Lions of Parnatha Ch. 06byMedievna©
***I have to thank those who sent me such inspiring feedback regarding this story. I had truthfully thought about putting it down and not picking it up again, but some of you have enjoyed it so much, I had to satiate you. My personal life is filled with a lot of stress and busyness, but I'm hoping I'll be able to post at least once a month, and make the chapters long enough to move the story along.
I also have to thank the lovely J. Stone for her work editing this chapter (and chapters to come!). Her perspective has opened me up to becoming a better writer.
There isn't much sex in this one, rather a boat-load of story progression. Enjoy, and as always, comments and critiques are welcome. Thank you***
Gaius lifted his head as footsteps echoed down the dank stone corridor running the length of the cellblock. A faint jingle told him that whoever was approaching was wearing armor and a weapon, and the heavy shuffle suggested he was either tired or inebriated. Probably both, he commented inwardly. A thick shadow fell over him as the figure passed in front of a weakly guttering torch, and the lieutenant general raised his eyes to meet the silhouetted face.
"Looky here," slurred a gruff voice, and the figure leaned forward to jeer through the iron bars. Gaius could make out a sparse, unkempt beard and a pockmarked face framing rotten teeth. "Li'l princeling's gone an' got hisself all arrested. Thought he could plot against the Empire an' win. Stupid prick."
Gaius remained silent, refusing to be goaded into a fight he would clearly lose. Instead he stared unblinking at his captor, his bright blue eyes haloed in the flickering torchlight. The jailer continued to grin for a moment, confidence waning, before snorting and continuing onward in search of easier prey. Gaius listened to him leave, and then resumed staring at the wall beyond his cell. A slow sigh billowed from his chest, and he closed his eyes against the surrounding gloom.
The length of his captivity was impossible to determine; no sunlight penetrated the Empire's vast underground prisons. Immediately separated from his entourage upon incarceration, he was held in solitude and treated poorly in light of damning accusations. At first he had hoped that his ordeal would end swiftly; surely someone would come to his aid, decrying the charges and lobbying for his defense. But no one came, no lawyer posted his bail, and a gnawing anxiety now ate away at his mind. Something, or someone, was subverting justice, a justice he had worked his whole life to uphold. Even now he had no idea what evidence denounced him. His jailers whispered of "conspiracies against the Empire".
Gaius frowned as he ran once again through his already exhausted list of possibilities. Snorting in frustration, he gave up and shivered. Whatever was happening beyond his cell was bigger than anyone knew, and there was little he could do from where he sat.
His mind often drifted to Lithana. Surely his house guards had been apprehended as well; who was defending her? Who was keeping her safe? Though the girl certainly had the fire and spit to hold her own against an assailant, he doubted she would last long against the brutal politics of Arthos. He often worried about what she would do, how she would handle the situation. He took small comfort in the knowledge that, if she did do something remarkably insane, he would likely hear about it.
The steady drip of unseen water droned him into a daze, and Gaius didn't hear a second set of footsteps approach. A new figure stopped before the cell, clearing its throat as it moved in front of the torchlight. Gaius turned his head and cracked open an eye.
"You look thoroughly wretched," said Domo Camron Liperion, frowning sadly. His weathered face looked more deeply lined than ever.
Gaius started in disbelief, and struggled to stand and grasp the bars. "Camron? What—how? When?" Knitting his brow, he fought for self control. "What's happening? Why am I in here?"
Domo Liperion sighed heavily, shaking his head. "The news is terrible, my friend, simply dreadful. I've had great difficulty in coming here, let alone finding someone to hear your case. There is talk they will skip that particular step." He eyed Gaius pointedly from beneath bushy brows. "The evidence seems conclusive."
Gaius grimaced. "What evidence? What am I accused of?"
"Treachery, my friend. Murder most foul. A senator and his wife were stabbed to death in their beds, a crime that proved difficult for investigators, for a time. They found evidence so damning, however, there was little to do but to arrest the culprit."
Gaius's temper flared, and he glared warily at the old man he often called friend. What was he playing at? Why was he withholding such important information?
"What evidence? Who claims I am a murderer?"
"A coin, my friend, a talisman, bearing your house's name. The same worn by your guards." Liperion shook his head, a slow, regretful gesture, before resting a pleading gaze on Gaius. "How could you do it, Gaius? How could you order the assassination of one of your brothers in the Forum? I knew you were keen on securing more power and affluence, but killing an old man in his bed? You went too far, old friend."
"I killed no one!" Gaius roared. "I've been set up! I would never stoop to such vile tactics! I am no murderer, no criminal!" Pressing his face against the bars, Gaius pleaded, "Camron, you must believe me, I am innocent! Whatever they found, it isn't mine. I'm not responsible for this betrayal. Listen, someone has been trying to hurt me, they hired a hash—"
"And then, to have it come to light that you are involved in another, more nefarious, treasonous plot..." The old man clucked his tongue. "I cannot see this ending well for you, Gaius."
Gaius scowled, suspicion gripping his stomach. The corners of Liperion's lips were curled in an ever- so-delicate smile. "What plot would that be, old friend?" he asked through gritted teeth, his voice low and harboring barely controlled rage.
"Why your plans to murder the Emperor, of course. How did you afford the hashir? I suspect you borrowed an inordinate sum from the senators you corrupted." Liperion gazed sadly at the end of the corridor. "How tragic his death was. His entire family, women and children, massacred as they slept. Such a shame we couldn't stop it, but we were unaware that your machinations were coming from behind bars."
"The Emperor... My uncle's dead?"
"Will be, Gaius." Liperion patted the stricken man's white-knuckled fist as it gripped the bars, his face sympathetic. "And the Empire will have you to thank for it. Eleven generations of god-boys finally gone, all because of the power-mongering of a corrupt military mind."
Liperion sneered wickedly as a low growl escaped Gaius' throat. "Don't worry, my boy, your sacrifice is ultimately for the good of all. Though, I do worry about what will become of your household. It will likely be auctioned off, servants and all, after your conspirators are executed of course. And your lady wife, well, we all know what happens to the wives of traitors."
Gaius reacted instinctively and Liperion was wholly unprepared. He gasped and gagged as the younger man's hand surged between the bars and wrapped around his throat, squeezing tight. Clawing desperately, the domo writhed, hoarse screams echoing down the corridor.
There was a rush of running feet, and three guards were on Gaius, striking him on the face and hands through the bars with thick clubs. Gaius stumbled backward, reeling as he hit a wall and sank to the filthy stone floor.
Liperion coughed raggedly, glaring at the defeated prisoner as he allowed himself to be led away by the guards, ignoring Gaius's roars of rage and desperation.
Gaius screamed into the darkness, alternating between threatening unholy vengeance and pleading for Lithana's life until his voice left him. Exhausted, he sank sideways to the ground, numbness swarming his mind as dead, dreamless sleep overtook him.
My heart thundered in my ears, and I worried that someone would hear it. I paused, trying to listen beyond the pounding in my head for sounds of pursuit. Beside me, Vienes did likewise, tightly clenching a sheathed dagger to her chest. I glanced at her, pursing my lips as I noted the uneasiness in her features. I was equally terrified of the path before us, and my imagination conjured horrible images of our fate should we be discovered. I inhaled deeply and steeled myself- one of us needed a cool head.
I remained there for several tense minutes before breathing a sigh of relief; there was no sign of pursuit. With a nod, my handmaid and I continued our desperate flight through Arthos's darkened streets.
It was unseasonably warm for summer, and the night was thick with heat and stagnant humidity. A fly buzzed near my face, and I resisted the urge to swat it, fervently wishing for a breeze or rain. Pausing in the shadow of a covered vendor's stall, I removed a scrap of paper from the folds of my toga, squinting in the meager light. A crude map was scrawled on its face, landmarks dotting the simple strip streets. I surveyed my surroundings, noting the faded street sign on an adjacent corner; we were close. I met Vienes's eyes, and we were off again.
It had taken a week to design our escape from the estate. After the arrest of our guard, the entire compound was put under house arrest, and a regular garrison of Imperial guards were stationed to ensure that no one went in or out. I spent long, frustrating days poring over architectural plans and maps with little success; our plans seemed futile. My physical reconnaissance of the estate yielded results, and a visit to the cellars led me to stumble upon an old servants' tunnel. It had, at one time, been used to bring supplies into the compound in the event of a riot or uprising. Unfortunately, it was barricaded some twenty feet inward.
Galvanized, Vienes and I conspired to clear the passage and flee. Three days of night work removed the stout wooden planks, and it seemed our bid for freedom was near. We were almost ready to depart when we received word, a message squirreled away in a wine bottle. Alethea's spidery script was scrawled across a single sheet of paper, pleading for our urgent escape. I responded with details to leave through the servant's tunnel, which met her approval. We were provided with a map and directions to her pavilion, and I promised we would take flight the following night.
Wrapped in sackcloth togas and cloaks and armed with daggers and short swords apiece, we crept into the narrow passage hoping it would lead somewhere recognizable and that there weren't any cave-ins. Our progress was maddeningly slow, putrid water pools and penetrating tree roots impeding our progress. I didn't know the tunnel's length, and as it stretched in endless darkness, I frequently considered turning back. Vienes insisted we maintain our course, however, and bolstered by her courage I pressed onward.
Our resolve was rewarded when the tunnel stopped abruptly in an old warehouse on the outskirts of what was once the Grand District, the old seat of power for Arthos's nobility. I was lost, but Vienes managed to orient herself in short order. I reminded myself to thank her in some spectacular way if we survived our endeavors. Using her good sense and the map, we stole through the city like shades over gravestones.
Alethea's pavilion was a welcome sight, alabaster construction blazing in the moonlight against a star-marked sky. Vienes and I trotted silently to the gate, where I hesitated to knock, my hand suspended over the wooden gate.
"What is it?" Vienes whispered urgently.
"What if it's a trap?" I whined fearfully. "What if she didn't send those missives, and it was someone from the Forum? What if...?"
"Lithana, we don't have time for this!" Vienes flared, and I balked and sputtered at her use of my name. "We're out here, exposed, and this is our only chance. Now, knock on the gate and let's get on with it."
Sufficiently rebuked, I dipped my head and rapped on the gate. The sound was thunderous in the still air, and I cringed in anticipation; I expected armed thugs to leap from the shadows and capture me, or something equally creative.
Soft footsteps drifted from the other side of the wall, and a moment later the latch lifted. A narrow slit appeared in the wood, and a small face gazed at me.
"I am seeking the blessings of our Lady of the Pure Mount," I said quietly, as instructed. My voice quavered anxiously.
The face nodded once and stepped away. The gap widened to admit us, and we slipped through, sighing in relief.
The young servant girl who answered our knock beckoned us silently, and we followed as she led us across the courtyard and toward the pavilion proper. The courtyard was soaked in the hedonic fragrance of evening glories and lotuses, and my nerves calmed as I inhaled their scent into my lungs. There were few braziers lit, but the glow from the moonlit walls was ample light to see by.
I admired Alethea's taste as we walked; the woman's eye for beauty and decadence was unparalleled. As we neared the pavilion, our guide made a sudden detour toward a smaller sanctuary, ducking beneath a low-hanging portiere and into the shadows beyond. Gathering our courage, we followed suit.
We shuffled a short distance before coming into a small chamber. A single brazier in its center cast meager light. Vienes and I stopped near the entrance as the servant girl scurried forward to knock softly on the wall. With a light rasp, the wall slid away to reveal another hallway, this time lit with ornately tiled glass lamps. She indicated the hallway with one hand, and we followed.
We entered a much larger, circular chamber. Thick columns stood sentinel on its outskirts, like trees surrounding a secret clearing, and each bore an inward-facing lamp. In the center was the largest effigy of the goddess Hastra I had ever seen; delicate folds of cloth draped her frame, and marble flowers entwined in her hair. She stared at us with gentle, sightless eyes, and, inexplicably, I felt my fear and apprehension abate.
"I was beginning to worry, cousin," said a lilting voice. Alethea was dressed in a plain white toga, strikingly different from the usual gaudy affairs she preferred.
"We encountered a bit of trouble in the tunnel," I said quietly, crossing the room to greet her. We kissed each other lightly on each cheek, and Alethea placed her hands on my shoulders.
"I am closely watched, I'm afraid; I thought perhaps they saw you approach or enter the pavilion." She sighed heavily, and exhaustion showing in her eyes. "Everything is so complicated."
"Any word from Gaius?" I asked hopefully; I had heard nothing of my husband since our arrests, and I was desperate for news.
Alethea regarded me before flicking her gaze to Vienes. "I think," she said quietly, "that you should have a glass of wine and a seat before I fill you..."
"No, Alethea," I said firmly. Grasping her arms, I eyed her pointedly. "I've been in the dark too long and I'll go mad if I remain for another minute. I need to know what's happening."
Alethea frowned, her face pained, and she shook her head with a sigh. "He is held in the Imperial prison system, though I don't know where."
Vienes gasped behind me, and I turned to stare. One hand covered her mouth and tears stood in her eyes.
"What is this...prison?"
"It is used mostly for political prisoners, or upstarts that the Empire wishes to eradicate. It's a vast system of underground cellblocks, usually located near the garrisons. I believe he is being held near the Forum, as it's heavily fortified. I cannot verify the truth of this, however."
"Political prisoners? What is he accused of, then?" I asked, alarmed. Worry gnawed at me.
"Treason, Lithana. My cousin—Gaius is accused of treason against the Emperor."
"Wh-...How? I don't..." I sputtered, stepping backward as my mind reeled. Treason? Against his own uncle? Was this possible?
"Who is accusing him, someone at the Forum? Where is their proof? Surely anyone can see how ridiculous such accusations are. No one can possibly accuse Gaius of treason and expect to be taken seriously."
"I wish it were that simple, dear," Alethea said somberly. "A very important domo and his wife were murdered on the last full moon. Gaius was implicated in the murder, based on found evidence. They say he was involved in a plot to dismantle and overthrow the Forum, and possibly conspiring to unseat the Emperor, taking power for himself..."
"That's insane!" I screeched, teeth bared. "He hates politics! And he loves his family! He would never, EVER plot against them, let alone murder someone! Surely they can see how ludicrous this is?!"
"I know how preposterous it looks, Lithana," Alethea said softly. Vienes placed her hands on my shoulders as Alethea paced away from us. "He was denied the opportunity to present a case. No lawyer has been called for, and I received word that there isn't even a trial planned. He's been found guilty, and will face capital punishment for the part he supposedly played. Him and those arrested with him."
I stared blankly at the floor, my chest heaving and mind racing. Gaius was as good as dead, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. He was being ripped to pieces in the Forum, and denied fair trial or representation. "Someone is pulling strings," I said darkly.
Alethea nodded. "I agee, but I don't know who. As I said, everything is complicated, and given that I'm so closely watched, my normal immunity matters little and prevents me from gathering information."
"Normal immunity? You mean, being the Emperor's niece?"
Alethea chuckled, and motioned to the statue of Hastra. "Beyond that, I have other duties I fulfill." She looked sidelong at the towering statue, a wistful smile gracing her lips. "Far more important duties than anything the Empire asks of me."
I frowned, thoroughly lost, but behind me Vienes gasped. I turned to see her fall to her knees, her head bent low.
"Vienes, what are you...?"
"She is the Antista Primus, the High Priestess of Hastra," Vienes said quietly, her tone reverential. She kept her head bowed and eyes averted as she addressed a smiling Alethea. "Forgive me, My Lady, I should have recognized—"
Alethea laughed, a delighted sound that reminded me of small bells, and bent to pull my handmaid to her feet. "There is nothing to forgive, my dear," she said kindly, stroking the girl's cheek. "My extracurricular activities are carefully guarded family secrets; some would seek to use me to their advantage were it more common knowledge."
I coughed, my hands on my hips. "Forgive me, cousin, but what in the five hells are you talking about?"
Alethea chuckled, and motioned us to walk with her. "I gather Gaius has not told you much about our family," she said, strolling toward the far side of the chamber.
"No, he hasn't, not really. I mean, I've read the history, the accomplishments."
"Do you know our lineage?"
"The story about the first Emperor being half-god? I know it."
Alethea looked amused. "It isn't a story, dear cousin."
Skepticism bloomed on my face. "Oh?"
Alethea nodded, her amusement growing. "Indeed. Asteria was indeed the trueborn son of Rion, one of many children the old lecher fathered. Unlike those other children, my ancestor actually realized his potential."
I blinked, flabbergasted. Alethea was speaking blasphemously but with such easy conviction, as though such information were comfortable history, that I felt my doubt crumble. What secrets did she know?
The woman seemed to be reading my mind, for she smiled broadly. "All difficult to believe, but nonetheless true. The blood of Rion flows through all our veins, to some extent. A few in my family also possess the blood of other gods."