So I know it's been a while and even I had to re-read chapters to figure out what was going on :p So to save you the time, below please find a quick summary of key events and schemes.
Kraos: With war fast approaching and memories of his father's death still fresh, Kraos knows he must have an heir before he leaves for battle. Blinded by his desires and responsibilities, he puts all his faith in Halima's pregnancy to continue his legacy should he perish at Babylonian sword. He becomes continually aware of the manipulations of the women around him and feels powerless to stop it.
Halima: Unable to conceive and desperate under the pressures Kraos places upon her, Halima fakes pregnancy with plans to steal Nari's unborn child and call it her own. Little does Halima know, she is not the only treacherous woman in the family, as her "truest friend" and step sister, Iset, is continually poisoning her womb, to prevent Halima's pregnancy. Her situation becomes more and more dire when Iset encourages Halima to challenge the old Queen Panya, starting a power struggle between wife and mother over Kraos.
Iset: Threatened with exile by her mother, Panya, Iset infuses all her energy into setting Panya against Halima. She continues a shaky alliance with Tor and Rashidi, unsure of whom else they have promised loyalty. Finding a distressed servant with child, Iset uses her as a ruse for Tor to go into town and buy infertility medicine. Her plan goes awry when Halima seemingly still manages to conceive, leaving Iset with an angry servant and the threat of her treason being discovered. Her confidence begins to crumble and she admits her evils to Nari, fearing her life may soon be at stake.
Nari: Heartbroken by her loveless marriage, Nari fears to tell her boyish husband that she is with child. She finds an unexpected alliance with one of her personal slaves and learns of the dangerous position she has placed herself. With no one but Halima and Kraos aware of her pregnancy coupled with her weakness, Nari learns she is the perfect target of Halima's newest scheme to obtain a child of royal blood. She confides in Djal who rallies Rashidi's help in thwarting the Queen's plans. Nari realizes that while Sraemy may never love her truly, her baby just might give her all the love and devotion she needs.
Tor: With a home-sick and bored army to deal with, Tor starts the foundations of a friendship with Kraos in hopes of giving his men purpose. Throughout, Tor continues to build relationships with each of the characters, while still remaining aligned primarily with Iset, where their allegiance may be more than just politics…
Rashidi had warned. Iset traced the rim of her glass, oblivious to Halima's rambles. It required all her effort to disguise her shaking hands.
"Be prepared for what?"Iset had asked.
As Rashidi shook his head, Iset's heart tightened as if Halima had reached into her ribcage and choked it. She must be the reason. Halima must have overheard Iset's confession and acted upon the treason.
"Be prepared for what, Rashidi?" Iset had pressed, not bothering to hide her panic, all charm washed away.
"Stay close to Halima and Nari. Be wary," Rashidi had instructed. "When the time comes, you will know. Be prepared."
Iset had heeded his mysterious words and hoped the odd advice proved useful. She became a pleasant shadow to Halima, dragging Nari into the dreariness. However, days on end in the presence of Halima and Nari made Iset dream wistfully of beheading.
"Do you not agree, Iset?"
Iset blinked, aware of Halima's devious gaze. She knows, Iset inwardly panicked. "I am sorry, sister, my mind was far away."
Halima sighed and rolled her eyes to Nari. "This is what I mean, Iset you seem bored these days; you require a husband."
Silence lapsed as the words sunk in. Then, the terror returned.
She knows, she definitely knows. Now she is trying to remove me.
Iset forced a smile, too afraid for a cheeky retort. "I regret I still have much to learn in order to be a good wife, Your Majesty."
"You have been listening far too much to your mother." Halima winked. "I heard she plans to marry you off to some Babylonian warlord."
At Iset's horrified expression, Halima guffawed. Her stomach rebelled when Halima patted her hand with sympathy.
"Do not fret, dear sister," Halima comforted. "I will not let that happen to my truest friend."
Unsure if it was a threat, Iset raised her eyes from the Queen's hand and was surprised to find blue eyes staring back. Nari's gaze betrayed no emotion nor wavered. Somehow the regard strengthened Iset's resolve.
Reflecting on happy memories to bring warmth to her features, she locked eyes with Halima. Discretely, she wiped the sweat of her free hand onto her dress, before placing it on top of Halima's. She squeezed it with reassurance.
"And before it was an Assyrian prince!" Iset joked, tone clashing with her inner turmoil. "It would be strange to marry into Babylonia, with the previous Assyrian suitor as my slave."
"Two barbaric husbands in one room!" Halima exclaimed, pulling her hands away to clap with glee. "I love it."
Their jests were cut short by a sharp knock. Iset's muscles screamed as she whipped her head to the main entrance. Against etiquette, the doors swung open without permission and guards marched in. Soft music was replaced with the clanging of metal. Slaves scrambled out of their way, whimpering and eyes wide.
Halima stood, bony frame taught with fury. "Who dares enter without permission?"
"I do." Commander Hai stepped forward, his gruff face contorted into a scowl. "By command of the Pharaoh."
Gripping her cushion, Iset fought the urge to flee. This was her end. She snuck a glance at Nari, yearning for another to be even more frightened than her...but to her shock, the princess's eyes were wide, but cool. Time slowed as Iset narrowed her gaze on her blood sister. For a moment, she thought she saw…satisfaction…then the glimmer faded as Nari's eyes dropped to her feet.
Halima was far from intimidated, hands balling into fists. "Is this how my husband's servants treat his wife?" she spat. "I will have you whipped for your impudence."
Commander Hai held his ground. "I am under royal order to take you to the council chambers, willingly or not."
"How dare you—"
"It is your choice, Your Majesty," Hai interrupted, "either on your feet or flung over my back."
Halima gaped like a fish, body shaking like a scrawny tree in a storm. The commander took advantage of her silence and turned his attention to Iset and Nari; to Iset's consternation, his eyes never softened.
"That goes for you two as well, Your Highnesses."
Obedient as ever, Nari rose, arms crossed defensively over her chest. She shuffled towards her personal slave, as if for protection.
"Stay close to Nari," Rashidi had said. Iset stood and followed her sister's lead, leaving Halima no choice but to follow.
Throughout the journey, Iset's heart pounded so hard, she feared the soldiers could hear it over their stomps. The party remained silent, Hai leading the way. Servants and courtiers alike jumped aside, their curious gazes making Iset blush in humiliation.
Council doors creaked as they were pried open wide enough to accommodate the entourage. The soldiers formed a rectangle around them, creating a daunting corridor of metal for the royal women to walk down.
Halima barreled through, bravery fuelled by anger. Iset held her head high as she followed, but she still glanced nervously at every scythe she passed, wondering which will draw her blood.
Surprisingly, the room was bare of most council members. Only a few torches were lit, casting dark shadows upon the tile. Their paintings indecipherable in the flickering light, the smooth pillars stood tall, looming over her like Gods condemning her for her evils. The flickering flames congregated around three chairs. Kraos sat in the center, his thunderous expression dramatized by the dimness. Iset gulped and hazarded a glance at the other two chairs.
To his left was Panya, her elegant dress flowing softly over the carved wood. She resembled a temple statue, eyes cold and back straight as an arrow. On the right, Rashidi lazed, yet his eyes were predatory. Iset felt no consolation from this council, merely stone-cold malice.
"Husband, dear," Halima simpered, "what is the meaning of this?"
Kraos ignored the question, his dark gaze boring into his sisters. "Commander Hai, dismiss your men and keep my sisters to the side."
With a curt command, the palace guard vacated the room, leaving the chamber eerily silent. Iset and Nari meekly followed Hai to the far wall and she leaned on a pillar for support, knees weak.
Halima was left standing in the center of the room alone. Her round eyes seemed to suddenly sense danger, tearing up. "Kraos?" she asked tentatively.
"Commander, royal advisor, and…family, I bring you here today for trial on a grave treachery that has been brought to my attention."
Iset's knees gave at his words and she was thankfully caught by Nari. The world seemed to spin before her and she could do nothing to stop it.
"Treachery?" Halima whispered. "Committed by whom?"
A pained look crossed Kraos's face, but it was quickly concealed. Yet again, he ignored his wife, instead turning to Panya. "Mother, if you will begin."
Iset inhaled a shaky breath and licked her lips.
This is the end, her mind repeated over and over. She discreetly rubbed sweaty palms onto her dress. She wondered morbidly if Panya would truly let her youngest daughter be executed for treason. I will plead for a gracious exile.
Panya gracefully rose to her feet. "Your Majesty, I discovered some disturbing events while in the guest quarters of the palace."
Gods! Iset panicked. She saw me with Tor as well. Gods be good, treason and inappropriate conduct with a foreigner.
Kraos's eyes never left Halima. "And why were you in the guest quarters?"
"There were reports of sinking floor in one of the chambers being re-furnished and I sent my personal slaves to deal with the matter. They came back with a different story."
Is my mother using Halima as a second witness to my treachery? Iset thought. She risked a furtive glance towards Halima for answers, and then frowned in confusion as she saw the Queen had paled.
"And what story is that?" Kraos asked.
And here it comes… Iset despaired.
"When slaves moved a wardrobe into the room, the floor collapsed, revealing a passageway." Panya gestured to her right and Iset noticed for the first time that Halima's house slaves were huddled in the corner, wrists shackled. "Beneath, these women were found, hiding these."
Esho, Panya's personal servant came forward, bearing sheets stained red. Beside her, Hai gasped quietly. Rashidi widened his eyes in surprise.
Halima stepped back, hands up. "This is ridiculous, those are not mine. She lies!" Her eyes flickered to the royal advisor. "Rashidi, tell them."
Rashidi's hands folded into a steeple, his face a mask of regret. "Unfortunately, Your Majesty, I am merely an advisor, and while I wish to put the utmost faith in you, I cannot read your mind, nor hold much weight in this…dire...situation." His lips curled into a smirk, breaking his concerned expression. "I hope you will forgive me."
The Queen's eyes flashed. "Traitor!" she screamed. "You scheming, ratty, little—"
"Enough!" Kraos bellowed. He paused to massage his temples. "We are not here to argue, but to discover truth." Kraos glanced up, his gaze both pleading and condemning. "Halima, Queen of Egypt and my wife, are you pregnant with my son?"
Panya tensed and leaned over to whisper in Kraos's ear. Iset watched, befuddled at this turn of events, as Halima fidgeted under the oppressive silence. Panya returned to her upright position and whispered, "Prove it."
Halima tilted her chin high. "In the harvest, you shall have all the red and screaming proof you require."
Panya laughed without humour. "And buy you extra time? No, if you are deceiving my son, we need to know now."
"There is no other way to prove my loyalty," Halima answered triumphantly. "We must wait."
Cool fury glimmered in Panya's icy eyes, sending shivers down Iset's perspiring spine. "Is there not." Turning to the cowering slaves, Panya gestured. "Come forth, little ones. Do not be afraid."
They shuffled forward, struggling under the weight of their shackles. However, as they moved into the light, Iset also saw blood smearing the floor in their wake, marking their passage like a slug trail. Long scathing lash marks cut into their young flesh, coagulated beads reflecting under the torches.
Colour drained from Halima's face and she openly gawked at the state of her entourage.
"Point to who you work for," Panya demanded.
A set of filthy hands raised in accusation to Halima. Halima whimpered, but one look from Kraos silenced her.
Iset jumped as wetness landed on her arm. She turned to find Nari crying softly. Iset paused, and then wrapped an arm around her, holding her close.
"I am sorry, so sorry," Nari whispered, so quietly it was almost inaudible. "I cannot bear others being hurt."
Iset frowned at the confession and assessed the slaves under interrogation. To her shock, she realized not all of the prisoners were Halima's slaves, including Tedimut, Panya's own personal slave…Iset's spy.
Iset mouth parted in surprise. Panya caught her direction of gaze and her lips twitched, face tilting into an almost imperceptible nod.
A message or a threat, Iset thought. What in the afterlife is going on here?
"You need not fear us," Rashidi cooed, when the slaves would not speak. "You have all committed a grievous act and have been punished accordingly. Would that you confess now, we shall spare your lives and not punish you for your mistress's mistakes."
"This is ridiculous!" Halima fumed, seemingly recovered from the initial shock. "You are manipulating them."
"Not at all," Rashidi responded, "I merely let them know they are protected from their mistress should they tell the truth."
"What truth?" Halima demanded. "These are all lies." She pointed accusingly to Panya. "It is her who is false. Kraos, can you not see this woman for what she is?"
"May I remind you this is the mother of the Pharaoh you speak of," Kraos cut in. A cruel smile marred his features. "What does she have to gain from these accusations? A bigger room?"
The reproach earned a chuckle from Panya and Rashidi; they reminded Iset of a pack of jackals closing in for the kill.
"She threatened to hurl me off the palace walls, Your Majesty," Tedimut piped up. "I had no choice but to obey her."
"On what grounds, dear child?" Rashidi asked, his face a mask of kind curiousity.
Tedimut bit her lip and risked a glance at Panya. "The sheets, sir, I was told to clean the sheets."
Kraos leaned forward, oblivious to falsehood of the confession. "How often?"
"Every moon's blood, Your Majesty."
"Lies!" Halima interjected. "These are all lies, made by slaves none the less. They are but my property stolen by the late Queen. Kraos, are you really going to hold a slave's word over your Queen's?"
"Your rule is under question," Kraos said, "and as it stands, your honor appear lower than a slaves. One more outburst from you and I will have you gagged. You are a lady of the court. Act like it."
Halima's mouth opened and shut as if to retort, then her shoulders sagged in defeat. A cough brought all attention to Iset's left. Commander Hai stepped forward.
"Your Majesty, I do not mean to interrupt…"
"You are free to speak, Commander."
"I rarely pay attention to gossip…" he trailed, clearing his throat, "but Her Majesty Halima speaks truth that a slave's word is of little weight. I wish to input my own hearings: men have been discussing your wife's…tight clothing orders and eating habits…when mentioned to their own wives, the women said it was uncharacteristic of a pregnant woman."
A silence cut into the room as all eyes watched Kraos's dark face grown thunderous. "Is that so."
Halima rushed forward and fell to her knees, grabbing Kraos's leg. "Rumours! These are but vicious rumours!" Suddenly, her teary face whipped to Iset, her doe eyes wide and pleading. "Iset! Iset my dear sister, you helped me order those dresses. Tell them. Tell them it is not true."
Iset's palms moistened yet again as all attention focused on her. She would have to tread carefully: the tables could easily turn on her.
Iset cocked her head to the side in thought. Yes, she had started those rumours with Mumbai all that time ago and yes, Iset had changed that order. However, she recognized that despite the situation, there was a chance Kraos may forgive Halima and let her survive with a warning—perhaps not for love or compassion, but to save face. Iset did not need more enemies.
Besides, Kraos needed to see kindness in at least one of the women in his life and Iset had every intention of setting herself apart.
"Iset?" Kraos pushed.
Iset inhaled deeply before taking the plunge, her heart pounding at the risks she was taking.
"I am afraid, dear brother, that Halima tells the truth," she admitted. "In this respect," she added to appease the others in the room before continuing, "Her Majesty confided in me a while back about ordering loose dresses for pregnancy."
Her honesty was rewarded by momentary softness in Kraos's expression. "Thank you, Iset."
Contrary to her brother, Panya's face sharpened. Her eyes shot Iset a look of warning. "Your Majesty, this is but one piece of evidence in her favour, while all other signs point to betrayal."
Kraos sighed. "That is true." He rubbed his nose, expression revealing he would rather be anywhere but in the council room. "Rashidi? What are your thoughts?"
"This is a difficult situation," the advisor conceded. "Iset, you swear under the eyes of your Pharaoh and the Gods that Halima had every intention of bearing a child."
"And my lady, Panya, you ascertain the truthfulness of your slaves?"
Panya's wintery gaze never left Iset. "Yes."
Rashidi sighed, throwing Halima a sympathetic smile. "Then the truth is obvious, Your Majesty, the Queen had every intent of providing an heir, but when failed to do so, resorted to deception."
The air seemed to thicken as the room digested his wisdom. Iset watched with bated breath as Kraos glared at his young wife. Finally, he came to a decision.
"Guards!" he boomed. Even Panya jumped as the shout cut through the tension. The doors opened and Halima cried out as soldiers surrounded her. "Seize my wife and keep her locked in her chambers. She is not to leave under any circumstance."
"No!" Halima wailed. Two men bent to loop their arms through her armpits and dragged her out of the room as she kicked. "Kraos! Your Majesty! Please!"
Kraos's face remained stoic as Halima was hauled out like a haunch of meat. The doors slammed shut and no one spoke as her cries gradually receded down the hallway.
Like a carpet smothering a fire, a deathly silence fell over the room. Kraos bent over in his throne, head in his hands.
"Gods," he swore.
Panya laid a hand on his back, soothing him. "Your only fault is trusting her," she affirmed.
Rashidi was the first to cut it the lull. "Your Majesty, I know this is a delicate time, but we must persist forward, with trouble in the northeast—"
"—I know Rashidi," Kraos interrupted. "I need a second wife."
"A proper one," Panya added.
"But who?" Kraos asked, his voice cracking with desperation. "We already scoured the upper classes of Egypt the first time."
"Shhh," Panya hushed. "We will find someone worthy."
"And we must fast," Rashidi reminded. "Soon, you leave for war and you must have a heir to maintain your legacy."
Suddenly, Iset saw the opportunity Rashidi had gifted her. She gulped, palms sweating all over again at the prospect of what she was about to do.
When the time comes, be prepared.
"Your Majesty deserves the best," Commander Hai spoke up.
Panya nodded in agreement. "Yes, a girl worthy of a God; a virginal woman who will be your greatest ally; a woman of strong blood. Someone like…"
With a deep breath, Iset stood forward, "Like me."
End of part 1 of Chapter 27! I have been advised that the chapters are too long so I am trying to shorten them as an experiment.
I would like to apoligize yet again for how long it has been since I've last updated. I have been consumed by work since the summer and if anyone actually still reads my profile, you'd see how much I travel. In some places I go for work, public internet is banned for security, which makes it even harder. It's a different and interesting job to be sure, but it is also highly demanding physically and mentally. I have been asked by many to write about it...but that remains to be seen and honestly, I'm not brave enough right now. But that is another story!
Let me know how you guys like the story! ie. ensure me that there are people still reading it. =P
As always, I would like to thank the reviewers and then thank them once more! Truly, without you, I can't continue to hone my skills for the story nor muster the motivation to write. There are many of you who have been reading since the beginning. This story has been ongoing since 2007, so I truly treasure your input and that you have continually returned to the story over the years. It is truly an honour. To those of you who are newer reviewers, good on you! Seriously, I understand that this story has become a monster and I appreciate your support.
Please contine to review! I always love to hear any plot theories, opinions, or grammar corrections, etc. from you!