The shivering had been hard to restrain during the ride to the Arythion royal palace already. But when a servant drew back the curtain in front of them, Penthesilea realized she had not even experienced a fracture of its possible extent.
She was shaking inside and out as the stiff faces of half a dozen leaders and several warriors were revealed.
There was still hope, right? At least a drop of it returned to the queen’s heart at spotting the lord of Borathion. His mouth below the ash-blond shock of hair gave her a smile. Limp and with matt eyes, but a smile altogether.
A queasy feeling climbing upward in her bowels, she started walking toward the last two vacant chairs.
Alexander’s raised throne loomed over them. His eyes rested on the arrivals – spending more time on her than would have put her at ease.
It is alright, she tried to tell herself. She still had a powerful ally.
Serkon had been so convinced that the two of them would suffice for the eventuality of a flight. Penthesilea swallowed hard. Despite both of them being excellent fighter - would that really be enough to overpower the guards Alexander had prudently placed?
At his elevated position, Evandros’ son remained silent even after they had seated themselves. Forever, as it felt for her anxiously racing heart.
Finally, finally, he sat up and addressed the entire council. Almost cheerfully.
As if none of them had picked up on the heavy tension filling the room.
“When my father died and all of you consoled me and swore loyalty, it convinced me that our tribes might continue to live in peace with each other.
It did not occur to me that one day, we would sit in judgment over one of our own.” The young king’s gaze traveled carefully over the older leaders. “But this baleful day has come nonetheless. This morning, Zeuxippe of Orcheon has approached me to accuse Penthesilea of Santrake of treason and bad intentions against her health and life.”
A drop of cold sweat began to form over Penthesilea's eyebrow. How much- How much had she wished to be wrong in her assumption about the other queen. Most desperately so.
At her left, Serkon leaped up. “I demand examination of this malicious slander! You can impossibly expect Penthesilea to submit silently to such an imputation!”
Boras pursed his lips and low-key raised a hand.
“Naturally, you are right.” Alexander turned to Zeuxippe at his side. “Would you be as kind as to repeat for the other kings what you have told me earlier.”
The Orcheon's dark eyes scampered around. “I… I do not feel comfortable to talk about my best friend for suns in such a manner. It does feel like… slander. But since my daughter’s life and the well-being of entire tribe Orcheon depends on it, I will follow your demand. It seems I am left with no choice anyway since some of us,” for a brief moment, her look met Serkon’s from the corner of her eye, “have already been drawn into her trickery.”
During the following while, Penthesilea could not help herself but listen to the abstract tale.
A tale as repellent as entrancing.
It was an excellent web Zeuxippe was weaving. Spun of lies, facts and half-truths in equal measure. Meticulously covering all the suns from the day of Penthesilea's arrival until this very morning.
Jealousy. Failed plans to take over Orcheon. To obtain power over all the tribes by getting hold of the warriors' training. Stealing other tribes’ members and slaves and all that simply because she, Penthesilea, was guided by a short-lived mood.
“…and when her plans did not succeed, she took from me the slave I liked most and let him sire a daughter.” Zeuxippe’s knuckles went white from the force with which she cramped them around the armrests of her chair. “His daughter. My most fervent wish back then. And in my ignorance, I had not kept it a secret.”
But the elation of this victory was not destined to linger for too long. When she, Zeuxippe, too had born an heiress, Penthesilea must have ordered her master slave at the time to kill the girl’s father so as to cause the hated fellow queen even more heartbreak.
Listening to all the crimes she had not known of, the Santrakian wondered if the others picked up on the well-wordedness and flawless structure of the charge. So elaborate a speech could impossibly be the result of a single morning of brooding. Particularly not when the respective events were spread over nearly 20 suns.
But apart from the furious expression on Serkon’s face and Boras’ concern, there was no indication of sympathy toward her.
“Even choosing her allies for the present day, she proved finesse,” Zeuxippe closed her speech, “and seduced the king most closely related to the Arythions by blood, even secured her right to the Dekanos throne by bearing his child.”
Breathing in heavily, the daughter of Thestia prepared herself for the last and hardest part.
“Tonight, she allowed her provider – the girl she had stolen from Evandros – to flee with her lover and pushed me into condemning them publicly. Finally- after so long a time, the perfidious way she abandoned her only tribe member has opened my eyes about her real intentions.”
“Knowing she would come here to get a trial on against me at first chance, my last resort was to get it rolling before that. So,” she closed with calm dignity, “I hope you have not only lent the truth your ears but opened up your hearts as well.”
Awkward silence laid over the room. No one dared to raise their voice or even look up. Pounding hard against her chest, Penthesilea’s heart was fluttering like a nestling that had fallen out of the parental nest.
Advik of Chonar raised his voice as the first one, turning all heads. “That is an abominable behavior. Using an innocent mother and her helpless newborn to overthrow another ruler! It requires severe punishment so as not to be repeated ever again.”
Penthesilea closed her eyes and let the full pain of betrayal strike.
So not only her assumed best friend had decided to stab her in the back, no. Now Io’s second lover whom she had helped so much to win her provider’s favor after moons of the woman’s grief for her son – he of all followed close on the Orcheon’s heels.
“He is right,” Hepatos of Vauros weighed in. “Who would be safe if we let treason go unpunished?”
“Godsdamnit, shut your vile mouths!” In a sudden outburst, Serkon yelled at the two previous speakers. “Plague and fever*, are you kings or dull common folks who believe any word an obscure storyteller whispers into their ear on the streets?”
“She is serving you the most brazen lies and you believe her readily. You!” His finger found Zeuxippe’s face at once, pointing as if to gouge out her eyes. “Nobody has seduced me, apart from your foul mug that failed miserably in the attempt and now tries to vent her wrath by defaming Penthesilea!”
“Hearing yourself, can’t you even imagine why I chose her over you?”
For a few moments, Zeuxippe returned his glare. “The fact alone that you still defend her after being played so many times proves my point, Serkon.”
“Oh, you have always liked twisting every word until it fits your pretty story, haven’t you. Watch out,” he forcefully pressed through gritted teeth, “you’re not dealing with a ploughboy this time. I, too was schooled in rhetoric. You prefer to evade an answer by launching a counterattack, so be it. Let's play following your rules.” With a forceful turn, he faced Alexander and stared him straight in the eyes. “By Teinos*, every single one of us should have recognized by now that Penthesilea can impossibly answer back any more without seemingly proving that she has all reason to hate and inflict harm upon Zeuxippe.”
Catching the older man before him with alert eyes, Alexander's hand wandered to his beard. Slowly, he stroke over it, again and again.
His voice sounded... too casual in face of the full-fledged war unfolding in his very own home. Penthesilea’s blood froze.
“You have a point, again, cousin. Everyone should get their fair share of speaking out loud in the court. So- now that Zeuxippe has brought forward her accusations, does anyone wish to respond?”
The Santrakian swallowed. Half-way, the gulp got stuck. Collecting all her courage while still struggling for breath, she opened the mouth.
In the very last moment, Boras sighed heavily. “Yes. I will. It is my wish to inform all of you that this morning, my second-in-command has confided in me.
Due to his report, the high king and I have agreed on exiling Zeuxippe of Orcheon.”
Six pairs of royal eyes stared at the blond king of Borathion. Dismay was written- no, carved deep into their faces. Penthesilea forgot to close her mouth. Forgot to breathe.
Not a single sound disturbed the atmosphere of absolute consternation.
The entire situation had suddenly become so surreal.
“You- what?” Serkon dared to express what burnt on everyone's tongue.
“We will banish Zeuxippe, dear cousin,” Alexander repeated sweetly.
Serkon turned and sat back down.
With a loud thud right into the developing confusion and agitation, Zeuxippe fisted the already previously abused rest of her chair.
“Everyone knows Penthesilea has charmed the Borations, too!” A vein bulged at her forehead.
“Oh? Everyone does?” The young lord of Arythion furrowed his brows. If he had enjoyed the discussion before – now, he was straightaway glorying in it.
“Iasion is Boras’ man, of course he will testify against me!”
“Interesting.” Alexander stroked his beard again. “Why would he?”
For the blink of an eye, the Orcheon actually drew back. Then, high-pitched laughter escaped her throat and painfully rang in the attenders’ ears. “Iasion is the poor betrayed provider’s lover! His request for permission to raise their son in freedom was denied repeatedly by that heartless witch. She even sold the boy to a slave hold with the instruction not to let the father near him.”
The uninvolved leaders, even the stoic guards exchanged horrified glances. Penthesilea slipped back and forth on her seat, feeling even Serkon’s aghast look piercing her left.
She knew why she had kept the matter with Chrysippos low-key. Necessarily, only Boras as Iasion's king and her best friend and fellow Amazon had received more insight into it.
Even before she had negotiated the terms with Iasion, Boras had explicitly expressed his disapproval.
It was impossible to defend herself. Each attempt would be but feeble. “He knew what fate the child would meet if it was going to be a boy. And still, he had agreed.”
“Can you imagine, lords? A sweet, innocent baby separated from those who love him. What an act of barbarity!”
The hoarse, unpleasant voice of Hepatos of Vauros interrupted Zeuxippe. “Would that not rather argue for this Iasion to dislike Penthesilea?”
Ungracious, Zeuxippe threw him a wild, furious look. “Who knows what that slanderous toad has promised him in return, just to prove her innocence. What the testimony of a man who has indeed each and every reason to hate her would be worth! With that in her back, she would be above any suspicion.”
“Iasion also said that he had been talked into visiting their son by Penthesilea’s provider,” Boras interjected calmly. “Who just happens to have conversed with you not long before. But on the way back, they were ambushed. By female warriors.”
A shiver ran down Penthesilea’s spine. An ambush? From Amazons? Was that what Boras was saying?
The old king looked at the others, one after another. “Surely, we can all agree on that Orcheon is the only huger Amazon tribe in this area.”
“He’s lying! That bastard’s lying! What would my warriors seek so late at night?”
“Yes,” Alexander clicked his tongue. “What would they seek?”
“According to him, there were four warriors led by one with short black hair who was holding back from fight until she realized that she would be needed – apparently because she was carrying quite a belly.”
Serkon hissed. “Isn’t your lover expecting from Penthesilea’s master slave, Zeuxippe?”
“What are you implying!” Paling, the queen of Orcheon snorted. “Your relying on Iasion is completely arbitrarily! That whore has bribe-”
“Oh. Arbitrary?” Slowly, the son of Evandros lowered his head. “Even if I chose to banish you on a whim there would still be nothing you could do against it.”
In rage, Zeuxippe leaped up. Took two rash steps toward him.
Two steps too much. Within the blink of an eye, two guards were at her side.
“She seduced Serkon, stole Protego and your father’s tribe member and he let her get away without the hint of a punishment! And you want to banish me for pursuing justice?”
“I am not my father.” Coldness filled the young king’s voice. All of a sudden, the room was dripping with hostility, the Arythion's recent cheerfulness blown away. The well-known cool shiver ran down Penthesilea's spine.
Fighting the two warriors with all her strength, Zeuxippe braced her feet against the bottom. “You don’t have the right to overthrow an Amazon queen! Men are not permitted to mingle in our affairs!”
The king of Arythion waved her off. “Might makes right, Amazon. Be grateful that your daughter may stay if she swears loyalty. She can take over your tribe when you're gone. Now, bring her awa-”
“Stop!” Something was raging in Serkon's handsome face, something that Penthesilea had never seen there before.
And it terrified her.
“There is something I still have to know. And if you lie, by all gods I swear-” Although his fists clenched tighter, he continued with dangerous calmness. “Have you commanded the assassination attack on Penthesilea all those suns ago?”
For hopefully the last time that afternoon, the present ones held their breath. Zeuxippe, half turned, stared at him with flashing eyes.
“As blind and self-pleased as you are - even you can’t blame me for everything.”
“Gods damn it! Wicked snake! Even now you still deny!” Alarmed, Penthesilea saw him advance just in time to seize his wrist. The next moment, she let go already - flinching at how vigorously he pulled away.
Zeuxippe fired back with insults full-throatedly while another man came to her guards’ aid. With joint strength, they half dragged, half pushed her out of the room.
Serkon shook his fist at her. “If there had been any chance, you would have killed Penthesilea and my unborn daughter readily!”
As the blood-red curtains drew closer at last, the remaining ones still heard her almost pleading voice in between thuds and angry cries. “Let me talk with Protego! Otherwise I won’t go. Let him come see me and I’ll leave voluntarily. Let me talk to him!”
“If you dare to come back I’ll kill you with my own bare hands. Gods are my witness!”
* Teinos, god of crime, madness and plague from the Arythion culture circle; "the damned god", his name or attributes are often used in curses
Whut. Alexander was good enough to get rid of Penny, now that he doesn't he such a brat and has no right to overthrow an Amazon, and erryone else so angery. Behave like kings (queens), pretty pls?
This chapter has an extra screenshot in the gallery
-- No Haimons were harmed in the doing of this chapter --
...and next chapter: