Baroness Mikkotto pushed open the doors.
Through the majestic brass doors of the royal palace, its gleaming white walls and floors now stained with blood, she entered cautiously. Bodies of Hasan Daegians and the Dinii were strewn throughout the hall and staircase. Mikkotto ordered her guards to move the corpses out of her way, fearful that a soldier might play dead and stab her as she stepped over. Soldiers who moaned when moved were quickly dispatched by an axe.
The horrible chunking noise of the metal striking bone did not bother Mikkotto, who calmly studied the carnage. Between the death throes of her countrywomen, Mikkotto listened for commotion in the palace. She knew Abisola and Iasos were nearby. Did they go downstairs into the bowels of the royal stronghold? Or were they on the rooftop waiting for extraction by the surviving Dinii?
It didn’t matter. Mikkotto had placed guards at every exit point. She was searching for the royal family, and she must reach them before Dorak.
Dorak! She had to hand it to him. He had made an inspired play by recalling the Black Cacodemon and using magic to invade Hasan Daeg. By manipulating the wizard’s powers, Dorak was able to conquer Hasan Daeg within hours rather than months or years. The Hasan Daegian army never stood a chance against the lightning speed of the Bhuttanian army in the grips of the wizard’s enchantment.
As soon as Dorak took control of the capital O Konya, the spell disbursed, and now everyone moved normally. Mikkotto twisted her lips in annoyance. Too bad. She wished the spell had lasted until she could discover the whereabouts of her royal cousin.
Mikkotto jerked her head up. She faintly heard Dorak ordering, “BHUTTANIANS! ALL WEAPONS ON THE FLOOR!”
She cursed knowing Dorak had found Abisola and her consort. Fortunately for her, she had placed men among various squads, giving them instructions to kill the queen and her husband if they came upon them.
Grinning, she relished the thought that they would obey her and not Dorak, paying them with gold and the promise of more coins and land to come if they carried out her orders. Greed was a great motivator to get the unpleasantries of life done by those who valued money above all else.
Still, Mikkotto couldn’t take a chance. She scampered up the grand white marble staircase, jumping over slain bodies until she reached the second floor. Hearing screaming, she ran up another flight with her women warriors following behind.
Motioning for her warriors to wait, Mikkotto peered into a doorway and saw Dorak and a few Bhuttanians threatening Abisola and Iasos, who huddled on the floor before a small staircase going to the rooftop. Between them stood Maura, brandishing a sword. Behind her stood two Dinii with their talons exposed, looking very threatening.
The Dinii gave Mikkotto pause. She did not care to have her face slashed again nor die from a quick cut across her throat with their razor sharp nails. If truth be known, Mikkotto was terrified of them, but that fear had to be put aside. Victory was given to the bold, not the fearful.
Mikkotto studied the Dinii, thinking the taller one was Empress Gitar. She had seen her briefly at Maura’s birthday celebration before her son bumbled Maura’s assassination. Although the attempt on Maura’s life had failed, Mikkotto had not flinched when told of her son’s death at the hand of a Dini. She had little faith in her only son’s ability and was only too glad she had not assigned one of her daughters to the task. Daughters were precious, but sons were expendable.
She motioned to her warriors to be quiet while she listened to the conversation between Dorak and Abisola. If Maura and her parents were killed, Dorak would make her queen of Hasan Daeg. If he decided to spare them, she would have to make a daring move and quickly too.
Moving closer, Mikkotto heard Dorak speak, “Princess Maura, we meet again.” Dorak looked around the great hallway. “I see that you and your party have dispatched a few more of my men. I’m afraid I will have to put a stop to that.”
Kill her. KILL HER! thought Mikkotto, hugging the darkness of the doorway.
Concentrating on Dorak, Maura did not see Mikkotto slinking closer and closer.
Dorak stepped nearer to Queen Abisola, now being held upright in the arms of Iasos.
Maura and Yeti immediately blocked his way.
Dorak held up his hands in supplication. “Princess, I only want to speak to your mother,” he said calmly. Looking past Maura, he uttered, “Queen Abisola, it is over. The city has been taken and is in my control.”
Queen Abisola groaned.
Dorak continued in a soothing voice. “Your Majesty, I will give you the best terms for surrender. You and your
family will not be harmed. Look, as you can see, my men have put down their arms. It is not my desire to destroy this wondrous city. Your family may still sit on the throne as long as you pay homage to me as liege lord. My people need food. We need it desperately. Give me what I want, and I will make Hasan Daeg a power to behold within the Bhuttanian Empire.” Dorak took another step toward Queen Abisola.
NO! NO! What is Dorak doing? I was promised Hasan Daeg by his father. Dorak can’t do this to me, Mikkotto screamed in her head. She had to make her move soon.
Maura brought up her sword.
Dorak walked up to the blade pointed at his throat. He stood so that the point of the weapon almost pierced his skin. “Princess, I beseech you. Nothing can be gained from this last stand. It is over.”
“I can kill you right now.”
“Then you would sign your death warrant. My men would kill you and your parents before you made it to the roof,” Dorak replied softly. “You would be of no use to your people then, I assure you.”
“But neither would you.”
Dorak chuckled softly. “You are a most unusual young woman. I do hope I will be present to witness your final blooming, but that is up to you.”
When Maura did not respond to his words, Dorak
turned his attention to the failing Hasan Daegian queen. “Queen Abisola, think about your daughter. Surely you do not want to see her die. Surrender. It is all you can do.”
The queen struggled. She coughed, and blood seeped from her mouth.
Iasos quickly wiped it with his sleeve.
Holding tightly to her husband’s arms, Abisola whispered, “You may take me. But all of the Dinii, including Empress Gitar and my child, are to leave now.” She looked at Iasos. “My husband will share my fate with me.”
“Mother, no!” Maura insisted.
“This is my final command. Start withdrawing. Now!” Abisola croaked.
“I am afraid I cannot allow this,” interjected Dorak.
Queen Abisola measured her words carefully. “Aga Dorak, I am over three hundred years old. Only recently have I begun to age. Even your magicians have no spells to do this. Do you not want to know my secret? Do you not
want to live for a long time? How long did your father live? He wasn’t even fifty and was used up.” Abisola took a deep breath, which made a wheezing noise. “Just think of what you could accomplish in three hundred years or maybe more. Let my daughter go with the Dinii, and once they are safely away, I will show you how it is done.” She let her words sink in.
Mikkotto knew it was now or never. “She’s lying. The Bogazkoy will never accept a male bonding!” she cried from the shadows.
“Mikkotto!” exclaimed Iasos. “You traitorous mongrel!”
Dorak swung around, and upon seeing Mikkotto, his eyes narrowed. “How did you get up here?”
Mikkotto laughed. “The front door was wide open. There was no one to stop me. It seems everyone below is dead.” She moved closer.
“Stop where you are,” commanded Maura, her skin prickling from the tension.
“Is that any way to talk to your cousin?” Mikkotto cooed.
Dorak shot Mikkotto a surprised look.
Mikkotto grinned. “That is right, my dear Dorak. I used to play in these very hallways as a child. My mother was Abisola’s first cousin and Lady Sari’s daughter. For you see, Lady Sari is Marchioness Sari Sumsumitoyo and third in line to the throne. She gave up her title to serve the House of de Magela, stupid woman that she is.” She moved forward.
Dorak blocked her way. “I swear to you, Mikkotto, if you do not leave, I am going to kill you with my own hands.”
“I think you have forgotten that we have a deal. I am to rule Hasan Daeg in exchange for certain services rendered.”
“You, queen?” Iasos snorted in disgust.
“I made no deal with you to be queen,” denied Dorak. “I merely said I would let you live if you showed me the location of O Konya. I am sorry to say I regret that decision. I now have new plans for you.” Dorak, wearing an expression of hate, moved toward Mikkotto with deadly purpose.
Realizing Dorak’s intention, Mikkotto shoved Dorak into Maura. “NOW!” she shrieked.
Several soldiers pulled daggers from their sleeves and threw them at the royal couple.
One struck Abisola in the heart, killing her instantly.
The other hit Iasos in the stomach. He crumpled with his hands around the dagger, trying to pull it out.
Maura screamed, scrambling over the bloody floor and throwing herself across her parents.
Chaun Maaun, having recovered from the arduous journey, rushed down the steps. He pushed his mother and Yeti behind him. Seeing Maura curled over the body of her mother and her dying father, he let out a muffled cry.
Dorak stood between the Hasan Daegians and his soldiers with his arms outstretched.
Other Bhuttanian warriors rushed forward to restrain the men who had thrown the daggers.
Mikkotto scurried away with her guards running interference before her. They collided with a squad of Bhuttanians loyal to Dorak. Thinking quickly, Mikkotto pointed and barked, “Hurry, your master is in danger. The Dinii empress is upstairs and threatening Dorak. Save him!”
She and her women pressed against the wall, letting the heavily-armed men rush past her to the third floor as they all heard Dorak shouting commands and trying to gain control of the grave situation.
Not wanting to linger where Dorak could seize her, Mikkotto pulled free a lance sticking out from the gut of a Hasan Daegian warrior and knocked a Bhuttanian soldier off his warhorse with it.
Jumping upon the giant creature, Mikkotto gave orders, “Get yourselves horses and catch up with me at my estate. We will regroup and hide in Camaroon. There must be another way to the throne of Hasan Daeg, and I swear to you, my good women, I will find it!”
Mikkotto kicked the anxious horse and rode off.
When Dorak rushed out of the palace with his men, not a trace of Mikkotto could be found even with a massive hunt looking for her.
It was as though Kaseri had swallowed her up.
Mikkotto was gone!
Dorak carried Maura to her chamber.
He laid Maura carefully on her bed and summoned a healer. As he waited, Dorak smoothed Maura’s furrowed brow and held her hand. Gently, he kissed the tips of her fingers.
A guard soon appeared with Meagan of Skujpor. Her traditional white robe was soaked red with blood. Seeing the patient was the princess, Meagan rushed to the bedside and pushed Dorak out of the way. She examined Maura with great care. Finally, she sighed with relief.
“What is wrong with her?” asked Dorak, offended by the healer’s brusque treatment.
“She’s in shock,” replied Meagan, pushing red hair out of her face. She pointed to the princess’ skin. “This blood is not hers.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it is red. Her blood is blue.” She paused for a moment. “It must be her father’s.”
“When will she recover?”
The healer looked at Dorak with distaste. “When her mind can absorb the shock of this terrible day. Until then, she will stay as she is.” Meagan stood directly in front of Dorak, confronting him. “I will come back to check on the princess, but now I must go back to the wounded. They need me more.”
Dorak did not stop her as she moved toward the door. “I will send an escort with you and have my physician accompany you.”
“That is not necessary. I have seen your healers in action and do not approve of their methods.” Meagan turned as if an afterthought. “If you wish for us to treat your men, send them over. They will have a greater chance of survival with our medicine.”
“You would help your enemy?” asked Dorak, confused.
“It is you whom I wish to kill,” Meagan replied simply. There was a moment of unnatural silence between Dorak and the woman he knew could help Maura. “I will help any injured animal, including your men,” said Meagan, breaking the angry quiet. Then she was gone.
Dorak, relieved that Maura had no serious physical injuries, went out into the hallway and found his second-in-command.
The commander, yelling orders at his men, immediately came to attention and pressed his fist to his chest.
“Are there any survivors from the court or noble houses?” asked Dorak.
“Yes, Great Aga. They are guarded in the royal stables.”
Dorak raised an eyebrow.
The commander looked sheepishly at him. “Great Aga, this palace does not have a dungeon. I had nowhere else to put them.”
“Get some of the noblewomen and have them stay with the princess—I mean, the queen—in her chambers. Then take the bodies of Queen Abisola and Consort Iasos to the throne room. Have women attend them.” Dorak fell silent.
The commander waited a long time before Dorak spoke again.
“There is to be no looting. Tell the men that no citizens are to be harmed upon pain of death. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Great Aga. Your word is law.” The commander waited to be excused.
“Send the Black Cacodemon to me. You will no doubt find him lurking around the dying.”
The commander’s eyes widened. “Yes, Great Aga,” he replied in a weak voice.
Dorak strode away, leaving the commander to search for someone else to carry his message to the Black Cacodemon. He would rather face ten hostile Dinii than speak one word to that foul wizard who stood among the dying inhaling their souls as they departed their bodies.
Finally, he spied a young lieutenant and called him over. With a faint smile, the commander gave the young man his instructions and watched the color drain from the boy’s face. With a strong push to his back, the commander sent the lieutenant off and proceeded to the stables.
Dorak returned to Maura’s bedchamber. From the balcony of her room, he watched his men putting out fires in the city and restoring order. The dead were being collected and laid into long lines. Tomorrow, he would let the Hasan Daegians mourn their departed loved ones and put them to rest according to their customs. He would honor his own fallen with purifying fires in accordance with the Bhuttanian way. Then he would start building his empire. He looked at Maura. “The dead did not sacrifice in vain. Together, you and I will build a new order.”
He leaned on the balcony railing, surveying the city. “The greatest the world has ever seen.”
Maura did not hear Dorak. Dreaming, she heard only her screams as a dagger pierced her mother’s heart. Again and again, the scene replayed itself until her mother, dead on the floor, opened her lifeless eyes and said, “Leave this place of death and rejoin the living. I will always be with you.”
A shimmering woman appeared. She floated toward Maura and held her hands against Maura’s temples. “Sleep. Sleep. Find comfort in the darkness. Morning will come soon enough.” The horrible images slowly faded from Maura’s mind as she drifted into a deep slumber.
Maura opened her eyes.
The first thing she saw was the royal physician in spotless white robes, bending over her bed with a puzzled look in her eyes.
“You look tired, Meagan,” spoke Maura, noting the dark circles under Meagan’s eyes.
Ignoring the remark, Meagan asked, “How do you feel, Your Majesty?”
Maura winced at the word Majesty and was overwhelmed with a flood of painful memories. “My mother?” she asked weakly.
The healer wiped a tear from her cheek and shook her white-capped head with wisps of red hair peeking out.
“He died shortly after the queen passed away. I must add that he died without much pain. He wrote a letter for you, but I do not know what happened to it.” The healer sat on the bed and patted Maura’s shoulder. “I want you to know that they were treated with respect and honor as befitting your mother’s glorious reign.”
Maura sat up, alarmed. “How long have I been unconscious?”
“Nine days,” boomed a masculine voice from the balcony.
Maura looked past Meagan, squinting her eyes and holding her hand up against the strong rays of the sun bouncing off the white balcony.
Silhouetted against the white-hot light, a dark figure emerged from the filmy curtains separating the room from the balcony. Dorak strode lazily over to the bed.
The healer bowed and left the room.
Dorak towered over Maura. He had a worried look on his face. He was unshaven, and his hair had not seen a comb for some time. Dressed in a black shirt with black breeches tucked into worn black boots, Maura thought he looked like a convict or, even worse, a privateer. His dark brooding look frightened her.
“I was very worried about you, Queen Maura,” said Dorak, pouring her a glass of water. “I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to open your eyes again.”
Maura drank greedily. Her mouth felt hot and dirty. The cool water soothed her raw throat. “I wish I had never awakened,” she spat.
Dorak gave her an appraising look. “You look awful.”
“So do you,” Maura replied, returning the stare.
“Never at a loss for words, are you?”
“Why are you here with me? Isn’t there someone who needs butchering somewhere?”
“Your . . . our country is in safe hands. Its citizens are safe. Law and order have been restored. The fires have been put out.”
“You mean after you murdered the lawful queen and invaded a peaceful nation to which you have no legitimate claim?”
Dorak grew angry. “I had nothing to do with the death of your parents. I swear to you before Bhuttu!”
Feeling her eyes tearing, Maura struggled to retain her composure. “You will never know how much I hate you! I will not rest until you and your cohorts are thrown out of Hasan Daeg!”
A wicked smile grew on Dorak’s handsome face. “That will pose something of a problem since I intend to marry you.”
Maura gasped and drew back.
Dorak’s smile grew broader as he saw her panic. “I am going to leave now.” He put out his hands as if to stop her from pleading. “No, my indigo queen, don’t try to stop me. Matters of state. I am sure you understand.”
Sneering, Maura turned her face away. “I’ll die first before I marry you. You know I can make it happen.”
Dorak pinched her cheek and laughed. He strode out of the room as if in good humor. Once out of sight, Dorak’s expression grew serious. He motioned to the healer Meagan, who waited in the hallway with several noblewomen. Meagan’s white robes fluttered in the breeze of the marble hallway as she went over to him. She bowed and waited for Dorak to speak.
He seemed confused and rubbed his temples as if in pain.
“Do you have a headache, my lord?” she asked.
Dorak ignored her question. “The queen is depressed. She threatened to take her life.”
“That is understandable considering the circumstances.”
“I have heard stories that Hasan Daegian rulers can will themselves to die.”
“Anyone can will themselves to death if unhappy enough.”
“I want the queen watched. Make sure she eats. Stop her if she tries to do anything foolish.”
The healer raised an eyebrow. “Sire, you can rest assured that I will do everything in my power to ensure the queen’s health returns. However, I will never help you enslave her.”
“You people constantly surprise me. I would have anyone from my country executed who talked to me the way you just did. Since you are not Bhuttanian I give you allowance, but that will not last forever.”
“Of course, my lord, but you came seeking us and not the other way around.” Meagan bowed and briskly walked away, calling to her assistants who were struggling to carry her medical bags. She knocked on the queen’s door before entering.
Behind her followed several noblewomen who had consecrated their lives to become healers. Gone were the
necklaces made of precious stones. Gone were the flowers woven into the hair. Gone were the costly robes of rare cloth. Now they wore the stern black robes of the initiate, allowing only their family crest embroidered on their chest for adornment.
Hearing no reply, Meagan opened the door and peered into the room.
The queen lay on the bed in a fetal position with her eyes tightly shut. Maura did not stir.
Meagan checked Maura’s eyes. Startled by what she saw, she called discreetly for Lady Sari so word would not pass to Dorak that something was wrong.
Lady Sari came as swiftly as her old bones would carry her. She hovered over Maura, wringing her hands.
“What is the meaning of this?” asked Meagan, pulling open Maura’s eyes. The eyes had become a solid blue, blocking out any sign of a pupil or iris. The effect was chilling to one who had never seen it before.
Sari gasped at the sight.
“I have read ancient treatises that discuss the care and nurturing of the Royal House of Hasan Daeg. There is no mention that the queens’ eyes ever turned a solid blue for any reason,” Meagan stated.
“That is because we are not allowed to touch the body until it is over. By then, the eyes return to normal.”
“Body? You talk as though this girl is dead.”
Sari’s face assumed a look of intense sorrow. “For all intents, she is. She has taken herself into the death dream. There is nothing more you can do.”
“Hasan Daegian queens will only do that if they are over three hundred years old and have produced a suitable heir. She is neither old nor has she had a child.”
Sari looked softly at Meagan. “You did not read enough. Hasan Daegian queens can will themselves to die if they are in terrible pain.” She straightened Maura’s coverlet. “And this child is in terrible pain. She does not have the will to go on.”
“You do not understand. They reach a certain nadir and this just happens. It is nothing they can control. Dorak must have said something to cause this.”
“In most ancient writings, there is mentioned a tree as a giver of life to the Royal House alone. It is written that there is some sort of blending between the ruler and the tree.” The healer took Sari’s hand in her calloused ones. “You have been with this family all of your life. Do you know of such a tree? I have done all I can. I fear that if I do not bring her out of this self-induced coma, she will die this time.”
Saying nothing, Sari went deep into thought.
Meagan was quiet. She was a healer, but she had been exposed to politics long enough to understand the significance of Sari’s silence. “Do you know of a tree that can save this queen? Help me for I can do no more!”
The old woman shook her head slowly and clasped her hands in despair. She had the air of defeat about her. “There is such a plant, but it cannot help her. It is also dying.”
“How does it work? I must try something.” Meagan felt Maura’s pulse. “If her heart gets any slower, we are going to lose her!”
“I will take you to it, but we must bring the queen.”
“How can we remove her from this room without suspicion?”
Sari gave a weak smile. “Not all of our teeth are gone. We can bite a little yet. Follow me.”
Confused, Meagan ordered her assistants to carry the limp queen.
Sari went to a wall and pressed a certain stone.
Silently, part of the wall opened into a small, narrow hallway.