Bethe & Queen Norea
Hatred stirreth up strife.
Sambeth recognised the girl, Bethe, standing there. With her was another, older woman, richly dressed and hard-faced. Sambeth’s stomach roiled. The new woman stared at Sambeth with hostile eyes and Sambeth was gripped by the power of her presence.
“I think my son was mistaken,” the stranger’s voice held a sneer. She gestured to Bethe, who put the tray on the table, “you couldn’t possibly be the one who rode a shimerith!”
Her voice dropped to a hush over the final word.
She stepped closer to Sambeth, peering through the dirt and grit, trying to read her face. Sambeth remained silent, coiled, ready to fight for her life if necessary.
“Certainly she could not be one of his,” she murmured to herself.
“I don’t understand. What are you talking about?” Sambeth asked and although she tried to speak politely, her words came out with a certain edge.
The woman was tall with a strong, bony face but she was beautiful in her own way and certainly compelling.
“My son, Amis, led me to believe that you were not only riding a shimerith but escaped both the Fallen One and Altor, his third son.”
Her words were both a query and a accusation.
A fission of unease ran up Sambeth’s spine. She set her lips, determined not to answer any of this bold woman’s questions although the lady spoke as if she were used to being answered.
At that moment Rija emerged from the bathing room. Sambeth and the two women stopped and stared in astonishment. The simple, pale-gold dress she wore was sleeveless with a modest v-scoop showing delicate collar bones. It gathered at a wide, silken belt at her slender waist and fell in graceful folds to the floor. From her shoulders, as part of the dress, swung a whispery, silver, silken mantle. Her hair was dressed very simply back from her face and hanging half way down her back. She looked stunning.
I really don’t know who she is, Sambeth thought.
Rija came and sat down at the table.
“Thank you,” she hardly glanced at the Tetrahin women but nodded a dismissal.
Sambeth was awed at her cool poise and temerity but Bethe immediately hastened to her task, putting the final touches to the table.
The older woman stood rigid, colour flying into her cheeks. She said nothing but glanced at Bethe and made a gesture to finish. As they turned to leave the younger woman brushed past a serving cup, sending it flying.
Sambeth, with cat-like reflexes, caught it just before it careened into Rija’s golden lap. She looked up and glimpsed a strange expression in Bethe’s face before the girl broke out into a profusion of apologies.
The older woman caught her arm and hustled her to the door.
“My apologies, ladies,” she said at the door, “she’s new…and clumsy.”
“I don’t think it was an accident at all,” Sambeth slid back onto her stool, completely forgetting Rija’s stricture to say nothing personal out loud, “the girl did exactly what that old hellion wanted her to do.”
A cold finger slid down Sambeth’s spine. The hellion was Amis’s mother…and a queen.
Her stomach grumbled, interrupting her troubled thoughts. She took a chunk of bread and fell on it, hunger twisting her stomach in knots. She looked up at Rija’s magnificence perplexedly.
“Who are you, Rija, anyway?”
Instead of reminding her to be careful, Rija sighed and looked away.
“Sambeth, in my world it is terribly unwise to give much away.”
She turned resolute eyes, welling with sadness, to meet the intelligent, steady gaze fixed on her.
“I shouldn’t tell you, but you have risked everything, your very life, to help me. And since we are here, in an unknown place, with unknown people, my life might still depend on your quick thinking in a tight spot.”
She looked at Sambeth sideways, a rueful smile tugging at the corner of her mouth
In a hushed tone she continued, “My father was Mahal-al-eel, Ruler of Tens of Thousands, Conqueror of the Lower Lands to the Setting Sun, King of Arca.”
Sambeth gasped, “Princess?”
Rija merely nodded, exhaling a great breath.
Sambeth hadn’t yet been born. It was her mother who told her of those terrible days under siege, until finally Proximus had slipped in unseen and opened the gates of the great city Arca. During the wild sack of the city, the soldiers brought the king before the Fallen One. Proximus had drawn his sword. Without a word he raised it high and brought it down across the king’s neck. The royal head rolled and bounced ignominiously across the uneven flagstones.
Then the royal family were put to the sword and as far as anyone had known, all but one had been ferreted out of hiding and put to death. Men, women…and children.
“Yes,” said Rija, following her thoughts accurately, “the man you saw in the forest, my uncle Ben-Adad, hid me during the time of the executions. He has powerful connections in other cities. Otherwise I’m sure Proximus would crush him immediately.”
Again sadness showed in her face, “I thought he helped me to honour my father, his brother but he didn’t. Not for that reason. Sambeth, he only saw an opportunity for himself – a pawn to place on the chessboard.”
“Or a queen?” the words tumbled out before Sambeth could check them. Colour surged in Rija’s cheeks.
“Not for himself,” she cried, “of that I am sure but as a snare for the Fallen One or his Earthborn sons.”
She turned her head away and her voice was flat and calm again.
“Your tunic is terribly torn, Sambeth. You’d better wash and change. They could come for us any moment.”
She spoke lightly but Sambeth knew her confidences were at an end.
Sambeth bit her lip. She’d been as tactful as a bang on the head. Scooping up a goblet, she rose to her feet in one graceful move. She was so thirsty but paused just before drinking deep.
“Do you think it’s safe to drink this?” she asked Rija’s averted face.
“Yes,” Rija replied without looking, “that girl can’t stand us but she’s too cowardly to perpetrate any serious harm toward us.”
She looked over as Sambeth drained the cup and her eyes narrowed.
Sambeth flinched as Rija’s fingers laced around her left wrist.
Rija turned it over.
“What is this?”
She pointed to a winding, intricate mark on the pale skin of Sambeth’s inner wrist.
“Oh,” Sambeth struggled to sound offhand even though her heart was thumping, “that is a tattoo of a shimerith.”
She hoped very hard that Rija would ask no more.
Rija gave her a short, disbelieving glance.
“Maybe I should ask who you are, Sambeth. The girl who appears out of nowhere deep in the forest, climbs a tree, summons a shimerith, escapes from Altor and his father and survives a hard crash into water.”
She gazed at Sambeth, searching her face and Sambeth noticed that there was no tell-tale flick of Rija’s eyes toward her hair.
“Well, I had help escaping Proximus,” Sambeth said lightly, “and you survived our dip in the lagoon.”
Rija dropped Sambeth’s arm and moved away.
“Of course, I understand that you have some connection to that wild shimerith,” she mused, clearly puzzling over something, “but I am sure I have seen that tattoo somewhere else.”
Sambeth shrugged and untied the scarlet cloth from covering her head. Now Rija looked at it – the very light hair with traces of black still streaked through.
“A disguise?” she asked.
Sambeth forced herself to speak evenly, “My pursuers were searching for a blonde. Most Arcan citizens are dark-haired, like yourself, I was too easy to spot, had I not dyed mine black.”
She said nothing about that last day. Where her mother insisted on dying her hair and told her to get ready to flee the city of Arca.
Rija studied her for a moment but with no condemnation in her gaze, “I think you’d better leave it as it is now. Sem and Amis saw you clearly, dying it again would only create questions.”
Sambeth nodded regretfully. It had been a relief to hide that shining, eye-catching, mane. She grimaced to herself, grabbed up her pack and whisked away to wash.
Once unclothed, she examined her slender body with dismay; her knees and palms were skinned, nails ripped and torn. She hadn’t realised that she was so covered in scratches and bruises. Quite a deep cut crossed her left palm and her hip on the same side was darkening to a nasty, purplish colour. Her hand brushed over the other white scar that slashed finely across her upper right arm. It too had a bruise darkening around it. Hardly an area of her whole body had escaped some damage.
The first half of the washing water was well used and quite black when she poured it out into the stone basin. It vanished down the hole with a swish and a gurgle. She marvelled quietly to herself. How was the water carried away through solid stone?
After a brief hunt she found a comb on a shelf set into the stone bench. She shook her hair from its intricate braids and soaked it thoroughly. It combed out fair and smooth. It was thick and very long. She thought it her one claim to beauty. Her mother only ever allowed her to wear it unadorned in a series of intricate, tight braids bound around her head when the other daughters of the family decorated theirs with trinkets and other extravagances.
Mother took great care to never do anything to bring undue attention upon either of them. An image of Rija rose before her eyes, hair simply dressed and mostly unbound. She shrugged. She would still braid her hair but perhaps she would dress it in a softer fashion, letting it hang long down her back.
Her gown was light and silky and the soft blue of a dawning sky. Its sleeves did not cover her arms but fell in a loose length from her shoulders, just past her waist, looping back up to her shoulders behind. Light ruffles bordered the top sweep of the bodice. To her dismay the bodice was quite fitted. It cinched in at the waist in beautifully gathered folds, girded with a delicate scroll of flowers. Then it fell to the floor in a dramatic swathe of filmy colour. It was the loveliest gown she had ever worn. Bile burned the back of her throat. She looked like one of her half-sisters.
Her familiar clothing was a stained, dirty heap lying on the ground. Impossible to put back on. Only the leather vest was unscathed. She picked it up, stroking it lovingly. Her mother had crafted it from the skin of the dead shimerith, that and the cloak she made from its fur. These were all she had left of her mother. She brushed away the one trickling tear that refused to stay back.
She searched for her knife and fished it out. It shone black and deadly and Sambeth cradled the handle lovingly in her undamaged hand. In the good light its black depths held faint streaks of blue. The blade was thin and wickedly sharp; perfectly tempered steel. She let out a short breath of satisfaction.
Sambeth put it back in its light leather sheath and tried tucking it in one of the soft folds that brushed her waist. It clunked heavily pulling the sleeve down. Way too obvious. It wouldn’t sit right down the front of the bodice either. She grumbled under her breath, biting down on her lower lip in frustration. It was no use. No matter how hard she tried she could not conceal the knife within the dress. It was too sheer.
Rija was still sitting motionless on the chair, staring through unseeing eyes.
Observing this, Sambeth said, “There’s nowhere in this wretched dress to tuck a knife, Rija.”
Keeping her head perfectly still, Rija rolled her eyes sideways at Sambeth and with a small smile patted her thigh.
Sambeth’s eyebrows jumped up and Rija lifted her dress just enough for Sambeth to glimpse a small, flat silver holster strapped to her leg.
“Mine is way too big for that,” she said.
Rija’s was a mere couple of inches long. A small, stabbing talon.
“As a last resort,” Rija said composedly, “in my father’s house, even as a small child, I wore all manner of hidden weapons; knives in necklaces, belt buckles, shoes and hair pieces. Then there were poison-filled vials in rings and bracelets. One must be as prepared as one can be.”
She smiled at Sambeth’s open-mouthed wonder. Sambeth was beginning to feel simple and foolish with her one solid knife.
“Your childhood sounds even more dangerous than mine,” she muttered quietly.
A knock echoed at the outer door.
Rija flinched, “Sambeth, we haven’t discussed what will we say, what are we going to tell them about ourselves and when should we tell them that ‘someone’ is feeding information about Noesh to Proximus?”
“No, we must say none of that,” Sambeth was emphatic, “not until we know if they are going to give us shelter or send us away after a few days.”
“I agree,” and then she curiously echoed Amis’ warning, “we must stay out of any Tetrahin problems, Sambeth.”
An image of Sem holding out a hand to help rose in her mind’s eye and a familiar guilt washed over her. She shook her head slightly to dispel the feeling. She had to do everything she could to keep herself and Rija safe and alive.
“I’ll follow your lead. We must say very little,” she said, feeling rather than seeing Rija’s agreement.
“We’ll stick to the plain truth. Exactly as I said to Sem already. Now, what were you doing in the forest, Sambeth?”
The ache of regret and that persistent guilt rose again.
“My mother was accused of trying to poison an important lady. She was killed. They were coming for me. I had to run away from Arca.”
“Right. That’s all you need to say,” Rija was short and sharp.
The knock sounded again, a little stronger.
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