Part One: “I Was Born into This War”
Chapter 1: The World-Queen
Soft sounds of still water echoed off of the blue-tiled walls and vaulted ceiling of a great room. “I’m all rinsed off now,” Promî announced. She waded through the steamy water toward the steps leading up to the tiled floor.
“Very well, my Queen,” said Enstâmî, immersed up to her underarms. She turned to follow her mistress.
Promî emerged from the bath into multi-colored sunlight filtered through stained glass windows, showing a toweled head, trim muscular arms, a firm abdomen, a long waist, and sturdy thighs. She turned to Enstâmî behind her and said, “I’ll see you back in my private chambers.”
Although the soap had been rinsed away, its sweet aroma hung about them in the air. The Queen took a deep invigorating breath of it as Enstâmî handed her a pair of wooden clogs. Putting them on, she started for the arched doorway that led to the cold water room. Her clogs rattled loud on the slippery wet floor. In the cold room, she met Hultenî, a petite slave woman, whose duty was to dry off the Queen after her dip in the cold bath. Not speaking, Hultenî sprang to her feet with feline litheness and bowed low. Nodding her head in return, Promî slipped off her clogs.
As the Queen turned toward the steps leading down into the cold bath, Hultenî stepped up to her, very close on the right side. Something was amiss. Promî glanced to her right in time to see the glint of a tiny blade in the slave’s hand. Instinctively she swung her right arm to parry the blow. The blade scratched her right side just above her pelvis. Losing her balance, she stumbled down the steps and into the water. The towel covering her hair slipped off. A second later, her soaked head re-emerged.
“Assassin in the bath house! Call the Guards!” she sputtered.
Hultenî stood before her with feet wide apart, holding a slender blade in her right hand. With a contemptuous smile and a belligerent gleam in her eyes, she snarled, “You’re dead. The blade is poisoned.”
In the distance, Promî could hear Enstâmî shouting, “Guards! Guards!” She struggled up the steps from the bath. Her breath was coming in short gasps. Her feet were moving too slow. Her knees were stiffening. Poisoned! The thought screamed through her head. A pair of wooden clogs rattled across the wet tiled floor, louder as they approached. Enstâmî was coming!
Promî fell to her knees. Her head reeled. She steadied herself on her hands and tried to pray. Only the first gasping words came out. “O Djeu kontujowan haistomid,” she began, but her voice failed. She added the last word dideimroi in her head. As her face struck the tiled floor, her blurring eyes caught a cavalcade of images.
Enstâmî slamming into the assassin at a run.
Hultenî falling on her back, rolling, kicking the other slave off, and slicing her own throat.
Two pairs of military boots running up.
Blood pooling on the tiles.
Clear sight began to fade. She could see only moving shadows.
She heard a voice screaming, “The blade is poisoned.” It was Enstâmî’s. “She stabbed the Queen. Get a healer!”
The swirling shadows merged into one.
Promî blinked and turned. She was covered now, and lying on a bed or perhaps a stretcher. She recognized a calm male voice, one she had heard many times since childhood. It belonged to Metwolûn, Chief Healer of her Court. He repeated the same words.
“All-Highest, can you hear my voice?”
“Yes,” she tried to say. One badly garbled syllable escaped from her lips. She nodded. Her eyes had recovered enough to discern moving shadows again. She saw the shadow of a human figure holding a hand to its face. She heard a sniffing sound, and guessed he was using a scent on the poison blade to trigger his psychic healing powers.
“I beg my Queen to play close attention. The little knife has been dipped in manticore venom. Fortunately, not much of it got into your bloodstream. The wound was a scratch, thank the Creator.” She now remembered being scratched on the right side, although she felt no pain there now. She struggled to say she tried to parry the blade, but only a moan came out.
“All-Highest, please don’t try to speak,” said Metwolûn. “I’m going to administer a potion. Prepare to drink. Does Your All-Highest Majesty understand? If so, please nod.”
She nodded again. At least her neck muscles obeyed her. From shoulders to feet she was numb. Her eyes started to obey her now. She saw a fuzzy image, Metwolûn’s face hovering over her as he pried the cork off of a bottle. He lowered the bottle’s mouth to her lips. Forcing her mouth open, she took a drink and swallowed. The antidote tasted bitter on her tongue. He withdrew the bottle. Promî wanted to thank him for his years of loyal service, but she knew the words would not come, so she prayed inside her head. Djeus, my Creator, I beg of Thee not to take my life at such a young age, when the fate of the Ninth House rests upon me. Nevertheless, Thy will be done!
The darkness returned.
When her eyes opened again, she found herself in her bed. Two cushions lay on the carpeted floor beside her. On one of them sat Enstâmî, now clad in white cotton trousers and a knee-length scarlet tunic emblazoned with the nine-pointed star of the Ninth House. On the other rested the corpulent form of Krossidâ Stivîr, Master of the Suite in Attendance on the Queen of the Hegemony. He was dressed the same way. Both wore iron collars indicating they were slaves.
She heard Stivîr’s high-pitched eunuch voice first. “I trust Your All-Highest Majesty is feeling much better now?”
Promî could form words again, but her voice was a hoarse whisper, and to speak was laborious. She had to pause every few words. “I’m still very weak,” she began, “but much improved. Send my thanks to Metwolûn.” She could feel her body again, including the stinging pain in her right side. Now, thank the Creator, it hurt no more than the skinned knees of her childhood. “When will I be fully recovered?” asked the Queen.
“Metwolûn has upgraded my Queen’s condition to stable, and expects All-Highest to be functioning normally in three days.”
“Good,” Promî replied, forcing a smile to her lips. “At least now I can speak and follow a conversation.” There is nothing I detest more than being weak, she thought, turning her head toward the woman.
“Enstâmî, I saw what you did. Though unarmed and naked, you defended me.” Enstâmî smiled pertly, keeping her mouth shut, while the Queen gathered strength for the next sentence. “You stopped the assassin from finishing me off.”
“I’m honored to serve Your All-Highest Majesty in any way I can.”
“I had a dream while I was asleep. I was back in the most terrible time of my childhood – the long retreat where we had to abandon our old capital.”
Both listeners nodded sympathetically. “We were both with our Queen then,” said Enstâmî.
“Incessant rain,” said the Queen. “Wagon wheels stuck in the ruts of muddy roads.”
A dark look of painful memory crossed the face of the slave woman. “It was during the rainy season,” she said, shaking her head. “I thought we would never get away, moving over those muddy roads. A child is too young to understand. But I was told such lies! There was nothing to worry about, they said. We are just going away to the west. A child knows when the adults’ words belie their acts.”
“We were both there and remember those days,” said Stivîr, shaking his head sadly. “The noise of battle in the distance, the dead and the wounded being brought back from battle. The smoke of burning towns pillaged by the rebels.”
“My brother’s body was brought into the camp,” Promî recalled. “My mother and I wept and wailed over his body. Only then was I told the truth.”
Tears welled up in the Queen’s eyes. “I loved my brother. He put me on his saddle, made me hold on tight to the pommel, while he let me ride with him on his horse. I remember his strong hands holding me in place.”
“I remember that too,” said Enstâmî. “That was during the retreat. He could tell his little sister was upset. He was only trying to cheer my Queen up.”
“Those were hard times,” said the Stivîr. “We battled to cover our retreat, not stopping till the old World-King, of blessed memory, settled us here at Grey Walls.”
“At the time I wished I could help him. I wished I was grown up so I could fight beside him. In the dream, I did.”
The Queen took a long deep breath before continuing.
“In the dream I was the same age I am now. My father and I rode side by side our swords drawn and shields raised. My mother and the treasures of the Court were in a nearby wagon.” She took another deep breath, and smiled faintly. “My father gave me words of encouragement.”
And in the dream I never saw the enemy, she remembered, but I knew they were there, hiding in the darkness of the forest on both sides of the road. My father said, “Daughter, take courage, but never let your guard down. Our foes the rebels are only a few steps behind us.”
“Then what happened?” asked Enstâmî.
“I could say more when I’m all well. Even talking tires me. But at least in the dream I got my wish. I was fighting for my father and the Ninth House and to avenge my dead brother and for the Hegemony, which now barely exists.”
The attempt on my life has merely strengthened my resolve. I will make war on the traitors who overthrew my father after swearing allegiance to him. This is what I’ve trained for, ever since his death. Once I’m crowned and Regency ends, I will accomplish these tasks.
She now had strength to speak again. “It stands to reason the King of Nobalos is behind this plot. He was my father’s worst enemy. I am my father’s heiress and so he would also seek my death .”
“To be sure, my Queen, he is behind it,” said Stivîr.
“Would All-Highest like me to summon a dream interpreter?” suggested Enstâmî.
The Queen shook her head. “Not for this. The meaning is obvious. The rebels are still pursuing me. There are plotters against me here at my court.”
“All-Highest, I assure you …,” began Stivîr.
“Silence, Stivîr. I wasn’t thinking about any specific person, but even I don’t know all my slaves. I don’t personally vet them for their loyalty. Others have to do that. There must be other plotters here at court. Otherwise how could Hultenî have been placed in a position of intimate contact with me?”
“But surely, All-Highest, I have proved my loyalty,” pleaded the eunuch.
Is this to be my fate – to be hunted like an animal in my own palace, surrounded by traitors and opportunists, friendless, and without even family to protect me? May the Maker of Heaven and Earth forbid it!
“Stivîr, the only way to settle this is by consulting the Oracular Topaz.”
“Excellent idea, All-Highest!” Stivîr cried out.
Enstâmî responded with a nod. “Good idea,” she said, almost in a whisper.
“As the heiress to my father’s throne and by right Queen of the World, only I can use it. I will request the regents to deliver it to me at once.”
Enstâmî gasped, putting her hand over her mouth. She turned to the eunuch. “Our Queen isn’t supposed to get the Topaz until the Coronation, two weeks from now.” Tears welled up in the slave’s eyes. “But All-Highest might be dead by then!”
“I need the Oracular Topaz,” said the Queen. “I need it right now. My life is in danger until I discover the rest of the plotters.”
“If I may, All-Highest,” the eunuch ventured, “it’s possible that the Topaz will not respond before the crown is placed on my Queen’s head.”
“Maybe not, but even though my crowning is in the very near future it wouldn’t be safe to wait that long.”
“I shall transmit my Queen’s request for the Topaz to the regents today,” said Stivîr.
“Wait!” The Queen’s voice was stronger now. “Why should I risk waiting for the regents’ permission?” She lifted her head from the pillow. “I need the Topaz brought to me right now!” Her listeners recoiled in surprise at the sudden energy. Promî settled her head back on the pillow. “Which of the regents has custody this week?”
The Chief Healer at Court! That’s perfect. He saved my life. I can be sure of his loyalty.
“I’ll bring a transmitter to summon him,” said Enstâmî.
“Do it!” the Queen commanded.
Springing to her feet, Enstâmî dashed out of the room.
Promî turned back to the eunuch. “You are to remain here, to watch over me till Metwolûn comes.”
“I am honored to do so, All-Highest.”
“All-Highest, wake up!”
Promî’s eyes popped open. Though still sluggish and drowsy from the morning’s ordeal, her mind was focused. She recognized Metwolûn’s voice. She saw Stivîr seated as before, Metwolûn approaching her with a small cedar box in his hands, and Enstâmî walking beside him. Metwolûn knelt beside her bed. “The Topaz! You brought it to me!”
“Of course, All-Highest,” said Metwolûn with a reassuring smile. He lowered himself onto a cushion. “I have taken a risk by acting without the consent of the regents, but at least I have my Queen to vouch for me.”
“My regents will haggle over my legal status. Let them. Necessity is on our side, Metwolûn. Now give me the Topaz!”
Father dear, those who betrayed you, and those who sought my death today, will suffer the punishment they deserve.
“I shall do so, my Queen,” the Chief Healer replied.” But first let me share some of my Queen’s father’s experience with it.”
Promî felt impatient, but she was willing to listen to the Chief Healer, who knew her father well. Besides, he had just saved her life. “Very well, Healer. Proceed.”
“The Oracular Topaz can answer any question about the present and the past. It can even breach the confidentiality of a transmitter’s message. It must be consulted sparingly. My Queen’s father of blessed memory, early in his reign, often complained of the headaches he suffered when he used it too much. So he made it a habit to consult the Topaz no more than ten times per day. One must choose questions with care.”
This may be a clue to the defeats of my father’s reign. Maybe he didn’t always know what questions to ask it. Maybe that was just as much of a factor as the monetary crisis of that time.
“But dear Metwolûn,” she replied, “you can cure headaches with your knowledge of pressure points, can’t you?”
He shook his head. “Not this kind of headache. Creator knows, I’ve tried. My Queen will just have to endure them for a few hours.”
Another man, wearing the livery of the Ninth House but no slave collar, came into the room carrying a pen box and a large roll of paper.
Metwolûn explained, “I brought a secretary to record the evidence which the Oracular Topaz will provide.”
“Good thinking.” The Queen smiled, unable to take her sight off that little cedar box. “Take a cushion, secretary,” she commanded, “and prepare to write.” Then she addressed the Chief Healer again. “Weighty matters must be attended to. Give me the Topaz. Now.”
As a child, she had seen her father use it. He held the gemstone against the center of his forehead and thought the question in his head. She didn’t hear the answer, and asked her father why not. His replied that the answer came back like a thought.
The healer cleared his throat. “I now have the honor to present to my Queen the Oracular Topaz.” He raised the lid of the box. The interior was lined with red velvet. For the first time in years, Promî saw the Oracular Topaz mounted in its silver pendant with a silver chain. It was the size of a walnut, and had the oblong shape of a walnut also, except that it was flattened on the side that was attached to its silver mounting. Its facets, she knew, numbered 144, not counting the flat side. This number was sixteen times nine, and thereby the shape of the gem was a symbol of the Ninth House, her dynasty.
She sat up in bed, leaning toward the healer. Her right hand trembling with excitement, she reached into the box, touching the Topaz and finding it cool to the touch. She had expected it to be warm. She picked it up. At the center, a bright golden light flashed, then rapidly faded. “It glows,” she said with a gasp. “Just like when my father had it.”
“Indeed, All-Highest,” the Metwolûn replied, “it flashes at regular intervals when on the person of the World-King, or World-Queen.”
“Of course,” she said with a laugh. “I remember now.”
The Topaz flashed again, commanding the gaze of every eye in the room.
“Promonîr the Third of blessed memory timed the flashes,” said Metwolûn. “There’s an interval of four heartbeats between them.”
Promî draped the chain around her neck and looked at it. She took the Topaz and held it to the middle of her forehead. It flashed again. Still holding the gem on the skin of her forehead, she paused for a moment to phrase her question. Then she projected her thought at it. Name everyone serving me here at my Court who is in any way implicated in today’s assassination plots against me, or any other plots against me.
I have no names for you,the answer came back. Hultenî had no accomplices at court, and there are no other ongoing plots.
Promî’s brows shot up, and her lips parted with surprise. She would have expected Hultenî to have at least one collaborator here. She lowered the gem and looked around the room. The secretary, pen in hand, looked back at her expectantly. “It said Hultenî had – no accomplices at court. There is no one still alive at my court who is plotting my death.”
Promî could feel her energy returning, as if the Topaz itself had reinvigorated her.
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Stivîr with a chuckle.
“I don’t question the Topaz,” Metwolûn said, “but it seems unlikely she did this all by herself.”
She consulted the Topaz again. Who is plotting against me among the invited guests to my Coronation?
None of the Queen’s guests is plotting against her.
Which of the Coronation’s guests is implicated in the attack on me in the bath this morning?
None of them.
She repeated these surprising facts to her listeners.
“Then where,” asked Stivîr, “did she get the blade, and the manticore venom?”
How did she get the blade and the poison? Words and sentences began pouring into the Queen’s head. Wait a moment, she told the Topaz.
She lowered it from her head, and turned to the secretary. “Write this!” she commanded, the words coming easier from her mouth as she recounted the details. “Hultenî was one of a number of slaves who were entrusted to go into nearby towns to buy provisions for the court. One of her contacts was an apothecary named Kailotorûn in the nearby city of Lukti-Khobom who has been a carefully hidden spy for Nobalos for many years. She had received the blade, already dipped in manticore venom, from him.”
“Nobalos,” Enstamî. “Yeah, that figures. Our worst enemy.”
“I thought so,” said the Queen. She smiled maliciously. “Nobalos, prepare to taste my wrath.” She turned back to the Chief Healer. “As a member of the Council of Regency, you will take this information to the session this afternoon.”
“How does my Queen’s forehead feel?”
“It feels all right. I don’t think I asked too many questions.”
“All-Highest’s voice is strengthening,” Metwolûn observed.
Promî yawned. “I need to sleep now, but there’s one thing I need to take care of first.” She turned to Enstâmî. “You have earned a reward for your loyalty to me in my time of peril. Name it.”
Before replying, Enstâmî tapped the iron ring around her neck. “All-Highest, I beg you to emancipate me.”
Enstâmî’s eyes lit up and opened wide. She gasped.
“As soon as I’m able to stand up,” the Queen continued, “I’ll perform the necessary ritual. In any case, the approval of the regents will be required, since I’m not officially of age till the Coronation. You will then be free to go where you please.”
Belying her thirty-nine years, Enstâmî jumped to her feet and squealed like a happy girl. “All-Highest,” said she, “I beg to remain a part of this household, as a free servant of my Queen.”
“That too is granted,” said the Queen, smiling for the first time since awakening. She turned to the secretary. “Make a note of that for Metwolûn to present at the Council.”
“May I be the first to congratulate you,” said the Chief Healer to the slave. “I doubt seriously the regents will stand in the way of such a just act.”
“I’m sure they won’t.” Promî yawned. “I need to sleep some more. I’m exhausted.”
After some hours of sleep, the Queen awoke again and asked the ever-attentive Enstâmî to dress her. As the slave sponge-bathed her, she got a look for the first time at the wound in her side, a long ugly slice stitched back together. She winced. Then she resolved not to worry. It was a battle-scar, and therefore a mark of honor. With her intense training in the use of the sword, flanged mace, and composite bow, she thought of herself as a warrior. Her grandfather had said, “The World-King is a warrior.” The first World-Queen should be a warrior, too. She had won her first battle today. Others would follow.
Enstâmî helped her into a light tunic and a pair of long cotton trousers, and put her favorite ankle bracelet on her right ankle. Then she was carried into her sitting room by two male slaves, and settled in for an afternoon of spiritual recuperation with her favorite hand-illuminated manuscript copy of the Sacred Verses. She began with a prayer of thanks to the Creator for preserving her life, and for sending her such diligent and loyal servants as Enstâmî and Metwolûn. Then she opened the book and began to study.
Soon after, Metwolûn interrupted her, with news from the afternoon meeting of the Council of Regents. His report was verbal, but a copy of the minutes would be sent to her later, as usual.
The regents found Metwolûn’s act an acceptable way to identify the conspirators. They excused the irregular procedure because the Queen was less than two weeks away from her Coronation, which would mark her coming of age.
“I knew they would support my decision, Metwolûn,” she replied. “Thanks to the Topaz, I know now that I can trust them.”
“They also approved measures,” the Chief Healer continued, “to improve security at the palace, authorized the Captain-General to draft plans for the next phase of the war, and settled various details of the impending Coronation.”
Promî was so happy, she laughed. “Finally I get to rule, to be Queen in fact, not just in title!”
“The four World-Kings who wore it in the past would be very proud of the prompt way Your All-Highest Majesty has handled this crisis,” said the Chief Healer with a solemn smile.
The Queen smiled. “I like to think they know what happened, and are proud of me.”
The healer nodded. “Part of their reward in Eternal Bliss is to share the joys of their descendents.”
It was a comforting thought to a woman who had lost her father at age seven. She looked down at the pulsating pendant gemstone. Armed with you, dear friend, she thought, I am effectively in command, even though these regents will rule for thirteen more days. We shall avenge my father together.
End of Chapter One
You have just read the first chapter of my Young Adult Fantasy Mistress of the Topaz. To get the whole ebook, go to http://www.double-dragon-ebooks.com and search for Mistress of the Topaz.
Mistress of the Topaz is the first novel of a projected series of books, The Hegemonic Tales. The second is now available for download from Double Dragon. It is called Mistress of Land and Sea.
Keep up with all of Betty Cross’ novels by clicking Like on the Facebook page “Speculative Fiction of Betty Cross” and friending Betty Cross on Facebook.
Reviewers’ praise for Mistress of the Topaz
“Ms. Cross brings to life a high fantasy novel. Though fairies and dwarves don’t inhabit this like a Tolkien work, it is closer to something that George RR Martin mixed with Dune might end up when a dash of the Arabian Nights are thrown in.”
— Pamela K. Kinney, book reviewer, author of “Haunted Richmond”
“Wow … this book really was Dune meets Tolkien … only with a fantastic and believable heroine who is strong but not ridiculous, powerful but not lacking femininity … I am mightily impressed, and definitely looking forward to the next installment!”
— Jessica Bradshaw, author of the Unbound Trilogy
In a world full of magic and fantastic creatures, Betty gives us characters who feel real and face real world issues. The story grabs you at the start and will keep you reading… I could easily see this book being the first in a long series. Highly recommend to anyone who loves a good fantasy with epic battles and characters that feel real to the reader.
— Rob West, fantasy novelist
Recommended for Ages 15 and up