Lions of Parnatha Ch. 06byMedievna©
Doubt rebuilt its fortress. "Right. Of course."
"The legends speak of such things, My Lady," Vienes chimed in. "For your cousin to be Antista Primus, she would have to be a child of the gods."
"One god, in particular," Alethea added.
"And that would be?" I inquired, my voice heavy with sarcasm.
"Oh come now, Lithana, certainly even you can see where this is going."
I lofted an eyebrow. "Not really. Frankly it sounds completely mad."
Alethea smiled and looked at Vienes, who sighed as though a mother to a willful child.
"What? What are you two hiding? Clearly I'm blind, so please, enlighten me!" I exclaimed, my temper flaring. I resented being played and kept in the dark, and I was frankly curious; their little game was increasingly irksome.
Alethea stopped pacing and crossed her arms, her expression patiently amused. "My father was briefly married to my mother and I am the only child of their union. He loved her passionately until the day he died, but she was...unable to reciprocate the way he wanted. It wasn't in her nature."
I stared blankly, trying to remember anything Alethea ever mentioned of her mother. "You said once that people came to your parties to abandon themselves to your mother's will. But I never saw your mother at the party I attended."
"Yes, Lithana, you did."
"Oh? And when was that?" I snapped, pouting. "You never introduced me."
"I introduced everyone, at the beginning of the feast. Perhaps you were not paying attention."
"Oh fie on that, Alethea! I wasn't drunk, yet; I still had my wits about me! The only thing you did before people binged on food and wine and sex was an invocation to Hastra!"
I stood fuming, glaring. Alethea simply smiled, waiting.
And it hit me. "Your invocation to...You mean...That would make Hastra your..." I sputtered and frowned, trying to wrap my head around this bizarre revelation. "But that's absurd! A goddess cannot possibly be your mother!"
Alethea laughed, and I caught Vienes covering her mouth, smiling. "Is it so impossible, Lithana? Knowing what you know about my family's lineage, you still find it unbelievable that I serve my mother as her primus?"
"Oh, I believe you're her high priestess, and I don't care a wit. The rest is delusional! It's all stories! Legends! Asteria said those things to cement his divine right to rule, not because they were true!"
Vienes looked scandalized, but Alethea didn't bat an eye. "Oh my dear, it is all true, truer than any word I have ever spoken in the Forum. Your Emperor is a god-king, and his nephew, your husband, shares his blood. And I, well I share a bit of two gods."
"This is insane. All of it, insane," I mumbled, bewildered. "I came seeking help, and instead I get the mad ravings of a woman who thinks her mother is a goddess. That's fucking amazing, just terrific. My husband will be put to death—"
"Lithana, enough of this." Alethea sounded annoyed, despite her patient expression. "I am as concerned for your husband's well being as you are, if not more so. I'm revealing this to you because, believe it or not, it's incredibly important and changes the nature of the game we are playing with whoever is behind Gaius's arrest." I regarded her doubtfully as she sat on a low bench.
"You see, Asteria's line ruled Parnatha because the gods ordained it. The city-states of the Parlathian peninsula were united under one house by fate and protected by my family, and thus the empire of Parnatha exists. And no one dared to threaten it, at least not from inside the Empire, until now. I fully believe that Gaius's arrest is the beginning of a very complicated, very sinister, covin against the Empire."
"You think the Emperor is in danger, too?" I asked, suddenly more receptive to her words.
Alethea nodded grimly. "I do. Our strength has always been in our unity as a family and now someone would see us splintered, dismantled from the inside out. Gaius was a wonderful start; next to the Emperor, he is one of the most powerful men in the Empire. His arrest and the accusations of treason cast doubt on the entire family, and not only from the common man of Parnatha. There have been whispers from family that we are not truly immune to corruption."
"But, who would seek to destroy the Empire? What profit could possibly be gained?" The idea horrified me. Parnatha was strong, impenetrable. Its reputation for greatness was the only thing that stood between it and destruction from the warlords to the east and north.
"That is the question of the hour, dear," Alethea sighed. "And it is a question that remains unanswered."
I sucked on my lower lip, considering everything she told me. "Someone at the Forum must know," I thought aloud. "If it's being orchestrated from the inside, someone there has to know. There isn't any way you can get someone inside?"
"Oh believe me, I have tried. But my movements are under such scrutiny, it is virtually impossible. Anyone who leaves my Pavilion is followed and questioned." She scowled resentfully. "Some have not returned."
"But, if you speak true, and your mother's a goddess, couldn't she swoop down and smite them with divine power or something? Couldn't Rion do something?"
Vienes shook her head emphatically. "The gods do not involve themselves in the affairs of men," she said resolutely.
I snorted. "Vienes, Alethea stated that the gods decided to fuck humans and build Parnatha. How is that uninvolved?"
"That decision came at the end of a very long, costly war, to both the mortal and the divine," Alethea said quietly. "Parnatha is more than a great Empire; it is a guardian. The gods united the Parlathian states to create a fortress, a barrier against..." She trailed off, her eyes distant and head turned in the direction of the statue.
"Against what?" I asked, curiosity burning bright. Despite the doubt that refused to be uprooted, I found the idea of a godly war and some secret destiny for an entire race of people to be fascinating, and more than a little exciting. I stared eagerly at Alethea, urging her to continue.
To my disappointment, she declined. "Enough for tonight, dear cousin," she said quietly. "You must be exhausted, and I insist that you sleep. Tomorrow we'll start fresh."
I frowned, irritated, and glumly acquiesced. "Start fresh with what?"
Alethea rose and looped our arms in hers, leading us through a long tunnel that led to the manor dominating Pavilion. She winked roguishly as we walked, all trace of grim apprehension gone. "Why, our counterintelligence. Between the three of us, we can find a hole in the wall through which to spy. And I doubt Gaius will be having much luck on his own."
Domo Camron Liperion drummed his fingers on his elbows, his eyes narrowed in irritation. He glanced again at the wooden door to his left, his thin lips pursed into a disapproving frown, before resuming his slow pace of his office. His wait stretched on. Domo Liperion deplored waiting, especially when it was for people so far beneath him. He snorted softly, his lips curling into a sneer. The hashir belonged in the dust on his sandals.
Domo Liperion was unhappy with the announcement that the hashir would assist with the plan. This was a game for kings and gods, not lowly savages with no purpose but to kill for coin. He was even more disconsolate upon finally meeting the man their gold bought. He was tall, taller than a Parnathian, with dark skin and hair and eyes that saw everything. The domo's opinion went from contempt to outright hatred, though it was tempered by something far worse: fear. For all his belief in his own power over men, Liperion knew that gold was a temporary contract for a hashir. They owed allegiance to no man, claiming their power through their fervent and absolute devotion to their heathen gods.
Liperion smiled mockingly the first time the hashir spoke of his gods. They were barbaric, barely a shadow of the greatness that was the pantheon of Parnatha, a brutish half-human attempt at idolatry. And yet, as the dark man had continued to explain, to give reason for his easy agreement to be their blade and modus operandi in a bid to overthrow the very foundation of the Empire, Liperion's disdain became peppered by discomfort, and thickened into fear. He was afraid of this dark man, this eccentric devotee of a group of vicious, savage gods who would readily help destroy that which denied them true glory. He was afraid that their carefully prepared stratagem was simply a pawn in a much more global game. And one god in particular took keen interest in the hands they played, a horrible medley of woman and snake: Xanara.
And now, as he paced and waited, his fear curdled in his gut. Although a veteran of intrigue and betrayal, the domo had never before encountered a being that couldn't be bought and sold by zeal or coin. Well, that wasn't true; Gaius Artigro was as much of a devotee to his beliefs. Gaius, however, was an idiot.
There was a sharp rap on the door as it opened slightly. Domo Liperion paused and placed his hands on his hips, near the long dagger he kept hidden in the folds of his toga.
A young man peeped through the doorway, his face worried and nervous as he attempted speech.
Liperion already knew; he nodded curtly, and the page stepped aside, grateful to be rid of his charge. The large hashir strode silently into the room, his dun-colored clothing strikingly drab against the ornate bedizenment of the domo's private suites. He moved with slow grace and purpose, though his eyes never rested. He examined the room entirely before gazing at the pale, thin man before him. Liperion fought the urge to shiver.
"I don't like to be kept waiting," he snapped, hands still placed near his dagger.
"You lack virtue, Domo, so I am not surprised."
There was a tense silence as Domo Liperion bristled and the hashir watched passively, each observing the other.
"The Praefectus wants to know when the second part of the plan will be enacted," Liperion said finally, his expression and tone contemptuous. "If we wait too long, Artigro's people will rally."
The hashir smirked, his arms crossed over his chest. "Your Minister is a very impatient man as well. What makes him think that General Artigro's followers will be able to do anything for him? Is there a flaw in your plan?"
Liperion's face reddened at the suggestion. "Of course not! We have taken great pains to..."
"Then you have nothing to fear." The hashir continued to gaze unblinking at the domo, willing him to divulge the fears and doubts that plagued him and his compatriots.
It worked. Liperion grunted, grudgingly, "There are more than mere mortals on his side. Though the royal family is fractured now, they will regroup and come back with a vengeance."
"You fear their gods." The hashir said, sneering. "Odd, since they are your gods as well. And yet you still wish to murder their children and conquer their stronghold. You do not fear their wrath?"
"Worry about your own gods," Liperion snapped. "When will the second phase be enacted?"
The hashir considered a moment, glancing at the bust of some long-dead domo or philosopher or emperor that sat near a window. "The entire family, yes? Women and children as well?"
"The bloodline of Asteria must be purged completely," Liperion said firmly. "Anyone claiming his ancestry is to be killed."
"It will be a massacre on a grand scale, Domo," the hashir said slowly. "You are prepared to handle the aftermath?"
"Artigro is secured. His downfall will be our meteoric rise to power. Nothing will prevent us from pinning this on him...if we act swiftly."
The hashir nodded. "Then the streets of Arthos will run red with royal blood and tears, and the voices of Parnathan mourners will fill the air in three days."
"Three days? Why must you stall further?!" Liperion exclaimed, relieved of his composure.
"My dear Domo," the hashir said patronizingly, "it takes coordination to plan and execute mass murder. If your prison is secure, and you have taken the precautions you claim, then you have nothing to fear. Your gods cannot stop this from happening any more than mine can ensure its success."
Domo Liperion grumbled, his mood sour. "I will tell the Praefectus three days." He pointed an accusing finger at the hashir, practically spitting his next words. "If you fail, I will destroy you."
The hashir merely smiled before executing a small bow and departing, leaving Liperion alone to stew.
It was irritating, the constant accusations of impending failure and threats of retribution, but the hashir exercised a careful restraint in dealing with the Parnathians. They didn't know, could not know, the reality of their conspiracy against the very fabric of their civilization. It was a selfish bid for power, a desire to rise to glory and be called very rich, very great men, and it would destroy them.
The hashir smiled as he made his way from the domo's suites and out into the city proper. He wove his way through throngs and crowds, a sand-colored shadow amidst an unaware populace; he was the agent of their downfall, and they let him walk freely. The fools.
He turned down a narrow alley and climbed a rickety wooden ladder to a rooftop garden. Taking a moment to survey the city, the dark man leaped from rooftop to rooftop, finally settling on a narrow ledge near a covered market place. Another man, clad in the same dun-colored clothing, waited in still silence. The hashir settled beside him, crouching in a shadow cast by a nearby building.
"The client grows restless," he said softly, his eyes roving the market. A woman dressed in a simple shift was arranging apples. She was bent at the waist, and he could see her ample breasts swaying as she worked.
"They are fools, like little children," the other man said, bored. "They will burn with the rest of their brethren."
"Indeed. Is there any word?"
The companion shook his head. "They bide their time. Like vipers, they will not strike until the mouse is unawares."
"The client wants the sacrifice in three days."
The other man nodded, still sounding bored. "They are impatient. They fear failure."
"They fear death, as they should." The dark man stood, once again surveying the city. From his perch he could see the towering spires of the imperial palace. "Tell them that Morfran has met with the mouse, and that they should strike in three days."
As the other man nodded, hashir Morfran slid from the ledge and out of sight.
My skin was slick with sweat, and my breath humid and hurried. I clutched his hair and shoulders, willing him into me, desperate for him. Above me Gaius waged his own battle: his tongue tasted my salted skin as his strong thighs thrust down into me, driving him deep. It was a desperate dance of passion and desire, neither of us pausing long enough to consider tenderness or gentle lovemaking; we needed one another, now.
My breaths came more rapidly, punctuated with each staccato slap as Gaius continued thrusting into me. My mouth found his bicep and I bit down, my teeth sinking into his skin as wild warmth spread outward from my pussy. Gaius was grunting, snarling, animal sounds that filled the air and drove me into a frenzy. Sharp cries built in my throat, and I released my lover's bicep to scream as my body abandoned all thought...
"Lithana! Wake up!"
...abandon that was suddenly squashed by an incessant prodding of my shoulder. Cheated of release, I felt my center quiver with unhappy longing, and I sighed dejectedly. Cracking one eye, my vision focused.
"Vienes, what the fuck?"
The girl quailed before blushing deeply. "I'm sorry, My Lady, but Lady Alethea is calling for you. She says you must come immediately."
I groaned and cursed, rolling onto my stomach and pushing myself up. I could see daylight beginning to tint the sky, and I growled as I rolled from the bed, "This couldn't wait until a decent hour?"
Vienes shrugged and helped me into a thin dressing gown. "Your cousin was very insistent. I think it might have something to do with your husband."
My eyes snapped to her face. "She said something about Gaius?"
"Well, not directly. She said that the game had taken a dire turn, and that we needed to act as soon as possible."
Frowning, I slid my feet into a pair of Alethea's borrowed slippers and followed Vienes.
We found Alethea in the same rotunda we met her in only a day ago. She was staring grimly at the statue of Hastra, her arms folded and lips thinly pressed. She managed to smile as we approached, but the concern in her eyes was plain.
"What's wrong?" I demanded.
"I've received word. Gaius is in mortal danger." She held up her hands, interrupting my breakdown. "Listen to me before you speak. I don't know the exact nature of this conspiracy, and I don't know our adversaries. However, I do know where he is being held, and that his life will soon be forfeit if we don't act now."
"Who told you this?" The look on Alethea's face spoke volumes, and I saw her eyes flit to the statue. "Bullshit, Alethea. I refuse to believe that the gods are feeding you information."
"Only one god, as I explained earlier. Lithana, we don't have time for your doubts. We need to formulate a plan."
"Oh, very good, Alethea. What is this plan? Prance naked under the moon while chanting to the goddess of pleasure that we can fuck our way out of this?" I snorted and stalked away. "This is ludicrous. Let me know when you actually have something useful to say."
"There is not a plan, girl. Not yet," said a new voice. It was high and airy, yet commanded my full attention, and it stopped me dead in my tracks as it echoed around the chamber.
I turned to see the speaker, but the only two present beside myself were Alethea, looking strangely triumphant, and Vienes, who was suddenly prostrated on the ground.
"Who is there?" I demanded, nerves prickling. What if we were betrayed? What if Alethea was playing us all along?
"Not who you think, I assure you," the voice answered. It was more localized now, and came from near the statue. "Put aside your doubts, before they undo you."
Bristling, I rejoined, "Then show yourself, if I have nothing to fear."
A tall, slender woman with golden hair and skin as pale as honeyed milk emerged from around the corner of the statue. She was dressed in a simple, cream-colored linen toga, and her gently curling hair was entwined with small blue and white flowers. She smiled and stood alongside Alethea, holding out her hand.
"Come over here so that we may talk, Lithana. I would rather not shout our business for all of Parnatha to hear."
It took me a good long minute of dumbfounded staring to realize what I was looking at, but when my gaze finally shifted to the statue and back, it suddenly struck me. I reeled, barely catching myself as I gawked, a hand clutching my chest. She was a perfect replica, marble given life. She moved with an effortless grace and glistened from an inner light in the darkened chamber.
"It isn't possible."
"You seem fond of impossibilities. You point them out with alarming frequency."
"You..." I looked from the woman to Alethea, who smiled broadly, to my prostrated handmaid, and back to the woman, my mouth still agape. "You're...you can't be...it isn't possible!"
Alethea giggled. "I told you she would do this, though her reaction is better than what I assumed." My cousin took me by the arm, guiding me to where the woman was standing. "Lithana, this is my mother."
I gaped at the goddess Hastra as I approached her. When I was a few feet from her, I collapsed to the floor, pressing my forehead against the stone. I attempted an invocation, a prayer, a greeting, anything that sounded better than gibberish, but found no success.
Hastra and Alethea exchanged amused glances before my cousin helped me up. I was trembling slightly, but managed to find my feet.