Penthesilea kneaded her fingers while the slave was away. The search for Io and the baby had robbed her of sleep entirely. Her head was throbbing and a veil encased her senses since she had arrived at the Orcheons' residence.
Finally, the man returned. “The queen has been apprised of your presence and will meet you when prepared.”
“Would you enjoy a cup of wine in the meantime?”
“No.” Maybe the wine would put her at rest at least partially but she didn’t dare to risk an even blurrier perception. To stay awake, she began to pace up and down.
Lyta and her had searched until daybreak but found no hint at the missing ones’ whereabouts let alone themselves. Only shortly before the first rays of morning sun, they had settled on her bed to debate the further procedure.
During a few moments of silence, Lyta had fallen asleep.
In hindsight, the queen’s conscience condemned her over and over for having expected too much from her daughter. But at least, the princess could rest now.
At the thought, her own limbs became heavy, too. Everyone had slept when she had left – Protego had only carried himself out of the basement room to join Phyllis on the stone bench. To be there when the girl would wake. To assure her that no one had fallen victim to an angered goddess.
And thankfully, they could be sure that he wouldn’t try to flee just like Haimon when his daughter was one of those held accountable.
Zeuxippe, too spoke slowly and slurred as she appeared after quite a while.
“There you are!” Penthesilea’s mind revolted even stronger against wake as it was promised not to bear the burden alone any more. “I need you. Io has disappeared in the night and Deia, too. We have looked everywhere around the compound but without success. Please, help me find them!”
The Orcheon took place, then yawned heartily. “That is strange. Why would she leave you in the first place?”
“I don’t know.” Guesses had of course surfaced during the sleepless half of the night but now, in daylight, none of them sounded more than ridiculous at best.
“And you are sure she hasn’t just gone for a blow?”
“She wouldn’t stay out for so long. Least of all with a newborn.”
“True,” Zeuxippe confessed pensively, “true. But again, if anyone would have stayed at your side I figured it would have been her. That she is capable of such a betrayal of trust is… disappointing.”
It was. And the other Amazon was the only one who would fully understand. Not Serkon, not Boras – only Zeuxippe.
After losing her lover.
Penthesilea buried her head in the hands. “Great Goddess! Please, Zeuxippe, help me. Losing her would be… so…”
For a few moments, she believed to feel emotions fight for upper hand in the other queen's stare. But the late answer bore a hint of the long-awaited forgiveness at last.
“Alright. Let’s think of how we can get that unfaithful Arythion back.”
Suddenly, something knocked at an imaginary door in Penthesilea’s tortured mind. It was hard to grasp the invader in the midst of all the exhaustion.
But it was a word. A single word.
Alarmed, the daughter of Thestia straightened up. “I know where she is,” she blurted out.
Surprise was written in Zeuxippe’s face. “You do?”
“You said she was Arythion. She is. And an Arythion would no matter the circumstances seek refuge in the temple of the Sea God!” Maybe it had been a mistake not to think of that before but Io had been an Amazon for many suns now, trusted friend of the queen herself.
“That… sounds reasonable. But she’s also your provider. Why wouldn’t she turn to the Goddess instead?”
“No. Io would still prefer the Sea God.”
Zeuxippe snorted. “That unbeliever. She has never been one of us, has she?”
“Will you come with me?”
“Well.” The Orcheon looked down at herself. “If you can wait until I am properly dressed.”
Sweltering, dry heat hit Penthesilea as she followed the Sea God’s high priest.
The air’s heaviness masked the usual moldy smell of underground chambers. Breathing turned more and more into torture.
Her look followed the dim flare to its source, the never-dying fire shedding light at the wooden altar in the middle of the room.
Alexandros turned and locked on to her gaze sternly. “These are sacred grounds. They as well as everyone staying here are under the protection of Thalessos of the Sea.”
His head tilted toward the flickering lights.
For a moment, nothing seemed to be there other than shadows dancing on the walls. But then, blinking, the Amazon discovered a tiny piece of human skin shimmering from the altar’s back side.
The priest raised his voice with an almost divine power. “In the name of the lord Sea and Sun who will provide safety for your body and soul, you may come forth.”
“Io?” Penthesilea took a hopeful step toward the brightness but stocked under the Arythion’s strict watch. The skin behind the altar moved, disappeared from sight. The blink of an eye later, a face framed by raven-black hair rose.
“My lady!” As soon as she had spotted the queen, Io leaped up. Dark eyes sparkling, she hurried closer. “I knew you’d find us!”
Relief flooded Penthesilea’s heart. “Are you well? Where is Deia?”
The small woman came to a stand in front of her. “Oh, she’s well and sound asleep at a safe place, my lady, don’t worry about her! I’m so glad you’re here!”
“Me, too,” the daughter of Thestia confessed in bewilderment. “But- why did you two leave the compound so late?”
The same moment the words were spoken, Io looked down at the bald marble ground and mumbled. “My… my lady. I must beg your pardon. It was all my fault, I- it’s only me to blame.”
“Blame? What for? Is it so bad you can not just tell me?”
The provider’s lips began to quiver. “It’s just that I- I- missed him so much- And after hearing how gruesome living conditions are for children on slave holds I-” Her shoulders slumped. “I had to go and see if he’s fine.”
In shock, Penthesilea looked her friend over. “Are you saying… that you have taken the risk of a nighttime travel to an infamous slave hold with a helpless baby while knowingly disregarding my orders?”
“Yes,” the whispered answer came.
“Do you not understand that the orders were supposed to protect you?”
“I do, and I am so sorry to have broken them but after hearing about the terrible life of slave children-” In the middle of the sentence, Io’s voice cracked. “I couldn’t- I- I love Chrysippos, too!”
The queen stepped forward. Closer to Io whose suffering face was now enclosed by the coal pans' light. At once, the room had become suffocatingly narrow. “Who?,” she asked. “Who told you tha-”
A sudden yell broke in at them. “-in the name of the Sea God, go no further!” Accompanied by a bang and a wiry, sword-bearing youth stumbling after her, Zeuxippe made a full blast appearance.
“Penthesilea, look who’s here! The traitor’s so-!”
Noticing the sought one in the small group, she interrupted herself. “The traitor’s son.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’ve found your tribe member!”
“It was impossible to oversee him as one of the temple guards.” Penthesilea’s gaze scampered around between Zeuxippe, Io and the young Arythion.
Io let out a suppressed scream and drew back.
“Charon!” Alexandros approached Echion’s son. “Your order was to guard the door and let nobody pass.”
Charon had drawn breath to bring up an angry excusion but stalled. Through between their heads, he pointed behind the group.
Even before they could follow his hint, yet another imperious voice filled the room. “Don’t say anything else, Io!”
Lips sternly pinched together, Iasion came out from behind the altar. “They don’t need to know more right now.”
“My lady, I swear by Bright Mitera that it’s my fault, I persuaded him to come with me, please...”
“Lies,” Iasion interrupted Io gently. “I was willing to accompany her. We went to see our son together.”
For a few moments, even the sizzling of the flames held its breath. They stopped their endless dance on the rough stone walls. Everyone- everything gaped in awe.
“Tsk, tsk.” The first to move, Zeuxippe tapped her tongue against the palate. “That’s truly a sight. Is that how you men thank for being invited into an Amazon’s bed and getting away with life? By seducing and desecrating her?
And you,” she turned to Io, “how could you defy your queen’s goddess-given authority and betray her so shamelessly! You have doomed your whole tribe with the Goddess’s wrath and we all know it can only be averted by blood.”
Young Charon leaped forward, teeth clenched and ready to attack. “Don’t pester everyone with that forever-damned goddess of yours!”
He was silenced by a single word from Alexandros who then admonished the Amazon as well. “Do not stain Thalessos’ house nor his servants in such a manner. You have accused this couple and my son-in-law of terrible things yet you do not know them. This is a sanctuary that will hold up peace and you will honor its deity's rules or leave.”
“A sanctuary.” Zeuxippe snorted. “A sanctuary for criminals? You consciously get in the way of justice, priest!”
It was enough. Sooner or later, it had to be just that. Sleeplessness. All the uncertainty. And now, that at least that was gone one of her friends was assaulting the other. The grief over her defied orders, her almost-murderer’s son. Exhaustion had crept into her every bone. It became increasingly hard to pretend determination or at least mental presence.
Enough. More than Penthesilea could take as she put forth her hand calmly into Io’s direction.
“Come. Come, we will return home and sleep.”
Her fellow queen let out a cry. “Penthesilea! You don’t think of pardoning her when her deed could cause your entire tribe’s downfall! She has got involved with a man!”
“I haven’t said anything about pardoning. But I am dead tired and need some rest before making such a grave decision.”
“I see.” Zeuxippe’s face opened up again. “Though it would undoubtedly put you more at ease judging now and sleep afterward, you have deserved the rest. For your comfort, please allow me to accompany you home. And I could also keep an eye on the wrongdoer to prevent her from attempting flight. Just remember what your master slave did - and he was better watched!”
Iasion crossed his arms. “She will not go anywhere, with nobody and neither will I. We claim the sanctuary of the temple.”
“You are criminals! You don’t have the right to claim anything but rightful punishment!”
“And you are not my queen,” Iasion shot back. “Only the king of Borathion is entitled to demand justification from me!”
“Insolent fool, don’t raise your voice toward a noblewom-”
Penthesilea put one hand at the Orcheon’s arm. “Please. Let it be for now. It is alright, we shall ask the priest not to let them escape.”
“Are you being serious? You can’t count on the priests’ loyalty, they’re Arythions and moreover, men! Of course they will side with him!”
“We will let them swear.”
Still not fully convinced, the other Amazon finally gave in. “Fine. But I will stay and care for that their promise will be held.”
“You will not stay,” Charon hissed.
“Indeed you will not.” Alexandros’ resolution wouldn’t tolerate any protest. “You may bear the title of queen up there but before the god and thus before us, too, it means nothing.”
“Well,” the Orcheon declared on the way out, “they can’t stay in there forever. And when they venture outside eventually, you will have your revenge.”
Though laying a finger on Io was the last Penthesilea could imagine, she kept silent to avoid yet another confrontation with one of her so precious allies. And arriving at the compound at long last, falling onto the bed that Lyta did not lay in any more, sleep took her into its arms almost immediately anyway and was dreamless for once.
Waking up when the sun stood high, Penthesilea enjoyed the few blissful moments of feeling that her strength and clearheadedness had returned. Yet oblivion didn't spare her for long from the events of the early morning.
So Io had, against all orders, gone to visit her son and taken little Deia and Iasion who she wasn't supposed to see any more with her. Next she knew was finding them in the temple with Io, though usually of gushing nature, beside herself with joy that she had found the way to them. That much still shone through the foggy memories of the night before.
Of course there had been Alexandros the Sea God's high priest and Charon, much more disrespectful and blunt than the last time while being on well-known territory. And not to forget, Iasion, too with ever more rebelliousness.
Maybe it was time to overthink the relationship tribe members should have with the men around. Both had begun so harmless, so... enchanting. Though in the end, it was pure luck that Serkon had still stayed as a friend after everything that had happened.
However, Io had experienced the tougher outcome. And it was hard to see her trust a man more than her queen. Equally hard to know that despite all the fondness that undeniably existed between them, she would be the one to end and punish it.
Good that Zeuxippe was there for support. She had spoken for her in that temple chamber, if even a bit rash and fierce at times. But her assistance had not exactly made her friends and she had still chosen to provide it.
No, really no friends if Penthesilea thought back at Charon and Iasions' open hostility. Iasion in particular had not revealed his presence until the Orcheon had shown herself, too. And he had immediately shut Io up.
All of his outbursts had been directed toward Zeuxippe. While toward her, Penthesilea, who he had every right to be angry with after forbidding him to see a woman he obviously liked and who had sold his son into slavery - toward her, he had behaved more guarded and almost polite.
It lacked sense that he would be so calm conversing with her when at the same time assuming that she bore the guilt for Chrysippos' miserable childhood. Where did Io hear about that, anyway? It had never come to Penthesilea's own attention that the slave traders would mistreat children notably. They still wanted to realize a good price, did they not? Who could have-
Slowly, a thought began to nest in her head. Part for part came together until the whole picture took form.
A terrifying picture, actually.
And if it was true, it was not Io who was in danger, safe in the Arythion priests' care - it was everyone else Penthesilea held dear.
Poses by MrsRacooney, simmerberlin, radioactive, eslanes, sim-plyreality, edens-star and andromeda-sims
This chapter has an extra screenshot in the gallery