Ouch! Gods, help me!
Vashka’s entire body screamed at her as she lowered herself onto her stomach on her bed. Her back was afire but there wasn’t anything she could for herself at the moment. She sent the servant girl for Ochabu, for she trusted only the old woman to tend her.
“Child! What happened?” the old midwife questioned as she entered the room and pulled the door to.
Vashka merely groaned weakly from where she lay on the bed. If she could have seen what Ochabu could see, she would have considered the old woman’s exclamations well warranted.
Her clothes lay in bloody shreds upon her, the brown skin of her back striped a dozen times. The lines lay thin but the lashes had gone deep; not deep enough to stitch but too deep to heal quickly.
Ochabu rolled up her sleeves and set to work immediately, heating water and sending another slave girl out with a list of specific herbs and plants to make a healing salve for the girl’s wounds. She tore off what remained of Vashka’s clothes. There was no time for modesty; Vashka was already beginning to shake with the pain of the whipping.
“Who did this to you, child? Who would dare?” Ochabu asked as she worked and, shakily, Vashka poured out the story of an hour.
After a while, a shadow moved under the door and it opened quietly. “My lady,” a young slave boy said. “His Excellency demands your presence.”
“The Lady Vashka is in no condition—” Ochabu began but Vashka’s quiet voice broke in.
“Tell His Excellency Kaious that I am unfortunately indisposed and send my deepest apologies,” she said with as much strength as she could muster.
The slave boy looked confused and slightly afraid but he obeyed quickly, leaving the harem as fast as he could.
Vashka sank down onto the bed again, feeling Ochabu start to bathe her wounds. She flinched at the hot water on her tender wounds but soon ceased to feel pain as darkness slipped blessedly over her head.
She did not hear heavy, hurried footfalls approach a short while later as Kaious stormed into the room.
He stopped short, just inside the door, seeing Ochabu rising from Vashka’s bed where she still laid, her wounds as plain as day. Without a word, he closed the door and drew the bolt. Then he just stood there for a moment silently. It almost seemed to the old midwife that he was marshalling his anger for the question so she beat him to the punch.
“Your…advisors did this, Excellency.”
“What?” The single word was low but carried the weight of an army’s fury with it.
“Apparently, someone has accused my lady of plotting to poison you,” Ochabu explained as she checked the herbs that were boiling on the brazier.
“My, our vocabulary is limited this evening.”
Kaious cursed beneath his breath. “This is no time for jokes, Ochabu!”
“I understand that, Excellency. Believe me, I do. But anger will not make these herbs boil any faster,” she pointed out, coming back with fresh cloths to lay on Vashka’s back. Kaious had taken a seat on her bed, next to her, so she handed them to him with a look that said “make yourself useful”.
“Who accused her?” he asked as he laid the hot strips across her back. Seeing those red, glowing, welted stripes over his dear one’s flesh made him sick inside.
“She does not know. They would not tell her. All they would say was that proof had been provided that condemned her and demanded that she confess. Naturally, she would confess nothing. For she has done nothing! The old fools!” Ochabu made an angry sign of disdain with her fingers. “So they striped her for her refusal, for they knew you would never allow her to be executed. Just like spoiled children with an animal that has upset them.”
Kaious frowned deeply, gazing over Vashka, who groaned as he touched her. “I’ll kill them!” he breathed furiously. “They cannot do such things without my knowledge! Without my permission!”
“Actually…they can,” a voice came from the bed. Vashka was awake, barely. She blinked and tried to move to glance at him but the pain drove her to keep still.
Kaious knelt next to her bedside as she turned her head again, slowly this time. “Shkaya…” He brushed her damp hair back from her forehead.
She winced again in her wakefulness. “Silver-steel whips,” she rasped, her voice rough with pain.
Kaious instinctively winced himself. Silver-steel whips were the favored interrogation tactic of the Council. But to use it on Vashka—on his favorite, his chief concubine—without his permission! It was inexcusable! It was a fool’s errand!
Vashka spoke haltingly and gave a sound that almost sounded like a chuckle. “I know that look. And Jan’zed was so kind as to read me the law before they flogged me. Nothing in the law says that they had to alert you unless they found ‘indisputable proof’.”
“And they obviously didn’t,” Ochabu cut in as she ground the boiled herbs to make the salve.
“Whomever accused you can’t be fully trusted then,” Kaious growled. “Only someone inside the palace would be able to accuse you and the Councilors must not think it enough weight.” He lifted a dry rag and gazed at one of the stripes. Its smooth, perfect edgings where it had cut into her back were the tailormark of a silver-steel whip. The whip lash was wrapped with silver-steel, the softest and most flexible metal in the empire; the steel was also razor-sharp and produced the smooth, deep lashes like those Vashka bore.
“Shkaya, darling, what proof did they give you?” he asked as he lifted the other strips from her back.
“An…obsidian jar.” She flinched again as the air touched the wounds. “They say my accuser found it in my room…that it contained mozelth poison and that the law allowed them to…question me. They probably thought I would be far enough back in the rotation that you would not see me until they had healed.”
Kaious exploded again, leaping up from the bed! “That is impossible! I know of the one place that poison can be found! And you have never seen it! And the fools thought they could deceive me! They can’t do this! The law…I am the law!”
“No…” her voice was quiet. “You are only Kaious.”
The look he gave her was all anger, sadness, and, most of all, helplessness. She was right; he was only Kaious. He was a figurehead; his word was law but much of the law did not depend on him, for it had been in existence for centuries. Kaious ran his hands over his face and sighed. “I still want them to pay! Jan’zed…that old jackel!”
Ochabu approached, placing a bowl in his hands and gesturing to Vashka’s back.
The hurting woman sighed, too. “Do what you must, love. Be angry, ply your rage. But do not endanger yourself. Do not give reasoning for another uprising so soon.” She paused as he sat on the bed again. “You swore to me that you would be careful. You swore to me, Vima! And I hold you to your word now!” Her voice was still weak but it held a firmness that he had come to know and love.
Ochabus shuffled out of the room, mumbling that she would be back later to check on Vashka and needed to arrange for medicine.
Kaious nodded at Vashka’s words and, leaning down, kissed her hair. “This may hurt, I’m sorry,” he apologized as he began to apply the salve to her back. Every time she winced or groaned, his heart broke anew and his anger flared hot. He should draw and bleed these snakes for what they had done to her…to his wife! It made him shake with fury but he forced his hand to be still as he drew the salve along the stripes on her back. By the smell, he knew it to be the same herbs that she had used on his many wounds during their days in the army.
As he worked his way down her back, Kaious found himself stopping when he reached a familiar scar. A particular stripe had crossed it so that it formed a small X on the far left side of her back. He lingered there for a moment but then moved on, eager for the salve to begin its work. When he was done, he laid fresh strips of cloth over her back and then knelt beside her again. “You must keep still, Shkaya. Let the wounds heal.” He tried to give her a smile. “Think of them as battle scars.”
She gave as weak an effort in return. “I love you,” she whispered.
“And I love you,” was his reply, just as quiet, as he stretched out his hand and touched her cheek. “I must go now. Ochabu will watch you. Whatever you need…”
Vashka gave another weak attempt at a smile and shooed him with a gentle word, “Go.”
As much as he wanted to linger, Kaious knew the dangers of people knowing he was in her chamber. With a gentle, quick kiss, he left her room, closing the door gently behind him. As he turned away from it to move into the open harem, many of the girls felt their blood go cold at the look on his face as he glared at them.
“I will have none of you tonight!” he bellowed, shaking off Aeth as she approached him. Then he stalked from the harem and the bang of his chamber doors echoed through the corridors.
Kaious did indeed let his anger be known but he planned it out carefully and portrayed that façade of controlled, cold cruelty that serves best to frighten or at least instill that modicum of fear that grows over time.
He did nothing to punish them but calmly assured them that he was grossly displeased with these proceedings and that he, too, knew the letter of law.
“So, my noble sirs, do not make the mistake of hiding behind the law and keeping me in the dark. I am Kaious. Do not forget. You advance yourselves only through my good graces.”
Grand Vizier Jan’zed bowed in reply. “Of course, Your Excellency. We are merely seeking to protect your royal person and the sanctity of the empire.”
“I am well aware of this, Jan’zed. But, I give you my solemn—and experienced—word that whomever accused the Lady Vashka is a liar. She is a smart woman who values her life, Councilors. She would not attempt something as foolish as trying to poison me,” Kaious warned them, sitting stately upon the golden throne of the Ankai. He saw the look of disgust on Jan’zed’s face when he referred to Vashka as a lady but paid it no mind. “I wish this matter dropped, gentlemen. Now!”
Though much of the law did not depend on him, his word was still law. Once Kaious has expressly forbidden something, it could be pursued no longer. And it wasn’t.