"Beautiful, isn't it?"
"Yes, Your Majesty, it is."
Darin frowned. "Your Majesty? So should I call you General?"
Kira glanced toward him. "What?" She shook her head. "I'm sorry, my mind wasn't here. And yes, it is very beautiful."
The two rode together through a lightly forested area. Between the trees, wildflowers were in full bloom, filling the air with their color and scent. This ride had been Darin's idea. Now, looking over at his companion, he wondered if even this scenery could help.
"Kira," he said softly, "what's going on? You've been distracted for days."
Kira glanced off into the distance. "Tomorrow," she said slowly, "it will be two years since I left home. For almost a year, I wandered with no home, no purpose. Then I took that job to kill you." She smiled wryly. "That was the only time in my life I can honestly say I'm happy I failed."
"Me, too," Darin replied, pleased to see a smile on her lovely face.
"I still can't believe what's happened since. Being pardoned. Becoming General of your armies." Kira glanced toward Darin from the corners of her eyes. "Becoming your lover. When I came here, I thought I'd lost everything, but you gave it all back to me, and more." Her gaze turned away again. "Well, almost everything."
"You miss your old home," Darin said, watching her. "Kira, you told me you were exiled after the death of one of the royal family, but you never said anything past that. What happened?"
For a long moment, Kira remained silent. "As General," she finally said, "the safety of the Queen's realm was my responsibility, as was the safety of the Queen and her family. I failed, and because of that, the Queen's cousin died. She could have had me executed, but she chose exile instead." For the first time since leaving the palace, she looked directly at Darin. "Please," she said softly, "don't ask me more than that."
"I won't," Darin assured her. "If the time comes you want to tell me, you will."
Quietly, the two continued to ride. Then, as they crested the top of a small rise, they found themselves suddenly surrounded by armed figures. Kira stared around her, eyes wide.
"Cathyia! What are you doing here?"
One of the figures stepped forward. "General Lakira, for your crimes relating to the death of Phillipus, I place you under arrest. You will return with us to the palace of Queen Lykopis, there to face judgment." The woman shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry, old friend, but I've been ordered to bring you back, and to kill you if you refuse."
Darin glanced around, hand resting on the hilt of his sword. "This," he declared, "is not Amazon territory. Your presence in my realm is a hostile act, if not an open act of war."
The woman, Cathyia, barely glanced at him. "As a man," she said, the scorn in her voice plain, "you would not understand matters of true honor. Your life is not in question here, but if you try to interfere, you will die."
"No." As she spoke, Kira slid from her horse. With slow, careful motions, she removed her sword, offering it up to Darin. "It pains me," she said, "that I won't be there to give this to the one who takes my place."
"Kira...." Darin paused as she raised her hand.
"It has been my honor," she said softly, "to serve you. Now I must honor an oath I took long before I even knew you existed." Turning to Cathyia, she said, "I will not resist. Do as you wish, but do not harm the king, as that would surely cause a war that neither of us would want."
Cathyia nodded to those around her. Quickly, Kira was stripped, her hands bound behind her. As she was led away, Cathyia glanced toward Darin.
"By our law," she said formally, "the person she served at the time of her arrest has the right to be present at her judgment. As a man, I do not believe you deserve that right. Lakira, however, seems to think you worthy of her respect. For that reason alone, I will offer you the right to bear witness, subject to my Queen's approval."
"And when," Darin asked, his voice tight, "will this judgment take place?"
"On the first day of the next full moon," was the reply.
"I'll be there."
It's been too long, Kira thought, gazing around the throne room, since I saw this place. Before, she had always been welcome here. Now, naked and bound, she could only await her fate. She watched as Queen Lykopis entered, surprised to see the other woman pause at the sight of her.
"Why," the Queen asked, "is she here?"
"My Queen," Cathyia replied, kneeling, "the General Lakira has been apprehended and brought back to face judgment for her crimes."
The Queen frowned. "By who's order was this done?"
"By order of the General Molpadia, my Queen."
Kira's eyes widened. She knew Molpadia to be an able officer, but one known to be harsh almost in the extreme.
"Molpadia," the Queen said slowly, "commands troops in the northern district. She does not have the authority to order such an action, and yet she sees fit to send you beyond our borders?"
Cathyia looked confused. "I merely follow orders, my Queen. I assumed she was acting on your instruction."
"She was not." Lykopis gazed at Kira. "Still," she said slowly, "you have returned to us, Lakira. When you accepted exile, it was with the understanding that, should you ever return, the penalty would be death. That is our law."
"It is," Kira nodded, "and I accept my fate." For a second, she locked eyes with the Queen. "As I ever have."
"Place her in a cell," Lykopis commanded, "to await judgment. You," she continued, turning her attention back to Cathyia, "will ensure her safety until then. Should anything happen to her, you will be held responsible."
"Yes, my Queen."
Darin looked behind him, toward the border, an invisible line that marked the change from safety to unknown danger. This, he knew, was possibly the biggest risk he'd ever taken. Still, all things considered, there was no way he could have done anything else. Frowning, he faced forward, continuing his ride toward the palace of the Amazon Queen.
When he reached the capital city, the guards admitted him readily enough, not even requesting that he give up his weapons. Not, he thought wryly, that they would see any real threat from a single man. At the palace, he was once again admitted freely, though this time an armed guard escorted him to the throne room, where he was announced.
"Darin, king of men."
Feeling more than a little uncomfortable in a room filled with armed, obviously hostile women, Darin approached the throne, nodding to the woman seated there.
"Queen Lykopis," he said slowly, "I had hoped we would one day meet. I am saddened that it is under these circumstances."
"As am I." Lykopis gazed down at him. "By law, it is the right of the last person Lakira served to be here. As a man, you are not deserving of that right. You are, however, a king, for whatever little that means. For that reason alone, I have chosen to allow you to remain. Bring forth the prisoner."
Darin watched as Kira was led before the throne. Naked, she stood proudly, wrists and ankles encircled by heavy shackles, the connecting chains clanking softly with any movement. "Your Majesty," she said softly.
A heavily armed woman stepped forward, "You will address her as 'my Queen', criminal," she said harshly.
Slowly, Kira shook her head. "She has not been my Queen for nearly two years now," she replied in a sad voice.
"And yet you stand before her, awaiting judgment."
"Molpadia," Lykopis said, "enough." She turned her eyes toward Kira. "By returning here," she said, "you have condemned yourself to death."
"Returning here," Kira replied, "was not by my choice."
Lykopis frowned. "I am well aware of that. I am also well aware of the fact that you were brought here without my prior knowledge or consent." Her voice softened. "Lakira, I did not command this."
"What does it matter?" Molpadia's voice was harsh. "What matters is that she stands ready to face judgment for her crimes."
"Her crimes." Lykopis shook her head. "I grow tired of this."
"Then judge her," Molpadia said, "and let her die for what she's done."
Lykopis glared at Molpadia. "You," she said, her voice cold, "do not command here. Nor will you. Oh, yes," she went on, seeing Molpadia’s eyes widen, "I know full well why this woman stands before me today. You curry favor. You think that by bringing this woman to me, you will rise in my esteem. Perhaps," she added scornfully, "you seek to command all of my armies."
"What of it? By her carelessness, this woman allowed Phillipus, your own cousin and a member of the royal family, to die. For that, there can be only one punishment."
"She did not," the Queen replied, "allow the death of Phillipus. She caused it. My cousin died at Lakira's hand."
"She....." Molpadia's eyes widened. "My Queen," she said haltingly, "are you saying this woman murdered a member of the royal family? Are you saying you knew this and yet spared her?" She shook her head. "You could lose your throne over this, if not your head."
Lykopis laughed softly. "To you? I think not. And Lakira did not murder my cousin. Phillipus was executed by my order for plotting my overthrow. She was a traitor, and she paid the price. The rest...." Lykopis shrugged. "The rest was a story invented by my advisors. To protect the integrity of the royal line, or so they told me. Lakira agreed to go into exile in order to preserve the story. It was for the good of the realm, or so I was told. And yet, it cost me a good officer." She sighed. "And a good friend."
"You lie!" Her face livid, Molpadia stepped forward. "You lie to protect a murderer, the killer of the rightful Queen. I demand that you face judgment, I...." Molpadia's words froze as she felt the edge of Darin's sword touch her throat.
"For a man, to draw a weapon in my presence can be an act of suicide," Lykopis observed, though she made no other move.
"You," Darin replied, not moving to lower his sword from it's place against Molpadia's throat, "are Queen. She has threatened you. As someone who, at the very least, is not your enemy, I felt it prudent to stop her."
"At the very least," Lykopis said, turning her gaze to Molpadia. "By your own words," she continued, "you confess to being part of my cousin's plot. For this, you will be judged."
Rising from her throne, Lykopis descended from the dais. Holding out one hand, she said, "Key." With her own hands, she removed the shackles from Kira's wrists and ankles.
"Lakira," she said softly, "I have let this go too far. For my sake, you have accepted exile, scorn, the destruction of all you loved. Never has anyone served me with such devotion as you. Return, and resume your place of honor. Allow me to reward you for your loyalty."
Kira glanced behind her, watching as Molpadia was stripped. As she was led away, wearing the same shackles that had once confined Kira, the room watched silently. Finally, Kira turned back toward Lykopis.
"When I left here," she said softly, "it was understood that it would be my final duty to you. By keeping your secret, I was serving you that one last time. Since then, I have seen and learned many things. And I have sworn other oaths."
Stepping back, Kira stood beside Darin, who had sheathed his sword. "Lakira," she said softly, "no long exists. I am now Kira."
"And you serve a man."
Kira nodded slowly. "A man, yes. A man of strength, honor and courage. A man who has earned my trust, my respect...." She smiled softly. "And my love. Serving you...." she shook her head slowly.... "cost me everything I ever had, yet it gave me more than I could ever have dreamed of. I am happy now, happier than I could ever have wished. Please be happy for me."
Lykopis turned her gaze toward Darin. "You," she said, "have stolen the loyalty of perhaps the finest officer who ever served me. You have also stolen her heart. You leave me with little choice."
Turning, Lykopis climbed the stairs, turning to stand before the throne. "My people, hear my words. As of this moment, the name of General Lakira stands cleared of any shame. She is to be remembered, and honored, as the most loyal of my servants. She is also to be mourned, as she is no more.
"Kira, my friend, you are free to go as you please. And should you ever decide to return, for however long, you will always be welcome here."
Kira smiled. "Thank you, Lykopis."
The Queen's eyes turned toward Darin. "As for you," she said, "know this. As long as she serves you, there will be peace between us. But should you ever cause her harm, you will know my anger." Her voice softened. "Treat her well."
"I will," Darin promised, turning toward Kira. "You know," he said, smiling, "you never did answer my question." At her puzzled look, his smile widened. "Should I call you General?"
Kira laughed, pressing her naked body against him. "You might as well," she replied, reaching down between them. "I do seem to have the ability to cause at least part of you to stand at attention."
"General Kira," Darin said softly, shaking his head. "I no longer like the sound of that. I think it's time we changed your title. How does Queen Kira sound?"
"You would make her your Queen?" Lykopis shook her head, frowning. "This I cannot allow." Slowly, the corners of her mouth began to twitch upwards. "Unless," she went on, "you agree to hold the wedding here, so that I can see my friend receive the reward she so richly deserves. I will even provide chambers here in the palace for your wedding night."
"Done," Darin replied, glancing down at the sound of Kira's laugh. "Something?"
"Oh," Kira replied lightly, "just a thought."
"And that is?"
Smiling, Kira kissed him softly. "I'll bring the rope."
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story continues in Kira 3