two years older than I am. When we were young children, he was my closest friend. At the age of five he was sent to acquire education far away from home. He returned only once a year for a fortnight and as the years passed we grew more and more distant. By the time he became of age and returned home for good, my own brother had already become a stranger to me. I no longer recognized my closest friend and ally.” When she spoke of her alienation from her brother, her features wore an expression of profound sorrow, but when she went on to speak about Princess Terreis her features turned happy again.

“I’ve seen the way her Grace, Princess Terreis, looks at you. She admires and adores you. She looks up to you, Min Herre, and it appears to me that she wishes very much to be like you, her older, stronger, wiser keen. She shouldn’t be deprived of your presence in her life and of your guidance, and you shouldn’t deprive yourself of the love and devotion she bears you because of any grievances you might have against the Lord Conqueror.” Sieglinde stroked Athena’s hand, which rested upon hers.

“There will come a time when the Lord Conqueror and her Majesty the Queen will no longer be with us, and when that day comes, Princess Terreis will be your greatest ally.”

Athena thought long and hard about her wife’s advice, and inwardly admired her for her wisdom and generosity.

“Thank you, Sieglinde, for illuminating matters so clearly and so beneficially.”

“You are most welcome, Min Herre,” Sieglinde became besotted by Athena’s compliment.

Throughout the night they sat together and spoke between them about their childhoods until both fell asleep, lying together by the fire with Sieglinde wrapped in Athena’s arms.

The next day Princess Athena went to visit with her sister and taught her to play checkers.
Part 12
The days grew shorter, darker and colder as time sluggishly passed within the palace walls. The household staff could sense the Conqueror’s ever growing agitation as she bustled through halls and corridors, body tensed with amassed vigor force as if about to erupt at any given moment. Trained by experience, all without exception tiptoed their way around the Sovereign so as not to provide an outlet to fury.

The Conqueror was reclining atop a hip of pillows in her balcony, her eyes resting upon no particular spot in the horizon beyond the outer wall surrounding the palace. She filled her lungs with the familiar scent of the restless, ceaseless sea and became nearly memorized by its darkening water. A mild wind was gently rocking the docking ships of the Imperial fleet. The motion of the bobbing masts, the flaying banners of the Realm and the sounds of the wind pushing small foamy waves against the hulls of the ships carried the Conqueror’s mind to Thira . She missed it and the voyage at sea. Most of all she missed being with her wife alone and in happiness and love.

A knock on the doors pulled the Conqueror back from her musing about the sunbathed white beaches of Thira and from her wife’s arms to the gloomy present.

“Majesty.”

It was Thetis’ soft, apologetic voice.

“What is it?” the Conqueror asked and averted her gaze from the sea to her attendant.

“The servant whom your Majesty has sent with Lady Lila to inquire after…”

“Has she returned?” the Conqueror asked impatiently. That evening she desired to be left alone to enjoy a quiet respite from matters of the Realm.

“She has, your Majesty,” Thetis replied.

“Have you questioned her?”

“I have, your Majesty.”

“What have you discovered?”

“She says that Lady Lila met with both Nobleman Drusus and Nobleman Sirus and aside from dreary complaints about the burden of taxes she heard nothing that might suggest any conspiracy against your Majesty.”

“Was she with Lady Lila at all times?” the Conqueror asked.

“She claims that Lady Lila was never out of her sight the entire time, not even during the nights.”

The Conqueror grunted heavily. “Is there anything else?”

“She made the most curious observation, your Majesty, in regards to Lady Lila’s youngest son, Germanicus. She alleged that he had demonstrated loyalty towards your Majesty and had sided with your Majesty’s policy against his mother’s and the noblemen’s grievances and condemnations to the point of a heated argument between them. Moreover, she alleged that he had also expressed his deep fondness and deference towards her Majesty the Queen.”

Dispassionately, the Conqueror muttered, “How interesting, indeed,” and returned her weary and lamenting gaze back to the sea.

Thetis studied the Conqueror’s grave and pensive profile and it pained her. She knelt before the Conqueror, pushed her red tresses backwards, exposing her neck and began to unlace her blouse.

If the Conqueror’s movements had seemed languid before – they weren’t any longer. The Conqueror turned her head back sharply and beheld her servant. “What is the meaning of this?” Her voice was laden with ire and predominant with disappointment.

“Majesty, I…” Thetis began to explain her actions.

The last thing the Conqueror had patience for was to hear some empty excuses or wanton flattery. “Such behavior finds no favor with me, lass!”

“I beg your forgiveness, Majesty,” Thetis agonized over what became clear to her, her grave lapse in judgment. With hastened fumbling fingers, she tied the laces back. Still on her knees before the Conqueror, she went on to say, “I meant only to ease your Majesty’s loneliness.”

“Did I waylay you with lewd intent or order you to yield your body to me?” the Conqueror ask in a tone of voice that sounded more like an interrogation and lurched upwards to sit upright.

“No, your Majesty,” Thetis answered with a small voice and with a bit of shame. As she splayed her fingers out in a fan against her breastbone, a thought crossed her mind that her Master wasn’t one to simply accept offers of carnal pleasures but rather one to hunt, seduce and conquer women to feed her sexual urges.

“Are you my wife and Queen?!” Another of the Conqueror’s firm and sardonic responses came quickly enough.

“Of course I am not, Majesty,” Thetis answered with her head hanging low beneath her drooped shoulders.

“Then what concern is my loneliness to you?!”

With a timid, small voice Thetis replied the only truth she had to offer, “I am your Majesty’s loyal servant, as were my father and uncle. I only meant to serve your Majesty. It would have been my honor and pleasure to do so and the act of servitude itself would have been my only reward. I would have kept it a secret upon the pain of death.”

The Conqueror believed Thetis’s words that her actions were ingrained in her will to serve and in no other agenda. “Let this be the last time you ever dissatisfy me in such a sordid manner.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Thetis replied.

The Sovereign gaze drifted back to the sea and her mind back to her memories of happier times. “Leave,” an order fell out of her mouth.

“Majesty,” Theits mumbled and left.

***

The following night, as the Conqueror – donned in her long, dark robe and holding a torch in her hand – was walking down the corridor on her way to her mysterious nightly activities, Princess Terreis’ nurses in attendance accosted the un-expecting Ruler.

“Majesty,” the nurse, who seemed terribly distraught, curtsied in haste and urgency was evident in her voice.

“What is the matter?” the Conqueror asked her, and examined the nurse’s features to ascertain just how worried she was.

“Her Grace woke up a few moments ago complaining that she wasn’t feeling well and then lost the content of her stomach,” the nurse’s speech maintained its urgency and concern.

“Fetch the Imperial Healer and inform her Majesty the Queen,” the Conqueror ordered and changed direction to her youngest daughter’s bedchamber.

The Sovereign pushed the doors open and stormed into the bedchamber.

As soon as she heard the doors being opened and saw her Sire rushing towards her bedside, Princess Terreis, who was lying in her bed beneath the covers, outstretched her arms.

“How are you feeling, little one?” the Conqueror asked, as worried as she had been when last her Queen was with child. The light stench of fresh vomit abused her nostrils; it was then that she caught sight of the wooden bucket containing the foul substance at the foot of Terries’ bed. She gently touched her palm to Terreis’ forehead and examined the temperature. She wasn’t entirely sure whether the child was feverish or not, but was sure enough that the child appeared sickly and flushed.

“Not well, Sire. My belly hurts…” Terreis replied with a grouchy, bemoaning voice.

“The Imperial Healer will be here momentarily. Your mother will be here soon as well…” the Conqueror spoke softly and gently caressed Terries’ gilded hair. “Did you know that your mother is a very capable and gifted healer?” the Ruler asked, hoping to distract the child from her malady by engaging her in a conversation.

“She is?” Terreis asked in wonder.

“Indeed,” the Conqueror nodded her head. “She cured me more than once.”

The young Princess mindlessly twirled the edges of her Sire’s dark mane around her wee fingers, contemplating whether she could ask a question that had been troubling her for quite a while.

“What is it, little one?” the Conqueror encouraged her daughter to speak her mind.

“Do you still love mother?”

The Conqueror was rattled, ill at ease by her daughter’s question. Discombobulated, she leaned down and looked into her daughter’s solicitous green eyes.

“Of course I do. I love your mother with all my heart,” the Conqueror answered intently.

At that moment, the Queen, the Imperial Healer and Lady Cyrene entered Terreis’ bedchamber. They bowed and curtsied before the Conqueror before approaching the child’s bed.

The Conqueror rose from Terreis’ bed and allowed the Queen and the Imperial Healer access to examine her.

While the Queen and the Imperial Healer attended to Princess Terreis, making her open her mouth and stick out her tongue, the Conqueror and Lady Cyrene waited anxiously for their conclusion.

“Your child will be well, Majesty…” Lady Cyrene offered, when she noticed the Conqueror nervously tapping the tips of her fingers against her belt buckle.

But the Conqueror appeared to be deaf to unsubstantiated promises by extreme discomfort. “I cannot understand… It cannot be the food she consumed for it is being regularly tasted…” she muttered to herself out loud.

After a few long moments had passed, the Imperial Healer approached the Conqueror. “Majesty, may I have a few private words with you. I do not wish to speak in her Grace’s presence.”

The Conqueror obliged him and all three stepped out of Princess Terreis’ bedchamber, leaving the Queen with her.

“Mend it!” Terreis demanded, widely opening two green reproachful eyes just as soon as the doors were closed behind her Sire, as if she had been waiting for the Conqueror to leave and remain alone with her mother.

“Mend what, sweetheart, your ailment?” The Queen was confused as she searched her daughter’s countenance for something that would explain her odd and uncharacteristic behavior.

And before long it came down on her.

“You are making my Sire sad,” Terreis angrily accused without reservations.

The Queen was dumbfounded by the shock at her daughter’s words. Utterly baffled, rather than scold the child, as perhaps she should have, she answered, “I tried to mend it. I am trying… but it is not simple.”

Terreis became frustrated and angry in such a way that it reminded the Queen that her Lord had sired her child.

“You are cruel and selfish,” Terreis admonished her mother and two tiny spiteful lines vertically burrowed her little forehead just above her button-like nose.

It was all that the Queen could do to keep herself from shedding tears in front of her youngest. She composed herself with much pains and said to her daughter, “Princess Gabrielle Terreis, you are spoiled as you are insolent.”

The Queen understood that these were the rotten fruits of her Lord’s excessive spoiling and cosseting. She had half a mind to say so, as well, but thought better of it for she wouldn’t pass judgment on her Lord’s conduct to the ears of another.

She stood up and looked down at her daughter. “Don’t ever let your Sire catch you speaking to me like that, lest you wish to lose your Sire’s affections.”

It wasn’t a warning that the Queen rendered to her youngest, but sound motherly advice.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the closed chamber doors, the Imperial Healer gave his opinion to the Conqueror.

“I could find nothing physically wrong with her Grace. She has no fever. Her throat is clear. I could detect no affliction on her skin and in her ears.”

“I saw the vomit with my own eyes, sir,” the Conqueror insisted.

“I’m afraid her mind is upset and it makes her stomach upset, as well, Majesty,” the healer explained. “Her Grace is troubled up here,” he touched his finger to his temple to indicate the mind, “and it manifests itself in her stomach. I’ve had occasion to see it with young children… even in people of age. Your Majesty needn’t worry for her Grace’s life for it is under no threat.”

Lady Cyrene sighed in relief. “Thank you, sir.”

“With your permission, Majesty, I shall examine her Grace first thing tomorrow morning if only to put your Majesty’s mind at ease.”

“Very good, sir. Does her Majesty know?”

“Her Majesty does, Majesty,” the healer replied.

“I will see you tomorrow, then.”

“Good night, Majesty,” the seasoned healer bowed before the Conqueror and returned back to his bed.

“Majesty, your youngest is not a fool,” said Cyrene . “She may be young and she may not fully comprehend, but she observes and she senses the turmoil in you and in her Majesty the Queen. She can see that matters between you and her Majesty haven’t been as before. She feels the distance and the chill and fear that her world is about to crumble.”

“This is my family! Do not intervene in matters which do not concern you,” the Conqueror raised her voice enough for her mother to take her anger but not enough to be heard from the other side of the doors.

“With respect, Majesty, these matters concern not only me, but the entire Realm,” Cyrene argued. “Can you not see? I pray you to soften your heart to her Majesty.”

“I will handle my wife as I deem fit and I will hear no more on the subject,” the Conqueror stated just as she opened the doors and meeting with her Queen about to leave the chamber. They passed by each other in silence, not exchanging a single word between them.

Princess Terreis began to cry.

Both parents suffered. Their eyes met and unspoken words of a truce passed between them for the sake of their young. They each sat on either side of their daughter and pretended that all between them was well.

A short while later, the doors were opened again, and Princess Sieglinde, dressed in her nightgown and with her cap on her head, peeked inside.

“Majesties,” she greeted as she inserted one foot inside the bedchamber.

“Come in, your Grace,” the Conqueror invited and beckoned with her hand.

“A lady in waiting told me that her Grace fell ill, so I came to offer her comfort,” she explained and entered the chamber.

“That is most kind of you, your Grace,” the Queen offered with a gentle smile.

Princess Sieglinde seated herself next to the Queen on Terreis’ bed.

“Are you feeling any better, little sister?” Sieglinde asked and it was as if light and warmth were pouring out of her.

“Much better now that you are here, your Grace,” answered Terreis with a content smile. She then threw a glance over Sieglinde’s shoulder as if looking for someone. “Where is Athena?” she inquired.

Princess Sieglinde showed no embarrassment, she simply answered, “Min Herre is outside breaking in a new mare.”

It was not the truth. All in Terreis’ bedchamber knew it except for the young Princess herself. Princess Sieglinde was kind enough, generous enough and devoted enough not just towards the child, to dispense a lie.

All three watched over the young Princess as she fell back into sleep and when Terreis’ breath became even and deep, the Conqueror got off the bed to the sound of familiar footfalls of heavy boots knocking against the corridor floor outside.

The Ruler opened the doors and sure enough she saw her eldest on her way to her chambers.

“Where were you?” A hissing whisper was sifted through clenched teeth so as not to wake up her youngest. It wasn’t that the Conqueror didn’t have a decent idea as to her Heir’s whereabouts, but she meant to scold her for it.

Princess Athena scowled in return.

“Your sister was feeling ill. At least your wife can be trusted to be found in bed at this time of night.”

Princess Athena directed her gaze at the Conqueror’s with defiance. She wouldn’t be subjected to the Conqueror’s double standards, she thought.

The Conqueror went on to say, “Tomorrow evening you will be joining us at the Dining Hall for supper. It is high time we acted as a family.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Princess Athena replied, resigned to the Conqueror’s will.

***

It happened the next evening, while the Royals were sitting together in the Dining Hall as the Conqueror had ordered the previous night, so to present some semblance of unity, however spurious, for young Terreis’ sake.

An Imperial guardsman was shown into the Dining Hall. As he strode towards the table, all around it ceased to eat, except for the Conqueror.

“Majesties, your Graces,” he bowed before them, He seemed too impatient to wait for the Conqueror’s invitation to speak.

“What is it?” the Conqueror asked him with a commanding voice, her eyes never leaving her plate.

“The beacons are burning!” he exclaimed with his head down as if he couldn’t bear his Master’s reaction to the alarming news.

However, the ominous news seemed to pass through the Conqueror without touching her. Her hand was steady on the knife she cut her food with, and the expression about her countenance did not alter, not by a hair. It made the guardsman wonder for a moment whether his Sovereign had heard him or not, and he was not alone, for along with him so did all present in the Dining Hall, those around the table and the servants waiting on them.

Princess Athena moved to jump to her feet, but the Conqueror’s firm hand gripped around her Heir’s forearm, grounding her down against her seat with the weight of an anchor.

“Leave us,” the Conqueror ordered all in the Dining Hall. Immediately, the guardsman and the servants exited the Dining Hall, leaving the Royal Family behind.

The Conqueror let Athena’s forearm go and calmly laid down her knife. “We do not exhibit panic in front of our subjects!” the Conqueror berated her Heir. “Now, finish your supper.”

The Royals resumed eating their meal and what little chatter existing around the table before was no longer. They each ate in silence, and if it hadn’t been for the Conqueror’s order they would have left the food on their plates untouched, for none any longer had an appetite for it, not with the clouds of war hovering above their heads.

The Conqueror, on the other hand, seemed to find hers and as she vigorously dug into her plate, the Queen beheld her Lord with admiration and fear, admiration that her Lord’s nerves of steel were like none other, and fear because of the imminent separation by war.

When the Conqueror finished eating, she stood up.

“Come with me,” the Sovereign ordered her Heir, and then addressed the rest still at the table, “Ladies,” she muttered, and placed a kiss atop Princess Terreis’ head.

The Queen, Princess Terreis and Princess Sieglinde stood as well and curtsied before the Conqueror as she vacated the Dining Hall with decisive gaits, accompanied by her Heir.

“Go to the War Hall. I will be along shortly,” the Conqueror instructed her Heir.

“By your will, Majesty,” the Heir replied and bowed. She searched the Conqueror’s features for any sliver of emotion, no matter how small, just so that she could guess her Sire’s frame of mind, but there was none to find.

As Princess Athena made haste to the War Hall, the Conqueror went upstairs to the Imperial chambers.

The Sovereign cladded herself in full regal attire and wore her crown on her head. She then stepped outside to stand on her vast balcony and saw countless beacons burning against the night sky, illuminating with grand globes of orange lights their surroundings. It was washing her domain in spots of fulgent light, in fragments like a lit up mosaic. There were so many flames blazing that the stars could hardly be seen. The Conqueror thought it was a magnificent sight to behold, for as far as the eye could see there were high hot flames dancing in complete darkness with high columns of thick grey smoke that reached the moon that it almost seemed as if the entire Realm was ablaze with fire. These were some of war’s sights, the Conqueror thought.

The Conqueror relished the cold wind brushing against her face, carrying with it the combined odors of smoke and burnt oil. These were some of war’s scents, the Conqueror delighted.

From a distance she could hear the clamors and commotion of anxiety and unrest; the horses in the Imperial stables neighing and beating their hooves hard against the ground, the cries of men and woman running aimlessly between houses and on the streets of Corinth carrying torches and lanterns in their shaking hands. These were some of war’s sounds, the Conqueror recalled, and her faculties and senses became sharp and attuned.

The Conqueror’s blood began to simmer until it reached the point of boiling hotter than the burning beacons. The Conqueror’s muscles became tense and prime for brutal assault. The notions of battle and of killing poured life into the Conqueror and gave her peace, focus and clarity. With a chilling smile on her lips, the Conqueror touched the crown on her head and left the Imperial chambers.

The War Hall was as busy and as buzzing as an angry hornet’s nest when the Conqueror strode through its thick reinforced heavy doors. Soldiers ran in and out of it, their military boots knocking over the flagstone floor, commanders examining the maps and placing markers on it as quickly as fresh news came streaming into it. All movement halted when they acknowledged their Sovereign’s presence. They bowed before the Ruler as she strode to her seat at the head of the capacious desk, where Princess Athena had already been sitting.

“Commander,” the Conqueror addressed the Chief Commander of the Imperial Guard, “I will hear a detailed account of the situation, now.”

The Chief Commander of the Imperial Guard approached to stand near the grand map of the Realm hanging on the wall of the Hall, to better illustrate his report to his Sovereign. “Your Majesty, about a short while ago we received fire signals by the beacons your Majesty had wisely ordered to be built throughout the Realm. There are as many as four epicenters of uprising and rebellion against your Majesty.”

“In which provinces?” the Conqueror asked.

“In the province of Rome , the province of Thessaly , the Province of Epirus and the…” he paused, reluctant to continue.

“Which is the fourth? Speak!”

“The province of the Nordic Lands with Princess Sieglinde’s brother, Prince Baldr, leading the charge against your Majesty,” he bleated almost nonplussed.

All in attendance observed the Conqueror’s and her Heir’s features in anticipation for their reaction to the traitorous act committed by the future Queen of the Realm’s own flesh and blood, but the Ruler and her Heir gave them none, as could be expected.

“Go on,” the Conqueror ordered him.

The Commander cleared his throat and went on to inform, “It would appear that with the financial support of the province of the Nordic Lands , Noblemen Likos, Drusus and Sirus managed to assemble armed forces.”

“How many men in the neighboring provinces, Thessaly and Epirus ?” the Conqueror asked.

“Over ten thousands, Majesty… We cannot be sure,” the Commander answered.

“And how many men in Rome ?” the Conqueror continued to inquire.

“The reports suggest about six thousand, Majesty.”

The Conqueror’s eyebrow briefly rose in surprise. “The population in Rome is greater than the population in Thessaly and Epirus combined,” the Conqueror folded her arms over her chest. “One would assume that there should be more warriors in Rome than in Thessaly and Epirus . They mean to come to Corinth . That is why they focus their efforts and amass greater forces in Thessaly and Epirus , which are closer to Corinth than Rome . They left some six thousand men behind to coerce me into dividing mine, thus weakening me.”

“Yes, Majesty,” the Commander nodded his head.

“And who are these men?”

“Mercenaries, former soldiers from the armies that your Majesty had ordered to be dismantled after conquering their nations, disgruntled subjects and suchlike .”

The Conqueror leaned back into her seat with a surly expression. “Thousands of men solicited and drafted into a secret army and none of my spies to whom I pay a pretty fortune found out! Tell me, sirs, how is it possible to arm thousands of warriors without raising an alarm? Such incompetence!”

When the Conqueror admonished them with such wrath, they all knew better than to speak. The silence in the War Hall was so perfect that one could hear the crackling fire from outside despite the fact that the Hall was packed and windows shut.

“To keep such secrecy at such an outrageously large scale requires ample funds and time. Weapons and armors were in all likelihood bought from many merchants and I’d venture to say that the lion’s portion was smuggled from the Nordic Lands, which are rich with iron and other metals, by bribed traders and officials. No doubt Likos has been planning and plotting since around the time of the wedding.”

“Likos, Majesty?” Princess Athena asked.

“Of the three Noblemen, he is the proudest and the most ambitious, and we humiliated him and his line.” The Conqueror landed her fist onto the surface of the desk, and glared at the commander. “And what of the Nordic Lands?”

“From what we have gathered at this time, it would seem that Prince Baldr managed to reunite the Norsemen and end the division between them.”

“Not so much a weakling as I was made to believe, is he?!” the Conqueror growled discontented.

“Majesty, his own father underestimated him,” the Commander argued.

But the Conqueror ignored his argument. “Well, there in nothing better than a threat from without to put an end to a civil dispute,” the Conqueror muttered. “And he dared disobey my order to dismantle the armed forces of the Nordic Lands.”

“That is correct, Majesty,” the Commander replied, “The Nordic army is vast… About thirteen thousand men or so, and the warriors are considered to be well trained, brave and formidable.”

“Not as much as mine!” the Conqueror retorted, rising to her feet and approaching the map. “Show me on the map where all three forces are deployed,” the Conqueror ordered.

The Chief Commander of the Imperial Guard demonstrated to his Master by pointing at several locations on the map.

“The Nordic army is about to inroad into the province of northern Gaul , I understand,” the Conqueror sought confirmation.

“Indeed, your Majesty.”

“This is a well coordinated and well organized treacherous attack. We must assume that the traitors are aware of the beacons, so we must move quickly.”

“This is our estimation as well, Majesty,” spoke one of the other military advisors.

“The Realm’s legion in Rome will fight against the army in the province of Rome . The Realm’s legion in the province of Illyria is to set sail at once and join the legion in Rome via the sea, here,” the Conqueror pointed to the map. “The head commander on the battlefield in Rome will be the commander of the Realm’s legion in Rome . Annihilate them all. Nobleman Drusus and his family are to be captured alive and brought to Corinth .”

The Conqueror then averted her eyes to the Nordic Lands on the map and continued, “The Realm’s legions in the provinces of northern and southern Gaul are to move north, engage the Nordic Lands’ army and attempt to invade the province if possible. The Realm’s legion in Britannia is to reinforce the legions of Gaul by sea, at once, here,” the Conqueror showed the route on the map while her firm sonorous voice echoed in the War Hall. “Her Grace, Princess Athena will take half of the Imperial Guard and set sail from the port of Corinth due north across the North Sea, invade the Nordic Lands and flank the Nordic Army from behind, crushing them between the Imperial Guard and the legions from Britannia and Gaul, cutting their path of retreat and the sources of supplies. The head commander on the Nordic battlefield will be her Grace,” the Conqueror decreed, then averted her eyes back from the map and to her Heir, ordering her thus: “Annihilate them all. Prince Baldr and his family are to be captured alive and brought to Corinth .”

A few of the Conqueror’s audience shot looks back and forth from the Conqueror to Princess Athena. A few lowered their heads when they heard that the Conqueror had assigned the slaughter and the decimation of her wife’s homeland.

“By your will, Majesty,” Princess Athena bowed her head.

“As for the third front, the provinces of Thessaly and Epirus,” the Conqueror declared, “the Realm’s legion in Macedonia will come from the north and bite the traitors at their heels, while I will take with me the remaining half of the Imperial Guard and the Realm’s legion in Sparta and come to meet the traitors from the south via the Queen’s road here,” her finger traced the chosen route on the map as she spoke, “thus surrounding Likos’ and Sirus’ forces, isolating Thessaly and Epirus completely.” When the Conqueror finished, she faced her subject once more. The Conqueror’s cerulean eyes were scintillating and her lengthy, muscled body was taut and wired and it appeared as though the Lord Conqueror was awakened from hibernation.

“With respect, Majesty,” asked one of the commanders, “Why not take the Legion of the Province of Athens not half a day ride away from here, as well, thus outnumber Likos’ and Sirus’ forces?”

“That Legion is currently engaged in a large scale military exercise with the Legion of the province of Persia . It is too far away. Only three hundred warriors stayed behind in Athens to keep law and order in the province,” the Conqueror answered. “Now,” the Conqueror continued, “Use the beacons to carry out my orders to all the legions’ commanders and relevant seaports and captains by fire-signals. There is no time to lose, sirs.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” they all said in unison and motion in the War Hall resumed as if defrosted.

The Conqueror and her Heir stoutly exited the War Hall, striding side by side as their subjects bowed before them.

Outside the War Hall, by the doors, Thetis was waiting for her Master.

“Majesty,” she curtsied as soon as she caught sight of the Sovereign.

“Tell my grooms to be ready for us at the armory,” the Conqueror ordered.

“Right away, Majesty,” Thetis, ever the efficient servant, replied. “Would there be anything else, your Majesty?”

“Inform her Majesty the Queen that I shall be leaving for war soon, and summon her Grace Princess Sieglinde to appear before me immediately at the armory as well,” the Conqueror ordered.

Upon hearing the Conqueror’s order to summon Princess Sieglinde to appear in the armory, Princess Athena’s heart skipped a beat in fear for her wife’s well-being and wholesomeness.
Part 13
The Conqueror and Princess Athena stood in the middle of the Imperial armory, which was a corridor away from the Imperial Guard barracks within the east wing of the palace, while their grooms sidled around them, preparing them for battle. Torches embedded into each side of the narrow slit windows illuminated the stone block walls, the swords fanned out on display, and long racks with sharpened spears. Along the far wall there were dozens of bins filled to capacity with arrows, stacks of unstrung bows, bowstrings and quivers. In each corner of the spacious Hall of Weapons, poles with the Conqueror’s banners and crests were leaning against the walls next to casks filled with oil. Rows upon rows of Corinthian helmets, shields and gauntlets were standing in perfect array on low benches, waiting to be used.

The air was thick with the tang of metal, smoke burning oil, leather, soot and sweat. Stampeding footsteps of soldiers rushing about, shouts and cries could be heard outside, along with the slamming of the flat of blades against bronze shields, wooden poles grounding against the floor in solid tock and orders being yelled out, calling to order and arms.

It was like waiting for an earthquake, knowing it would soon come, or for a tempest that was on its way. All were anxious to various degrees, all but the Conqueror, who was the epitome of calmness and serenity. The Conqueror appeared almost pleased as if presented with a gift that was most agreeable. Princess Athena could have sworn she saw a faint smile on the angles of the Conqueror’s lips. It was that sight that unnerved the Heir.

“You must determine all the injuries that you will need to inflict on the Nordic Lands and then you must inflict them once and for all,” said the Conqueror to her Heir as one of her grooms knelt before her to place her ornamented greaves to her legs. “Utter annihilation of their forces,” the Sovereign stated with some delight. “Nothing less will do. They might revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones; therefore the injuries that you do to them must be such that we needn’t concern ourselves with vengeance.”

Princess Athena’s groom slid her steel sword into the scabbard against her thigh. “I understand, Majesty,” she said.

“Let this insurrection be a lesson to you, your Grace,” the Conqueror said, and then turned to one of her grooms. “Fetch me one of the chainmail armor that was sent here by my Celtic subjects and fetch one for her Grace, as well,” she ordered, then averted her attention back to Princess Athena. “If ever you have to choose between ruling by benevolence and ruling by fear, trust that it is better to be feared than be owed a debt of gratitude, for a debt of gratitude quickly fades whereas fear preserves you by a dread of punishment, and lasts for far longer.”

The grooms fastened the chainmail armor over the Royals’ cotton-made undershirts and chitons. The leather-made light armor with the golden breastplate shaped as a lion’s head were then placed over it.

“In hindsight, does your Majesty reckon that the Nordic Lands were best conquered by force?” Princess Athena asked with little hope of hearing the Conqueror admitting being wrong.

“Of course not. Do you not remember what I have taught you? Supreme excellence in the art of war consists in breaking the enemy without fighting!”

The Conqueror’s grooms secured the gilded gauntlets against her forearms, as the Conqueror went on to say, “I meant the provinces of Rome , Thessaly and Epirus and their governors. It has been a long time since last I have irrigated the earth with the blood of my enemies. For too long they have been living in peace and prosperity which I’ve been providing, so that they’ve allowed themselves to forget who I am and the taste of my wrath.”

A ten feet high spear with a steel curved leaf shape head and with a spike in its rear was placed in the Conqueror’s hand. The Conqueror tossed it in the air several times to examine its weight and balance.

“And what about my wife’s brother?” Princess Athena asked.

Before the Conqueror managed a reply, the heavy doors to the Imperial armory were opened and Princess Sieglinde appeared at the threshold. She approached the Sovereign and the Heir with confidant steps and it surprised Princess Athena, who thought that her wife should have been scared, given the daunting circumstances.

It was the first time that Sieglinde clapped her eyes on Athena in full battle regalia and it excited her almost to the point of distraction.

Unconsciously biting her lower lip, the Nordic Princess curtsied before them, murmuring “Majesty” and “Min Herre.”

“Your Grace,” the Conqueror greeted her with a rigid, astringent expression, whereas her Heir felt nothing but confusion and anxiousness.

A weighting mass formed in the pit of her stomach as Athena beheld her wife. Her palms became sweaty, so much so that she nearly lost her grip over the spear that had been handed to her by her groom. If her wife had known of her brother’s treachery beforehand and clamped her mouth shut then she would be equally culpable and would surely suffer death for it at the hands of the Conqueror, Athena thought. In which event, it would leave her free of the marriage she had been forced into and free to love Cynna and then all would be restored. It would be like none of it had ever happened.

Was it even possible that Princess Sieglinde so completely and successfully fooled everyone? Athena could not fathom it. To even entertain such a notion seemed near outlandish.

But as her eyes hanged on her modest, good-natured, virtuous wife, Athena realized she had no desire to see any harm come to her. More than that, Athena knew that she would suffer a great loss which she was now convinced would be far greater than she had initially realized.

“I trust word of your brother’s high treason has reached you by now, your Grace,” the Conqueror muttered with strictness.

Princess Athena gulped. She wondered whether she was capable of blocking the Conqueror’s blade should the Conqueror decided to behead Sieglinde where she stood. She wondered if she would dare to even draw out her sword. With her moist hands nearly shaking and her gaze still fixed on her wife, who had been nothing but kind and tolerant with her, she suddenly realized that Sieglinde showed no fear, not even a speck of it.

Princess Sieglinde looked straight into the Conqueror’s eyes, her chin proud, as Athena had never seen before. She exhibited nothing short of composed bravery. Athena felt an unexpected bout of regret for never taking the trouble to get to know the woman she had married, for now it dawned on her that she had barely scratched the surface and that it would have been enriching and pleasuring to have known her better.

“Majesty, I swear to you on my life that I had no prior knowledge of my brother’s treacherous intentions,” Princess Sieglinde spoke with a clear, steady and confident voice.

The Conqueror took one step towards Princess Sieglinde and towered over her. The unruffled Princess Sieglinde did not even cringe.

“I know you did not, your Grace,” the Conqueror said with genuine conviction, much to the utter amazement and relief of her Heir. “I merely wanted you to hear it from me as well and not from rumors alone.”

“I am humbly grateful to your Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde said, and bowed her head in gratitude.

“Her Grace, Princess Athena will be the one to lead the charge against your homeland and your brother. You do understand what it means…” the Conqueror questioned in spite of the fact that she already knew the answer.

“I do indeed, your Majesty, and I pray that your Majesty will be successful. In raising arms against your Majesty, my brother betrayed not just your Majesty and the Realm, but all Norsemen by bringing about them sure destruction, as well as my father’s word to your Majesty thus placing shame on his memory,” Princess Sieglinde stated then added with a more personal tone, “I am Min Herre’s wife and your Majesty’s daughter-in-law. You have welcomed me into your family.” Now her voice was quivering, her gaze moving back and forth between the Conqueror and Athena. “You have shown me nothing but kindness and honor, and so in my eyes, my brother betrayed me as well.”

The Conqueror’s expression told Athena that her Sire expected nothing less from Princess Sieglinde and instantaneously suffered a stab of shame for even contemplating the smallest of doubts of her wife’s innocence. She understood her wife’s astonishing behavior. Sieglinde’s heart was pure and she had incredible faith and trust in the Lord Conqueror to see the truth. It reminded her of her mother.

“Her Grace and I need to finish preparing for war, your Grace,” the Conqueror said, leaning down and placing a gentle kiss on Princess Sieglinde’s forehead.

Athena watched the Conqueror and Sieglinde with sheer astonishment.

“Will you be kind enough to give me your blessing, your Grace?” the Conqueror asked.

Athena’s jaw dropped open and a whirlpool of emotions turned her insides, the darkest and most clandestine of which was jealousy, of which she wasn’t entirely sure.

“It would be my honor, your Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde beamed with a generous smile. She took the Conqueror’s left hand with both hands and said, “May your Majesty swiftly defeat all the Realm’s enemies and return to us victorious.”

Before Princess Sieglinde turned to leave she turned to Princess Athena and asked, “Will you please come and visit me in my chambers before you set out for war, Min Herre?”

“I will, my Lady,” Princess Athena replied.

And when Princess Sieglinde curtsied and left, the Conqueror gave her Heir a look of discontent, as if scolding and mocking her for placing Cynna above Sieglinde in her heart, but soon enough actual words followed. “She places us above her own flesh and blood. Your wife is honor and dignity. It is you who is not worthy of her!”

“I do not deny Sieglinde’s virtues, but Cynna is honorable as well, Majesty,” Athena replied, not realizing what a grave error it was to mention her name to the Conqueror’s ear on the eve of battle.

The Conqueror signaled their grooms to leave them with a wave of her hand and said to her Heir once alone, “Better if you argued before me that she was better in bed rather than that she was honorable. She is far from honorable. When she first laid her eyes on you, her mind raced ahead to the day when you became ruler and she fixed her eye on you and schemed. She groaned for power, for majesty over all things, and for the cold ring of gold around her head.”

“Your Majesty makes her out to be greedy – on what basis, may I ask?”

“Do you not think that I know everything that transpires under my roof or in my city? Do you not think that I know about the incident in the market? Or that your mistress lives well beyond your means?” The Conqueror had long suspected that her Heir had borrowed funds to support her mistress but had never found out whom from.

“Granted, Cynna is inexperienced and therefore displayed poor judgment…”

” You are making puerile excuses for her!”

“I know her heart and I know she loves me and I her,” Athena claimed, sure of her conviction.

The Conqueror scoffed, “So you think you love her, do you?! Tell me – in all the time that you’ve courted her and she withheld her favors, did you take others to your bed?”

Athena scratched her right temple with some embarrassment. “My needs had to be addressed,” she said in her defense. “It had nothing to do with…”

“Love?” her Sire finished her sentence. “It has everything to do with love. Since the moment I touched your mother, I had no lust in me for anyone else. Love is lust’s greatest provocateur.”

Athena wondered whether her Sire was speaking the truth or lying for the sake of winning an argument. She was leaning more towards the possibility that her Sire was lying, given her Sire’s mysterious nocturnal activities and the redheaded attendant, whose comfort she was sure her Sire partook in. The only difference between them, she thought, was that her Sire practiced discretion, and nothing more. Either way, she could not accuse her Sire with lying.

“Just how sure are you that you love Cynna?” the Conqueror persisted.

“As sure as I see your Majesty standing in front of me,” Athena replied but the Conqueror didn’t seem to be impressed by the assertion, so she went on to say, “As sure as your Majesty is in the love you bear towards your Queen.”

“Really?!” the Conqueror raised both sharply shaped eyebrows emoting surprise. “And what do you think you know about love?”

Athena’s agitation grew stronger and she dug her nails into the wooden shaft of her spear as an outlet rather than open her mouth, fearing what might come out of it.

“When your mother was my slave, I sometimes used to watch her from the balcony sitting with my household staff’s children and telling them stories in my gardens and if she had a smile on her lips I knew I would have a good day.” The Conqueror spoke as if reminding herself of things she had forgotten. “And when I lay in the snow on the road back from Persia, dying, I did not think about the Empire I was about to leave behind or the darkness of the underworld I was about to face but about the most pure and virtuous woman that I would never see again. The thought of losing her, terrified me,” the Conqueror admitted. “Terrifies me!” she shouted, deliberately in the present tense.

After a few moments passed in silence between them, the Conqueror let out a deep sigh and continued, “Being Queen is not about possessing pretty accoutrements! It is about caring for your subjects, about performing your duties, about giving sound advice and providing your Mate with comfort and peace of mind necessary to rule. Being Queen is being a true and able consort. It is about supporting your Mate when hard decisions need to be made!” The Conqueror’s voice cracked just a bit when uttering her last sentence. “You see your mother and you think she is like all women. One is only as powerful as the measure of power one can handle. Your mother handles her power as my Queen well. Judging by the incident in the market, your mistress does not. Your mother is not like all women and Cynna is nothing like your mother. She exploits you.”

“She does not!” Athena denied.

“Then test her! Tell her that you wish to renounce your succession to my Throne, your station and all your wealth and lead a simple, peaceful life away from Court. Tell her you wish to work the land and ask her to join you – see what she answers.”

“I will not test her. It is degrading. Have you ever tested my mother in such way?!”

The Conqueror began to laugh, much to Athena’s displeasure, who thought she had never seen the Conqueror laugh so hard about anything before. When the Conqueror’s laughter subsided she replied, “Nothing would please your mother more than for us to live a simple, quiet life away from here.”

Some more moments passed in silence between them, before the Conqueror commented, “It is not that I disapprove of your taking a mistress, but of the poor choice you’ve made in picking one so unworthy and of the fact that you use a word such as ‘Love’ so easily.”

Princess Athena wished to retort that to most people – it didn’t take years to speak of the love they bear in their hearts, but of course she kept her lips pursed.

Then the Conqueror went to the entrance of the Hall and called out to the grooms to return back to the armory and finish their task.

“I’m done wasting my breath on that harridan of yours,” the Conqueror said to Athena. ” Battle awaits us.”

As the grooms returned back to the armory, the Conqueror ordered one of them to fetch her, her crown.

The Conqueror faced her eldest again. “Do not be delayed in your voyage. The winds are with you. Keep your men aboard the ships busy. Idleness rots the mind and numbs the spirit.”

“By your will, Majesty,” Athena replied as her groom handed her, her Royal Corinthian helmet.

The Conqueror’s groom returned with the Conqueror’s crown resting upon a silver tray covered by a cloth of blue velvet and presented it to the Conqueror.

The Conqueror lifted up her crown in the air. “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are. The Norsemen do not know who we are, therefore order your soldiers to shout your name when they attack and when you have defeated the Norsemen wear my crown, for I want them to know who struck them down.”

“By your will, Majesty,” Athena bowed her head.

The Conqueror’s final words to her Heir were, “Make them dread your name. Make yourself the scourge of the Nordic Lands. It is high time you became the Destroyer of Nations.”

Princess Athena received the Conqueror’s crown and bowed again. The Conqueror turned to leave the armory.

“Majesty,” Princess Athena called after the Sovereign.

The Conqueror halted her stride and looked back.

“Will your Majesty not join me to farewell with the Queen’s Majesty and receive her blessing?” Athena asked.

The Conqueror said nothing and left the armory making her way to kiss her youngest, who was asleep in her chamber, goodbye.

True to her word, Princess Athena visited at her wife’s chambers. As she stood in her wife’s antechamber, Princess Athena was flooded with odd and unfamiliar sensations that seemed to circle around her heart – an unexplained exhilaration that had nothing to do with the tumults before meeting an enemy on the battlefield.

“Min Herre,” Princess Sieglinde smiled at her. “You came!” she rejoiced and did nothing to hide her excitement and happiness.

“I said I would,” Princess Athena replied and regretted not showing more tenderness in her response.

Princess Sieglinde went to an old wooden chest standing against the western wall of her antechamber, opened it and took two items out of it. She went back to the Heir and handed her the first one.

“This was my father’s sword, Min Herre,” she said, and as Athena took the long sheathed sword from her wife’s hand, Sieglinde went on to say, “I took it with me before I left my homeland to come here. My father was already too ill and I knew he would never again grasp its hilt.”

Athena unsheathed the sword, which was three feet long, and examined its sharp blade. Its high quality was evident to her experienced eye.

“It is made of strong Nordic steel. In my homeland, it is believed that it is the best sword ever forged. It will not fail you, Min Herre,” Sieglinde assured. “When first I was told I was to marry the Conqueror’s Heir, I knew I wanted Min Herre to have it.”

“Thank you, my Lady,” Athena replied and her heart painfully contracted in her chest. She unbuckled her leather belt, removed her own sword and replaced it with the sword that her wife had gifted her with.

“I’ve knitted this bodice for you, Min Herre,” Sieglinde said and gave Athena the other item she was holding in her other hand – a meticulously knitted garment. “The Nordic chill’s bite is severe and merciless. Wear it beneath your attire when you near my homeland. It will keep you warm, Min Herre.”

“I promise I will, my Lady,” Athena bowed her head as she took the garment from her wife, inwardly feeling not just plain gratitude but unworthiness as well, and she remembered her Sire’s words to her about not deserving her wife. The Conqueror was right again, she thought.

“Please order your men to stock themselves with furs and warm cloaks for the journey; otherwise, they will freeze to death at the North Sea .”

“I will order them as you said, my Lady.”

“Do not allow them to consume spirits. Spirits might give a quick and warm relief from the cold, but those who fill their veins with spirits are always the first to freeze, Min Herre.”

“You needn’t worry, my Lady. No spirits are allowed on the battlefield, by orders of the Lord Conqueror,” Athena guaranteed.

“Norsemen’s primary weapon is the axe. It is powerful yet heavier than a spear or a sword. If your arm is quicker…”

“I know, my Lady. The Conqueror’s hoplites’ shields are strong and the warriors are trained against all weapons.” Athena had to smile in face of her wife’s true concern for her wellbeing.

“Be safe and return to me alive and victorious, Min Herre. I will pray for you day and night from the moment you leave to the moment you return.” Sieglinde’s voice contained slight tremors and her eyes became misty with tears. A slight stir occurred inside Athena when she saw how worried Sieglinde was.

“Before you sail, Min Herre,” Sieglinde continued, doing her best to remain regal and reticent, “please visit with Lady Cynna and afford her the opportunity to say goodbye to you.”

That request stunned Athena to bewilderment.

“You don’t mind her?” she asked before her mind managed to grasp and contemplate her wife’s words.

“She pleases Min Herre, and so I am pleased, as well,” Sieglinde answered.

An unprecedented event happened. Princess Athena, Heir to the Lord Conqueror, became overwhelmed by tender emotions towards her wife and future Queen. She wreathed her wife’s body with her powerful arms, leaned down till her breath tickled Sieglinde’s slightly parted, swollen lips. She saw her wife’s eyelids become heavy with want and her cheeks blush red. Athena dallied for a few moments to delight in the precious sight of anticipation her wife made. Athena almost found it difficult to sully such purity and so although she captured her wife’s lips with her own, she did not feel quite prepared to let her wife’s hair loose from beneath the white cap just yet. Athena kissed her wife with all the gentleness that was in her, and her desires were ignited. She inhaled her wife’s sweet breath as their mouths were locked in arrested passion, secretly relishing the sensation of her chaste spouse holding on to her.

Sieglinde leaned her body against Athena’s, which stood steady as a fort, for support. Trails of fire plagued her skin and it made her wonder and marvel at the peculiar awakening. Their lips and tongues moved together in delicious, rudimentary exploration until the world outside forced itself upon them by clamors of imminent war.

“Goodbye, my Lady,” Athena whispered and ran a single finger against her wife’s still blushing cheek.

“Goodbye, Min Herre,” Sieglinde whispered back aching and their arms struggled to let go.

Princess Athena left her wife’s chambers and made a stop at the Queen’s chambers to receive her blessing, as well. When her presence was announced and the Queen’s ladies in waiting curtsied before her, she saw the Queen looking over her shoulder at the direction of the entrance as if searching for someone – Her Lord Conqueror, no doubt, Athena knew.

“Your Majesty,” Princess Athena bowed before her mother who stood before her in regal attire despite the late hour of the night.

“Your Grace,” the Queen greeted back.

“I came to bid you farewell, Majesty and to receive your blessing,” Athena said.

“Did my Lord not come with you?” the Queen asked.

“The Lord Conqueror has already left, Majesty.” It nearly broke Athena’s heart to see the profound sorrow and disappointment in her mother’s eyes. It reminded her of the time when she had returned from Corinth to the Amazon Lands empty handed, without a letter from her Sire to her mother.

The Queen composed herself quickly, for the last thing her daughter needed before going off to do battle was concern for her mother’s welfare.

The Queen gave Athena her blessing and then they held each other in a tight embrace.

“Be safe, and return back to me alive and unharmed,” the Queen said. “It is your Queen’s order.”

“By your will, then, your Majesty,” Princess Athena said with smile and vacated her mother’s chambers.

A few moments after the Heir had left, the Queen addressed one of her ladies in waiting. “Quick,” she urged, “Have the Imperial Guard’s Commander appear before me, at once!” Being second in command to her Lord in the Thessaly front, the Queen felt as if sending him off to war with her blessing was as close as it got to sending her Lord off to war.

The Queen’s servant rushed to the entrance, and as soon as she opened the doors she saw the very man she was about to fetch, standing there surprised that the doors had been opened before he had a chance to knock.

“Majesty!” the Lady in waiting exclaimed, “the Imperial Guard’s Commander is here to see you!”

The servant beckoned him to enter. “I was just sent to fetch you, Commander,” she told him.

“And I was just about to request an audience with her Majesty,” he smiled in kind and proceeded into the Queen’s antechamber, where he saw her standing in wait for him.

“Your Majesty,” he bowed deeply and reverently before his Sovereign Queen.

“Commander Periander,” the Queen extended her hand to him.

“I am about to join the Lord Conqueror as second in command to Thessaly and I came in the hopes of receiving your Majesty’s blessing,” he said, then he became hesitant to continue by some reservation as he looked at the Queen’s ladies in waiting.

“My ladies are my loyal servants and hold their sacred duties to me vehemently. You can speak your heart openly in their presence, Commander,” the Queen assured.

The Commander lowered his head and spoke with an apologetic tone of voice. “The Lord Conqueror has left the palace without receiving your Majesty’s blessing due to the recent division between your Majesties, is the word among the troops. Many of the men dread to set out to war without your Majesty’s blessing, and in all honesty,” he said then paused, “I am among those men, Majesty.” He then lifted up his head to look upon his Sovereign Queen. “And with that weighing heavily upon my soul, I humbly come before your Majesty to receive it.”

He knelt at the Queen’s feet. “I appeal to your Majesty’s great benevolence and beg for your Majesty’s blessing. I beseech your Majesty not to send me back to my soldiers empty-handed.”

The Queen rested her hand on his shoulder. “My good Commander,” she spoke softly, “You need never beg me for my blessing, for regardless of any disputes between my Lord and me, I am forever loyal to my Lord and to the Realm. That is why I’ve sent my lady in waiting to fetch you – in order to freely and wholeheartedly give it.”

The tension in the Commander’s shoulder abated some beneath the Queen’s touch. “Thank you, my Great Queen,” he said with immense relief.

“May our Sovereign Lord freeze the breaths in our enemies’ throats and put a permanent end to them all and may all our Sovereign Lord’s loyal warriors return safe and unharmed to their homes, their mothers, their wives and children. May you all know no death aside that which you inflict on the traitors.”

“Thank you, most gracious Majesty, thank you,” he said, feeling he was blessed by the Queen of the Gods.

“Rise to your feet, Commander,” she said and removed her hand from his shoulder.

“Thank you, Majesty,” he uttered excitedly once more and raised himself upwards to stand.

“How are your nerves, Commander?” the Queen asked him with an assuaging smile.

“Better, your Majesty,” he answered and straightened his sword around his waist. “Yet I still harbor some anxiousness as I always do before battle. As I always tell my men, it is simply my mind and body obeying the Lord Conqueror never to be complacent,” he smirked.

The Queen chuckled, but it was short lived, for her heart was heavy and on her feature an apprehensive expression appeared. “Whenever my Lord leaves for battle I live in constant fear for my Lord’s life. It is not that I do not trust my Lord’s legendary skills, but the great love I bear my Lord forces me to dread my Lord’s loss and there is not a thing I can do to stop it.”

The Commanders features turned serious again as he listened to his Queen’s words. “Majesty, if I may,” he began to say.

“You may,” she permitted.

“Although my blessing lacks your Majesty’s godly muster, I do pray that your Majesties reconcile and see better times,” he said most sincerely.

The Queen was so moved by his words that she almost couldn’t find her voice to thank him.

“I am not alone in this wish, Majesty. The Imperial Guard bears your Majesty the same amount of adoration and loyalty as they bear the Lord Conqueror,” he went on to say, astir still. “Why, when I asked for volunteers so to assemble a small detachment to remain here in Corinth to protect your Majesty in the palace, many came forward forgoing the rewards of the valor of fighting alongside the Great Lord Conqueror, and I know they did so not out of fear of forfeiting their lives in battle, for there is no greater honor, but for the privilege of protecting their beloved Queen.”

The Queen was nearly moved to tears. She covered her heart with her hand and thanked the honorable Commander again.

“Your Majesty,” he bade her farewell and bowed before vacating her antechamber.

***

Meanwhile, in another part of Corinth, Princess Athena arrived at her Mistress’ abode only to find her distraught and fidgeting with fear.

Cynna darted towards Athena, looking as pallid as fresh milk and in frenzy. “I’ve been waiting for you for so long! Why didn’t you come here sooner? Can you not see the terrible state that I’m in? ‘War’ is what people are shouting in the streets! Am I safe here?” She exclaimed hysterically.

“Calm down.” Athena took the smaller in her arms. “You are perfectly safe here. Corinth is the safest place in the Realm,” she assured with a soothing tone of voice.

Cynna simmered down in Athena’s arms and when she rested her head against Athena’s chest, her cheek met with the cold, hard metal breastplate. Only then did she realize that Athena was dressed for war.

“Are you leaving me?!” she exclaimed once more.

Princess Athena was annoyed by Cynna’s selfish response and inwardly the seeds of doubt she had been harboring of late began to sprout roots.

“I am the Conqueror’s Heir and as such it is my duty to lead the Realm’s warriors, but I have made up my mind that once this mutiny is pacified that I shall abdicate my right to the Conqueror’s Throne and fortune and dedicate my life to work the land away from Court. Do you understand what it would mean for us?” Athena asked and looked carefully in order to study Cynna’s reaction to her announcement.

Cynna understood perfectly well the immediate ramification to such a decision on her life. It would mean the loss of the wealth, station and grandeur she had very quickly grown accustomed to. She was clever not to outright disclose her initial reaction to Athena.

“Of course I do, and I shall remain by your side always,” she slyly replied, but her reservation got the better of her and she felt compelled to add. “But, surely such fateful and momentous decision requires further review… After all the sacrifices you have made… You are the Conqueror’s progeny. Perhaps we can talk about it when you return before hasty and reckless decisions are made,” she sweetly suggested.

Princess Athena sighed deeply. She wondered whose interests Cynna was protecting, hers or her own.

“I have to leave now,” Athena said and tightly embraced Cynna in her arms.

“Return to me, my love,” Cynna said and kissed Athena’s jaw. “I will be anxiously awaiting your return.”

And with that, Princess Athena left Cynna, mounted her steed and rode to the Imperial port to board the commanding ship and set sail due north.

***

The Queen’s heart sank in her chest and broke again when she realized that her Lord wasn’t coming, not even to bid her farewell. She dismissed her ladies in waiting, for she sought nothing more than to be left alone in her unimaginable grief. Her legs were heavy with the sense of foreboding and deep sadness as she stepped out to stand on her balcony. Dejected, she watched the beacons burning and her gaze followed the Imperial guardsmen who were marching towards the gates of the outer stone-wall surrounding the palace and its vast grounds in perfect array, without a single one of them out of line, and that was when she spotted her Lord on horseback near the iron gates, and what a sight her Lord made.

A belligerent and pugnacious Conqueror, clad in full regal military apparel and a stygian expression, was embattled and evincing melting, intoxicating power.
Part 14
The following night, on the Queen’s road on route to Thessaly , the Conqueror stood in her tent with the Imperial Guard’s Chief Commander Periander and the Chief Commander of the Spartan Legion Amyntas.

“Have all the men eaten, Commanders?” the Conqueror asked.

“Yes, Majesty,” both Commanders replied in unison.

“Is the first shift of the Night Guard posted around camp?”

“Yes, Majesty,” they answered.

A mild wind pushed itself relentlessly against the fabric of the ridge tent, but the poles were rigid enough and the stakes were firmly embedded into the ground to keep the provisional structure steadily in place. Small flames were guttering in the candles surrounding the maps of Thessaly and Epirus splayed atop the table, when the Conqueror sent her long forefinger and pinned it into one of the maps.

“Likos’ villa is roughly a hundred and fifty feet east of the Theatre in Larissa.” The Conqueror tapped the tip of her finger against a specific point in the map. “Here,” she said.

Both Commanders studied the map and memorized it in their heads.

“Sirus’ villa is two hundreds and fifty feet south of the Theatre of Dodona not far from mount Tomarus . It will be easier to attack them from Thesportia.”

The Commanders followed their Master’s forefinger running on the map of Epirus .

“Commander Periander, you will take the Imperial Guard to Epirus when we near the end of our way on the Queen’s road. I want Sirus’ entire family, his wife, his children and their wives and children, his mistresses, his entire household – the lot – captured alive. Do not let anyone escape you either by fleeing or by taking their own lives. Are my orders clear?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” the Imperial Guard’s Chief Commander exclaimed.

The Conqueror turned her attention to Commander Amyntas next. “Commander Amyntas, we will go after Likos. As with Sirus, I want his entire family, his wife, his sons and their families, his household and all mistresses captured alive – none of them is to either flee or take their own lives.”

It wasn’t an arbitrary order that the Conqueror gave when choosing the Spartan Legion specifically to march on Thessaly with her. Spartans are trained as warriors from the age of seven when they are taken from their mothers, grouped together as packs and sent to the Agoge for military training. They become inured to hardship, being provided with scant food and clothing. Aside from hardening them, this also encourages them to steal, and if they are caught, they are punished severely – not for stealing, but for being caught. Spartan warriors walk without making noise. Of all traitors, the Conqueror lusted after the blood of Likos and his sons to be shed in public by her own hand the most, and therefore the Conqueror picked the highest skilled force at her disposal for that particular task.

Many years ago, the rising young Conqueror from Amphipolis had studied the Spartans. Before coming to them, she had learnt about their King, his pride and his people’s honor, and so devised the optimal plan to defeat them. The Conqueror had brought her army to Sparta , it was southwest of Corinth and merely twenty leagues away and had offered the Spartan King a choice: either go to war and suffer great loses, or a combat between her and his best warrior and whoever lost, surrendered. The Spartan King himself had fought her and lost. Bound by their dead King’s word, the Spartan had had no choice other than to honor it and surrender, thus becoming a province of the Realm. A few of the Conqueror’s advisors had told her that she ought to take the dead King’s wife to her bed to complete her conquest and show her power to the Spartans, but the Conqueror had rejected the advice. Humiliating them would have been counterproductive in obtaining their loyalty, and the Conqueror had been correct.

“Yes, your Majesty,” the Spartan Legion’s Chief Commander confirmed the order.

“Very good, Commanders. Deliver my orders to your second in command and down the chain of command tomorrow morning. You have two days to present me with three battle-plans for each front and three plans to infiltrate the Noblemen’s villas. Take the maps with you,” the Conqueror commanded , rolling the parchments and handing them to the Commanders. Next, the Conqueror opened the table drawer, retrieved two more scrolls and handed them to the Commanders, too, and concluded, “And the schematics to the Noblemen’s villas.”

“By your will, Majesty,” both Commanders confirmed and placed the parchments under their shield-arms.

“Commanders, we have some seventy-five more leagues to cover before we reach the edges of Thessaly . It would take us six more days to get there. I want us to get there in five. Order the men to their bedrolls, Commanders, for they will need their strength come first light.”

“The Imperial Guard is already in their bedrolls, Majesty,” Commander Periander stated, proud of his subordinates’ discipline.

“So is the Spartan Legion, your Majesty,” Commander Amyntas was quick to state as well, as if in some clandestine, subliminal competition with the Imperial Guard.

The Conqueror smirked knowingly and beheld Commander Amyntas intently. “Perhaps they are, only they are not sleeping, are they?!”

Commander Amyntas burst into laughter, for he knew what his Master was insinuating. When Spartans are trained as warriors, they are encouraged to take lovers within their own ranks, believing it would give them yet another incentive to commit heroics on the battlefield.

“They have another half a candle-mark to cease swiving each other and preserve their strength for battle. From then on and until we are on the way back home, there will be no more fornication.”

“I have already issued the order, Majesty,” Commander Amyntas said.

“Very good. Sleep well, Commander. We move out at first light.” the Conqueror dismissed him and the Spartan left his Master’s tent.

Commander Periander was curious as to why the Conqueror hadn’t dismissed him as well yet, but soon enough the reason was revealed to him.

“Before we left Corinth , you went to receive the Queen’s Majesty’s blessing, did you not?” the Conqueror asked him and kept a stoic expression about her.

He wouldn’t even conceive lying about it to his Master. “I did, your Majesty,” he admitted, and braced himself, believing he would soon suffer the consequences for appearing to side with the Queen. The thought of how the Conqueror had found out never even crossed his mind at that moment.

“I heard the men talking,” the Conqueror provided an answer to the unasked question.

Commander Periander wasn’t surprised by the fact that the Conqueror had obviously overheard whispered conversations from a considerable distance. He slightly lowered his head. “I meant no disrespect, Majesty. I acted without malice or defiance against your Majesty. Leaving without the Queen’s Majesty’s blessing would have been demoralizing for the men,” he said then added, “And for me.”

But the Conqueror evinced no anger.

“How did you find her Majesty?” the Conqueror asked, her exterior betraying none of her thoughts.

“Despondent, Majesty,” he replied without hesitation. “Her Majesty deeply worries for your Majesty and seemed greatly saddened that your Majesty…” the seasoned Commander halted his tongue.

A few silent moments had passed between them, before the Conqueror said to him, “Goodnight, Commander.”

***

Four days after the Conqueror had left for Thessaly , the Queen could no longer stand being confined within the palace walls any longer. No word had come from her Lord and she hadn’t been expecting it either. She was surprised to learn that her Lord obviously hadn’t sent for the Governor of Athens to manage the Realm in her absence. The Queen took it to mean that despite all that had passed between them, her Lord trusted her still as regent and, by not inviting the Governor of Athens, wordlessly expressed her wish that the Queen manage the Realm in her stead, and by doing so also expressed her trust for all to know and acknowledge.

Close to dusk, once matters of the Realm for that day had all been dealt with, the Queen sent out a request for Princess Sieglinde to join her and, accompanied by their ladies in waiting, both Royals went out for a stroll in the Imperial Gardens before supper.

“The air always smells like this before winter comes,” the Queen pointed out to Princess Sieglinde as they walked side by side near the lily pond.

Princess Sieglinde smiled. “I think I understand what your Majesty means,” she said, inwardly delighting on the precious memory of Princess Athena kissing her on the lips. The Nordic Princess understood that the Queen did not invite her for a stroll simply to exchange musings on the weather. “Your Majesty must miss the Lord Conqueror, terribly,” she continued, giving the Queen a venue to speak her mind.

“You cannot imagine, your Grace, just how much,” the Queen spoke, then quickly remembered that Athena was gone as well and the challenging complexities of their marriage. “I did not mean…”

“I understand your Majesty’s meaning well,” Princess Sieglinde said and threw a glance over her shoulder, signaling their servants, who were walking a few paces behind them, to cease from advancing with them and allow some distance for privacy.

“Majesty,” she said and averted her gaze back to the Queen, “I know all about the division between the Lord Conqueror and your Majesty and so I know that your Majesty has been missing the Lord Conqueror for far longer than the last four days. It breaks my heart to see it.”

The Queen was about to protest but Princess Sieglinde continued, “I realize, of course, that your Majesty will not discuss the matter…”

The Queen didn’t let Sieglinde finish her sentence. “I wish with all my heart that things were different. I wish her Grace could love…”

“We cannot choose,” Sieglinde began to say.

“But I hope you know, I could not wish for a better daughter-in-law or for a better spouse to Athena,” the Queen said in all honesty and with moist eyes.

“I do know, your Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde said and took the Queen’s hands in hers to comfort her. “With your permission, Majesty, I wish to invite the Lady Cynna to reside in the palace while the Lord Conqueror and Min Herre are away.”

For a brief moment the Queen thought her ears were deceiving her. Her eyes widened with complete astonishment.

Princess Sieglinde explained, “She is all alone and must be out of her senses worrying about Min Herre, and Min Herre does love her. In the palace she will be safer and in our company and it will please Min Herre when she returns.”

The Queen’s consternation did not lessen.

Princess Sieglinde fixed her grey gaze on the Queen and said, “For years I have seen my mother turn a blind eye to my father’s countless infidelities. She was a devoted wife to him until the day she died. Years later, my father took ill and when he felt death upon him and when he sensed Odin standing at his bedside waiting to take him to Valhalla, my father wept and cried out my mother’s name, no one else’s.”

Queen Gabrielle realized two things as she could no longer arrest her tears from washing down her cold cheeks: the first, that Princess Sieglinde wasn’t a great King’s daughter, but a great Queen’s daughter; the second, that Princess Sieglinde reminded her of a lesson that she seemed to have forgotten and it humbled her to be reminded of it by a younger Princess much wiser than her years.

The Queen opened her arms and held Princess Sieglinde tightly in a motherly fashion.

After a few moments they resumed sauntering side by side together, before the Queen cleared her throat to raise a delicate matter. “There is something of great importance that you ought to know,” she began to say and looked sideways to catch sight of Princess Sieglinde’s features. “When her Grace returns from war, she will return… different.”

“Battle-lust, like the Lord Conqueror. I have heard the rumors already, Majesty.” Princess Sieglinde caught the Queen off-guard once more.

“Do you understand what it means?” the Queen inquired, thinking there could be no possible way for Princess Sieglinde to truly grasp it without witnessing it first hand, without staring the beast in the eye and feeling it upon the flesh.

“I think I do, your Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde replied after awhile.

“I cannot see how so,” the Queen said, not wishing to belittle Princess Sieglinde’s wisdom on the one hand and on the other, not wishing to send her to face what was to come like sheep to the slaughter, unknowing. “Please, hear me, sweet Sieglinde,” she urged and grabbed the younger woman’s forearm, letting her know just how serious a matter it was. “‘ Battle-lust’ are not just words. It is a cruel and powerful creature, which you have never seen before. It is brutal domination over body and soul. It will demand your submission in ways you could never even conceive. It is the horrors of war and unquenchable, vicious lust in the blood of…”

“It is not I who will be its objective,” Sieglinde cut through the Queen’s speech using a tone of voice that the Queen had never heard her use before, “and if I am to be its objective, then I shall do my duty.”

Both Royals were immersed in deep thoughts and after awhile, Princess Sieglinde was compelled to say, “Please forgive me, your Majesty. I meant no offense.”

“None taken, your Grace. Tomorrow morning I wish for you to join me at the Great Hall and observe the proceedings of managing the Realm and handling the officials. One day you will be Queen and it would please me and honor me if you would benefit from my experience.”

“It would be my honor and pleasure entirely, Majesty.”

“And before supper, we shall both pay a visit to the Lady Cynna together, to show her our respect and invite her to stay with us in the palace.”

“Thank you for your generosity, Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde smiled.

“It must have been horrifying and upsetting for you when you first learnt about your brother’s treachery.”

“His betrayal has disappointed me to be sure, but I do not pity him for what he is about to suffer. However, my heart does go out to my people who follow him blindly into the abyss, not realizing the grave danger and devastation about to fall on their heads.”

Princess Sieglinde had all the makings of a great queen. Queen Gabrielle had never doubted her Lord’s judgment; perhaps she’d never realized just how astute it had really been. Regardless, her quarrel with the Conqueror hadn’t been about whether Princess Sieglinde was a suitable match or not, but rather about the fact that their Heir had not cared for her but for another.

The following day, the Queen and Princess Sieglinde left the Great Hall close to dusk. Four chariots driven by Imperial Guards were waiting for them at the palace gates.

The Royals were assisted when climbing onto the chariots by the guards. Queen Gabrielle thought, regardless of their primary intention of visiting with Cynna, it was a good idea for them to travel through the streets of Corinth during wartime, thus inspiring and instilling calmness, confidence and a sense of normalcy among their subjects.

As the Royal chariots rolled over the city’s pavements, with banners of the Realm flapping in the wind, people took to the streets to see their beloved Queen and their future Queen. The streets filled up in what seemed like a blink of an eye. Men, women and children bowed and curtsied before the galloping chariots and cheered to the top of their lungs.

When they arrived at Cynna’s villa, the chariots came to a screeching halt, and when the Royals were helped climbing down the chariots, music, drunkard laughter and clapping hands could be heard all the way from inside the villa out to the outer gates of the estate. Queen Gabrielle and Princess Sieglinde exchanged puzzled looks between them as they walked down the path leading to the villa, the Imperial guards at each of their sides.

When they reached the doors, the Queen did not bother with rapping on it.

“Open it!” her vexed voice ordered the guardsman to her right.

He grabbed the handle and swung the doors open as he was ordered.

The Queen was the first one to place her foot over the threshold.

The very moment that one of Cynna’s guests caught sight of the vexed Queen standing at the entrance, he exclaimed, “Majesty!” and knelt before her, his dreading voice audible over the playing music.

Immediately after, the music died and all heads were sharply turned to the entrance, as well.

“Majesty,” many utterances were emitted from all guests present in the main hall.

As they were bowing and curtsying in silence, the Queen stepped further into the main hall. She passed by them in silence, and nothing but her footsteps against the stony floor could be heard. None of them lifted their heads, for none dared to catch even a glimpse of the Queen of the Realm.

The Queen’s eyes roamed through the hall, taking inventory of the tables loaded with food and wine, of the musicians still clasping their instruments as they were still bowing before her, at the women dancers scantly clad to arouse their viewers’ passions and spirits. The entire scene they made, the Queen thought, was a disgraceful display of improper and ill-timed dissoluteness and decadence.

The sight and the shameful impression were not lost on Princess Sieglinde, standing at the entrance still.

“Subjects of the Realm!” the Queen’s voice was commanding and fault-finding, “you should all count your blessings that my Lord has never decreed a law against behaving in poor taste, otherwise I would have ordered your arrests forthwith.”

The Queen reached Cynna, who was still curtsying with her head and gaze buried in the ground, and announced, “The feast is over! Leave at once!”

Some rushed; others swaggered to the doors, many forgetting to take their belongings with them, leaving them behind so as not to linger and thus perhaps perceived as disobeying the Queen’s command. As they passed through Princess Sieglinde and the guards at the entrance, all still hanged their heads down, mute.

When the hall was emptied and only the Queen and Cynna remained, the Queen fixed her livid glare on Athena’s mistress and ordered, “Get up!”

Cynna lifted herself upwards to her full stature, her eyes evading the Queen’s.

“How dare you host a feast, while her Grace is out risking her life engaging in war?!” the Queen shouted at her. “I trusted Shamaness Smyrna ‘s judgment, for after all she chose you and trained you as her apprentice so to one day become Shamaness to our Amazon sisters.”

The mention of the Shamaness sounded to Cynna like a distant memory from another lifetime. “I beg your Majesty’s forgiveness, but it is because of my great concern for her Grace that I needed some merriment to distract me from my worries.”

That answer aggravated the Queen’s ire even worse than the feast itself. She did not fail to notice the honorific in which Cynna used to address her.

“Do you think me feebleminded?! I defended you to my Lord. Have you any idea at what terrible cost?”

“Majesty, on my life I swear it, I love her Grace with all my heart.”

The Queen beheld Cynna for a long time, studying her, and then she finally said, “I came here at the bequest of her Grace, Princess Sieglinde, to invite you to live with us at the palace for the duration of the war. In light of what I’ve seen here, I have changed my mind.” The Queen made her way to the exit, and before she left, she turned one last time and threw at her daughter’s mistress, “You will do well not to host any more feasts.”

On the ride back to the palace, Princess Sieglinde brought the Queen out of her deep musings and pleaded, “Majesty, I pray you not to tell Min Herre about what just happened.”

The Queen understood her daughter-in-law’s request. Whether Cynna was indeed manipulating Athena or not, Athena, she knew, had to learn the truth for herself. In any event, despite her words uttered in blind fury to Cynna regarding the price she had paid, she spoke not the truth. She had been maintaining her stance against her Lord for Athena’s happiness’ sake and most certainly not for Cynna’s sake. As such, even despite what had taken place in Cynna’s villa, her stance did not alter. Athena was trapped still in a loveless marriage of her Lord’s design.

“I will not speak a word of it,” the Queen promised and then addressed the Imperial Guards. “And neither will you,” she commanded them.

“Yes, Majesty,” they all replied.

Back in the palace, after taking supper with Princess Sieglinde and Princess Terreis, the Queen was the one to put Princess Terries to sleep instead of her nurses. When she kissed her goodnight, she promised the anxious child that the Conqueror would be home soon.

Exhausted, she fell into her bed but sleep seemed to be far from reach. When she grew tired of tossing and turning, she got up and made her way to the Imperial Chambers. She entered the chambers she had shared for many blissful years with her Lord and was washed by happiness laced with sadness. Her fingertips skimmed over the Conqueror’s desk, and over her quilt. Next she sat in her Lord’s favorite armchair by the fire, leisurely running her palms against the armrests, and memories of how they had made love on it laid siege to her mind. The images were so powerful that she could almost feel her Lord’s phantom hands squeezing her breasts and pushing between her legs. As if moonstruck, she stumbled towards their bed for refuge. For the first time in many moons, she climbed onto it, but more memories she had been desperately keeping at bay to fortify her resolve came crushing down on her. They tortured her, crippled her, stole her breath away, burned her skin, and haunted her soul. Only close to dawn did she find a respite.

***

At the same time, the Conqueror and her armed forces reached Histaea. Still on horseback, she ordered Commander Periander and the Imperial Guard to continue to Epirus . “Half of the Legion of the province of Macedonia is already in Potidaea ready to attack from the North,” she told him and inwardly, her mind drifted to her Queen, whose birthplace was Potidaea .

“By your will, Majesty,” he said , parting company from his Sovereign and leading the force under his command to Epirus .

The sun was about to rise soon, but it was still quite dark. Likos’s forces were camping just beyond a ridge of a few hills. The Conqueror’s forces were stationed within the woods three hundred feet away, the treetops providing ample cover.

The Conqueror beckoned Commander Amyntas to approach her.

“Are the fifty warriors selected to apprehend Likos and his family in Larissa ready?”

“They are, your Majesty,” he replied.

“When I give the signal, you are to lead them away from the battlefield and to Larissa, undetected.”

The Conqueror, of course, took under consideration that Likos and his sons might be on the battlefield, and so ordered the men to keep their eyes and ears open and to search for the leaders of the enemy’s forces and report their findings to their superiors.

A warrior that the Conqueror had sent to climb up the highest tree and spot the enemy’s watchmen, returned and reported to the Conqueror as to their locations.

Next, the Conqueror sent a small group of ten warriors to scout ahead, stealthily climb up the hills and kill the enemy’s warriors on the lookout before they could raise the alarm.

After they had left to complete their mission, the Conqueror turned to Commander Amyntas. “Order the men to fall into ranks and prepare for climbing up the hills. Tell them that if I hear one footfall against the ground or even a single breath being exhaled, it will earn the warrior who made them no less than thirty lashes. Not a grain of sand is to be disturbed.”

“Yes, Majesty,” he said, bowed before his Master and went to deliver the orders down the chain of command.

The Conqueror tied her horse’s reins to one of the tree trunks nearby, for the animal could not be trusted to keep quiet and its hoof beats too heavy. With her spear in her hand, she positioned herself at the head of her army.

When Commander Amyntas returned to her side, he saw his Sovereign looking up at the sky. “Heavy rainclouds are amassing. The weather will not hold for much longer. We must move quickly before it begins to rain, for I do not wish the enemy to hear the raindrops hitting metal instead of the earth, thus learning of our position here.”

“Majesty,” he said, “no one can discern raindrops meeting the earth from raindrops meeting metal shields from such a distance.”

The Conqueror looked at him censoriously. “I can, and I never underestimate my opponents. You must always prepare yourself for the worst, and I grant you, you’ll never fail, Commander.”

The Spartan warriors fell into ranks in hundreds of perfectly cohesive phalanx formations. To the Conqueror, the sight of them was like the finest poetry: superb order and efficiency, with their heavy shields that covered most of their well-tones bodies in one arm and in the other their spears, dressed in red chitons and himations, bronze cuirasses, leg greaves and atop their long-haired heads, polished Corinthian helmets.

The scouts reported back to the Conqueror without a single drop of blood on them.

“All enemy keeping watch are dead, Majesty,” the highest ranking of them informed the Conqueror, who knew that to prevent enemy soldiers from crying out, the Spartan scouts broke their necks from behind with their bare hands, not rendering them the ability to even gurgle on their blood. The Conqueror used to call such a killing a ‘dry kill’. It never had been one of her favorite methods, for three reasons: first, it prevented one from seeing the opponent’s eyes when taking his life; second, there was no blood to wash in; and third, because it was over too quickly. Still, the Conqueror valued the dry kill’s advantages.

With a wide wave of her arm, the Conqueror signaled her warriors to commence movement towards the hills.

As they scaled up the hills, not a sound could be heard, not a single footfall, not a single clank of two shields accidently bumping against one another, not one piece of equipment dropped by mistake to the ground. When they reached the top, they all squatted and waited for the Conqueror to give the order to charge.

The Conqueror, squatting as well, threw a quick surveying glance and learned that Likos’ men were still asleep.

She brought her finger to her lips and made a hushing gesture to voicelessly signal her troops to remain quiet. Like a wave, from the first line of phalanxes down to the next, her gesture was repeated so that the last line of phalanxes would know of the order.

The Conqueror then rose to her full stature and began coming down the hills, as behind her rows upon rows of phalanxes followed her descent in unison.

When they reached the outer perimeter of the large camp of the enemy, the slaughter began.

The Conqueror’s hoplites moved in phalanx formation still, piercing the flesh of the sleeping warriors of Likos’ army with their spears, while splashes of blood mired their shields and dripped from their edges to the ground. As they advance forward, covered from neck to calves by their shields trampling over slain bodies, they looked like metal killing machines with multiple slicing arms.

The screams of terror and pain soon followed. Sleeping warriors awakened into their worst nightmare. They jumped out of their bedrolls, still stupefied from sleep, running like madmen for their lives, searching for their shields and weapons that were lying around in disarray, stumbling over one another, some half naked, in chaos and panic.

As the Conqueror roved her spear into scurrying bodies, she smiled when she heard their commanders shouting out confused and contradicting orders in complete loss of control. Nevertheless, the Conqueror knew it was temporary, and so knew she had to take advantage of it for as long as it would last. Chaos would not be sustained for much longer. Soon the enemy’s commanders would instill order and then the real fighting would begin.

“Part the line!” The Conqueror shouted the order and the commanders echoed her order to the hoplites.

The line began to part in the middle into two long rows in order to flank the enemy’s forces from the right and from the left, thus surrounding them, leaving them no path for retreat other than backwards.

From the back of the enemy’s line, the Conqueror saw archers stretching their strings.

“Shields!” she shouted and again her commanders repeated her order. The phalanxes joined their shields together and blocked the rain of arrows.

Order seemed to have been achieved and the enemy began to fight back.

From a distance of four hundred feet, the Conqueror recognized one of the highest commanding officers, who gave orders and was better equipped than the foot soldiers under his command. The Conqueror lifted her spear to her shoulder, took aim and launched her spear high into the air. She followed the spear with her eyes and when it neared the commander, she was not surprised to see that he did not move. A few short moments later the spear pierced his throat and he fell down to the ground.

The Conqueror wasn’t the only one following the trajectory of her spear. Commander Amyntas did as well and after the spear had hit its target, he said to the Conqueror. “To the very end he could not believe that your Majesty’s spear would reach that far. He harbored false assumption that he had been standing at a safe distance.”

“He was in the range of my sight. I never miss what’s in my sight. He should have known better,” the Conqueror muttered with a wicked grin on her lips and drew out her sword. When she looked once more to the spot where the enemy’s commander had fallen, the Conqueror saw his second in command take his place. He was wise enough to learn from his predecessor’s mistake and kept behind his shield.

A second wave of arrows met with Spartan shields.

With a drawn sword, the Conqueror’s favorite weapon, she lead her warriors forward, cutting off limbs, decapitating heads with such force they seemed to pop off the shoulders and fly feet away, spraying blood in their wake. Not once did the Conqueror neglect her search for Likos or his sons on the battlefield.

Warfare went on for candle-marks. The Conqueror’s forces advanced further back into Thessaly , pushing the enemy backwards. They suffered some loses, not much, though. Whenever a phalanx lost a warrior, another warrior from the line behind would take his place. They knew the business of war, and they had the Master of War commanding them, keeping eye on the entire field, foreseeing the enemy’s movements, and leading them to where her design dictated.

Close to dusk, the Conqueror’s legion of the province of Macedonia reached the battlefield from behind the enemy’s line, rendering Likos’ forces completely surrounded by a tight ring of the Realm’s warriors.

It started to rain and the warriors had to pull their boots out of the muddy earth.

Knowing that Likos’ forces were utterly cut off and unable to send warning back to their master, the Conqueror gave the signal to Commander Amyntas and his fifty Spartan warriors to leave the battlefield and to set out to Likos’ villa in Larissa and seize its inhabitants.
Part 15
Throughout the night, the Conqueror’s legions’ ring grew tighter around Likos’ forces, which were dwindling fast as the sun made its way back to its throne in the sky. The Conqueror almost wished it would never be over. The battlefield was where she belonged more than anywhere else. The Conqueror felt more alive than she had been in moons and with every kill the hunger for it grew stronger.

Although the rain never ceased, still it seemed like there wasn’t enough rain to wash away all the blood; it only diluted it some.

When realization of defeat finally came upon Likos’ commanders, they ordered their men to lower their weapons and surrender. Upon registering the order, spears, bows, swords and shields were dropped to the ground, and the men dropped to their knees and raised their hands up in the air in surrender.

The Conqueror’s soldiers, however, remembered their Master’s order for complete annihilation.

The Realm’s hoplites turned to look at their Ruler.

“These bastards raised arms against their Sovereign Lord and against you, warriors of the Realm. They threatened your homes and your families with their bloody treachery. We do not pardon traitors and we shall not take prisoners. Give no quarter!” The Conqueror’s voice thundered over the rain, “Kill them all!”

The Conqueror’s order was obeyed. Her warriors tightened back their clasp around their weapons and slaughtered Likos’ remaining horrified soldiers down to the last one, some trying to get up and run and others accepting their fate without protest.

The rain stopped.

When it was over, the Conqueror’s warriors knelt where they stood, looked up to their Sovereign, who stood upon a mound on the ground, and shouted “Conqueror!” over and over again, and beat their weapons against their shields to show their honor and respect as their Sovereign waved at them. When the cries died down, the Conqueror addressed her men.

“Loyal, brave warriors of the Realm! It was my honor and privilege to fight alongside you! You exhibited supreme discipline, excellent mastery and awe-striking bravery on the battlefield! Victory and glory is ours! There will be time to mourn the fallen, but for now, rejoice in your accomplishment!”

They cheered till their voices eroded, ecstatic like they were worshiping a god.

“Warriors of the Realm, finish off the wounded then collect all weapons, armors, purses, boots, belts and shields! Do not let anything go to waste!”

“Yes, Majesty,” they all said with one voice.

“When you are done, ale, wine, meat and women, as many as you can consume, will be your reward!”

They cheered again and rose to their feet to do their Master’s biddings.

The Conqueror moved through the twitching, gagging bodies under her boots, stabbing the edge of her sword into the still beating hearts and watching life and hope being extinguished and fear being frozen permanently in the eyes.

When there was no more movement on the ground, the Conqueror ordered ten dozen men to take horses, empty wagons and gold and ride into the neighboring villages in order to procure all the ale, wine, fresh meat and women they could find.

Soon after they left, Commander Periander returned with the hoplites under his command from Epirus and made his way through the dead littering the ground to report to the Conqueror.

“Majesty,” he bowed.

“Commander,” the Conqueror greeted back.

“The enemy in Epirus has been annihilated.”

“Are they all dead? Every single one of them?”

“As you Majesty commanded,” he confirmed. “Sirus and his entire family and household have been captured alive and are guarded at all times.”

“Very good, Commander,” the Conqueror said. “The spoils?”

“All loaded, Majesty,” he replied.

“I am very pleased. Tell the men to make camp in the woods and rest. Drinks, fresh food and women are on their way,” the Conqueror smiled.

Come noon, camp was set in the woods and the Conqueror’s hoplites sat around bonfires and waited for their Master’s bounty to arrive, loudly singing lewd songs, while the Conqueror was in her tent with Commander Periander . At her desk, the Conqueror committed a few words to a piece of parchment and sealed it with her seal.

“Have one of the men go to the nearest beacon and deliver this. I want our victory here known in Corinth , in the Nordic Lands and in Rome , as soon as Commander Amyntas returns from his mission in Larissa.”

“Once word of Likos’ and Sirus’ defeat reaches Rome and the Nordic Lands , it will demoralize the remaining traitors and further deter their fortitude and resolve. It will make it easier for the Realm’s forces to destroy them all.” Commander Periander said and took the parchment from his Master’s hand.

“Correct,” the Conqueror confirmed.

“I wish to inform your Majesty that Likos and his sons weren’t on the battlefield.”

“The wretched coward and his progeny must have remained in Larissa, then. All the better, for Commander Amyntas will bring them to me alive, soon enough.”

A few loud roars of merry contentment drew the Conqueror and Commander Periander ‘s attention to the men outside.

“Sounds like the ale has arrived,” the Conqueror said and stepped outside.

Commander Periander followed his Master outside as well to have the parchment delivered as ordered and to join the men.

Meanwhile, close to the edges of camp, a few of the Conqueror’s soldiers, who had been sent to bring back women, returned after scouring the neighboring town’s brothels. Upon one of the wagons carrying women into camp, one of the women pulled at the himation of the soldier driving the wagon.

“Soldier, is the Lord Conqueror really our employer today?” she asked.

“Would you like to see the Lord Conqueror’s seal on the parchment carrying the order?” he asked.

“Little does that tell me. I can’t read anyway, can I?” she said and the other women aboard the wagon laughed.

“The Lord Conqueror is your employer today, on my honor as a warrior of the Realm.”

One of the older women, Berenice, said, “The Lord Conqueror pays handsomely, ladies.”

“Enough to retire?” asked another.

“Enough to take a nice vacation,” Berenice replied. “Or if you’re really good at your trade, then probably retire, I suppose.”

Charis, one of the youngest women, whose bosom was generously displayed, said, “I wish the Lord Conqueror would fuck me to the wall.”

“I want the Lord Conqueror to swive me till my legs are numb,” another said with a wanton laughter.

“I will receive the Conqueror for free, and may the great Lord wear out my –” someone else said.

But another woman interrupted her speech with a reprimand, “That is bad business and a disgrace to your trade, Aikaterine.”

“Ladies,” said the young Charis with the generous cleavage, “I will be first in the Conqueror’s bed.”

All the women aboard the wagon began bickering about who would go first. To the soldier driving the wagon, they sounded like cackling chickens.

“Ladies,” said Charis, hushing her colleagues, “there is no need to quarrel. There’s enough of the Lord Conqueror to go around. The Queen hasn’t been servicing the Beast of Amphipolis for a while now,” then added beneath her breath, “The Gods only know what logic stood at the basis of that poor decision…”

“And what do you know about the Beast of Amphipolis? You weren’t even born yet before the Queen tamed the Beast,” Berenice challenged the youth.

“I’ve worked a few brothels in Corinth and Athens . I’ve heard the stories,” Charis replied with an air of confidence.

“Sweet child, stories are nothing. I serviced the Conqueror after battle years ago when I was barely of age. I had been raped by warlords the year before. Let me tell you, I was more scared servicing the Conqueror for pay than I had been of the warlords who had used me against my will.”

Charis, too young, too beautiful and too arrogant to pay heed to Berenice’s words, shrugged her shoulders, tidied up her tresses, pushed up her breasts and said, “I am the youngest. You are just jealous because the Lord Conqueror will take me first, you dried-up, old hag.”

“Ladies,” the soldier pulled back the reins and stopped the wagon, “we are here!” he announced. “Go earn your bread!”

Meanwhile, in the center of the camp, Commander Periander carefully observed the Conqueror. There was something different about his Master, yet Commander Periander wasn’t sure what it was. He heard the men talk among themselves about how the Conqueror had led them, and the way the Conqueror had fought. There was nothing new about it. What he was surprised to learn, however, was that the Conqueror had bothered with finishing off the wounded that had been lying on the battlefield. He hadn’t seen his Master snuffing the life out of the wounded in many years.

He watched the Conqueror, with clotted blood on her armor and gauntlets, move around the central bonfire, betwixt her men. The Conqueror’s strides were agile, almost feline, and restless; the muscles taut. He became nearly mesmerized when his eyes caught sight of his Master’s whip handle swinging from side to side beneath the belt and her nostrils widening slightly when sniffing the air. The Conqueror’s cobalt, predatory glare was leering, seeking after something. He observed how his Master downed a goblet of wine in one swig and two thin red lines of the intoxicant dripping down the angles of her mouth. He saw his Master brutishly wipe the wine with the back of her hand. The expression about his Master’s features left little room for doubt. Debauchery was a wench on his Master’s arm that day on camp. His Master’s fire burned high, higher than the bonfire’s flames, whose lights his Master bathed in. It wasn’t merely regular battle-lust, at least not such that he had seen in more recent years. He realized what his Master was seeking after – a young, pretty and succulent prey.

Commander Periander remembered the Queen’s generosity towards him before he had left for battle and he thought he owed his Mistress a debt of gratitude for her blessings and now was the time to repay it, and so he quickly and surreptitiously left the main bonfire and made his way to the edge of camp. As he furthered away, from behind him he received ample confirmation when he heard his Master’s hoarse and peckish voice demanding to know: “Where are the women?!”

Halfway through to the southern edge of camp, knowing full well that his actions might be construed as thwarting the Conqueror’s will, he saw dozens of provocatively dressed women making their way to the main bonfire, to allow the Conqueror to pick first before her subordinates. Of course that didn’t prevent many of the soldiers in camp from making lewd gestures and bawdy comments as the women were passing them by.

He ordered the women and the soldiers escorting them to go back a hundred feet and remain there, prohibiting them from advancing any further than that at all times, because he got it into his head that the Conqueror wasn’t able to smell whores beyond that distance.

Not a candle-mark passed and Commander Amyntas came back running to camp. When he reached the Conqueror, he bowed even before he managed to catch his breath.

“Speak!” the Conqueror ordered him, grabbing him by his armor and pulling him upwards.

“Likos and his sons were not found at Larissa, Majesty,” he said. “We did capture the rest of the family, women and childe -”

” Corinth !” the Conqueror breathed out, sobering up in an instant.

“Majesty?!” Commander Amyntas emitted.

“He is on his way to Corinth !” the Conqueror’s voice roared. “Fetch my horse!” she ordered one of the soldiers sitting on the ground around the fire. He jumped to his feet and ran to fetch the Conqueror’s horse.

“Commander, listen very carefully to what I say. Do not interrupt me and do not ask me any questions,” the Conqueror said as she mounted her horse. “Likos will arrive at Corinth via the sea. He knew I would come via the land and so he wouldn’t have risked arriving via the land so as not to meet with me on my way to Thessaly . The Imperial seaport in Corinth is deserted, for my Heir took all available ships to the Nordic Lands as I commanded. Likos will attack my palace first. Have fire signals sent to Corinth . Order all civilians who live closer to Athens to evacuate their homes and go to Athens forthwith. All civilians who live closer to my palace are to seek refuge within the palace’s walls. Find Commander Periander and tell him to order every single one of the Imperial Guard Cavalry to pack their equipment and ride immediately to Corinth . I shall leave now.”

“By your will, Majesty,” Commander Amyntas confirmed. “Aren’t there any legions close enough to Corinth we can alert and order to defend Corinth , Majesty?” he asked, troubled.

“We are it, Commander,” the Conqueror replied with a grave tone of voice.

The Conqueror spurred her horse, kicking its ribs, commencing a wild ride to Corinth . As she rode, she took a small comfort in the premise that it ought to take Likos a longer period of time to reach Corinth by sea and that if she rode fast enough, throughout night and day, and confiscated fresh horses from her subjects along the Queen’s road, then she might have a chance to arrive at Corinth in time to save the lives of her Queen and little Princess.

Commander Amyntas grabbed another one of the soldiers, gave him a parchment with the Conqueror’s orders and his Imperial ring, and ordered him to the nearest beacon to send the warning to Corinth .

***

Near dusk, Lady Satrina and the highest-ranking officer of the small detachment of the Imperial Guard left in Corinth came to the Queen’s chambers seeking audience.

Inside the Queen’s antechamber, the Queen and Princess Sieglinde, who earlier had been taking tea with the Queen before supper, stood tense with their ladies in waiting.

“Majesty, your Grace,” they bowed and curtsied before the Queen and Princess Sieglinde with fallen faces, causing the Queen to dread that the worst she thought could happen had come to fruition. The Queen nearly plummeted to the ground, if it weren’t for her daughter-in-law, who gently touched her elbow.

Lady Satrina, who saw the color leaving the Queen’s features, understood her Mistress’ distress and quickly said, “The Lord Conqueror sent a message from Thessaly by the beacons,” so to let the Queen know that her Lord was alive and well.

“What is it?” Feeling like she had aged a decade, the Queen exhaled in relief. She clutched the backrest of a nearby chair and leaned her weight against it. She felt she could not remain standing without its support, for all her strength had been exhausted in the fraction of a moment when she’d thought her Lord had fallen.

“The war in Thessaly and Epirus was won. However, it would appear that Corinth is under threat, Majesty,” the officer relayed to the Queen .

“What do you mean, under threat?” the Queen asked, confused, for she could not grasp any form of reality in which Likos was successful in passing her Lord unharmed.

“The Lord Conqueror gave orders that those subjects who live closer to Athens are to leave their homes immediately and flee to Athens . Those who live closer to the palace are to seek refuge within the palace walls.”

“Are these my Lord’s exact orders, commander?” the Queen asked the officer.

“Of course, your Majesty,” he was quick to reply.

Her own mind was cluttered by thoughts about her Lord and the peril at hand, but the Queen knew her Lord’s mind.

“I am in need of advices and we need to prepare ourselves. Time is of the essence,” the Queen finally said. “I want the entire household staff and the entire guardsmen save the sentries who are currently on the wall, advisers, heralds, officials, and secretaries – everyone – to assemble in the Great Hall, immediately.”
“Yes, Majesty,” Lady Satrina and the officer acknowledged and went to their task.

Less than a candle-mark later, the Great Hall was packed from wall to wall. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever been to the Great Hall despite the fact that they had been living within the palace walls. Servants and guards, aside from those whose services were required in the Great Hall, had never ventured inside. Entry to the Great Hall, where the Lord Conqueror’s Throne stood and where the Lord Conqueror sat in rule, was either by invitation or duty. And so those who had frequented the Great Hall nervously conversed among themselves in order to discover what was happening and those who hadn’t were distracted by the majestic, staggering Hall and the Throne and marveled at their beauty and splendor.

Unrest and chatter ceased when the Queen, dressed in full regalia, entered the Great Hall with Princess Sieglinde to her right and their ladies in waiting walking behind them.

All in attendance bowed before them.

Princess Sieglinde seated herself on her throne and beheld her mother-in-law.

The Queen remained standing on the dais, facing her audience.

“Subjects of the Realm,” she addressed them. “It is with grave and heavy heart that I stand before you at this time. I have just received word from our Sovereign Lord that Corinth is under immediate threat. Our Sovereign Lord’s orders were that those subjects who live closer to Athens are to leave their homes without delay and flee to Athens . Those who live closer to the palace are to come here and be secure within the palace walls.”

A few gasps and cries of anguish could be heard loud and clear.

“Officers, advisers,” the Queen exclaimed and those she called for stepped out from the audience to stand in front of her.

“Majesty,” they murmured.

“Is it possible that Likos’ forces managed to slip through my Lord’s legions?”

“Majesty,” one of the advisers said and took one step forward. “I think it most unlikely. Given the Lord Conqueror’s orders, I am in the opinion that the only sensible and likely option is, that the traitor Likos took a portion of his forces by sea and intends to take hold of the palace, anchoring his ships at the city’s seaport, which is now empty.”

Other advisers and officers nodded their heads in agreement. The advisor’s words confirmed the Queen’s suspicions.

“What about my Lord’s forces in Thessaly ? How long before they reach Corinth ?” inquired the Queen.

Another advisor stepped forward and answered, “Your Majesty must understand that the forces at Thessaly are in extreme exhaustion and cannot be expected to travel back as fast as they reached Thessaly when they were still fresh.”

“I understand, sir. How long?!” the Queen repeated her question.

The highest-ranking officer of the detachment of the Imperial Guard cleared his throat to engross the Queen’s attention. “Under these circumstances – infantry can cover the distance in no less than seven days. There is the Imperial Guard Cavalry, which can cover the distance in no less than three.”

“Then we can assume that the Imperial Guard Cavalry is on its way. How many warriors?”

“On horseback, five hundred men, your Majesty,” the officer replied.

“Then let us hope that the traitor Likos takes longer than three days to get here and that his forces are smaller than five hundred.” Inwardly the Queen doubted both and she suspected that so did the advisors and officers, but she did not wish to stir panic in the hearts of her household staff and so said nothing of her concerns.

Already aware of the fact that the Realm’s legion of the province of Athens was stationed in the province of Persia, for a moment a thought crossed the Queen’s mind to send a message to her Amazon sisters to come and help defend Corinth, but the following moment she realized that the Amazon Lands where twice as far from Corinth as Thessaly.

“Heralds!” the Queen called out, “all of you must go at once to the city and notify my subjects of my Lord’s orders. The Imperial stables are to provide you with all the horses you need to carry out your mission as quickly as possible.”

“Yes, Majesty,” they all said and bowed before her.

“There will be no time wasted over proper protocol and decorum at this dire time. Is that clear?” the Queen grew impatient with the bows and the curtsies. “Also, when you are out in the city, keep your eye on the palace’s highest tower. If you see fire burning, know that the enemy has landed on shore and you must keep yourselves safe.”

“Yes, Majesty,” they said and left the Great Hall.

Next, the Queen turned to the highest-ranking officer of the Imperial Guard, “Commander!”

“Yes, Majesty,” he stepped out of the line.

“How many guards are currently under your command?” she asked him.

“Two hundred and fifty, Majesty,” he replied.

“Third of your force is to keep watch on the wall. Another third is to go out to the city and give assistance and protection to my subjects and keep the order, and the remaining third is to remain in the palace and protect it. Should the men on the wall spot the enemy, they are to give a signal and the beacon in the highest tower of the palace is to be lit.”

“Yes, Majesty,” he mumbled.

” Corinth will not fall! The Realm will not fall!” the Queen cried out.

“Majesty!” The guardsmen shouted back and left the Great Hall as the Queen continued dispensing with orders to the rest.

Next, the Queen addressed Thetis. She detested the redheaded woman, whom she thought was competing with her for her Lord’s heart, to be sure, but these were clamant times of war and she was Queen, behooved to rise above everything else and perform her duty. “Thetis, have fire-signals sent to your uncle, the governor of Athens , stating that by my order, Athens is to give assistance and relief to all Corinthians who enter the province. You will make yourself available to Lady Satrina and act as her right hand.”

“By your will, Majesty,” Thetis lowered her head and vacated the Great Hall, happy as always to serve the Throne of the Realm.

The Queen fixated her gaze on Lady Satrina. “Lady Satrina, have the palace prepared to take in the masses that will soon arrive. You may use the vacant barracks now that most of the Imperial Guard is away. You may use everything that is available to you, as you deem fit. Once Corinth is evacuated, have all entries bolted, all windows secure. Make this palace as impenetrable as possible.”

The Queen then looked at all the household staff, the cooks, the gardeners, the maids, the grooms, the craftsman and all the rest. “I expect all of you to support and aid Lady Satrina in her great mission. I know that you will serve my subjects with the same excellent diligence and uncanny efficiency as you do my family.”

“Yes, Majesty,” they all said.

“Secretaries and advisers, you are to offer your help in any way required and one of you will keep me informed every candle-mark as to the status of our preparations and the evacuation of Corinth .”

“During the nighttime as well, Majesty?” one of them asked.

“Yes,” the Queen replied. “That will be all.”

Lastly, the Queen addressed the Imperial Healer. “I trust that due to the battles in Thessaly and Epirus , the infirmary is fully stocked and manned?”

“Indeed, your Majesty,” the Imperial Healer answered.

“When the time comes and if you are shorthanded, I shall be honored to help,” the Queen said.

“Thank you, your gracious Majesty,” he replied. “It is always a pleasure and most educating to observe your Majesty with the sick and wounded.”

Princess Sieglinde rose to her feet and stood beside the Queen on the dais. “Alas, I am not a healer as her Majesty, but I will assist you to treat those in need in any fashion required,” she told the healer.

“Thank you, your Grace,” he said and returned to the infirmary.

When no one else remained in the Great Hall save for her and her daughter-in-law, the Queen slumped back into her throne. Princess Sieglinde looked at the Queen with adoring and admiring eyes.

“I could only aspire to one day be half the Queen your Majesty is,” she said.

“It is very kind of you to say, your Grace,” the Queen gave a wan smile and when she regained her strength she got off her throne again. “Let us visit little Terreis.”

***
A day and a half passed in agonizing waiting for the impending attack. The Queen, Princess Sieglinde and Princess Terreis, who had been living in the Imperial chambers in order to allow more room for the Corinthians to lodge in the palace, were finishing their breakfast when Lady Satrina and one of the secretaries appeared before the Queen.

“What news?” the Queen asked.

“I am pleased to inform your Majesty that Corinth is evacuated completely, and the lower levels of the palace – secure.” the secretary was proud to announce.

Lady Satrina went on to give a report of the palace’s status. “The palace is filled to capacity and it is highly crowded, but order is kept so far and your Majesty’s subjects have a place to lay their heads down and all are fed. The heralds and third of the Imperial guards have returned to the palace.”

“I am very pleased. You have done well, dear Satrina,” the Queen said and felt enormous relief that her subjects were safe, at least for the time being. “What of Likos’ ships?”

“Not a sign of them yet in the horizon, your Majesty,” answered the secretary.

“Majesty,” Lady Satrina spoke cautiously and cleared her throat, “Lady Cynna has arrived at the palace seeking shelter.” When she spoke Cynna’s name, she nearly whispered. “I thought I best consult with your Majesty and obtain your Majesty’s permission to allow her in,” she said and cast a quick glance at Princess Sieglinde, who was still seated at the table.

“Of course you must let her in,” both the Queen and Princess Sieglinde spoke in unison and if it weren’t for the awkward subject of conversation, they might have laughed about it.

“Yes, your Majesty,” said Lady Satrina and both she and the secretary left the Imperial chambers.

On her way to the Imperial bedchamber, the Queen laid a kiss on Terreis’ head, then disappeared behind the bedchamber doors. She walked over to one of the cupboards, took out her Amazon attire, her boots and her Labrys and spread them on the bed, straightening the fabric and brushing the boots and weapon in the event she would need to fight.

***

Close to noon, when the sun was eclipsed by silver autumn clouds, fire was set to the beacon perched on the highest tower of the Corinthian palace, and its light loomed through the morning fog that still lingered above the sea and the palace grounds, not entirely ready to dissipate completely just yet, keen to witness what was about to come.
Part 16
The doors to the Imperial chambers were shoved open by a pressing hand, startling its occupants. Two Imperial guards and Lady Satrina strode in decisively.

“Majesty, the enemy is in sight,” one of the guards stated.

The Queen’s heart skipped a beat. She’d almost succeeded in convincing herself that the Imperial Guard Cavalry led by her Lord would have been on time to meet the enemy.

“How long before they reach the seaport?” she asked with cool exterior and even voice.

“Anytime between a candle-mark to two,” he answered.

The Queen stepped out to the balcony and threw a long glance ahead but there was nothing in the horizon.

A guard that followed her outside pointed out to her that Likos’ ships were further to the south and could not yet be seen from the balcony but could be perfectly seen from the southern wall.

“How many vessels?” the Queen asked.

“We counted twelve triremes, Majesty,” he answered.

“How many men per trireme?” the Queen asked.

“We cannot be sure how full they are, but a fair estimation would be that they are full to capacity, meaning a hundred and seventy men per vessel, Majesty.”

The Queen’s heart shrunk but she kept a firm, unrevealing expression. That was nearly two thousands of Likos’ warriors against the sum total of two hundred and fifty of the Realm’s Imperial Guard. Corinth was outnumbered eight to one.

The Queen quickly regained her composure.

“Your Grace,” she first turned to Princess Sieglinde, then rested her hand on Lady Cyrene’s shoulder, “please take Princess Terreis and her governess to the dungeons. Lady Satrina will show you to the most secure cell in the palace. Lock yourselves in there.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Princess Sieglinde said.

“Are you sure I cannot be of any help to you here, Majesty?” the Conqueror’s mother asked and brought the Queen’s hand to her lips.

“It would be most helpful to me if I knew my family was safe, Lady Cyrene,” the Queen assured with a brief smile, then picked up her youngest in her arms, and held her tightly against her body.

“Where is my Sire?” Terreis asked as she buried her head in her mother’s neck.

The Queen related all to well to her daughter’s sentiment, for no other could instill a sense of confidence and safety as her Lord could. “My Lord, your Sire will come, soon, sweetheart,” the Queen whispered back with poise. She kissed her daughter’s pale cheek. “Be brave now, daughter of the Lord Conqueror, and mind Lady Cyrene and Princess Sieglinde.”

“I promise, Majesty,” Terreis said then whispered, “I love you, mother,” so that no one would hear.

“I love you, too, dearest,” the Queen whispered back and handed her daughter to her governess, and along with Princess Sieglinde, Lady Cyrene, the Princess’ ladies in waiting and Lady Satrina, made their way down to the bleak, moldy dungeons with the flickering torchlight from the torches in the iron sconces and the dirty flagstone floor.

To be sure, the dungeons were by no means a place for a child, but the Queen thought better frightened than unsafe. It provided her with great quietude to know that at least her daughter would be cared for and comforted by Princess Sieglinde and her grandmother. But she did not delude herself into thinking that the dungeons would keep her family entirely safe from Likos, for she knew that if he were to reach as far as the dungeons, the iron bars would only delay him.

The Queen struggled to regain focus and composure. She had to remind herself that she ought not to be a wife or a mother at this time, but a Queen.

Once the ladies left the Imperial chambers, the Queen expected the Imperial Guards to leave, but they seemed to deliberately linger.

“That would be all, guardsmen. Let me know when the first warrior of the traitor Likos steps on dry land.”

“With respect,” one of them told her, “perhaps your Majesty ought to go to the dungeons as well, for safety.”

“Guardsman,” the Queen said to him with a berating tone of voice, “you keep performing your duties to keep the enemy from setting foot in my house, and I shall keep to performing mine.”

“Yes, Majesty,” they said and left.

After they had left, the Queen gathered her ladies in waiting around her, and wholeheartedly exhorted them, “Ladies, I pray you to join my family in the dungeons for your safety.”

“Majesty,” Lady Astraea took it upon herself to speak for her fellow ladies in waiting, “our duty is to serve your Majesty in good times as well as in difficult times. Desertion is out of the question.”

Another of the Queen’s ladies in waiting uttered over-excitedly, “We wish to stay with your Majesty.”

The Queen smiled. “Thank you all for your loyalty. I wish to go to my subjects now, but I must ask you all to show no fear or concern from the moment we leave these chambers to the moment when we return. We lead by example.”

“Yes, Majesty,” said all.

The Queen, escorted by her ladies in waiting, made her way to levels below. As she paced through the crowded stuffy corridors, passing by countless chambers, she saw fright and dread all over her subjects’ faces. The War Hall was loaded with men, women and children, and so were the Dining Hall and the vast armory, whose walls were stripped entirely of weapons, shields and armors. What little of the equipment left, a few of Corinth ‘s men residing in the palace took – farmers, merchants, sheepherders, craftsmen – all men who had never held a weapon in their lives. Should the palace be breached, the Queen knew, they would all be butchered with little resistance. These weren’t warriors, and war wasn’t their craft.

She went on to the Great Hall and walked through the narrow path leading to her throne. Worried eyes, quivering lips and shuddering shoulders accompanied her gaits as she walked, like ill-omened, gloomy shadows. They reeked of fear, so much so that it seemed to the Queen as though even the stale air around them grew colder. Quailing women held their children, who were too terrified to romp and frolic as is their nature, tightly to their bodies, hoping that their offspring wouldn’t sense the horror radiating from them. Words of reassurance, coupled with unconvincing smiles and extinguished eyes, was all mothers had to offer their young. There was another resident in the Corinthian palace that day, fear, and its presence was most potent.

Those, whose voices weren’t stolen by sheer terror, managed mumbling “Majesty,” as their Sovereign Queen treaded among them.

The Queen stood on the dais so that everyone could see her.

“Subjects of the Realm!” the Queen called out to them, “perish fear from your hearts and chase away worries from your minds for we shall prevail. Our Sovereign Lord will not forsake us. And when our Sovereign Lord returns to this great city of Corinth, you will know that the Realm has a great Ruler, who keeps one hand on the wheel to lead us and in the other hand holds a sword to protect us. Hail to the Lord Conqueror!”

When the Queen finished her poignant appeal, a tiny murmur began and gradually grew into a whispered chant till it coalesced into one great rousing voice: “Hail the Lord Conqueror!”

The Queen smiled, pleased. If her subjects were busy shouting her Lord’s honorific, they were less busy fearing.

The cries were heard in the corridor leading to the Great Hall, and it infected the halls and chambers near it and the levels below and above it until the entire palace’s occupants joined in a solid, unified cry for their Sovereign Lord.

When the Queen left the Great Hall, two Imperial guardsmen waited for her at the entrance. One of them approached her and wiggled with his hand signaling that he wished to whisper in her ear.

The Queen leaned in, already knowing in her heart what he was about to tell her.

“Likos’ men are on shore and will be beating at the gates soon.”

“Say nothing of it to anyone else inside these walls,” she ordered it and cultivated a confidant expression about her.

“Yes, Majesty,” he said, yet oddly enough neither he nor the other guardsman turned to make their way back to their posts outside.

The Queen, with her ladies in waiting behind her, calmly returned back to the Imperial chambers, not realizing that all the while the two guardsmen were on her trail.

In the corridor leading to the Imperial chambers, one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, not in control of her shaky nerves, asked her Mistress with a quiet voice: “Majesty, shouldn’t we move the women and children to the dungeons as well?”

“There is not enough room in the dungeons for everyone. It cannot contain more than a hundred heads at best. If word of the dungeons got out, we would have mass panic and people would trample over others to get there. People might kill others to secure their place. There will be chaos, which we cannot handle, and I will not have it. Best the guardsmen fight the enemy at my doors than keep order in here.”

“Of course, Majesty,” the lady felt foolish.

Inside the Imperial chambers, the Queen ran to the balcony. Now she could see swarms of Likos’ warriors advancing toward the palace walls. The swarm leading directly to the gates carried a massive ram at the head. The guards on the wall shot arrows at them, some with burning arrowheads and poured burning oil on the men trying to climb up the wall, and set them on fire. She wondered if the horrifying screams could be heard inside the shutdown and bolted palace and over the cries of her subjects for her Lord.

The Queen was determined to keep command of her faculties as she was trained. She walked into the Imperial bedchamber and beckoned her ladies in waiting to follow her.

“Ladies, prepare me for battle,” the Queen ordered them once inside.

Lady Astraea gasped. “Majesty, you might be killed,” she shrieked, appalled even to contemplate the notion. She was childless and had been widowed many years ago. Being a servant to her Queen was her entire life.

The Queen took Lady Astraea’s hand in hers. “I will not be killed. The Shamaness has foretold that I would live to see Princess Terreis’ children,” the Queen argued to calm the elderly servant.

“With all due respect, your Majesty herself has told me that the Shamaness might have been mistaken in regards to Lady Cynna. The Gods only know what else she might have been mistaken about,” Lady Astraea asserted, fervently.

A valid argument, the Queen thought, but entirely irrelevant.

“It is of no consequence. I am your Queen. Do as I command.” The Queen was done arguing and there was no changing her mind.

The Queen’s ladies in waiting helped their Mistress strip off her regal dress, which wasn’t suited for combat, and dressed her in her regal Amazon attire, which was.

The Queen held the Labrys in her hand, reacquainting herself with the feel of its leather-wrapped handle in her palm.

When she opened the doors, she was stopped by the guardsmen, who stood in her way.

“Move aside!” the Queen ordered them but they disobeyed her.

“Majesty, we cannot allow you to partake in combat,” one of them said to her.

“Out of my way, guardsmen!” the Queen ordered louder than before.

“Please, Majesty, do not ask it of us,” the other one nearly pleaded.

“I do not ask it. I demand it!” she scolded them, and could not grasp what could be the reason or the source for such audacious, unlawful disobedience.

“In all humility, we ask that your Majesty allow us to escort your Majesty to the dungeons.”

“I might have temporarily suspended proper protocol and decorum but I am your Queen! Are you drunk, soldier?!” the Queen asked. She couldn’t believe his behavior.

“No, your Majesty , spirits are not…”

But the Queen, whose sinews were strained to the limit, finished his sentence sarcastically for him, “Allowed in combat, I know.”

“I have my orders, Majesty,” he tried to reason with his Mistress.

“Orders? Whose orders? Do you see anyone here whose authority is greater than mine?!” She asked and looked around feigning a search after someone whose station was above hers.

“Not here, your Majesty, but the orders were issued long ago by the Lord Conqueror,” he answered.

The Queen finally gave in. “I shall not join the soldiers outside, for now, but I will not go down to the dungeons, either. I shall remain here,” she bargained with him.

“Then we shall remain here with you, your Majesty,” he bargained back.

“Very well,” the Queen said.

She then returned back to the balcony and peeped over the stony rail, to avoid being hit by straying arrows, as did her guards. The Queen also noticed arrows flying over her head from the palace and at the direction of the grounds below. She gave one of the guards a questioning look.

“There are some fifty-odd Imperial guards within the palace, positioned on the towers and on the balconies,” he explained.

“Second line of defense,” the Queen nodded her head. “Why aren’t you shooting arrows?” she asked.

“So as not to draw enemy’s arrows to your Majesty,” he answered.

After two candle-marks of brutal fighting, most of the Imperial guardsmen on the wall had been slain and the gates of the wall had been breached.

The Queen watched as the guardsmen forsook defending the wall, for there was no longer a point to it, and formed a defense on the palace’s grounds, trying as best they could to fend off the enemy.

But there were too many of Likos’ warriors and not enough of the Realm’s warriors. They fought bravely, desperately and employed all their skills and years of training to fight the enemy off but suffered too many losses to hold on for much longer.

The Queen was horrified by the gruesome sights of war, by the bloodied, dismembered bodies on the ground, by the unbearable cries of pain, by the unanswered pleas for help, and by the stench of grisly death and burning flesh. Such sights, odors and sounds could never be erased or exorcized from one’s soul, she imagined. It was ridiculous, she thought, that only now could she grasp the heavy encumbrance her Lord must have been carrying for many years without ever complaining or bewailing and without ever sharing the weighing, burdensome load, not even with her, so to spare her. She was nearly drowning in admiration for her Lord at that moment.

“To the palace!” a loud cry was heard that brought the Queen out of her rumination.

The Queen looked and saw Likos, whom she recognized from the celebrations she and her Lord had held for the birth of their youngest, standing at the back of his warriors, shouting orders at them.

“Get inside! Find the whoring Queen and her bastard daughter and rape them both!”

His warriors ran towards the palace doors, carrying with them a massive iron ram.

“Pound against the doors then pound your cocks into the body slave and her litter!” one of Likos’ sons spurred them on and they shouted like savages.

“We won’t kill the whores before the very last one of you dismounts them!” another son cried, waving his sword in the air.

A tall, ebony-haired figure emerged, seemingly out of nowhere at the far south eastern side of the wall, and commenced a running akin to Zeus’ lightning bolts in speed and fierceness, hurdling over the hips of mangled bodies on the ground and taking position amidst the dozen Imperial guards still standing.

“My Lord,” the Queen breathed with peerless adoration and relief.

Queen Gabrielle saw the Conqueror unsheathe her sword, wielding it in her hand, and flexing her muscles. She then saw the Conqueror grab hold of one of her soldiers, pulling him towards her, saying something to him.

The guard signaled his fellow guards and they began to run towards the palace, while he was the only one to run south.

“Where are they going?!” the Queen exclaimed. “Why aren’t they fighting?”

The Queen tried to rush to the doors and exit the Imperial chambers, but the guards wouldn’t let her even leave the balcony.

Frustrated, she returned her gaze back over the balcony’s rail and to where her Lord fought. She surmised there must have been close to eight hundred men down there. Eight hundred against one, the Queen cringed, while the Conqueror’s sword met clashing with several of theirs at a time.

The Conqueror’s movements were something to marvel in awe at. The sheer strength of the Conqueror’s blows sent sparks flying off the blades at impact, and broken metal to the ground. Defensive strikes were hard but not so the offensive strikes, for, due to their perfect precision, all it took was a gentle stroke, a caress of the Conqueror’s blade to his neck and her opponent would fall bleeding fluxes to the ground. The speed in which the Conqueror’s body moved and the virtuous manner in which the Conqueror moved the sword from her right hand to the left and back to the right again as if wielding two swords rather than one was something to behold and aspire to. The fluidity of motion, the astounding accuracy of the hits, the determination and confidence in which they were delivered – the Conqueror gave the impression as though all her movements had already been decided, as though from the opponent’s first move against her, the Ruler had designed ahead the entire sequence of the method of her opponent’s demise.

The Queen realized just how ignorant of her Lord’s capabilities in combat, sparring and fencing she really was. If one wanted to learn of the Lord Conqueror’s astounding, unrivaled mastery, one had to observe the Lord Conqueror – not on the practice field, but on the battlefield where there were no restraints. She suddenly remembered how Milos, one of the two guards that had watched over her during the Conqueror’s campaign to Persia many years ago, had described her Lord in battle and how her Lord had commanded everything on the battlefield. Now she finally began to grasp that he hadn’t been exaggerating.

The Queen noticed that no more arrows were being shot from the palace. The Conqueror was single-handedly fighting masses of men, now.

“My Lord is all alone out there fighting for our lives!” she shouted, out of her mind with worry, and tried to leave the balcony a second time, but again, the guards grabbed her and prevented her from leaving.

“Let go of me, I am Queen of the Realm!” the Queen screamed and shook her body in frenzy in an attempt to release herself from the guards’ firm clasp.

The Conqueror apparently heard her Queen’s voice over the clamor of battle, for she lifted up her head and threw a glance at the balcony where the Queen was standing. For a moment, their eyes met and at that moment one of Likos’ men found an opening, aiming his blade to plunge it into the Conqueror’s flesh, but he froze, as if he didn’t have the courage, the grit to lay his sword on the Conqueror’s body and injure such greatness. The Conqueror quickly regained her focus and cut down his hand with a single, powerful strike that cut through the bone as if it was as soft as a flower stalk, sending the limb to the ground holding the weapon still.

“I must join my Lord and fight,” the Queen stated and sent her elbow to hit the guard in his ribs.

He took it, of course, without protest, thinking the blow was stronger than he’d thought it would be. “Your Majesty must be guarded at all times,” he said, but it was his following words that amazed her: “The Queen must never shed another’s blood,” he said.

“My Lord ordered it?” the Queen asked perplexed. Her Lord had given the order to protect her, not wishing her soul to be sullied by the act of killing nor her conscience to be burdened by the act of ending another’s life – in essence, preserving her innocence.

The guard nodded his head.

“When?”
“I believe it was soon after your Majesty’s coronation as Queen of the Amazons.”

And then something happened that was too staggering, too uncanny and too extraordinary to believe. From the south end of the palace grounds came running in bursts of incredible speed three prides of lions, dark-mane, gold-mane and white-mane, of around fifteen adult lions and lionesses per pride. They seemed to rush towards the Conqueror, roaring, bristling their coats and manes to make themselves appear larger than their size and exposing their canines.

Upon catching sight of the advancing lions, Likos’ warriors instinctively backed away from the Conqueror and halted their ceaseless attacks. Then paralyzing shock shackled their limbs, and a few lost their grip on their weapons. The moment froze in time.

When the lions reached the Conqueror, their Master took out her leather whip rolled on her belt, delivered a single lash on the ground and cried: “Sit!”

The lions sat in one line with the Conqueror, half to her right and half to her left, occasionally growling, sniffing the air, which was saturated with the odor of fresh blood, and surveying their surroundings. None of them was tempted to feed off the countless torn cadavers that covered the earth. They just sat and waited for their Master’s order, and all who witnessed understood it.

The scene displayed on the Corinthian palace grounds that day was unimaginable, inconceivable and incomprehensible. The sound of the lions’ roars, the Conqueror’s voice, the whiplash and the sudden absence of the sounds of battle, sent the Corinthian subjects curious to the windows, pushing and shoving against one another in order to be able to look through the cracks of the bolted and covered windows and see what was happening outside. Some carried benches and chairs to the windows in order to get a better view from a higher vantage point.

Gasps of bafflement, repeated rubbing of eyes in disbelief, grabbing shaken heads with both hands and unintelligible utterances became the most common displays of behavior and emotion. There was no terror any longer and fear was all but forgotten.

The Queen noticed that she had stopped breathing. Mesmerized, she couldn’t look away even if she wanted to. Her eyes widened, her mouth dried and a dull ache began to plague her heart.

“Likos!” the Conqueror threw her sonorous voice to the back of Likos’ men, where he stood with his three sons, all gawking and unmoving. “For the words you have uttered on this day on my lands and for your intent of raping my wife and daughter – your dying will last for long days!” The Conqueror’s vow reached and rang in everyone’s ears.

Freezing sweat broke on Likos’ and his sons’ backs.

The Conqueror raised the hand holding the whip and dispensed three lashes to the ground, one after the other. When the whip hit the ground for the third time, the Conqueror ordered:

“Kill!”

At once, the lions rose from the ground and leaped at the Conqueror’s command, chasing after the terrified men, springing on them, tearing their flesh with a swipe of their clawed paws, covering the men’s mouth and nostrils in their jaw causing their prey to suffocate, closing their canines around the men’s necks and easily tearing the delicate, fragile flesh.

Likos and his sons, who stood closest to the northern wall, dashed towards it and tried to scale up the stones protruding from the structure but failed, for fear unsteadied their legs. From their relatively safe distance from the lions, they shouted orders at their men, but terrified men were not inclined to follow orders and self-preservation won over any sense of duty, especially the type that could be bought and paid for. Nevertheless, some managed to recover from the initial shock and raised their weapons against the strong, charging beasts.

The Conqueror whipped the earth twice to her right and the male lions formed a row flanking Likos’ men from the right, and then whipped the earth two more times to her left and the lionesses formed a similar row to left.

The people in the palace still riveted to the windows could not believe their own eyes.

The Conqueror fought amidst them, exuding authority over the carnage. Three more lashes and a single command: “Kill!” and the animals surrounding the remnants of Likos’ warriors pounced, devouring, tearing, clawing, snapping bones, some digging their teeth deep into the men’ haunches and with a jerking motion upwards broke their prey’s backs.

The cries of agony, pain and utter horror were gut-wrenching, as were the sounds of bones being crushed and chewed by powerful jaws. Many couldn’t imagine a worse death than being devoured alive. The mothers in the palace tried to pull their inquisitive children from the windows and cover their eyes and ears, so to minimize their exposure to the horrifying sights and sounds. The younger children burst into tears and buried their heads into their mothers’ bosoms for sanctuary.

The ferocious Conqueror dominated the center of the field, and whenever one of her lions came near Likos and his sons, she delivered a single lash to its nose until the Conqueror’s pride learnt to steer clear of the four, for they were their Master’s quarry. She then sent her whip to be wrapped around Likos’ and his sons’ swords and disarmed them, not out of concern of their swords but of concern that in a cowardice act they might deprive her of vengeance.

The ever-dwindling men were left to choose whether to die by the Conqueror’s lethal sword or to die by the Conqueror’s feral pride. A good portion of them didn’t know which of the two the better death was.

The Queen was still watching her Lord and the pride from the balcony. She thought it looked like a giant stomping on ants, like a tidal wave of bleak death and destruction washing over the enemy, decimating them and sending them in horrendous methods to a perpetual darkness.

And then it was over. All was still and quiet but the cool dusk breeze against the brush and the occasional lions’ growling.

The Queen broke free of the guards, who had loosened their hold over her, and darted outside the Imperial chambers. Ignoring the presence of her subjects in her wake, she ran through corridors and clomped down the staircase, two stairs at the time, till she reached the palace’s main gates.

“Open them!” she ordered the guards and the gates were finally unbolted and swung wide open.

The sun had almost guttered out, and night was about to pull up its dark hood. The sky was crimson and so was the earth.

The Conqueror returned her blood-dripping sword to the scabbard, then rolled back her whip and secured it on her belt. Spatters of blood and fragments of human remains covered the Ruler’s stoic features, chiseled lengthy form and unkempt dark mane. The fading sun’s rubescent rays bounced off the Sovereign’s golden armor making it glow with claret luster.

The Sovereign Lord of the Realm tightened her muscles into perfectly curved bulges, pressing hard bones for the last time before relaxing her body.

Opalescent sapphire stare raked through the surroundings, catching Likos and his sons rooted to their place. Two of his sons, the Conqueror noticed, had tears painting a couple of fine clean trails on their dirty faces, distorted by fright and a touch of mental disturbance. The Conqueror knew neither of them was going anywhere.

The lions and lionesses, coated in blood as well and with pieces of flesh and bone caught between their canines, leisurely roamed the field without yet feeding, until the Conqueror, who was facing the palace gates, outstretched her arms to both sides of her body and whistled.

That epic image would inspire bards throughout the Realm for years to come. The giant feline predators encircled their Master, scampering around her, licking the rusting blood from her opened palms, and her forearms. Some rubbed themselves against her legs; some lifted themselves up to stand on their rear legs, placing their claw-sheathed palms against her stalwart shoulders, sending their large pink tongues to lick the blood off her face. The Conqueror stroked their manes and coats and firmly yet affectionately patted them along their massive figures. They returned her affection and nuzzled her and groomed against her.

Now, they could almost be mistaken for giant domestic pets.

The Conqueror beheld the palace, the peeping eyes of her subjects through the cracks and her wife at the entrance, and smiled the most sinister smile that made chilling shivers run down the spines of all who stood witness, the Queen included.

The Conqueror clapped her hands four times above her head and ordered the animals, “Feed!”

The lions and lioness did as they were commanded and began to scavenge and gorge on the carcasses scattered in abundance on the ground while the Conqueror walked among them, keeping them away from the bodies of the Imperial guards that lost their lives in battle, and fondly tapping over their ribs as they fed.

After some time had passed, the Conqueror’s ears pricked as did the ears of her lions. The Imperial Guard Cavalry was swiftly galloping towards the outer gates of the palace wall.

For the Imperial Guard’s safety, the Conqueror clapped her hands twice and ordered, “Pen!”

The lions ceased their feeding, and ran back to the menagerie, several of them slightly brushing against their Master or stopping briefly before her, lowering their heads on their way, as if honoring her.

Of all the battlefields Commander Periander had had the misfortune to witness, none had prepared him for what greeted him on the palace’s grounds. With their swords ready, he and his men dismounted their horses and ran their puzzled and revolted eyes over the remains splayed upon the earth, some covering their mouths and noses, squinting, trying to guess what could have caused such obliteration of the human form.

Then they looked at the Conqueror and bowed before her.

“Majesty,” Commander Periander greeted the Ruler.

“Took you long enough to get here…” the Conqueror seemed stern but sounded almost amused. “You left me and my lion subordinates to do all the killing,” she continued in a humorous ornery tone.

At first, Commander Periander thought he misheard his Sovereign, but when he glanced once more at the littered grounds he realized he had not. “Your Majesty commanded the lions?!” he asked to be sure, feeling almost insolent and inwardly he prayed that he hadn’t sounded as if disbelieving to his Master’s ear.

“Of course I did,” the Conqueror stated, swollen with bluster, then averted her gaze from him to her wife, who was still standing at the palace’s main entrance and added, looking intensively into her wife’s eyes, “They are only lions. Can’t you?!”

As the Conqueror began to stride towards the palace, never breaking eye contact with her Queen, she threw her final words to Commander Periander from the corner of her mouth, “Arrest Likos and his sons and place them under guard. They are to remain alive and face my judgment.” After a few more strides, the Conqueror continued, “Oh, and for failing to report here in time and perform your sworn duty, you and your men are to clear these grounds. The bodies of the Imperial Guards are to be prepared for burial and the carcasses of the traitors are to be fed to my lions. They deserve it for doing your duty.”

“Yes, Majesty,” he said and bowed.

The Queen’s gaze was still ensnared by her Lord’s, and as the Conqueror advanced towards her, the Queen began to weep out of love. She sobered up by a terrible epiphany that she had made a grave, awesome, colossal and tragic mistake. The Queen of the Realm tumbled to her knees so abruptly and so quickly that the guards and her ladies in waiting standing around her failed to catch her before her knees touched the ground beneath her.

Continued in part 17

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