“Io?” Penthesilea’s steps paused in the doorway. The other woman sat on her bed, one hand resting on the crib.
She didn’t do as much as turn her head to acknowledge her queen’s presence.
Penthesilea took place at the other side of the bed and threw a glance at peacefully sleeping Deia. “You are taking good care of her. She is healthy and strong.”
An affectionate smile lit up the provider's face. “Nothing has ever been easier than loving her.”
“Of course.” The baby had brought healing and solace to everyone. Hippolyta minded more about quietude. Phyllis spent her days in the nursery recounting the legends of the Olden Days she loved so much, stories about the Goddess’s brave daughters and tales of ancient heroines. Prince Advik paid regular visits to his newborn daughter and was quite smitten with the alert girl.
But the temporary peace was fragile. “Advik approached me claiming you were absent-minded when he tried starting a conversation.”
The provider lowered her head whereas her gaze stayed focused on the crib.
“He said you would ignore him.”
“I coudn’t bear his presence,” Io whispered. “Iasion was only allowed to see his son once.” Caring fingers caressed Deia’s cheek and the girl grunted in sleep.
“How am I supposed to deny a prince access to his own child?” Silence fell over the room before the provider guided her eyes to the queen for the first time, even darker than usual.
“Please, my lady. Please let me meet Chrysippos just once. Just once to see what he looks like, if he’s fine. To hold him for a last time.”
“Once and I’ll keep quiet from now on, I’ll never mention him again. Please.”
Her friend’s suffering tore at Penthesilea’s heart. Gently, she reached for Io’s hand and took it between hers.
“I would gladly grant your wish if it held the chance of easing your pain. But I am afraid that it would rather add to it instead. How could you choose not to love a child any more that you have seen grown if you can't forget even now, without knowing him?”
Io’s shoulders dropped and her lids closed, sending a couple of tears over her cheeks. For a moment, she took in the air with heaving chest. “I will never stop missing him.” Penthesilea kept silent, still hoping that some day, the provider would do just that.
A shout from outside startled both of them. “Motheeer! It’s queen Zeuxippe, she is here to see you!”
Carefully, Io detached herself from the queen. “It’s fine, don’t let Lyta and queen Zeuxippe wait too long, my lady.” She wiped the tears with the back of her hand.
“Will you be alright?”
“Yes.” The provider forced a smile and turned to Deia again. “I will just watch her sleeping. It calms me.”
“Very well then.” Maybe it wasn’t the best way to leave Io alone with so much grief but Penthesilea longed for an ear to listen to herself. And Zeuxippe seemed to be in just the right mood as she was welcomed by the other queen.
“You were with your provider?,” she asked curiously. “Is she still longing for her son?”
“She is. And she will not stop asking to be allowed to visit him.”
“Well… maybe I could try to convince her that a boy isn’t worth all the pain. After all it was my task as well to explain my daughter that her father had been killed by your master slave. I would claim to be able to deal with tribe members’ losses.”
A heavy burden was unexpectedly taken from her shoulders. “I would be forever grateful.”
Zeuxippe’s eyes sparkled as she passed. “We can always try, right?”
And she did, staying in the provider’s hut until dusk. Sometimes the tribe perceived a suppressed sob from inside, followed by a reassuring ‘shhh’ and incomprehensible murmuring. Interrupting them to offer a meal before the Orcheon would wend her way home almost made Penthesilea feel remorse.
“I’ll eat later,” Io assured with red eyes, rocking Deia to sleep again but Zeuxippe gladly joined them.
Barely holding back, Penthesilea waited until Phyllis had finished eating and wandered off to Protego in the basement room, convinced that when her mother was having a guest she wouldn’t notice. Only Lyta stayed, maybe sensing that something had yet to be spoken out. She was obviously disappointed when the two queens followed an overgrown path to the sea to speak in private.
“So, how did it go?”
“Rather well, on the whole. She has promised to try and forget her son but she will need help.” Oddly enough, the otherwise so straightforward Orcheon hesitated. “Do you trust me?”
Astonished, Penthesilea nodded. “Of course I do.”
“For so long she has been your only backing in times of need. Maybe the time has arrived for you to return some of that.”
“What would you suggest?”
A deep breath. “Grant her a meeting with the father of that boy – you have born two children but lost none whereas he has. If they talk, alone, it could help her find solace. To accept what has been inevitable in the first place. Better share the pain than bear it alone, she is such a vulnerable being.”
Inviting Iasion after she had denied him any contact to Io and his son so often? That would make her look weak. Not able to stand to her decisions. But if it was the only way to bestead her friend…
“So be it.”
Despite showing reluctance to visit the setting of his humiliation again, Iasion took up on the invitation the next day already. He was accompanied by Boras who subtly leaned on him until they parted before the provider’s hut.
Just like Zeuxippe the day before, the Borathion stayed inside for a long time and the only part of their conversation that reached the outside was the occasional interrupting sob.
But as he had left and the queen and her daughters sat down for a meal, Io appeared with red eyes, weary but she appeared and the corners of her mouth lifted to a smile several times in the course of the evening. Exchanging glances, Penthesilea and Lyta both could see the other’s relief written on their faces.
When it had become late, Io offered to put Phyllis to bed but approached the daughter of Thestia before and drew her into a tight hug. “Thank you, my queen,” she whispered. “For everything.”
And all of a sudden, while she watched the provider and her daughter pass the compound carefully joking, Penthesilea knew the wounds of the former Arythion’s soul would heal if only they gave her enough time.
If only that would happen to her own demons as well.
Every yearning Penthesilea had ever felt in her whole life had narrowed down to the one as she snapped her eyes open: to escape the deadly blade that had pressed against her throat so vigorously. Panicking, she peered the dark room for an assassin.
For the one she had seen in her dream, bald head, vengeance materialized in the body of the man who had tried to take her life before.
Worn out, she sunk back at the blanket while it slowly dawned on her that the threat hadn’t actually been real. Swallowing, she listed what was real instead.
Echion is dead, was the first and for the moment maybe most significant truth. I have two daughters. And friends. I’m not alone.
Moons after her return, the nightmares should have ended at last. Or at least familiarization should have fought a way into them. But none of it was the case. Each time one of her children or friends died in her dreams, every single time she looked down on their lifeless bodies and their hair turned to a flamy red it shook her mind anew. It was so unsettling, so unbearable to try to find sleep already knowing that if she did, she would be murdered again or lose another dear friend. And without fail, the dead as well as the assassin would adopt Haimon’s distinctive features.
Penthesilea closed her eyes. One pitiful sniveling had sneaked into reality along with her. It echoed in her hea- no. It was real.
Alarmed, she sat up and searched the room again.
“Who is there? Show yourself!” From one corner, a whimpering sounded, then a rustling. A small silhouette appeared in the shadow. The mother’s heart in Penthesilea skipped a beat.
The girl looked up and stammered with choked voice. “Y- you screamed so- so loud. It- it scared me.”
“Oh sweatheart, come here!” Making an exception from the usual rule not to barge in during night, the Amazon spread her arms and her daughter willingly climbed onto the bed to huddle close against her. “Did you have another nightmare?”
How strange it was that this of all things should be what they shared – being haunted by terrifying pictures at night.
The child nodded.
“Be calm, it has gone now.” Comforting, Penthesilea began to stroke Phyllis’ hair.
But all of a sudden, the girl shook her head vehemently. “No!,” she proclaimed, “no it hasn’t! The Goddess has taken dad and Io and Deia away! They’re not here any more! It’s only Lyta and you!”
It was hard to make sense of the agitated exclamations. “What are you talking about? Io, Deia and Protego are sleeping as you are actually supposed to as well.”
“No, no! You’re wrong! Io isn’t here! The Goddess has taken them! I told you! But you wouldn’t hear and now she has taken them all and they’re away forever and-”
“Shhh. It was only a dream, sweatheart. But you’re awake now.”
“It wasn’t! First I wanted to wake Io but her bed was empty. She’s gone!”
“She has just went for fresh air. Come on, we will go and look for them! You will see, nobody has left you.”
The young princess's restlessness was lessened by seeing Protego sleeping peacefully at his bench in the basement, not even woken by the creaking of the heavy door. Despite the growing calmness, Phyllis held on to her hand firmly.
Crossing the compound it was clear that Io must have gone to sleep again. No one was to be seen anywhere outside. In the doorway, the queen turned to the child.
“Do you see, everyone is in their beds.”
The words stuck in her throat at Phyllis’ stiff, straight stare wandered toward the provider’s bed.
She followed her gaze, then looked at the crib at its side.
Both were empty.
This chapter has an extra screenshot in the gallery