A few days later. Zeuxippe.
The ill luck of the past days had culminated in heavy rainfalls since the early morning.
Under better circumstances, I would have rejoiced for the grapes in the vineyards of Dekanos to grow luscious, in anticipation of Serkon to hold a feast and be generous with the pricing of his wine.
But they had banished me, and he had been the one calling for it the loudest.
An invisible hand clenched my heart.
Yes. Even though the reasons were the wrong ones, leaving them to their fate would be for the best. I had tried to open their eyes about the snake they had given access to their midst – and it had cost me everything.
Sighing, I focused on the heavy drops outside.
They targeted the ground so precisely.
None of them ever complained.
None of them ever sheered out of line.
I still remembered days, straight and simple like the way of those raindrops. Days of ease and comfort while the sky outside had turned gray and the air chill. Days of peace, passing slowly as if time had halted for a little while. As if those moments would last forever.
And how sure we had been in the ardor of youth that they would.
We had been immortal, then.
But those everlasting days were no more and likewise gone was the warmth they had provided. The young queen of old had aged and was a prisoner in her own house. While in another room of said house, Rheia prepared to become a liege of Alexander.
I didn't resent her. Orcheon couldn’t use a queen like me any more, one who defied the will of the powerful ones.
And if Penthesilea stayed here as a victor, I would go willingly.
If only I could attend to my affairs beforehand. There was one in particular I would not leave behind unsettled.
The ugly creak of the door swinging open woke me from the haze of rain. Short, muted steps came upon me carrying a flash of memories.
My heart took a leap.
Outside, the drops were still falling stone–like, only uniting on the soil, hidden from my view.
“Approach,” I invited, pretending to be still captivated by the peaceful shower at the other side of the window. If I turned around, would he just be gone like a dream?
Hesitant steps followed my request. Now that he was so close, that he was finally in reach… I doubted if his presence would not overwhelm me.
Finally, with a last deep breath, I turned around and smiled. “Protego! At last. These aren't the happy circumstances under which we were supposed to meet again but- but I wasn't sure if Penthesilea would let you come.”
Were there any words to say to a long missed lover? Any flowers of speech?
“I haven't had such nice company for forever. When Rheia came here three days ago, she yelled and cried with rage.”
Protego stood arms behind the back, gaze lowered like the frightened youth he’d been when we had first met. Only few bright strands furrowed his hair while mine was half gray.
My heart ached.
“Time has treated you well, my love.”
Finally he lifted his head, estimated my mood like he had always used to. “You, too, my queen.”
I couldn’t help it, not even being an outcast and captive. A girlish giggle escaped my mouth. “Charmer! I’m getting wrinkly and old. The prime of live has long left this body.”
“No, minha rainha. You’re beautiful as ever.” He cocked his head and our eyes met at last. Oh that sweet name again, voiced in the melodious tongue of his mother's tribe. Hearing it spread a cozy warmth in me, caressing my core and letting me breathe freely at long last. After learning our tongue, he had never used his native one again.
For it being fraught with more horrifying memories than I could imagine, he had only ever talked it for me.
My tongue was heavy from all the words I yearned to tell him yet. “Great Goddess! It’s so good to see you again. Without anyone standing between us. How- how have you been?”
“Fine, thanks to your protection, my queen. Without you putting in a good word for me, I’d… I’d be dead by now.”
“My poor Protego. That was the least I could do. Giving you away has been the one decision I’ve regretted each day anew ever since. But now that we're together at last, I'll never leave you again.”
His head sank. “She would never give me free now. Not any more.”
“We won’t ask her.”
“Within the next few days, the kings will send me away. Rheia hates what I’ve done, but she can’t deny the womb that bore her. She has promised to arrange for a horse, provisions and a bit of gold. That’s our chance.
Penthesilea will be drunk with victory and inattentive. Sneak away – follow the old trade route. Keep your distance from the road. I will wait for you near the entrance of the forest. We will be riding south before they even get the chance to notice your absence.”
“You… would take me with you?” He stared at me, disbelief and the ever-present fear fighting with the same craving I knew all too well. “That… They… They‘d catch us. And kill me like queen Penthesilea did with Haimon. And she liked him more than me!”
“Shhh!” The guards outside had better not hear our scheming. “Do you still remember how even my mother’s most trusted counselors would all but eat us alive after her death? How the priestesses threatened to tear you limb from limb?”
Their sharp disapproval of my favoring Protego had only turned into applause years later, after giving him away. But if the Goddess did indeed frown upon giving a slave so many liberties, would she have allowed me to fall in love with him in the first place?
However, of course the tribe knew better than that. Hypocrites, all of them. Swaying with the wind. It filled me with a certain pride to have never submitted to their hatred toward my lover, not even when they believed I had. Meanwhile, Protego had been safer with Penthesilea than he would ever have been at Orcheon.
For even after my own anger had dissipated, my tribe members actually would have torn him apart knowing that he had dishonored their tribe by laying with another queen.
A soft voice reached my ear. “My queen, you’re crying.”
I wiped the tears away. “They've always wanted to kill you but I never let them. I will protect you like I did in the past. Like I protected you from my tribal sisters – from myself. Even Machaon has paid for his jealousy.”
“Paid?” Protego swallowed, hesitated. “My- My queen, have… have you killed Machaon?”
So he still possessed the ability to surprise me. He would never try a shot in the dark.
He must have known or at least suspected it.
“My love, if your way to return should be free he couldn’t stay. After fathering my daughter himself, he would have harassed you worse than ever.”
“So… so you let queen Penthesilea kill Haimon although he was innocent?”
“He was a slave, my love. And a rebellious one at that. Someone had to take the blame and according to Penthesilea's tales, he fit the bill perfectly. It was clear that if Machaon provoked him long enough, he would one day lose his temper. The rest was but sending Machaon a bit of poisoned wine.”
“I promise it was fast.” Gently, I stroked Protego's cheek. “Penthesilea took the one thing I could not forgive, so I have taken what she held dear.”
Protego’s gaze drifted away, into the space behind me. “We… we were friends. And queen Penthesilea’s provider has always been nice to us, too.”
“I’m your friend. Don’t I count more than a slave? He died, but you don't have to. Come with me. If they really chase us down, I’ll fight them.”
He bit his lip, blinked a few times. “There… there is something else.”
“Then tell me! Tell me so I’ll be able to resolve it.”
“She… she wants to make me her consort. Queen Penthesilea. As soon as you’ve left. The ceremony has already been arranged with the priestess.”
I could barely breathe. Had I understood him wrong? The priestess – my priestess, the priestess of Orcheon – agreed to give my lover to another queen in the eyes of the Goddess?
“Her final blow.” In thought, I spit at Penthesilea. At the priestess. At my former tribal sisters. All my life, I had been surrounded by snakes in the grass and only know I realized its full extent.
“It… it wouldn’t be that bad? Probably? I’d get to see Phyllis grow up and… maybe her children, one day. Possibly.”
Phyllis. His daughter.
From all the things I believed Penthesilea capable to do, this was the most false one.
“And you believe that she won’t humiliate you every single day? That she won’t cast you aside when she's had her fill? You’ve seen what she does with discarded lovers.”
He couldn’t. He mustn’t.
“Please. That- you are her revenge. If you stay here as her consort, you might live to old age but you’ll be bound to her. In eternity. That’s what she wants. But if you come with me – and even if we die! – your soul will be free in the afterlife. You could choose your partner!” I drew closer to his ear until I was sure he could feel my breath. “I still bleed every moon. We could have the princess we’ve always wanted. Now that we know you can, too.” He gulped. Having a daughter together was finally within reach now. A daughter who wouldn’t know that her father had once been a slave.
The blink of an eye later, his arms wrapped around my back and his tongue sought mine. The advance was so unexpected, so intense and so desperate… but also, so long pined for.
Tingles ran through my body. I was thrown back in time. No gray strands, no subtle wrinkles, no loose skin – just the two of us in the chamber of the princess. Only giggling and love and naive promises to stay together in eternity.
When he finally pulled away, we were both gasping for air. He drew me to his chest, stroked my back.
We stood there for a long time, in each other’s tight embrace. With thumping hearts and fast breaths.
Protego’s hand on my back trembled. I had seldomly regretted something more than that we had to keep up a facade for the guards in front of the door now.
“We can have that each day,” I promised. “Covering way away from here until we’re tired to death. We can talk for half the night and then fall asleep together under the stars. Don't you want that? Don't you want to be part of a family?”
I knew he always had. But instead of any sort of answer, it stayed quiet. He simply continued holding me as if he’d never let go again.
As the moment grew longer and longer, I looked up at him.
Streams of tears poured out of his beautiful dark eyes, wetting his cheeks. As he noticed me watching, he gently drew back and pressed a peck onto my forehead.
My heart hurt at the thought that the peaceful illusion had already been shattered so soon.
“I will always love only you,” he whispered, choked with tears. “Please, forgive me, minha rainha.”
With a force I hadn’t known he possessed, he shoved me away and jumped backward.
In that moment, I realized what he was crying for.
“No. No! Stay here!” I stepped forward to seize his arm but he had already reached the door and banged on it.
The door swung open with force. Arythions flooded into the room. I fought them with all my strength but without Protego, I was weak.
“Don’t go! She will destroy you!”
He let out a whimpering, was then shoved out of sight. Until the very last moment, he never averted his gaze from me with those glassy, grief-stricken eyes.
Then I saw her.
Emerging proudly from where my Protego had vanished.
As the door had locked away the snake and my love with her once and for all, I sank down where Protego had last stood.
I had known Penthesilea would lie her head off to convince him to stay. But when he had come he had – sincerely and honestly – been undecided. He had earnestly considered running away as I had asked him to.
And he was unquestionably still in love with me.
But still, he had knowingly broken my heart in the end. And that alone hurt more than losing to Penthesilea ever would.
With trembling fingers, I stroke over the cold tiles. While I would spend the rest of my days alone and in exile, he would slowly be poisoned in a life he knew would be his ruin.
I wanted to yell it out. To yell so loud that the guards in front of the door, that Penthesilea, the treacherous Orcheons, even Serkon and Alexander far away in their palaces would go deaf.
I wanted to be angry. I deserved to be angry and to hate Protego for leaving me as much as I hated the daughter of Thestia.
But as I drew breath and opened my mouth, all that came out of it was a pitiful sob. And instead of hateful, I was drained.
That’s how the sky must feel, after shedding all these raindrops.
Poses by Natalia Auditore (here and here), anewlovesims, simmerberlin (here, here and here), loudsilencesims, Rinvalee, MrsRacooney, simtrovart and sim-plyreality
"minha rainha" means "my queen"