Saving Maltira chapter three
The long majestic corridor that led to the different rooms in the palace was a welcome sight to Zenobe. After being away from her home for a long busy week, all she wanted to do was sleep in the comfort of her bed.
Zenobe took a deep breath and braced herself as she opened the door to her chambers. Still, she almost fell back when her baby brother lunged himself into her arms in a warm welcome. With the wind knocked out of her, Zenobe managed a squeaky, "I missed you too Out." She walked into her room still holding him and kicked the door shut behind her.
"Father asked me –no- Commanded me to tell you to see him as soon as you return."
Zenobe rolled her eyes, "I didn't bring home a suitor."
Otis chuckled. "I'd like to see his face when you tell him that. . ."
"But. . ." Zenobe urged at his hesitation.
"But I don't think that's why he wants to see you." He completed.
Zenobe set him down on her bed and sat down beside him.
"Something is going on Zen, something very serious. I think it's something we haven't experienced in a long time. If ever."
"What do you know about it?”
"Well, nobody tells me anything around here. . . But, two nights ago, something happened on my canvass."
Zenobe knew of Otis' gift. Sometimes he painted a warning or a prophecy subconsciously. He hadn't learned to use his gift at will so no one knew when a painting of his would turn out to be anything more than just a painting.
Otis returned with a large folded canvass that he had to drag behind him and handed it to his sister. She opened it and gasped. Staring at her from the canvass was Hilda and around her neck hung a key.
"You know her?" Otis asked. A bit startled at her reaction.
"Yes, I met her at the festival and. . ". Zenobe went on to tell her wise little brother everything that had happened during the festival and how they had parted on good terms.
"Hmm. . . I know I drew the picture but you know I can't interpret it, at least, not yet. But if anything is obvious from the painting it's that this Halfling is important and she plays a key role in whatever is happening or whatever is going to happen." He reached up to place his hand on her shoulder and tap lightly. "For now, go see father and hear what he has to say to you."
Zenobe nodded and left her brother to go see her father in the throne room. She would have preferred to have a much-needed bath first and change her clothes but she knew that it wouldn’t be wise to delay much longer because of the sense of urgency she heard in Otis’ voice.
Alec was waiting for her in the hallway when she got there. He nodded to her in greeting and indicated that she follows him. They got to the throne room and Alec ushered her in.
The throne room was a massive hall with six pillars of gold holding it up on both sides of the room. The floor was so shiny that one could see his reflection on it. The ceiling was made of cedar wood with decorative carvings on it.
As Zenobe walked into the room the hair on her nape stood in anticipation and her eyes roved over the room imperceptibly.
The entire cabinet sat around the room as they did whenever there was a council meeting, but what was particularly peculiar was her mother. She sat at her husband's right hand as his royal consort but she wasn't decked in jewels and a fancy dress as she customarily was. She wore her armor. Zenobe had never seen Queen Lycoia in armor. Her hair was pulled up and twisted in a serious bun and her face was scrubbed free of makeup. For the first time in her life, Zenobe saw the stark similarities between her and the woman who bore her.
It wasn’t her father’s spokesman that addressed her but her father himself. His rich deep baritone reverberated in the room with each word he spoke. “Zenobe, daughter of the great King Acha III and warrior princess of Agharea."
Zenobe knelt in submission before her father.
"Your dedication to your training and your love for your people has made you the perfect candidate for the assignment that will be given to you today. That is if you accept."
"I accept Father."
"I knew you would." Pride shone in her father's eyes as he looked at his baby girl who had grown into this strong woman. "Alec will brief you on your assignment and your 7-day preparations are to commence immediately. You may leave."
"Long live the king!” Zenobe lifted her face and caught a mournful look in her mother's eyes that disappeared almost immediately. She walked out of the throne room and met Alec just outside the door. “Why didn’t you come in?” she asked, walking with him to his quarters.
He only looked at her and smiled. The door to his room was slightly ajar when they approached it and Zenobe quickly pushed her way into the room and spun around to face Alec with a questioning look in her eyes. Alec shut his door, closed the distance between them and pulled her into his arms. Puzzled at his behavior, Zenobe stood immobile in his arms. She still didn't know what the assignment was about but the severity of her father’s voice and the combination of the various oddities being displayed by everyone around her convinced her that Otis was right; it sure was no ordinary task.
As suddenly as he had embraced her, Alec released her and sat at a table.
She remained standing and awkwardly looked around his quarters. A ghost of a smile played on her lips as a wave of nostalgia hit her. It’s been ages since she was last in this room.
Alec’s voice cut through her feelings of nostalgia and brought her back to the pressing matters of the present. She turned to him. He had pulled a chair for her and she walked over and sat on it. She had barely seated her butt on the chair when Alec dropped the anchor.
"The relic of Agharea has been stolen."
Zenobe's head snapped up, "When?!”
"It happened during the week of the festival. We have no clue as to who stole it but we have our suspicions about why.” His face became an emotionless mask and Zenobe knew her friend wasn’t there anymore; this was a lieutenant of the Agharean military talking to her. He continued speaking in a solemn voice, “The relics of Nacar, Bebeth, Color, and Queen have also been stolen. That makes a pattern. The relics signify the independence of each of the eight nations in Maltira. If one individual gets his hand on all eight of the relics, he would have control over all of Maltira."
Zenobe got chilly and rubbed her arms to warm herself. This was bigger than anything she had ever imagined. “Are the other three nations still in possession of theirs?”
"Yes, but obviously not for long. You know the measure of security in Agharea, and yet this thief could infiltrate it. If he could do that then it’s only a matter of time before the others are stolen.”
"Could it be someone from Maltira?”
"We have no idea."
Zenobe stood and paced the length of the room. "So we have no starting point."
"We do. You need to travel through Maltira and find out everything you can that will help us catch this thief before it is too late. And to do that effectively, you have to learn to be a spy."
Zenobe shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not a spy. I'm a warrior."
"I understand that you have a strong sense of doing things the right way. But remember: A warrior has to be anything he needs to be to protect his city. We have no idea who is taking these relics. You might have to search other kingdoms apart from Maltira. In order to successfully do this, you have to learn to make yourself a needle in a haystack."
Zenobe drew in a shaky breath.
"Are you up for this?" Alec asked her in a concerned voice.
"I'm sure I want to do it. I just need to brush up my skills and I'll be ready.”
* * *
"Mother?” Zenobe blinked in surprise as she walked into the empty hall that had been cleared for her training. "What are you doing here?”
Queen Lycoia didn’t look like a queen at all. She wore matching cotton pants and tunic, her hair was pulled back from her face in bold braids that were tied together in a knot and dropped down her back. She brandished a slightly narrower than usual, agrarian steel, sword. Her lack of jewelry and makeup didn’t make her any less beautiful. But where queen Lycoia always exuded motherly warmth and goodwill, Zenobe was getting no such energy from her at this point.
"Mother?" she repeated.
"I'm not your mother, I'm your adversary. Draw your sword or die where you stand."
A bewildered Zenobe looked around the hall. The tip of her ears picked up a movement and she drew her sword and blocked a blow a split second in time.
"Never ever hesitate.” Her mother’s strong voice echoed in the empty hall. “A friend could turn foe in a second. Once you leave this place, whoever you meet out there is a potential enemy."
They sparred for hours at a stretch until they were both exhausted and called a truce.
"You have to be better than me, Zen," said her mother, panting.
"I have never met anyone like you, Mother."
"You will meet someone better than me where you're going. You need to be better. We'll go again tomorrow. For now, I need to teach you some secrets about your body."
Her mother untied the knot that held her braided hair together and the single braids hung slightly past her waist. "Have you ever wondered why the ancient female warriors of Agharea never cut their hair?” She continued.
"Not really,” Zenobe said shaking her head.
"Your hair is a weapon, Zenobe.”
Zenobe watched in fascination as her mother's hair wound itself around a sculpture and pulled. The sculpture spun around fast and flew across the hall.
Over the next several days Zenobe learned to dance, to make her skin glow to provide illumination and to camouflage her appearance to look like a different person. At the end of seven days, she felt stronger and more in control than she had ever felt before.
* * *
Zenobe stood before the council a very different woman from the one that stood before them seven days ago. She appeared in full battle armor with her helmet under her arm and bowed low before her father, the King.
The king nodded in approval at his only daughter and then cleared his throat before he spoke. "The entire Agharea will be with you Zenobe, we are trusting that you will use good judgment in whatever you're doing. Always remember, failure is not an option. You may rise."
Zenobe rose, turned abruptly on her heel and walked out. Along the corridor, her brothers stood to see her off. Little Otis smiled at her encouragingly. Zenobe smiled back as she walked past him.