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An Interesting Welcome

 
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Ezra Turzic
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:02 am    Post subject: An Interesting Welcome Reply with quote

July, 1617

Three days could be a long time in politics. In Valentia, at this moment in time, three days could be a lifetime. With the Lotharingian embassy slowly packing up to leave at the king's command, watched closely by guards hand-picked by the king's cousin, Felipe of Pomerania, there was an undercurrent of tension in Iska. The population was watching to see whose head would fall next. Yet, in the midst of this tension, there were some things worth celebrating, and one of those was the arrival, at last, of Ezra Turzic in the capital city. Childhood companion and long-time friend to King Nasir, he had traveled almost without resting from Gelre as soon as word arrived of King Clovis' death, eager to give his friend his support. As a man whose reputation was one of honesty and devotion to the Goddess, he was not a bad man to have in the royal corner.

As each day passed, the tension in the palace deepened, despite or because of the changes being made. Though Nasir could feel it, there wasn't much he could do to alleviate it, but trust that things would get better in due time. He truly believed that, but not until there was some semblance of normalcy in the palace, and that would take time. Slowly, he was gathering trusted friends to his side - men who he knew were loyal and devoted, not only to the crown, but to the Goddess, as well. One way or another, he was determined to be a good king, and a good king needed to surround himself with good men.

The introduction to court of the newly arrived friend was a less formal affair than some of the crown's advisors would have liked. Instead of the choked throne room, Ezra was shown to the king's audience chamber, announced by a deep-voiced herald whose solemnity was completely undermined by the large grin on the bearded face of the man he was announcing.

"Ezra Turzic begs leave to greet with reverence His Majesty, Nasir, first of his name!"

"Yes, yes," Nasir said, waving a hand at the herald to speed things along. Instead of sitting and waiting patiently for his friend to enter the chamber and go through the usual formalities of bowing and such, he moved to his feet to meet him halfway.

Chuckling, Ezra stepped past the affronted herald, his grin widening as the king stepped down from his seat to meet him halfway. He paused just in front of Nasir, bowing respectfully. "My king." Then he straightened, and siezed Nasir in a warm, firm embrace. "My friend."

"Ezra." The king returned that brotherly embrace, giving his friend's back an affectionate pat. "It has been too long, my friend. I trust the trip was not too difficult?" he said, inquiring first about his friend's well-being before discussing more serious matters of state.

"Long, and I still have not made friends with the sea, but I have been five days in the saddle and my stomach appears to have forgiven me," Ezra assured him. "And you? Wielding power is a hard job even for those born to it."

"A good king is one who surrounds himself with good men," Nasir replied, clutching Ezra's arm in a gesture of friendship, his smile warm with affection, though his eyes were worried. "It is good you are home." He waved a hand, gesturing for a servant. "I am sure you are famished. Bring food and drink to celebrate my friend's safe return."

Clasping Nasir's arm tightly, Ezra saw the worry in his old friend's eyes, hoping it was not for any specific purpose. He had not had much in the way of accurate news in his journeying home. "Ah, I have missed Valentia these past years," he admitted, a safe enough something to say for those he did not know in the room. "Gelre does not offer much in the way of home comforts."

"We are glad to have you home," Nasir assured his friend, leading the way to a table surrounded by a grouping of chairs, where the servants were busy setting a small meal of cheese and bread and fruit, along with a carafe of watered-down wine.

"As I am to be home," Ezra assured him, pausing when he noticed who else was with Nasir. "Ah, but I see you have a royal guest. Your highness." He bowed to Felipe, who glanced at Nasir with a faint smirk.

"Master Turzic," he answered easily. "We met briefly when you passed through Berengaria on your way to the Dalai's palace in Gelre."

Ezra frowned thoughtfully. "Oh, you were the surly one in black, yes. I recall." He flashed his king and friend a grin.

"I recall a time when there were those who thought you surly," Nasir reminded his friend with a smirk of his own. He was hoping these two - cousin and old friend - would form a friendship of their own, and he was relieved to find they were already acquainted.

"I have never been surly," Ezra declared with warm confidence. "Quiet and opinionated, I will take."

Felipe chuckled. "I thought you said your friend was a respected devotee of the Church and her teachings, cousin?" he asked Nasir in amusement.

"A devotee, yes. I'm not so sure about respected," Nasir replied, his smirk widening into a grin. There was obvious affection in the smile he had for these two men, who stood to become his closest friends, advisers, and confidantes.

"Not by you, certainly." Ezra chuckled at his friend, half-an-eye on the food taster, following the man's hands closely from plate to mouth to be certain he truly was doing his job. "I will have you know I have become quite a learned scholar since we last met."

"I have no doubt, but what subject matter have you become learned in?" Nasir asked as his gaze momentarily followed Ezra's to the taster, though his expression remained casually uninterested. It was a knife in the dark he had to beware of, not poison.

"The tenets of the faith, my dear old darling, the faith," Ezra told him, ignoring the gasp of surprise from certain people around the room at the easy way he addressed the king. His smile seemed to turn inward. "In truth, I am spoiled by my time in Gelre. I have spent years in the peace and tranquility of their libraries, speaking with learned priests and priestesses. I would very much like to endow a public library here in Iska, when the time and means permit."

"A worthy endeavor, oh serious one," Nasir parried, though his endearment was not quite as brash as his friend's. His eyes crinkled with amusement, not only at Ezra's sense of humor, but at the reaction it elicited from the remaining men in the room. "We will speak on it later."

"A public library is virtually unheard of," Felipe commented, as the three men sat down at the set table. "Do you intend to have a fully literate populace then, Nasir?"

"What is wrong with that?" Nasir asked, not really having considered it before. He knew many royals liked to keep their people ignorant so they wouldn't rise up against them, but Nasir didn't think it was knowledge that caused people to rebel so much as things like poverty and oppression.

"It's not something I have ever considered, I have to admit," Felipe confessed. "And you have a smaller population than, say, Pomerania. But if it worked here, it is an idea that could catch on."

Ezra nodded, smiling beatifically. "And, of course, that would require schools," he added innocently.

"It is not something that will happen overnight, certainly," Nasir said, though he was in complete agreement. As radical as these ideas were, it was time for change. "Perhaps I should make you my Minister of Education," he remarked, not wholly in jest.

"And here I thought you had need of a spymaster," Ezra countered, still amused. "I have all sorts of names up my sleeve, you know." Mainly because he had stopped in Berengaria to look up Maksim on his way home. He frowned a little as a black-clad servant leaned down to add another dish to the table.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:02 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Is that what you wish to be?" Nasir asked, reaching for a fig from a nearby bowl. He didn't really want to discuss the business of spying or what Ezra might have learned from Maksim here with too many ears listening.

"I will be what you need me to be," Ezra told him, tilting his head to peer around the servant.

Felipe suddenly swore, throwing the contents of his cup into the servant's face. The man lurched backward, a blackened knife drawn from the drape of his dark clothing, slashing toward the king.

The king was caught off-guard, slow to react, but quick enough to evade the knife, mostly due to Felipe's quick action. He had tried to be vigilant, but he had not expected an attack to come from one of his servants while he was visiting with his friends.

How had anyone armed come so close to the king in the first place? As the audience chamber erupted into loud chaos, it was the king's cousin and friend who acted fastest. Felipe laid hands on Nasir, pulling to drag him out of harm's way, but it was Ezra who surprised everyone. The man who had gained a reputation for scholarly calm lurched up from his seat to lock the assassin's arms in place, his own tucked beneath the man's armpits and his hands locked behind the head. The tip of the knife scraped against his temple, drawing blood, but by then the guards had reacted fully to their king in danger.

Though Nasir was fully capable of defending himself, the blade had taken him completely by surprise. His face paled as he was reminded of the augur's warning and the realization that he had come just a hair's breadth too close to meeting that blade up close. As king, he recovered his composure quickly, shouting orders to have the man taken away and to search the palace for any accomplices, but as his men rushed around to follow his orders, it became obvious to those closest to him how truly shaken he was. Still, there were things that needed to be done, and he could not afford to show any weakness.

"Felipe, go make sure Safiya is safe. Ezra, come with me. You're bleeding."

Felipe opened his mouth to remind his cousin that he was not permitted to enter the harem, and thought better of it. With everything that just happened, it was clear that offending the Queen-Mother and the ladies was far down the list of worrying events. He nodded to the king, snapping an order to the two Horse Lords with them to remain with Nasir until ordered otherwise by the king himself, and strode quickly from the audience chamber. Aaron Shanin, the chamberlain, had finally taken control of the situation, the erstwhile assassin disarmed and rendered unconscious by impolute means now being dragged from the chamber to the place of interrogation.

Ezra, on the other hand, was just a little shocked by the whole thing, blinking in surprise when Nasir pointed out he was injured.

"Bleeding?" He raised a hand to his temple, seemingly startled when his fingers came away wet with blood. "I hadn't even noticed. Lively court you have here, Nasir."

"It has been a challenge," Nasir remarked, not wanting to get into too many details of what court life had been like these past weeks since he'd become king. Challenging was probably an understatement. "Come, I will show you to the infirmary," he told his friend, just now realizing that he probably shouldn't have sent Felipe to see to Safiya, but it was too late now to belay that order.

"My word, I am honored," Ezra commented, moving to join his friend and king as he was ushered from the audience chamber. "A royal escort to have a trained physician wash my face." He was deliberately flippant; to take the attack seriously would mean to give the impression that the king was constantly in danger and could die at any moment. Whether that was true or not, gossip and rumor could be a terrible thing for a ruler to contend with.

"As well you should be," Nasir replied, as the two men made their way from the audience chamber. "It will not happen again. That I can assure you," he added, taking his friend's lead in being flippant. It would never do for his enemies to know how close that assassination attempt had come or how it had rattled him. "It is not quite the welcome I would have wished for."

"Certainly memorable," Ezra pointed out, his eyes reflecting a certain amount of worry for his friend even as he continued in the same light vein of conversation, acutely aware of the two enormous men following close behind them. "I fear I may have added a new thread to my unspeakably good reputation. By the end of the day, there will have been twenty assassins, and I will have been stabbed seventy times and saved by the hand of the Goddess."

"That is not necessarily a bad thing, Ezra," Nasir pointed out, though having an inflated reputation could work both in or against his favor. "I need quick-thinking men who are not afraid to face danger," he added, not entirely a jab at his guards, though it was their job to keep him and those of his court safe from such incidents.

"I hate to break it to you, old boy, but there wasn't much thinking involved," Ezra admitted candidly. "My friend was in danger. That is all I needed to know to act, and I am rather sure that if your cousin had not seen the knife, we would be mourning you right now."

"That is not a very comforting thought, my friend," Nasir replied with a frown. He did not want to speak of the diviner here, where too many ears might be listening. Perhaps now that the premonition had come to pass and the perpetrator captured, there could be peace in the palace.

"You need to reinstitute the guards' rights to search everyone who enters your presence and remove anything that could be deemed suspicious or dangerous from them before they are allowed to greet or serve the king," Ezra said. "It's draconian, but it makes a point, and you will be able to relax it after a few years."

"Yes, you are probably right," Nasir said, though he would have extended that search to include Safiya, whom he had unwittingly made a target when he'd proclaimed her Teliran. He frowned with worry at the thought of that, but he had already sent Felipe to ensure her safety. There was not much more he could do than that, for the time being.

As they reached the infirmary, one of the Horse Lords pulled one of the Valentin guards forward, silently warning the king and his friend to stay put for the time being as the infirmary was thoroughly investigated for any sign of treason or danger. Only when they were certain were the physicians allowed to open the doors.

Ezra rolled his eyes. "As I said, draconian, but workable."

Nasir only nodded, allowing his friend to take charge of his safety. A king could only do so much, after all, and his mind was focused on other matters. "Perhaps I should make you Captain of the Royal Guard," he said, half-jesting again. Whatever was decided, Ezra was assured a place in the king's personal circle.

The cut was, thankfully, not so deep as to cause lasting damage, though Ezra would likely have an impressive scar to pay homage to his homecoming for the rest of his life. As the physician cleaned and bandaged the wound, a commotion made itself known outside the doors of the infirmary, raised voices clearly audible to those within. One of those voices was Felipe's.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:03 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Are you truly proposing to keep us out? This is the king's Teliran! If I have to put her down to get you out of my way, I will make sure you regret it!"

The king's attention - and likely, everyone else's in the infirmary - turned to the voices outside the door. Nasir's face paled, his jaw set in a mixture of worry and anger, as he himself started toward the door. Wasn't that Felipe's voice? And why did he have Safiya with him? The hell with incompetent guards and men who did not understand his wishes. He pulled open the door to see what all the commotion was about.

"What is this all about?" he demanded with kingly annoyance.

Felipe did not bother to answer. As soon as the door was open, he pushed his way inside, calling for the female physician. And with good reason ... in his arms lay Safiya, deathly pale and unconscious, a dark red stain at the corner of her mouth. The blonde prince forced his way into the female side of the infirmary, gently laying the unconscious woman down, and swiftly stepped back outside the screens as the physicians hurried to work on her. He put out a hand to prevent Nasir from going in himself.

"Not yet," he told his cousin. "Let them do their work."

Seeing Safiya in Felipe's arms and the look of death on her face, Nasir stepped quickly out of his friend's way, all the blood draining from his face. If Felipe had not prevented it, he would have stepped beyond that barrier, but as much as he wanted to be with her, he understood that he would only be in the way.

"What happened?" he asked, turning to find another dark-haired woman there beside Felipe, looking tearful and terrified.

"Poison, majesty," she said, visibly shaking, not in fear of the king or for her own safety, but for that of her dearest friend. "I do not know how it happened. We were being so careful," she said, on the verge of panic, tears streaming down her face as she wrung her hands nervously together.

"Your mother is currently tearing the harem apart to find the culprit," Felipe told Nasir in a grim voice. He looked to the young woman with them. "Tell us what happened, exactly."

"I-I don't know," the young woman stammered, still wringing her hands and looking from one to the other of the three men gathered in front of her.

Nasir stepped forward and laid a hand against hers to offer a bit of comfort and reassurance. "No one here is accusing you of anything, Teres," he said, as calmly as he could considering the situation. He had apparently either recognized her or merely assumed who she was from the mention of her in his conversations with Safiya. "I know you are like sisters. We only need to know what happened so we can find who did this."

"Has the source of the poison been found?" Ezra interjected, waving the physician away now his head had been bandaged. He rose to join them. Even without knowing just how important this concubine was, Nasir's reaction to her illness told him her recovery or death would affect their king in ways no one could predict. "Has anyone else succumbed to it?"

Teres blinked at the man addressing her now. He seemed familiar in some way or another, and yet unfamiliar. She noticed the way his head was bandaged and wondered what had happened, but even in her state of shock, she knew this was not the time to ask. Instead, she shook her head at at least on of the man's questions. "No, it was the wine, but ..." She paused a moment, frowning. "The taster did not succumb to the poison." She turned a confused look at Felipe and Nasir. "How can that be?"

Felipe's expression darkened as he looked to Nasir. "Excuse me," he said swiftly. "I need to talk to your mother before she tortures an innocent woman in her eagerness to get to the truth." Without waiting to be dismissed, he left the infirmary, his footsteps already speeding up against the marble even as they faded from hearing.

Nasir only nodded, trusting Felipe implicitly to do whatever needed to be done. His thoughts were following his cousin's to the logical conclusion that it could not have been the wine that was the source of the poison, but something else. The cup, perhaps? He did feel the need to issue further orders, knowing his mother and Felipe would have things well in hand.

"Highness," the dark-haired woman pulled his back to the present. "Will she be all right?" she asked, uncertainly.

Ezra glanced to Nasir, knowing the king would not be able to answer that question until the physcians did it for them. The sounds from beyond the screen were encouraging, though - there was no umming and ahhing, just the quiet sound of fervently industrious action, the clink of glass vials and swish of fabric. "Suraan," he said, assuming that this vaguely familiar woman was one of the harem women not yet taken to the king's bed. "You mentioned that you were being careful. Was there some knowledge of danger to the Teliran?"

"I cannot answer that," Nasir replied solemnly, giving the young woman's hands a reassuring squeeze before pulling away. "We can only trust in the Goddess." And in those who were tending to his beloved.

Teres nodded her understanding, before turning to regard the other man beside him. She looked nervous to be asked such a question, mostly because it was forbidden by the church to seek out the advice of fortune-tellers, but hadn't Safiya shared the warning with the king? Still, there was more than one way to answer such a question. "It is always dangerous in the harem, my lord," she replied. "Especially when one is a favorite."

Ezra considered the answer he was given thoughtfully for a long moment. There was something there, something unsaid, but at this moment in time, he did not think it would do much good to draw it from the young woman. "Who would wish to hurt her in such a way?" he asked, a little more gently. "The harem is a close-knit community. You must surely have some suspicion as to who is behind this."

Teres shook her head, eyes filling with tears again as she glanced to the partition that separated her from her friend. "I-I ..." She trailed off, about to tell them that she didn't know of anyone who might wish the king's chosen harm, when a name came to mind. "Everyone loves Safi," she said, sniffling back tears. "The only one I can think of who might wish her harm is Raya."

Without thinking, Ezra reached to take her hand, pressing it gently between his own. "She was brought here quickly," he reminded her, his voice gentle and calm. "The physicians are already working with her. The Goddess is kind. I do not believe She would take the lady from us." He glanced to Nasir, curiosity showing on his face for the name the woman had given them. "Is this Raya within the harem?"

Teres sniffled again and nodded, even as the bearded man pressed his hand to her own. She did not pull away, finding strange comfort in his touch. There was something familiar about his eyes, but she did not yet realize who he was.

"No, she was banished to the Old Palace," Nasir replied, though he did not explain why that was.

For some reason, this seemed to please Ezra. "May I recommend a small deception, then?" he asked curiously. "If she were summoned to the palace, without word of why reaching her, this Raya's demeanor would certainly betray her if she has had any part in this attempt upon your Teliran's life."

"That is a thought," the king admitted, placing a hand on the man's shoulder and giving it a friendly squeeze. The two of them were obviously acquainted, but Teres had no idea who this newcomer was. He was not one of the men seen in the courtyard with the king outside Safiya's window a few days earlier. "Thank you, Ezra. It is good to have you home, my friend," Nasir continued. "Pardon me a moment while I have her summoned," he said, excusing himself.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:03 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Teres blinked up at them both, looking a little in a state of shock, but whether it was because she now knew who it was that was offering her comfort or because of the attack on Safiya was unclear.

"Of course." Ezra bowed slightly as Nasir stepped away, turning back to Teres with a serious look in his eyes. "Now then, perhaps you can tell me why everyone is so concerned for the life of a single woman," he said, still speaking in that calm, gentle tone. "It is unusual for a king of Valentia to be so concerned over the health of a single Teliran, but Nasir is not a usual king."

As a woman of the harem, she knew she was forbidden from touching any man but the king, and yet, Ezra was no ordinary man, and she was certain the king wanted no one but Safiya. She glanced around to make sure no one else was watching before setting a hand gently against his arm to draw him aside. "He intends to make her his only wife," she whispered back, letting the implications of that sink into his brain.

The spark of interest that rose in his eyes was discernible only for a moment, a second of curiosity over what made this particular woman enough for a friend who had managed not to entangle himself with any woman for more than one or two nights for the majority of his life. "I see." Ezra considered this for a moment, studying the shadowy figures behind the screen before turning his eyes back to the young woman. "Forgive me, Suraan. I am Ezra Turzic, newly returned to Valentia to offer my service to my king." He bowed to her respectfully.

"You honor me, sir, but I know who you are," Teres said in reply, nodding her head in acknowledgment of his introduction. She had not known him a moment ago, but now that she knew his name, she understood why he had seemed so familiar - and she was not displeased thus far with the man that too-serious boy had become. "I am Teres Suraan," she told him, her eyes asking if he remembered her, even if she did not say as much out loud.

"Ah." His bearded face softened with an amused smile. "The ticklish bane of my teenaged years has grown into a beauty with intelligence to match, I see. It is good to see you, Teres."

"I see you have learned how to smile, my lord," she countered, a small smile lighting her face, if only momentarily. Remembering why there were there in the infirmary, that smile was short-lived. She was not fond of gossip, but what she knew of Raya she had learned from first-hand experience and from Sarifya herself. "Raya was one of the most beautiful in the harem to look upon, but that beauty did not transcend to her soul," she told him.

"I see," he said again, his own smile swiftly replaced with a frown. "How long ago was she banished to the Old Palace, Teres? Could she still have ties to the servants and guards in the harem?"

"Not long," she replied, mirroring his expression. "A few weeks. There was a-a conflict between them, Raya and Safiya. I was not there to see it, but I was told later. The Queen-Mother had her banished to the Old Palace. She is a hateful creature, my lord. She was jealous of Safi, but the banishment was her own doing. The king desires a peaceful harem, and there would be no peace with Raya there."

"She cannot be the only suspect," Ezra mused. "Though this does make her an obvious suspect. How widely known are the king's plans to be monogamous, do you know?"

"I am sure she has her allies, my lord," Teres replied. Though she could not say for sure who was involved in such a plot, she did know which women had been friendly and even sympathetic to Raya. Most of them had also left the harem to be given away as wives for some of Nasir's advisers. "The king has made many changes, and I would assume not everyone is happy with these changes," she said, only knowing what Safiya had told her and what she had heard whispered in the harem.

"I understand." He offered her a fainter smile, in an attempt to be reassuring. "I am sure we will uncover the culprits, Teres."

As he spoke, the younger physician stepped out from behind the screen, carrying a covered bowl.

"Pardon my impertinence, my lord, but it is good to have you home. The king needs loyal, trusted friends he can count on," she told him, one hand reaching to touch his before quickly pulling away. Her gaze flickered to the screen, that worried look returning to her face. "Will she recover?" she asked, holding her breath as she awaited an answer.

"We have given her the antidote," the woman said calmly. "She roused enough to vomit, but she is very weak. My colleague is still examining her. But it is hopeful."

"May I-may I stay here with her, please?" she pleaded, looking to Ezra, too, for support. "She is like a sister to me," she said, knowing the only one who really had the authority to allow or deny her presence was the king or the Queen-Mother.

"When the examination is complete, you will be able to sit with her," the young physician assured Teres. "For her own modesty's sake, no one may enter until the examination is finished. Excuse me, I have duties to attend to."

Ezra nodded, almost absently turning with innocent purpose to hold open the screen for a moment so that Teres could at least see her friend. Safiya was still listless in the bed, but her eyes were open and her cheeks flushed. She looked much better for having evacuated her stomach so soon. He let the screen fall closed after only a moment, however.

"Oh, thank the Goddess," Teresa whispered with an audible sob of relief, fresh tears springing to her eyes. She was still visibly shaken, her face pale and tear-stained, but she hoped the worst of the danger was over.

A soft square of pristine white linen was laid into her hand - Ezra's own handkerchief, excavated from his tunic with an understanding glint in his eyes. "Will you be well here?" he asked her gently. "I do not believe the combined anger of the king, his mother, and his cousin will be conducive to an effective interrogation."

She nodded, surprised to find herself wishing he'd stay. She had been raised in the harem and taught that her only desire should be to please the king, and yet, she found herself hoping for another man who might give her the same love the king was bestowing upon Safiya. She gratefully took his handkerchief, briefly grasping his hand as she did so. "You should go to him, then. My place is here with the Teliran."

He covered her hand with his own for a brief moment. "We will talk again," he assured her, inclining his head briefly before turning to go in search of the king.

She could only watch him go and hope. At least, she had not wilted like a flower at the slightest sign of trouble. She would see him again; she was sure of it. But for now, her focus had to be on Safiya.

As Ezra was leaving Teres to seek out the king, Nasir was in the presence of his mother and cousin. Shahista was pacing, agitated, infuriated, that anyone would dare to commit an attack on her son; that anyone would dare attack her son's heart. Terrified that she might be blamed for the lapse in security that had allowed a poisoner to target the woman he loved.

"Lady, please," Felipe was saying. "Calm yourself. As you say, the serving girl has told us everything she knows, and the culprit is being tracked as we speak. We may yet discover everything necessary in the face of the woman who has been summoned here."
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:03 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"It seems we did not find all the plotters," Nasir mused aloud, agitated but thankfully not joining his mother in pacing the floor. "There are only a few who might wish Safiya harm," he said, though it was her connection to the king that had likely put her in harm's way. There might be those who wished to hurt her for not other reason than to hurt him.

"You will never root out all those who plot against you," Felipe told him. "Though I am inclined to believe that these two disaparate attempts to cause harm come from two different sources. One source would have meant one method. The assassin who came for you is very likely funded by heretics in the city still; the poisoner ... I am afraid to say it, but it may very well be a personal vendetta."

Shahista hissed under her breath. "I should have had that arrogant little crab shipped off to Valens or beyond," she muttered, still pacing back and forth.

Nasir did not need her to name the woman to know who she was referring to. "You mean Raya," he said. Some of his anger had cooled since he'd left the infirmary. His mother, it seemed, was angry enough for both of them. It was about then he noticed Ezra. "Ezra," he said, moving over to greet his friend. "Is there any word about Safiya?"

"The physicians seem confident that she will recover," Ezra told his friend, pausing to bow to Lady Shahista with a charming smile before continuing. "I asked Teres Suraan to remain with her while they finish their examination, until such time as you are free to visit with her. But I have seen her, and she was awake."

"Thank the Goddess," Shahista breathed, pressing her clasped hands to her brow in relief.

Even Nasir breathed a sigh of relief, his shoulders relaxing, like a load of weight had just been lifted. "Thank the Goddess, indeed," he repeated. "And thank you, Ezra," he added quietly, glad for his friend's timely arrival. He would thank Felipe later, as well, though he had a feeling it went without saying.

"This is certainly a welcome home I shall not be forgetting in a hurry," Ezra mused, with only slight flippancy. "If I may suggest receiving the lady in state? A summons from the king would normally result in attendance much faster than she is presently accomodating. That does suggest she has some motive for believing that you may look kindly on a request to return to the royal harem if she makes herself look splendid."

"That is true, but it is doubtful she will admit to any wrong-doing without some ... encouragement," Nasir said, substituting the word for that of coercion. He had little love for Raya and her hateful schemes, but the needed to find out the truth.

"Perhaps she can be manipulated into admitting guilt, if indeed she is guilty," Shahista said thoughtfully, finally stilling her agitated back and forth. "An arrogant woman will often incriminate herself in the belief that she is above punishment."

"You are asking me to lie to her," Nasir said, assuming his mother wanted him to do the manipulating. He didn't like the idea of lying, but he didn't like the idea of torturing her either. He found it doubtful she would admit to any wrong doing on her own, but he needed to be certain Raya was at the center of the plot before he decided on punishment.

"No, my darling, I am asking you to watch from behind a screen while I lie to her," Shahista assured him. "If you are to receive her in state, then it is perfectly acceptable for me to interview her before you enter. She will speak more freely in front of me than before you, especially if she believes she is soon to be put in a position that allows her to outrank me."

"Mother, we banished her to the Old Palace," Nasir reminded his mother, though it was unlikely she'd forgotten. "What makes you think she will cooperate without suspecting a trap?" he asked doubtfully.

"She was foolish enough to commit an act of violence in front of you," Shahista reminded him coolly, to the shock of the other men.

Felipe, in particular, seemed horrified. "And all you did was banish her to the old palace?" he asked in astonishment. "Anyone who commits violence on impulse is a danger."

"It is not so simple as that," Nasir replied shortly, not bothering to point out that his mother was the one who had banished her to the Old Palace, where they both believed she would not be a threat.

Ezra raised his hands, a natural mediator despite his status as a newcomer in this dynamic. "With respect, this must be dealt with according to Valentin customs," he said, gently shutting down Felipe's objections with a single sentence. "Majesty, the Queen-Mother is correct. Women are freer in each other's company, and few with the arrogance described will resist the urge to make their intentions plain."

Nasir was not angry with Felipe; in fact, he preferred the customs and traditions of the Pomeran-led countries, but if he wanted true change in Valentia, he had to take things slowly, one step at a time, to ensure the people's trust and support. "Especially if they believe they have succeeded and have much to gain," he added, in agreement. From the look on his face, he found all of this distasteful, but this, too, was part of being king.

"Precisely," Ezra agreed. "If she does not implicate herself, however, you will need a reason for summoning her here."

Shahista looked contemplatively at her son. "Have you answered the request from the King of Alanic, about a wife for his chancellor's son?" she asked.

Nasir arched a brow. He had no intention of sending Raya to the King of Alanic, but perhaps this was not what his mother was suggesting; perhaps she was only suggesting that they use that possibility as a lure to encourage Raya's confession. "I have not, but I will not reward her by sending her there."

Shahista's smile was ever so slightly evil, but then, she had lived with Raya and her studied insults for several years in the Old Palace herself during Clovis' reign. "I have no intention of allowing you to reward her with a good marriage," she promised her son. "I think, should she be proved innocent, she should be given to the Church, as a means of cementing ties between the True Church and the state. But that does not mean I cannot plant the idea that she was summoned for a different reason."

"And if she is guilty?" Nasir asked, presuming the worst. He knew he shouldn't presume Raya was behind the attack on Safiya, but she seemed the most likely suspect.

"If she is guilty, then she will be condemned to death," Shahista said calmly, ignoring the shock on Felipe's face at her pronouncement. "If she is responsible, then she has attempted murder at the heart of royal palace, and who is to say that she will not try it again, against the king himself?"

Nasir's expression was grave, but not shocked. As much as he wished Raya was innocent, he could not deny the fact that someone in the palace had plotted to kill Safiya, and for what reason, other than that of jealousy? No, as distasteful as the punishment might be, his mother was right. If she was guilty, they had to not only make an example of her, but make sure she never had the opportunity to do the same thing again. "Perhaps there is a better solution," he said. "What if she were confined to a nunnery with no contact with the outside world?"
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:04 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"If such a confinement could be made certain, that would be a better choice," Ezra agreed. "For preference, in a different country, so there is no possibility of contact between herself and her erstwhile allies."

"This is all conjecture," Felipe pointed out. "We have no proof of anything as yet."

"No, we don't, and we have to be sure," Nasir said, agreeing with Felipe. "How do you wish to go about this?" he asked, looking back at his mother. "Shall I have her summoned here?"

"This chamber is suitable, yes," Shahista agreed. "The modesty screen is unobtrusive - you will be able to stand behind it without her knowing that you are present. Provided you boys can keep your whispering to a minimum."

Ezra bit down a smile, glancing at his feet.

"I am sure that will not be a problem," Nasir said, turning to look at his cousin and his old friend - one who'd become one of his most trusted companions and the other who had held that same place in his life many years ago.

Felipe was openly grinning. "If I promise not to whisper loudly, auntie dearest, will I get a treat?" he asked, earning a loud snort of laughter from Ezra as the man struggled not to chuckle too much at the way the Queen-Mother was talking to them.

"You will have to ask that of your Jane when you return home, cousin," Nasir interjected. He knew Felipe was trying to alleviate some of the tension with a little humor, but he was still too worried about Safiya to appreciate it. Still, he was trying.

The back door of the chamber opened, admitting the arrival of the senior female physician. "Majesty," she greeted Nasir, bowing low before him. "May I crave a moment of your time? Concerning the Teliran."

"Yes, of course," Nasir replied, turning toward the woman and gesturing for her to step aside with him so they could speak privately for a moment. He had already been told that the physicians believed Safiya would recover. He hoped they had not been wrong.

Speaking quietly, the physician nonetheless was very careful in the choice of her words. "Safiya Teliran is responding well to treatment," she told the king. "It was a potent compound of belladonna and poppy, the majority of which she vomited when encouraged. We have administered the antidote, but I should like her to remain in the infirmary until she has kept down some food and is strong enough for a second examination."

"Yes, of course," he repeated in complete agreement. "Whatever you need." He paused a moment before going on, brows furrowing in obvious concern. He had recovered his composure somewhat, but there was no mistaking his concern for the well-being and safety of his Teliran. She was, after all, not just a concubine, but the woman he loved. "She is of the utmost important to me. Do you understand?" he asked, hoping he did not have to explain his feelings any more than that.

"She is our utmost concern, majesty," the physician assured him confidently. "She is young, and strong, and I believe the poison did not affect her as was perhaps hoped. Further examination is necessary, majesty, but I believe Safiya Teliran is with child."

"With child?" Nasir echoed quietly, a confused look on his face. Was that possible? How could they know so soon? His thoughts returned to the prediction Safiya had passed along from the diviner. Thus far, the woman had been right. He found himself filled with excitement and unspeakable joy at the news he was being given, but it was tempered with worry over Safiya's well being. "Do everything you can for her, and please ... do not tell anyone anything just yet."

"As you wish, your majesty." The physician bowed to him, moving to leave the chamber and return to her patient, leaving the king to absorb what he had been told before he resumed his wait. And it was a wait. It was an insult that Raya somehow believed she had the right to delay a summons for so long.

Though Nasir had learned to conceal his feelings, it was clear he was agitated. He was glad Teres was there with Safiya, but he wanted to be there, too. He was anxious to see her; to hold her hand and touch her face; to kiss her lips and know she was his; to make certain she was well and would stay that way. But first, he needed to deal with the one person who seemed intent on keeping them apart. It was Raya, it seemed, who was really poisoned - poisoned in her heart and her soul. It was a shame, since he might have given her to a man who would have made a fine husband, but if she was truly guilty of this crime, she had no one to blame but herself for her future.

While he had been speaking with the physician, another guard had entered, speaking quietly with Felipe. The blonde prince of Pomerania looked grave as he rejoined the group. "The assassin is dead," he said quietly. "Poison, self-administered. He must have had a capsule hidden about his person. The poisoner, on the other hand, has been found - she was attempting to leave the palace in the guise of one of the cooks."

Shahista frowned. "What do we know?"

Felipe glanced at Nasir in concern. "She is a servant at the Old Palace," he said in defeated tones. "Though she has not yet spoken, it seems clear that this Raya may well be responsible for the attempt on Safiya's life."

"She has nothing to say for her actions?" Nasir asked, though that seemed to be what Felipe was saying. He could order her questioned - tortured, even - but what they really needed to know was who was behind the plot. Had it been Raya or had it not? It was looking far more likely, but if he was going to dole out punishment, he had to be sure. They were not only going to have to question Raya, but everyone who worked and resided in the Old Palace, it seemed. "Very well, Felipe. I trust you to handle things at the Old Palace," he said, trusting his cousin to do whatever was necessary to weed out the conspirators.

"She has said nothing yet," Felipe confirmed. "But there are ways to induce a person to talk that do not require torture or medicines." He had been a military leader on the border between Pomerania and Coimbra for several years; at least he knew he could do this. Noises from beyond the main doors into the chamber suggested that Raya had finally arrived and was waiting to be invited inside. "With your permission, cousin, I will see to that interrogation while you and your mother see to this one."

"You have my permission," Nasir confirmed with a nod of his head. "Ezra, would you return to the infirmary and wait for me there?" He didn't go so far as to say as much, but he wanted someone there he trusted to make sure both Teres and Safiya remained safe should there be more trouble.

"At your command, majesty." Ezra bowed, and together, the two men left the audience chamber to attend to their disparate tasks.

Shahista turned to her son. "If she is guilty, I will have it from her lips, Nasir, I swear it."

"Let us hope so, Mother," Nasir replied, his expression grave. He found this whole business distasteful and entirely unnecessary. Raya could have had a pleasant enough life, if she had not become so poisoned by jealousy.

She touched his cheek affectionately. "Hide yourself, darling. She has been kept waiting long enough to be irritated by now."

Despite what anyone said about his mother, he trusted her implicitly, knowing she had his best interests at heart. Somehow he needed to convince her that it was in his best interest to take Safiya for a wife, and that making her queen would not diminish his mother's status at court. But that was a matter for another time.

"Yes, Mother," he replied. Ever the obedient son, though he was now king, he found his hiding place behind the privacy screen and awaited Raya's arrival and subsequent questioning.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:04 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Questioning that, as it turned out, was unnecessary. Shahista did not even need to manipulate Raya into admitting her guilt. The golden-haired girl arrived in as much state as she could, and as soon as she believed herself alone with the Queen-Mother, said quite plainly that Shahista should begin preparing to spend the rest of her life in the Palace of Tears. When asked why, without being given any hint of what had happened in the harem, Raya had declared that the death of the king's Teliran had left a space open for herself which she intended to make the most of. Things had gone downhill for her rather rapidly at that point, ending in Raya being taken into custody for further questioning. Shahista herself was shocked that she had missed quite how deeply the woman believed herself to be above not only the law, but the Church and state as well.

"But Safiya will live," she said, when she was once again alone with her son. "As will you. Raya will live to know how complete her defeat is."

Nasir frowned as he dropped into a chair and ran a hand back through his thick, black hair. After everything that had happened, and now this. He took no pleasure in punishing Raya, and his worries over Safiya were starting to take their toll. And he still had to somehow break the news to his mother that he intended to make Safiya his queen.

"Out of mercy," he said, knowing he could just as easily have had Raya executed.

Easing gracefully down into a seat now he had sat himself, his mother looked grave as she met his gaze. "She may yet point us toward others," she admitted. "Such deceitful action is not her way. She was not prized for her intelligence in the harem."

"I take no joy in this, but we must find and uproot all the traitors and make an example of them, if we wish to have any peace," Nasir said. He was counting on Felipe and Ezra and the Horse Lords to help him do just that, but he could not count on them forever.

"Unfortunately, your cousin is correct that we will never root out every one of them," Shahista said ruefully. "But those we can, we shall make a clear deterrent to others thinking they might try their hand." She sighed, pausing as the servant tasted first the king's coffee from the king's cup, and then her own, before taking the cup into her hands. She considered her son for a moment before saying, "Safiya is strong. She will come through this, I am sure of it, and will return to bed soon."

Nasir looked suspiciously at his cup. How had they managed to poison Safiya if the taster had truly tasted the wine? It must not have been the wine, but the cup then. He set his cup aside, not really in the mood for drinking it at the moment, though it would probably help bolster his spirits. "Mother, there is something you should know ..." he started.

For all her faults, Shahista was his mother. She smiled fondly at her son. "You love her, don't you?" she asked him, though it was more of a statement than a question. "The country would appreciate a moment to celebrate. When would you like the wedding announced?"

He jerked his head up to meet her gaze, a little surprised that she had half-guessed what he'd been about to tell her. "Yes, I do. Did you know that would happen when you chose her that first night?" he asked curiously.

Her smile deepened at his surprise. "I hoped," she confessed with an almost playful glimmer in her gaze. "Nasir, I am not an idiot. You were raised in a family where you had one father and one mother; you have spent three years free in a land that cannot even begin to understand the culture of a harem. Safiya has been one of my chosen companions since she was child. I would be a poor mother if I did not suspect that my son would love deeply a girl who cannot even bring herself to say something unpleasant about an enemy who marked her face in front of him."

He listened quietly while she said all that, relieved to hear her say it, hoping she would understand and be happy when he told her the rest. He knew there was one thing he could tell her that would make her happy. He didn't want to use it to sway her in any way, but she was going to find out sooner, rather than later. "Mother," he started, reaching for her hand, "the physician believes she is with child."

"Oh, how wonderful!" Shahista pressed his hand between her own, delight spreading over her face. "Do you wish to marry her before or after the birth?" For perhaps the first time, she did not even hint that a son would be preferred, only too happy to have the prospect of being a grandmother before her.

"Before, I think," he replied, relieved by her happiness. She had not even mentioned any preference for a grandson or granddaughter. "We should probably wait for confirmation from the physician, but I am not going to change my mind," he told her, matter-of-factly.

"What do you intend to do with the harem, Nasir?" she asked him curiously. "I ... I may have an idea myself, but these are your changes in your country."

He shrugged. Though he had a few ideas of his own, he was curious to know what she thought. "What are you thinking?" he asked, before he could share his own thoughts.

Shahista looked thoughtful for a moment, pulling her suggestions into coherency before she spoke. "Many of your trusted ministers and advisors have quarters within the palace," she said slowly. "And though it may be your ultimate goal, Valentia is not ready for a mixed court. The harem could become a venue for the ladies of their households - wives and daughters - to mingle under the supervision of the Queen and myself, as well as a school for young women. A bride from the harem would still be a fine reward for those who please you, and those young women would have a loyalty to the crown through your own wife and daughters."

Somehow it seemed his mother had taken the ideas that had been forming in his head and perfectly put those thoughts into words. "That is very nearly what I've been thinking," he told her, once again feeling relieved that she was not trying to force him into taking another concubine or angry that he wanted to make Safiya his queen. "You are not angry, then?"

"I could have wished for you to move more slowly," she admitted, "but what I wish most is for my son to be happy in his home and in his heart. Though perhaps you should suggest to Safiya that the next time she wants a fortune told, she should speak to me first. We cannot have the queen traced to the actions of a woman outside the Church, however helpful her fortune may be."

Nasir coughed, clearly stunned to realize his mother somehow knew that Safiya had sought the advice of a soothsayer. "I will tell her," he said, once he'd regained his composure, though he did not ask how she'd known. Apparently, she had her spies, too.

Shahista's smile was knowing. "I am responsible for the well-being of the harem, Nasir," she reminded him. "Did you really think Teres' unauthorized visit to the market would go unreported to me?"

"She needed to know that she would someday bear an heir," Nasir explained, though perhaps they should have simply trusted in the Goddess for that. "I will ask the Goddess' pardon for us both," he assured her, though he was not entirely unhappy Safiya had sent her friend to the market. "She was given a warning ... about a knife in the dark," he added.

"I would say that fortune came true, wouldn't you?" his mother said quietly. "The blade was blackened, easily disguised against dark clothing. Oh, that reminds me. I am instituting a new dress code for all serving staff in the palace. No layers allowed any longer. Let us at least make it more difficult to conceal a weapon or a poison."

"Yes, it did," Nasir agreed, wondering something else. "Who is to say the Goddess didn't lead Teres to the diviner?" he suggested. "Isn't it better we knew what to expect, so we could be prepared?" he asked, though the knife had still taken them all unawares.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:05 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"It is not something we should lean upon, Nasir," she told him in a careful tone. "A little encouragement, perhaps, but I would not recommend making a habit of it. The population is superstitious enough without lending credence to allegations of withcraft within the royal bloodline."

"No, of course not," he readily agreed. "But no one needs to know but us, and it will not happen again," he assured her. A small smile tugged at his lips. "She said we would have three sons," he told her, hoping that, at least, would make her happy.

"And plenty of daughters to keep them under control, I hope." Shahista laughed, leaning over to embrace her son. "I am happy that you are happy, Nasir. Now why don't you go and see your beloved for yourself? I am sure she will be glad to see you."

"There is nothing I would like more," he said, moving to his feet, a grateful, relieved smile on his face. It wasn't often that he showed his mother how he felt about her, but he wanted her to know. He knelt before her, like a dutiful son, taking her hands and kissing each one in turn. "Thank you, Mother."

She leaned down, kissing his brow with a smile. "I am not a wicked queen-mother from a storybook," she reminded her son. "And I have never had a daughter. You may regret how close our friendship will become." She laughed teasingly.

"I doubt I could ever regret that," he assured her, wondering if things were turning how the way she'd hoped or even planned. Despite everything, he'd fallen in love with the woman she'd favored and chosen for him, and it seemed they would be having a child. What more could a mother ask for in a son than this? He leaned close to brush a kiss to her cheek, pausing a moment to whisper in her ear, "I do not say it often, but I do love you."

"As I love you, my son," she promised him, her eyes wet for a moment in memory of his father and brothers, taken away from them by her own half-brother's madness and paranoia. But it did not last, her composure returning as she squeezed his hands. "Go to her. You will not be easy until you do."

For the longest time, they were all each other had, but things were changing quickly, their circle of family and friends growing. "I will," he replied, feeling like a huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders now that he knew both he and Safiya had her support. "Thank you again," he said, offering a respectful bow before backing away and turning to exit the room.

The infirmary was well-guarded, though Ezra was not inside the screen that protected the female side of the little room from the rest. He stood patiently, as though keeping a vigil over the women within, a faint smile on his face as he listened to the conversation. Nasir's arrival made his smile deepen, though he raised his finger to his lips to suggest silence for a moment. Safiya's voice was as strong as ever as she spoke to Teres.

"... told you that you would find a handsome man you would want for your own someday!"

Nasir opened his mouth to greet his friend, but closed it just as quickly as he was hushed to silence. He smiled in amusement as he heard Safiya's voice, presumably speaking to Teres, knowing they were very likely discussing Ezra. He put up a finger to let Ezra knew he understood and to wait a moment to see if anything else was said.

"Yes, but Ezra Turzic?" Teres was heard to say, following by a soft laugh. "I do not remember him being so handsome."

"Well, I do not remember Nasir being particularly attractive when we were small, either," Safiya answered her friend with disarming honesty. "But then, I was a chubby child with sticky fingers, and he seems to like me well enough now."

Ezra's smile tightened as he fought not to laugh. He'd been listening to this conversation quietly for several minutes already, gauging far more about the lovely Teres than she might have been ready for.

"But we were chosen for our beauty, Safi, remember?" Teres pointed out, a teasing tone to her voice. "As I recall, I was too tall and too skinny, and the Queen-Mother was always after me to comb my hair," she added with a girlish giggle.

"You are certainly not so skinny any more," Safiya teased her friend in turn. "No, I give you leave to like him. I do not think you could do better, unless you found another to love."

"Do-do you think I could love him?" Teres asked, almost hesitantly, as if she was afraid to even hope for that much.

Nasir frowned, still waiting for the right time to let them know they weren't alone.

"You will not know unless you spend time with him, maymun," Safiya told her friend gently. "Perhaps it can be arranged without embarrassment on either side."

Ezra met Nasir's eyes, somehow managing to convey with just a look that he would have no objection to spending more time with Teres Suraan.

Nasir nodded acknowledgment to his friend. Arranging time for them to spend together should prove a simple matter, and the fact that both were willing didn't hurt. Now that his mother had agreed to let him marry Safiya, there was nothing holding Teres back from finding someone else.

"I am just happy you are well, kardes," she was saying. "We were all terrified for you. The king was trying to be brave, but he was worried, too. You could see it in his eyes. He loves you very much, Safi."

"And I love him, from the bottom of my heart." Safiya's smile was audible as she spoke. "I can only hope the Queen-Mother does not take against me for my place in his life."

Nasir quietly stepped away, so that it might appear he had just arrived, and cleared his throat to warn the women of his presence.

Teres' head jerked toward the sound of someone arriving, her face flushing with embarrassment as Nasir came into view. "Majesty, your pardon," she said, moving to her feet so that she could give him a proper bow.

Safiya's face did not flush, but brightened with a soft smile that was for Nasir alone as he entered. She was sitting up against the pillows, comfortably garbed in her own shift and robe, and looking far better than she had just a few hours before. She may still have been paler than others might have liked, but it seemed that Raya's poisoner had not been very good at her job. "Majesty."

Nasir raised a hand to them both, "Please, don't get up," he said with the hint of a smirk, revealing that he did, in fact, have a sense of humor at times.

Teres looked unsure what to do, but bowed again, almost nervously, hoping he had not overheard their conversation. "Majesty, I will leave you two alone."

"Will you come back later, Teres?" Safiya asked, sure that she would be in here overnight, and that Nasir would not be permitted to remain with her.

"Yes, Safi. With the king's permission," Teres replied, looking to the king for confirmation.

"Yes, of course," Nasir confirmed with a warm smile. "I would not keep you apart."

"Thank you, Majesty," Teres said, as she backed away from her friend's bed. "I will see you later, Safi!" she added, turning and hurrying from the room only to run straight into Ezra Turzik with a thump and an "Ooof."
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:05 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Ezra had not been expecting to end up with an armful of Teres. He had, in fact, been turning toward the screen to take his leave of the king, only to receive the departing young woman directly into his arms. He chuckled, smiling down at her. "My apologies, Suraan. I should not stand in the way of your goals."

"My goals?" Teres echoed, looking up to find herself staring into those gorgeous dark eyes of his. She blinked in confusion, either because she didn't understand his statement or because she was embarrassed to find herself in his arms and distracted by his eyes.

Very gently, he made sure she was stable on her feet, letting his hands linger at her waist just long enough to make an impression. "May I escort you back to the harem, Teres Suraan?" he asked in his calm way. "With his majesty's permission, of course?"

"Oh, I, uh ..." Teres stammered, which was very unlike her. She rarely was at a loss for words, but something about this man seemed to do that to her. She hoped she didn't sound like an idiot, but thankfully, the king didn't wait to give them his permission.

"Yes, yes, you have my permission. Now, go on and get better acquainted. You both know you want to," Nasir said, with a wink at Safiya.

"You are a failed master of subtlety, your majesty," Ezra told him through the screen. He turned to Teres, offering her his arm to lay her hand upon. "Shall we, Suraan?"

"The king does not need to be subtle," Nasir pointed out with a grin at Safiya.

Teres' eyes went wide at the king's suggestion and the invitation from Ezra, but there was no hesitation. She quickly jumped at the chance to take his arm, happy for any time in his company.

With Safiya's soft laughter to send them on their way, Ezra smiled, escorting Teres out of the infirmary and into the warren of wide and narrow hallways that would lead them to the heart of the palace and the harem. "You must be easier in your heart now, to know that your friend is well."

"She is my oldest and dearest friend," Teres explained, though he likely knew this already. "She is like a sister to me," she said further, her hand resting lightly but possessively against his arm. What would it be like to belong to this man, she found herself thinking. Did she dare even hope for such a thing?

"I believe I recall her now," Ezra said thoughtfully as they walked. "The little wide-eyed one with an impatient delight for chestnuts?" He chuckled faintly at the memory. "And her stalwart protector, who seemed to think that anyone who didn't smile had something terribly wrong with them."

Teres couldn't help but smile at the memories he was sharing, though not all her childhood memories were good ones. "And you and Nasir - both of you scrawny little urchins running around the harem like you owned the place."

"I can certainly promise I am no longer scrawny," he assured her in a teasing tone. "Even in Gelre, I was expected to continue my martial training daily. I may even have muscles under this robe." He flicked a glimmer of a wicked smile her way, knowing perfectly well that her impact with his chest had certainly displayed there was more than padding under his clothes.

Her eyes widened at the mention of his muscles and she even blushed a little before recovering from her embarrassment at having run right into his arms. "If I didn't know better, I might think you were flirting with me, my lord. You do know I am Suraan, yes?" she teased back, though she was hoping to escape the harem.

"I do," he assured her. "Just as we both know that Suraan does not necessarily mean that Teliran will follow. Would it be so truly awful not to be in the bed of a king, but in the life of a man who values you for more than your beauty?"

She wanted to stop right there, to turn to him and look into those beautiful dark eyes of his and see if he was only teasing or trying to hint at his own desires, too. But she continued on, frowning a little in thought, uncertain if he was only still teasing. "I suppose that depends on the man. The King and his Teliran are lucky. They have loved each other since childhood and have found each other again. I do not know what awaits me in the future, but she is the sister of my heart, and I will not leave her."

"Then I would wish for you that the man you cleave to will be a good friend to the king, and remain with him for all his years to come," Ezra said carefully. His other hand gently covered hers on his arm. "And hope that man might someday be me."

Now she did come to a halt, turning to face him with a puzzled, but hopeful expression on her face. "You say this, even after all these years? Even after the ways I tormented you when we were children? You would care for me the way the king cares for Safiya?" she asked, needing to know his answer and know that he was not merely toying with her.

"You were a child, and I was little more than such myself," he reminded her. "You were the most fun I had in my years at the harem, Teres. I am not a monk, nor a priest, and my respect for the Church does not make me less of a man. You have grown beautiful, yes, but you have a sharp mind, a good wit, and a loving heart, and those I value more than beauty. The love you bear for your friend gives me hope that I might, someday, earn a place beside her in your heart."

She boldly slid her smaller hands into his, her expression softening at his words, her eyes bright with tears of hope. "I believe you have already done so, my lord. I once thought you too somber, but there is humor in your smile and warmth in your eyes. I see a man who is not only wise, but kind and, in his way, gentle. You left a boy and have returned a man whom I would be proud to call husband. If there is a way, then you have my answer. My answer is yes."

He did not dare do more than squeeze her hands; for all that they had just shared, she was still Suraan. She belonged to the king, and any man who touched her in an unworthy manner could be put to death. "We will find a way, Teres," he promised her faithfully. "I have no intention of leaving the palace unless Nasir orders me to, and he has need of men he can trust. Just as your Safiya will need you close."

"Then perhaps we can serve them together," Teres suggested. A smile brightened her face, hopeful and happy. She knew she could not yet kiss him, could not even touch his cheek. They were taking a chance merely holding hands as they were, but they had been friends once, and perhaps they would be more than friends in the future. "Welcome home, Ezra," she told him quietly, calling him by name, and giving his hands a gentle squeeze, as if to let him know she truly was happy to see him again.

"I am very glad to be home, Teres," he said softly, his smile almost hidden in his beard as he gently laid her hand on his forearm to continue on their way again. "And I am sure you will delight in telling your sister all about this conversation later."

"As I am sure you will delight in telling Nas-the king," Teres countered, almost slipping and calling the king by name, as they continued on their way. She frowned a little at the thought of Nasir, trying so hard to be a good king and makes changes that not everyone would be willing to accept. "He is going to need friends and advisers he can trust."

"He has one or two here already," Ezra assured her quietly. "And I know of at least one other on his way back home. We did our military training with him - he'll be able to command the military and bring them wholly back to the king."
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:06 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Do you think they are not with the king?" Teres asked, a worried look on her face. She knew there would be those who did not want Nasir to be king and even those who might try to overthrow him, but hadn't most of the heretics been rounded up by now?

"I think there will always be dissenters, and the king has not yet had the opportunity to demonstrate that he is fully in command of the military," Ezra told her in his gentle way. "Idris will take care of that, I am sure."

"Idris," Teres echoed, furrowing her slender brows and searching her memory for a face that went with the name. "I am not sure I remember him," she admitted with a frown.

"He was not raised in the harem," Ezra clarified. "He was the son of one of the generals, raised in the barracks. Spent a fair amount of our training convincing other boys that beating me with a wooden sword was a bad idea."

"Then I owe him a debt of gratitude for keeping you safe," she said with a smile, her hand still resting lightly against his arm and liking the feel of that arm beneath her hand.

Ezra chuckled gently as they walked. "He is a good man, if a little imposing on first impressions," he said. "His father raised him with noble ideals, which is, of course, how he ended up being sentenced to death. His exile was more in the way of keeping himself alive than anything else."

"Exiled, like you and-and the king?" she asked curiously. She did not know everything that happened outside the harem, especially during the years when Nasir's uncle was king.

"Idris was in line to take his father's command when the general retired," Ezra explained to her. "In his madness, King Clovis feared that allowing a man raised by the military to command the military would result in a mutiny against him, and so, he signed Idris' death warrant. If his friends had not smuggled him out of the country, Idris would have died four years ago, before the king and I were ever exiled ourselves."

"So, the king is calling his friends and allies back to him. Even those he thought were dead," she said, a little amazed at what was no less than a miracle. The Goddess truly worked in mysterious ways. She had brought Nasir back to Safiya, for one. Teres would have never guessed in a thousand years that she'd find herself hoping for a future with Ezra Turzic. "What will the king have you do now you are here?"

"In truth, sweet rose, I do not know," he answered, seemingly unaware of the endearment that tripped so easily from his lips. "I returned to the capital only today, and so much has happened that I cannot truly predict where the king may find best need of my skills. Only time will tell."

"But he will keep you here, yes?" she asked, looking up to him with hopeful eyes. He had said as much, but she needed to be sure. "His cousin's wife is with child. He will be leaving soon," she said, making the case for the king needed more friends around him.

"I do not believe I would have been welcomed back so warmly, nor allowed to remain so close in these confidences today, if he did not plan to keep me here," he told her with quiet confidence. "I have much to offer him, but more precious than any skill is my friendship. My loyalty to the king is without question."

"Then you must help find our enemies so there are no more attacks on the king or his Teliran," she said, turning to face him again and finding her hands curling against his chest, her fingers toying with the cloth of his robe. There was a pleading look on her face, her fear for the king and her friend apparent.

Ezra hesitated, glancing about them for a moment before laying his hands on her upper arms, palms warm through the silk of her gown. "I have the means to do that," he allowed her to know, "but I cannot - I will not act without my king's authority. I will speak with him, Teres. His safety is my paramount concern."

"Thank you," she whispered, feeling a little relieved to know he would do his part to keep both the king and her friend safe. There was little thought for herself in this, though she felt some hope for the future now that Nasir was king.

"Do not trouble yourself so much, sweet rose," he assured her gently. "We will protect the king, and his beloved. I swear to you, it shall be done."

"I know you will. You are a good man, Ezra," she said, quieting her voice so that her voice did not carry. It would never do to have someone overhear her calling him by name or see her standing so close, but the times were changing, and soon they would both be free to do as they would - so long as the Queen-Mother agreed.

He smiled faintly at her praise. "I know I may not be the sweeping love affair you hoped for, Teres, but I will care for you," he promised her, his own voice as soft as hers. "I will love you, if you will allow me to."

"You are more than my heart could have ever hoped for," she assured him gently and would have kissed him then, if it were not for fear of someone watching. She lingered in that moment, reluctant to let it pass, though she knew it must ... for now.

He smiled at her then, a fuller smile that made his eyes shine for a brief moment, before again putting that distance between them to take her hand upon his arm once more. "Come, then," he told her. "I am sure the other women of the harem will be eager to know that your sister is unharmed."

Those who were left anyway; those who were their friends. She followed his lead, surprised to find herself trusting him implicitly. Was this really the same gangly boy she had grown up with in the harem? The one who had never smiled?

Time can change anyone, it seemed, and time had certainly wrought fair change upon Ezra Turzic. But he retained his respect for tradition and custom, refusing to even glance through the doors to the harem as they were opened to admit Teres upon the pair's arrival. The chatter from within stilled swiftly at the sight of a man with Teres, curious eyes watching before impatience made itself known in the voice of Sasha Suraan.

"Teres, come and tell these idiots that Safiya is not dead, and that you have not been in the king's bed beside her cooling body!"

Teres actually rolled her eyes at the suggestion that Safiya was dead and that she had dared take her place in the king's bed. "Don't be ridiculous. Safiya is safe, and I ..." She paused there, chewing at the corner of her mouth with a brief but guilty glance at Ezra. "Things are changing, my sisters," she told them, though she wasn't sure just how much it was safe to share.

"I will take my leave." Ezra stepped back, his smile hidden from the other women as he bowed to Teres. "Teres Suraan."

"Who was that?" another voice demanded, only to be shushed by yet another.

Teres frowned, but offered a polite nod of her head as he stepped back. "Thank you for the escort, my lord," she said, ignoring the other women as she watched him depart.

It was merry-faced, red-haired Tulin who gently touched her arm, drawing her back to the little group. "Why have your things been taken to the concubines' quarters, Teres?" she asked sweetly. "If Safiya still lives, the king will never turn his heart from her."

"Have they?" Teres asked, frowning to know she had sent Ezra on his way, when it seemed she would be needing another escort, but before she took her leave of them, her sisters deserved to know what had happened. So it seemed the Queen-Mother had agreed to her request. "I am only going there because Safi wants me to," she said, looking around at the faces of the women she'd grown up with and who were her closest friends. "There is so much to tell you ..." she said, stepping forward to disappear among them and share all of what she knew.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:06 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Across the palace, in the infirmary, Safiya held her king's hand gently in her own, a soft smile on her pale face for his concern. "Truly, I am well," she insisted to him. "A little sick to my stomach, a few aches, that is all. The Goddess has been kind, Nasir."

"The Goddess, yes," Nasir agreed, sitting as close as he could to her, close enough to touch her cheek and tuck a stray strand of raven hair behind her ear. "I must visit the temple and thank Her for all She has done for us," he told her.

Her smile turned warm in amusement as she leaned into his touch. "The physicians told you what they suspect, didn't they?" she asked, raising her own hand to touch his cheek in turn. "It is not confirmed, but I cannot help hoping ..."

"Yes, they told me," he admitted with a soft, pleased smile. Though they were not entirely certain yet if she was with child, he was hopeful. "My mother knows," he told her, his smile warming. "She asked when we wish to marry," he told her further, still amazed at just how supportive his mother was being. But then, he was her only son that remained alive, and she loved him. How could she deny him his heart's desire?

Surprise filled Safiya's expression - pleasure, too, that Lady Shahista seemed to support his decision. "The custom is to wait until the firstborn son is a year old," she said uncertainly. "I-I do not know the customs of other lands."

"Perhaps it is time for the custom to change," Nasir suggested further, rubbing a thumb against the back of her hand. This was only one of many changes he hoped to make, and this one concerned no one but the two of them. "We will wait until we are sure you are with child, at least, if only so that people know there is to be an heir."

Safiya blushed prettily, the color swarming to her pale cheeks as she smiled. "I am glad she is not angry with me," she admitted in a quiet tone. Then her hands captured his, her eyes solemn as she met his gaze. "Were you going to tell me about the other assassin?"

He frowned to know she had heard of the knife attack, and yet, he had come to no harm. Her question presented another question in his mind though, one he had not considered until now. "Safi, did the augur tell you about the poison?" he asked, wondering if there was something she had not, also, told him.

The guilt that rose on her face was answer enough, shame guiding her eyes away from his to their joined hands. "Forgive me," she whispered. "I could not bear to worry you. I thought it would be easy to avoid."

He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, even as he lifted a hand to touch her cheek and turn her back to meet his gaze. "There is nothing to forgive, Safi, but if we are to be husband and wife, we must be honest with each other."

"I told you everything else," she promised fervently. "Truly, I did not think the fortune on my life would be so difficult to prevent. I worried more for you than myself."

"But Safi, I worry for you. I love you," he reminded her. Even if there was nothing he could have done to prevent the poisoning, he would have tried. And yet, there was only so much he could do to keep them both safe.

"I came through this unharmed," she reminded him, not wanting to argue over something already done. "You came through it, though you have not told me what happened. You would not die without me; you would have heirs without me, your line would continue. But without you, my world would be destroyed. Do you not understand how deeply I need you to survive?"

"But I did not die, Safi," Nasir argued, clutching her hands snugly in his own, needing her to understand that the danger had passed, at least for now. There would always be some danger in being king, and even in being queen, but there were precautions they could take and people they could trust to keep them safe. "Felipe noticed the blade and pushed me away, and Ezra ..." Nasir frowned a moment as he tried to replay the attack in his head. "Ezra subdued my assailant. He has been taken for questioning."

"And you will keep Ezra close?" she asked, knowing that Felipe would soon be leaving them to return to his own wife in Carib. Pomerania could not risk an accusation of interfering in another country's monarchy beyond the smooth transition of power.

"Yes, I will keep him close," he assured her. And there were other friends and allies returning, as well, now that he was king - most of them former exiles, like himself. "I will make him captain of my personal guard, if that would make you feel better," he said, with just a hint of teasing.

"Would that make him happy?" she countered in amusement, glad he was not so angry that he could not tease her. "Teres likes his looks, you know. And they remember each other, from the harem when we were children. Would it be so terrible to gift him a wife from the harem?"

Nasir couldn't help but smile. He, along with Ezra, had heard some of the talk the two women had shared regarding his friend's arrival. "Do you think she would be happy with such an arrangement?" he asked, unable to hide that knowing smirk from his face.

"So long as ... so long as he remains here, with you, then yes, I believe she would be very happy with it," Safiya predicted, though Teres had not said as much. She had seen the way her friend's eyes had lit up when they had spoken of the newly arrived friend of the king, though.

"Perhaps we should see what develops between them," Nasir contemplated. He did not want to force a marriage on the couple, but he had a feeling if things kept going the way they were, they would be happy with such an arrangement. "My mother has some ideas I think you would like to hear." Ideas about the harem and the women within it.

Safiya did her best, but she was not very good at schooling her expression. Her instant reaction was of fear and trepidation, uncertain quite what the Queen-Mother planned for the harem and not entirely sure she wanted to know. "The harem is her responsibility," she said softly. "Such decisions are hers, so long as she bears that burden."

"Yes, but what she is proposing involves you, as well," Nasir said, before explaining what his mother suggested only a short while earlier - making the harem a safe haven for the ladies of the court, the wives and daughters of his many ministers and advisers. And as far as the young women who now occupied the harem, they could be offered in marriage as a reward to those most trusted and loyal men in his service who were as yet unwed. Of course, he would not force any of them into marriage, if they did not wish it, but at least, they would have a chance at happiness outside the harem.

Safiya bit her lip as she considered this. It was very close to their original idea of making the harem a ladies' court to compliment the male court of the king. "I should speak with her about it, I suppose," she mused. "If I am to rise in rank, I do not want to supplant her."

"She suggested that you would supervise it together, but perhaps she will have more time for such things once we have a family," Nasir said, though nothing was set in stone yet. These were all things they were merely contemplating for the future.

"I should like to be a friend to the Queen-Mother, if she will allow it," Safiya ventured hesitantly. "I do not remember my own mother, and ... she has been very kind to me."
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:06 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"I believe she is rather fond of you, sevgili," he assured her with a warm smile. "As am I," he added. "She is being very agreeable about my wishes. I believe she only wishes us to be happy."

"I would hope that she is happy with us, Nasir," she murmured, leaning toward him. "That you are truly happy, and not simply saying it to please me."

Nasir frowned to think she might not believe he truly loved her, even after all these years. "Please tell me you do not truly believe that," he said, clutching her hands close as he met her gaze, his eyes sad to think she might not believe he loved her. "When I heard you had been poisoned, I was terrified to the depths of my soul. Angry, too, at those who dared to harm you. I did not think I would ever find myself in this position, Safi. I did not think I would ever be king. I did not think I would ever see you again. But now that I am, I promise I will do everything in my power to keep you safe, and I will love you with all my heart. There is nothing you could ask of me that I would not grant, nothing you could do that would change my love for you."

"I do not doubt you, Nasir, nor your heart," she promised him. "But I know my own heart, and I know that for your sake I would smile and pretend happiness, to keep you happy. I have no need to now, because you love me and that is all I want. But I cannot help but worry for you. You will never be able to stop me from worrying for my beloved."

Nasir smiled at her own promises. Unlike her, he had spent some time away from Valentia and had seen other cultures, traditions, and ways of life. He had seen what a man and a woman could be to each other and what they could accomplish together. This was part of what he wanted for his own country, but he knew it would take time. "I believe that is what love is about, Safi. Caring for each other, worrying for one another."

Relieved that he was not angry with her, she leaned close, touching a kiss to the tip of his nose. "I was not so very stupid, was I?" she asked uncertainly. "To drink wine I had seen others drink from the same pitcher?"

"No, love," he assured her quietly, smiling as she kissed his nose. "You could not have known, but we will be more careful from now on." He paused a moment to kiss her lips, gently, as though she was made of glass, but tenderness and affection. He had not yet told her that Raya had admitted her guilt, but she had not yet asked.

"We have much to be careful for," she murmured back to him, her hand straying to the flat expanse of her belly hopefully. His kiss gentled her concern, lessened the tension she had been carrying since realizing her foolish mistake had endangered not only her life, but the life of the child possibly planted in her womb. "I will not do anything that will endanger your child, Nasir."

He settled his hand atop hers, beneath which their child might, at this very moment, be growing inside her. "The danger has passed, love," he assured her, touching a fingertip to her lips to gently silence her promises. "Raya has admitted her guilt. Arrests have been made. I trust Felipe and Ezra will round up the remaining guilty parties. There is no need to worry."

The shock on her face was palpable in the air as he named the person who had wanted her dead. "Raya?" she repeated, the word barely more than a whisper. "She hates me so much?"

"Jealousy has poisoned her soul," Nasir said, though it seemed Raya had hated Safiya for years before he'd returned to Valentia. "She will spend the rest of her days in a covent, where she can do no further harm."

"I never dreamed she would ... would go so far," Safiya breathed, horrified at the extent of Raya's hatred. "Why would she do something like that? I never meant to hurt her, I ..."

"I have no explanation, Safiya," Nasir said, sadly. "Nor does my mother. She could have had a happy life. I would have made sure of it, but hers was a hateful, vindictive soul. Perhaps she will find some peace in the convent."

"Or forced devotion will poison her further." Safiya seemed truly upset. She had never once even thought that Raya would go so far as to wish her dead, much less take steps to make that wish a reality. "May I see her, before she is sent away?"

Nasir's frown deepened. "I do not think that would be a good idea, Safi," he told her. The woman had attacked her, not once but twice, with intent to do harm. "No, I cannot allow that. I'm sorry, love, but I do not trust her, and I cannot allow her the chance to cause more harm." Even if that harm was not physical.

No matter how gently he spoke, the king's word was final. Safiya nodded, reluctantly accepting his decision. She would likely never know exactly how she had earned Raya's emnity, and perhaps that was for the best. "As you wish."

He was glad she did not argue with him on this. "You are a gentle soul, Safiya. It is hard for you to understand someone like Raya, but there are some who are filled with so much jealousy and hatred that they do not know what it is to care for anyone but themselves. There are some who only crave power and some who are poisoned by greed. Some, like my uncle, we think of as mad, insane. It is like an illness for which there is no cure. Raya is like that. The best we can do is pray for her soul and hope she finds peace," he told her, taking her hands in his once again.

"I am sorry that her spite has brought discord into your home, Nasir," Safiya murmured tenderly. "I will do better to prevent it in years to come." She raised his hands, pressing a kiss to each palm with fervent affection. "I wish I did not have to stay here tonight. I shall be so lonely without you."

"It is not your fault, beloved," Nasir assured her, following her kisses with kisses of his own, one to each of her hands in turn. A smile appeared on his lips as a thought came to mind. It was not the usual sort of thing, but he was king and who was going to argue with the king? "Then perhaps I should stay here with you."

"And what would we tell Teres?" she asked with a warm smile. "Or your ministers, who expect to be able to find you in case of emergency?" She laughed, pressing forward to kiss him affectionately. "We will survive a single night without one another. The next time we are together, we will know if there is a third to protect between us."

"That is true. I would not wish to upset Teres," Nasir agreed, chuckling, though he was sure there wasn't much he could do to upset her when he had practically already given her into Ezra's care. "I will make sure you are not alone, and there will be guards to keep you both safe."

She giggled, nodding her assent to his terms with ease. "I do love you, Nasir," she promised him, needing to say it more often than she needed to hear it. Needing him to know he was loved. "Thank the Goddess you were not harmed."

"I love you, too, Safi," he assured her, leaning close to touch a soft kiss to her lips. "You should rest now," he told her, brushing her hair back from her face with a gentle touch. "I will ask Teres to come spend the night here with you, and I will check on you before I retire for the night."

"Thank you, beloved." With a last kiss, she eased back to settle against the pillows, unwilling to admit how weak she felt after her exciting day with all its gastric surprises. But at least there was color in her cheeks, and a smile on her face. It could so easily have been much, much worse.

He leaned closer to kiss her again, this time with a brush of lips against her forehead. There were no words to tell her how much he cared for her; he could only hope she would see it in his kisses and caresses and hear it in his words of love. "Sleep, my sweet. I will be back later," he promised, waiting until her eyes were closed and her breath grew slow and steady before making his way from the infirmary, trusting in the physicians and the guards to keep her safe.

There could be no mistaking the importance of this Teliran in the eyes of anyone in the palace from this day on. No assassin would come within thirty feet of her, and anyone who allowed such a thing to happen would pay harshly for their mistake. Valentia had a new king, and it was about time Valentia learned what that meant.
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