|Subject: CHAPTER 64
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Date Posted: 20:24:05 07/05/05 Tue
Nicadea woke from the stillness and immediately sensed the change. She had fallen asleep to the rhythmic back and forth motion of her mount. The air around her was hot—still. Her neck ached with stiffness and the smell of sweaty horses was unbearable. She opened her eyes and squirted against the brightness of the midday sun. Up ahead the General’s fortress rose defiantly out of the landscape. The wooden dwelling was much larger than she’d remembered, its façade reaching high into the sky above her. The entrance was curved into an arch, bordered on either side by a large, rough-hewed stone. They’d been gone less than a month, but already tendrils of ivy had begun creeping up the sides of the tall entryway.
She didn’t realize she was staring until she was distracted by a voice close to her left ear.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” The General’s friend, Anthony, was giving her a quizzical look.
“Not if you’re a slave. It’s still a prison, isn’t it.”
Anthony lowered his head, not knowing how to answer her. What she said was true enough, but slaves seldom spoke with such frankness. He hoped she wouldn’t be so forthcoming with Mikelle. The General had little patience with philosophy.
"Where would you live if you were freed?”
She tossed her head. “Oh, I don’t know. I might live here, but it be because I chose to, not because I was forced against my will.”
Anthony leaned down closer to her. “You should not speak of such things,” he said in a quiet voice.
“Why? It is the truth.”
“You have no right to speak the truth.”
His words felt like a band tightening around her throat, and she put her hands up in unconscious reaction. She had always known being a slave wouldn’t be easy, but had not realized that even her own thoughts would be taken prisoner. She should never have stopped and helped the General. Her selfless act would cost her her freedom and maybe her life.
Anthony spurred his horse and moved forward, leaving her far behind. She watched his back until he was out of sight, feeling the loss of a possible friend. She hadn’t seen the General since her re-capture, and wondered about his wound. What would happen to her if he died?
There was no time to dwell on the future as she worked to unpack the horses. The work was hard and tiring, and when it was over, she looked forward to relaxing in a quiet corner. Fate, however, had a different plan, and three hours later Nicadea was standing in the General’s quarters. When Cassea had appeared to take her to the top floor, her hopes had plummeted. Why had he called for her so soon?
She followed Cassea to the top floor of the sanctuary and led her into the room centered on a shallow pool.
“Wait here,” Cassea said, her face set with anger.
Nicadea stared at the pool of water as if it were a dangerous reptile, preparing to strike. Already, she was picturing the General poised I front of her, lying naked in the bath. Fully focused on the image playing in her head, she didn’t hear him enter the room.
“Looks inviting, doesn’t it?”
She blanched at the sound of his quiet voice. “No. I bathe with the other slaves.”
“I wasn’t inviting you.”
She stared at her feet, feeling rebuffed in spite of her instinctive revulsion. His arms brushed hers as he stepped around her. She shrank away, causing him to laugh unpleasantly. “You’re going to have to get over that, my dear.”
The way he said that last remark was fertile with meaning. “May I be excused? The day has been long and tiring?”
He was silent for a minute causing her to look up curiously. The dark look marring his face frightened her. Had she pushed him too far? The minute the thought crossed her mind, she realized how foolish it was. She had run away for heaven’s sake. What more could she do?
“You’ve never been a slave before, have you?”
“If I remember right, you were a princess before you became a priestess? Not used to hard work or serving others. I own you now. If you hadn’t saved my life, I would have you flogged for running away. I may yet.”
She didn’t dare move or even breathe as she waited to hear her fate.
He walked over to the bed and sat down before continuing. “Do you know what the battle we had was all about? You don’t, do you? A lot of your people were killed. If I had know who you were, they might have been spared.”
“What do you mean?”
“You family had a legal contract with the
Emperor. I would have upheld that agreement. We’re not barbarians.”
She stepped forward without thinking. “I don’t believe you. If you had honored your agreements, I wouldn’t have had to flee in the first place. I would still be living in my home—with my family. You have no honor.”
He stood and crossed the room in two long strides, grabbing her roughly by the shoulders. “Watch your tongue, woman. You are alive and well only by my good humor. I could just as easily turn you over to my men.”
The threat hit home, and she was immediately contrite. She mumbled an apology, and he let her go.
“The truth is you can be of use to me.”
“How?” she asked in surprise.
“You can help me stop a war.”
His comment baffled her, but the look on his face was sincere. There was a lot more to this man than she had first thought. Part of her wanted to listen to what he had to say, while the rest of her wanted to run as far and as fast as she could.
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