4 Mistress of the Household
Kedor was laughing breathlessly as he burst through the "Bab-i-Sadet", The Gate of Felicity and entrance to the hareem. Behind him, Shikha leapt marble benches and used the intricately tiled lip of a huge fountain to bypass a huddled group of nobles. She lithely darted through the openly staring nobility, foreign dignitaries, and High Priests of the royal temples.
His sprint through the Consortium, the second courtyard of the royal palace, in his sweat soaked undergarments and battered leather baldric, left a wake of pointing nobles and a burst of muttered conversation. Shikha hurriedly closed the doors on the Consortium, cutting off the eruption caused by their mad dash through the subdued and dignified gathering. They had just set a fire that would rage throughout the palace in hours. Whispered rumors and innuendo would carry it high and low. The Azata (nobility) and diplomats would be abuzz for hours as they lay about on marble benches, or lounged on priceless carpets from the far east. Secluded, upon well manicured lawns nestled amongst small glens of fruit trees, tinkling fountains, and flowering garden beds, they idled their morning away whilst visiting with their wives and daughters living in the hareem.
As a form of protection, Kedor had adopted as unthreatening a persona he could dream up. To all in the palace, he was Kindatu's foppish and wastrel son. Always he wore the latest fashions, done in the finest silks and the most expensive jewels he could acquire. Always he projected a cultured, yet vapid facade. As such, he presented little or no threat to any designs on his father's throne by his innumerable rivals. Assassination and intrigue being an Elamite Noble’s constant companion, Kedor had quite effectively removed himself from the game, with his myriad acts of debauchery and total lack of guile. This undignified behavior and state of undress were quite out of character.
Kedor turned to address his grandmother, The Valide Shah (mother of the true Shah), his eyes widening in shock at the scene confronting him. His foolish smile evaporated immediately. The giant, Kay, his father's champion, was held on his knees, arms twisted behind his back by two hulking Nubian slaves. Asala, The Mistress of the Girls, and Captain of the Royal Bodyguards, in her distinctive black kilt, the medallion of the Kislar Aghassi gleaming between her shriveled breasts, stood poised above Kay's outthrust neck. Though old and graying, her arms were steady, as she held a gleaming straight sword over her head, ready to strike.
Where had these Nubians come from? He had never before seen them in the palace. Furthermore, he thought, What had Kay done to provoke his Grand Mother so!
"At last the "Merchant Prince" arrives!" The voice of Katerehna ibn Ashur, Mistress of the Household, rang out, dripping with sarcasm, from behind the silken walls of her Royal pavilion.
"What do you think you are doing?!" Kedor took a faltering step into the hareem, as his eyes roved over the gathered entourages.
No eye spared him a glance as they hungrily watched the drama unfolding in the center of the usually sedate and boring hareem. His eyes settled on his mother's gathering, his sister, their bodyguards, and advisors. He noticed his mother flinch at the tone of his voice.
"This creature has failed us and we would dispose of it! " The imperious voice lashed in judgment.
Chills ran up Kedor's spine, as he took another step toward Kay and his captors. "How has he failed you? Have you spoken to your son of this?"
The erupting screech was laced with anger. "This slave has been tasked with teaching you all things martial, and just now when asked for a report on your progress, he had the temerity to tell me you were incapable of learning the sword and shield and would be better suited to proceed in life as a merchant! That you should step aside for, your bright and shinning cousin, Iskander! That you would be as good as dead on your first trip to a battlefield! Thus insinuating that all my careful plans and work were for naught!"
" STRIKE ASALA!"
Kedor moved without thought, all those years of training each morning with Shikha were ingrained. His talwars flashed, one of his blades caught the downward strike of the Kizlar Aghassi, deflecting it away from Kay. The other struck the head from one of the Nubians pinioning Kay. Blood fountained from the stump, as he fell away. From the corner of his eye he caught the blur of Shikha's blades as she quickly dispatched the second shocked Nubian, his blade only half drawn.
Kedor spun, avoiding the second strike from Asala, now aimed at his neck. He struck back, the captain's hand still clasping her sword went spinning off into the gathered crowd in a welter of blood. So fast and shocking were his actions, the crowd seemed in slow motion as it exploded. Screaming women and children stampeded for the Gate of Felicity. Amazon bodyguards in their burgundy kilts and the Hareem Guard in their black, burst from the crowd. Drawing their weapons, they converged on Kedor and Shikha.
The voice of the Valide Shah cracked through out the room. The curtains of the pavilion parted, and she stepped forth. She was an old woman, approaching her second century. Her fire, her regal bearing, and her iron control of the Royal Household were undisputed. Her son ruled, ably, the largest empire known to man and she was its prime manipulator. Looking at Katerehna, there was no doubt where most of her son's attributes originated.
She pointed to Kay, who still lay dumbfounded and spattered between Kedor and Shikha. "You obviously have NO idea what you are doing! Get out of my sight, and take those bodies with you."
Turning, she snarled at Kedor. "And you! You traipse across the palace half dressed! You come into my presence bearing arms! You shed blood in the hareem, costing me two expensive slaves! You splatter and traumatize the noblewomen of every satrapy in the empire! You end the career of my oldest and dearest friend! You question my reasoning, my word, and my WILL!”
Kedor straightened, and then executed a flamboyant bow. "I merely illustrate a fault in your reasoning, why your word was misspoke, and thus why your WILL must be defied. All of your lessons have been learned, well considered, and understood, Valide Shah."
Flicking them once, he sheathed his talwars, and went to one knee before her.
Stepping to Kedor, she grasped his arm. "Oh get up! You exasperating child!"
Eyes following the crimson trail leading to the door, she turned to watch Kay drag the corpses by their ankles through the Bab-i Sadet and into the Consortium.
She shook her head ruefully. "They were a matched set."
Katerehna took in the ashen faces surrounding the door with a smirk. "And they thought they had some thing to gossip about before."
With a low chuckle, she brusquely turned back to Kedor. " My underestimation of you has cost me dearly, you devious little wretch. Don't think you have me completely fooled though. Now that we see you have certainly received a full dose of your bloodthirsty relatives on your mother's side, and as you have undoubtedly also received a full measure from the devious members on our side of the family as well, have care whom it is you attempt to play. As to that subject, let me assure you that neither your early morning activities, nor your grandfather's recent movements have gone unnoticed."
Kedor, hearing his grandfather mentioned, glanced toward his mother and noticed she held the arm of an amazon . She wore the burgundy leather kilt of a bodyguard, but who's? Kedor was sure he had never seen her before. He was struck by her pale freckled skin covered with spiraling blue tattoos, and her braided red hair pulled into a top knot. She was beautiful. She carried a short composite bow with arrow strung and a gilded gorytos attached to her belt filled with shafts...
"You see, this is what we've been talking about." His grandmother snapped, "TABITHA!"
Kedor looked to his mother again and she had released the girl. The bodyguard was now quickly approaching.
As she passed, Kedor blurted, "You were going to shoot me, weren't you?"
She went to one knee before the Valide Shah, and murmured, "I haven't made up my mind yet."
"Oh stop it! What is with everyone crawling about on their knees today?"
"Grandmother, you emerged from your pavilion today, and we were all weakened by your radiance..."
"Don't you start with me, Kedor!" His grandmother turned on him. "You lost your right to that act when you started killing people in your underwear here today!
“I reserve the right to further complicate your machinations, as I know something is afoot. Get up girl. This is your new bodyguard, Kedor. Kay informed me you begin cataphract training this week. As Shikha is no horsewoman, Tabitha has been assigned to you for your protection as well as training. She is from the Dahae, a horse tribe from somewhere up north I am told."
Seeing that Kedor was about to interrupt, she raised her hand. "Fear not, with your display here today, you have announced to the entire empire in one definitive statement your valid candidacy for your father's throne. With this new “wrinkle”, I am inclined to leave Shikha, also assigned to your safety. If today is any indication of the future, she will be needed as well."
"Now go, but hold in the Consortium, for after I have spoken with your mother, she will doubtlessly want a word with you as well, I am sure."