Lions of Parnatha Ch. 06byMedievna©
"Please, don't apologize, you have done nothing wrong. Most would react the way you did if presented with the opportunity to meet a god. I expected it, frankly." Still smiling, Hastra turned to Vienes and placed a gentle hand on her head. "Rise, girl. There is no need for invocations here."
Vienes did as she was bid, her eyes wide and her frame shaking. I watched her curiously as she continued to stare at the goddess.
"How...how did you recognize her?" I asked quietly. "Why did you believe?"
My handmaid shifted her gaze to me, her expression still full of wonder. "The northern colonies are not like the southern cities, my Lady," she said quietly. "Where southerners have grown jaded with their gods, the colonists rely heavily on the will of the gods for everything from daily life to fending off raiders and bandits. Hastra is more than the mother of wine and sex for us; women across the colonies invoke her wisdom in matters of love, childbirth, and raising their families. She is as dear to us as our own mothers." Her eyes shifted back to the smiling goddess, and she added with a whisper, "I would have known her anywhere."
I frowned slightly, my gaze roaming from Vienes to Hastra and back again. I felt ashamed of myself. For all my education and an intellect I was fiercely proud of, I was remarkably blind. I was never overly religious, or religious at all for that matter, but her devotion and acceptance humbled me.
Hastra laid a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder. "You are blessed, my dear, with far more than you give yourself credit for." She turned to me then, her face suddenly drawn and serious. "But that is not why you were awakened. I'm afraid our time to help my nephew is drawing to a close."
I felt a cold vise grip my heart, and I fought waves of panic. "What do you mean?"
"The Forum is still foregoing a trial," Alethea said as she stood beside her mother. I saw the resemblance so clearly now that I felt foolish for not noticing sooner. "They mean to execute him, and soon."
"Then we must act. We must rescue him," I said, my voice betraying my fear. "Do we know his whereabouts yet?"
Alethea nodded. "Yes, he is indeed held beneath the Forum. Wait, let me finish. The Forum is a vast network of catacombs and prison cells. It could take us weeks to locate him if we go charging in."
"Someone has to know where he is," I growled. "Surely there is someone we can question, or interrogate."
"Oh there are many people, but the problem is reaching them. We are being closely watched, and my servants and maids are well known. Sending one of them would be futile and dangerous."
I pursed my lips and paced, panicking. Why was all of this so impossible? "We need to send someone they don't know, who they would never suspect. Someone who could blend in or..."
"Play a part?" Hastra quipped. "Yes, we discussed that, and I think it could work. Our best hope lies with playing on the weaknesses of men."
I lofted a brow, perplexed. "Weaknesses? What do you have in mind?"
"Men talk when they are comfortable, dear," Alethea said softly. "Certain tonics and draughts can enhance that comfort, and ply secrets from their lips. My mother can supply that much, but we still need a way to get to our target."
"I don't understand."
Alethea sighed and glanced at her mother before fixing me with a sympathetic face. "If we could send someone to one of the jailers, or even the prison warden, then our agent could administer the draught."
"But how would that person get in to see the warden or a jailer? The only outsiders they allow to visit the Forum unescorted are the—" Realization hit me like a sack of rocks, and I blushed sheepishly. "You want to send a courtesan." Hastra and Alethea smiled their affirmation, but I was unconvinced. "But who could we possibly send? I mean, no one here has any training with that kind of thing—"
"It isn't hard to pretend to be a prostitute, Lithana," Alethea said with a smirk. "Our volunteer need only to be acquainted with the possible dangers and how to properly administer the draught."
"But who? You just said that you're being watched."
Now it was Hastra's turn to frown. "That is the catch. It would be a dangerous request, and I am at a loss for possible volunteers."
"I'll do it." The words were spoken so softly they almost didn't register, but as realization dawned I regarded my handmaid questioningly.
"I'll do it," she confirmed. "I volunteer."
"But..." I floundered. "Do you know anything about...?"
She smiled ruefully. "I know enough from previous experience. I know how to charm a man, and with my Lady Hastra's guidance, I will know how to loosen his lips."
"Vienes, no, it's too high a price to ask of you. What if something happens?"
The girl was adamant, and waved away my concerns. "I am the most logical choice, My Lady. And I have as much vested interest in seeing the safe return of your lord husband and his men as anyone else." She smiled and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. "You aren't asking me, My Lady. I do this willingly."
Hastra smiled and embraced us. "You are a brave soul, child. I will do everything I can to prepare you. All that remains is the finality of the plan."
I smiled as I was hugged, but my heart was heavy. What choice did I have but to send my dear friend into the lion's den, if it meant we could rescue Gaius? I dug deep for optimism, longing to embrace the idea, but as Alethea and Hastra schemed, I hoped that, whatever price she paid, it would not be more than she could handle.
Domo Camron Liperion drummed his fingers on his forearms. His glistening forehead gave testimony to nerves, and the old man steeled himself, resisting the urge to mop his brow. It was extremely quiet in the foyer, the only sounds a small, bubbling fountain and his own pounding heart.
When the ornate wooden door to his left finally opened, Domo Liperion was startled. A short, squat man glared at him from the threshold, beckoning him with a shake of his head. Swallowing, Liperion approached him.
The room beyond was dark, backlit by a few high windows near the domed roof. Wide, flat braziers created a narrow walkway that cut down the center, ending at the foot of stone stairs that led to a platform. Liperion stared at the floor as he approached, not daring to raise his gaze higher than that platform. He stopped a foot from the stairs, his trembling hands clenched tightly in his sleeves as he bowed low.
"I hope you come with some good tidings, Domo," said a man. The voice was deep, smooth, charming, and glacial. It reminded Liperion of a finely wrought blade, hypnotic and full of deadly promise. He shuddered and nodded vigorously.
"Indeed, I do, my Lord," the old man responded, hoping his voice dripped confidence.
"Look at me, Domo," the man on the platform said quietly.
Liperion slowly raised his eyes past the stairs and platform, his mouth growing parched as his gaze traveled up. He saw the base of an ornate altar, a pair of silk sandals, the hem of a deep blue linen robe embroidered with silver thread. The robe was cinched with a silver cord around a narrow waist, and a delicate brass collar covered a lanky chest. Liperion rested his eyes on the center of that collar, where an engraved sapphire eye stared through him with knowing accusations. He would not dare look further.
"All of Parnatha's children are welcome in these halls," the man said smoothly. Liperion saw the tip of a black beard dip into his vision as he spoke. "You have no reason to fear me, Domo." There was unspoken expectation in his tone.
Domo Camron Liperion swallowed hard and looked up at the man before him. He was handsome, lithe and youthful despite a few wisps of grey in his black hair. His appearance might have seemed friendly, cordial even, had it not been for his eyes. Liperion had never been able to look him in the eye, afraid of being locked in an electric green gaze that had spelled death and ruin for many.
"Of course, My Lord," was all he could say.
Praefectus Xanathos smiled knowingly, his lips curled in a mockery of kindness. "Now then, what did our foreign friends have to say about our little problem?"
"They assured me that it would be solved in three days' time, My Lord," Liperion stammered. He felt a bead of sweat carve a path down his temple and take hold under his jaw.
Xanathos nodded, his smile broadening. Liperion felt a new shiver of fear traverse his spine.
"Three days? Did they explain their delay?"
"No, M-My Lord. I tried..."
Xanathos frowned, and Liperion fell silent, his thin lips pursed in apprehension. "You do try hard, my dear Domo," the Praefectus said softly. "Tell me, are you 'trying' to see us undone?"
"What? No, My Lord, I would never...!"
"Are you 'trying' to find your way to a sword?"
Liperion stammered, head shaking vigorously and spouting incoherent declarations of devotion and loyalty to the cause.
Xanathos allowed the man to grovel and blubber before raising his hand, silencing him. "I'm pleased to know your fidelity to us, Domo," he said. His tone was venemous, and Liperion feared he might die from poisoning. "If our allies say three days, then three days it shall be. However, I want you to be doubly sure that our own forces are prepared for what is to come. I will not tolerate mistakes."
"There will be none, My Lord," Liperion whispered fervently.
"I needn't remind you then, Domo, that if there are, the wrath of the Empire will be the least of your concerns." Xanathos turned to regard the alter on the platform. "You may go."
Domo Liperion fairly leaped to his feet and fled the room. He did not dare breathe until he was well away from the Magnus Domanus, the pantheon and spiritual home of Parnatha's gods. He had known that the Praefectus, the first priest and protector of the pantheon, would be displeased with the hashir's timeline. Still, he had left the temple alive; that had to account for something.
He made his way across the gardens and to the parade grounds beyond, ignoring passersby. A carriage waited for him at the entrance, and he clambered inside before giving gruff orders to head to the Forum.
The old man didn't know whether to be relieved or terrified, and truthfully he was a bit of both. While it seemed that all of their careful preparations were falling into place, the Praefectus was right; if they failed, the Empire could not make him suffer nearly so much as he would.
As he was borne through the streets of Parnatha, an uneasy feeling settled in his stomach, and the Domo shut his eyes. Whatever was to come had better be worth the impending bloodshed.