Part 6

 

 

 

 

Three days later, Rubio stood nervously in his liege's apartments, head respectfully bowed. Another guard was with the prisoner and Elyana, though he was less uneasy about that than his leader's response. He still didn't understand the confrontation he'd walked in on, and when he'd asked the outlander, she'd simply shaken her head, her eyes twin wells of hurt, and refused to answer any questions.

Terreis's narrow back stiffened and she folded her hands together at the small of her back, peering into the crackling fire. "Physically ... she's getting stronger?" she asked after a long moment of silence.

"Yes, my Queen. She sleeps most of the time, but she's regaining some weight and some color ... and seems to be mentally sharper."

"Good." She nodded and was silent for a long moment. "You got the list of questions I had delivered?"

"Yes, Highness."

"And you've asked them each day as instructed?"

"Yes, My Queen, but she has no answers."

Tension slid through the woman glaring at the fire. "None she cares to share," she said bitterly as she remembered the things she'd read in the military reports. Oh, Janet Fraiser denied her involvement with touching sincerity, but there was little doubt the woman was a murderer in the worst way.

"None at all, I think," Rubio had the temerity to disagree. He tensed as the queen turned and blue eyes swung his way, wondering if he'd gone too far.

"Meaning?"

"I've seen no indication that she lies." He swallowed hard as a blonde brow rose ceilingward. "She's offered no resistance, no trouble ... and she seems honest." He flinched under the close scrutiny. "Elyana believes her," he added as if that set everything in stone.

Terreis sighed softly and turned away again, watching the dancing flames as though they might offer some answers. Once she'd calmed after that last confrontation, She'd gone back over everything, mentally flaying herself alive for her reprehensible behavior. Even if the woman was guilty, it didn't excuse what Terreis had done in a fit of temper. And the worst part was that at some level she wanted to believe as Rubio did, wanted to find some explanation that would have absolved the woman of responsibility for such barbarity. Her guilt driving her, Terreis had gone through the reports on the outlander attacks over and over, hunting for something disprove Valchon's accusations. She found nothing. All of the evidence indicated that Janet Fraiser had been part of a truly heinous attack that had resulted in more than a dozen deaths, very probably several rapes, and several farms burned. "The problem," she said at last, "is that everything indicates she was, at the very least, part of a group that slaughtered several families and burned their farms."

The guard shrugged, "I don't know," he admitted. "I can only tell you what I've seen ... and I've seen no sign that she lies, nor any capacity for cruelty. She's been cooperative ... even kind."

Another tired sigh escaped his queen's lips as it struck her how much she would have liked to believe him. Unfortunately, that would be neither wise nor prudent. Unable to resolve the issue to her satisfaction, she changed the subject. "Are the new quarters adequate for your purposes?"

He nodded. "Yes, there's more than enough room now." The single bedroom in the servant's quarters had been far too small for them to see to the prisoner properly. "Though Elyana wishes me to ask if we may use your bath for the prisoner. The showers in the servants' quarters are still unheated and she fears for her health."

Terreis' eyes slid closed an she was momentarily lost in the memory of the sight and feel of soft flesh. It had haunted her since she'd banished the woman from her presence and showed no signs of fading into insignificance. "During the day," she croaked at last, "when I'm not here ... but I do not want to see her." Which was a lie. She wanted more than she knew how to deal with.

"Yes, my Queen," he quickly assured her. "I'll see your paths do not cross."

Terreis simply nodded, sinking into a nearby chair as she struggled to distract herself from the memories she found disturbing at so many levels. "Now I want to hear every detail of her answers to those questions." She held up a hand to halt him he started to speak. "I know you said she admitted nothing ... but perhaps there is information to be found even in her denials."

A beat passed, then the guard nodded, hands folded together at the small of his back as he waited for her questions.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

"Get out," the order was succinct and to the point, delivered with absolute confidence that it would be obeyed by the hawk-faced man who entered the quarters where Janet now found herself held prisoner.

Melanthus, the guard who stepped in when Rubio slept or was out, straightened away from the wall where he was leaning comfortably, one hand resting lightly on his sidearm. "Minister Valchon," he said quickly, his spine snapping even straighter as the older man's gaze turned his way.

Janet looked up. She was still weak as a kitten, eating frequently and sleeping most of the time, partially because her body needed the space to heal, and partially because her mind needed to escape the situation she found herself in. If she sat and thought about things too hard, she would have gone mad. A frown creased her brow as she recognized the newcomer's voice from somewhere.... The supercilious one who'd been with Sam in her cell, she realized in a flash ... and maybe the voice from the half-remembered torture sessions. She frowned, struggling without success to remember.

"Minister," Elyana said with automatic deference as she rose from the chair where she sat near Janet's bed, her expression nervous.

"I believe I said, 'Get out,'" Valchon repeated impatiently, barely sparing the two servants a glance. They were beneath his notice.

Melanthus and Elyana traded uneasy looks, caught between a rock and a hard place. They had orders from their queen, but a minister's word -- particularly the senior minister's -- was considered as coming from their liege.

"Minister," Melanthus began carefully, "Queen Terreis has ordered that no one be left alone with the prisoner." He flinched ever so slightly at the anger that leapt into the minister's eyes, making them gleam dangerously.

Valchon's foot tapped impatiently. "Your queen has also ordered you to follow her ministers' commands as though they were her own ... and I have questions for the prisoner in connection with my investigation."

"Of course you may speak to the woman, Minister Valchon," Melanthus quickly assured the older man. "I simply meant that for your safety--"

"I assure you, she will not harm me," Valchon cut the guard off, a hint of a grim smile touching his mouth. "And the discussion I need to have isn't meant for servants' ears." He turned his glare on the prisoner, effectively dismissing the two servants. "Now, get out ... or I assure you the queen will hear of your defiance."

Clearly torn, Melanthus stood perfectly still except for his eyes which swung back and forth between the minister and the prisoner.

"Now," Valchon snapped impatiently.

Finally, the guard nodded his surrender. "Come, Elyana."

"But--" the young woman started to argue, but the guard cut her off in a hard voice.

"The minister is correct. We are commanded to serve him as we would our queen."

For a moment, Janet thought Elyana was going to defy the guard as the young woman flashed a worried look her way, but she finally nodded. "As you say," she acquiesced.

Melanthus gestured the young woman through the door, then turned to face Valchon, ducking his head respectfully. "Minister ... do be careful. The woman is considered dangerous."

A shiver slid down Janet's spine at the newcomer's answering smile. "Oh, I think I can deal with her," he assured the soldier.

The guard paused, uneasy, but not knowing what to do. "Of course, Minister," he said at last, and ducked out, tugging the door closed in his wake.

Well aware of her vulnerability -- with her right wrist shackled to the bedframe, Janet had little ability to fight back if pressed -- the doctor pushed into a sitting position as she silently peered at the newcomer, waiting to see what he intended.

"I am Senior Minister Valchon," he informed her, a thin smile curving his mouth as he studied her.

Definitely one of the voices from the barely remembered torture sessions, she decided with utter certainty. Which left little doubt in her mind that he was behind whatever games had been played with Sam's memories, because she had just enough recall to be certain they'd been trying to use some sort of hypnotic suggestion on her. That was the best explanation for Sam's behavior that she could see.

"No comment?" the minister pressed when she didn't reply.

The doctor shook her head. "Not really," she murmured, not trusting him in the least and determined to give nothing away. She had a very bad feeling he wasn't there for a particularly vicious game of tiddly winks.

His eyes narrowed ever so slightly and the superior smile ghosted into nothingness. "Our queen has turned responsibility for your fate over to me," he informed her coldly.

A sculpted eyebrow climbed high on Fraiser's forehead. She wasn't sure why -- after all, Sam had attacked her , then handed her off to a middling guard and seemingly forgotten her -- but she didn't believe his claim at all. "Has she?" She was even more convinced he was lying when a muscle ticked in his cheek.

"Indeed she has," he confirmed. "Washed her hands of you and told me to handle the situation as I see fit." The smile returned in fair measure; confident, cocky even.

Definitely lying. "Has she?" she said again, showing no fear. He didn't like that judging by the way the tick in his cheek keep jumping at random intervals.

"Do you wish to go home?" he asked after a beat, the only sign of his anger the unsteady muscle twitch.

"Of course I do," she responded, playing his game and purposely keeping her tone as bland as possible. Hopefully he'd tip his hand, though she had a bad feeling she knew why he was there. If she was right, and he was the one behind Sam's transformation, he had to be worried about anyone who knew the truth and view them as a threat. And she definitely knew the truth.

"Good then," the minister pronounced, his eyes sliding over her, hunting for something ... weaknesses, most likely, she decided. "We're in agreement. I see no reason to keep you here, since you're clearly no part of this attack on our people."

He was playing it straight, acting as though her captivity was simply a mistake, but it just didn't click. Just like his act that he believed she was innocent didn't work. She was certain his name had been the one on the reports she'd glimpsed ... the ones which supposedly confirmed her guilt and which had sicced Sam on her. He was smart enough to know that the child's slaughter was the mostly likely way to push Sam Carter to murder. "I see," she said simply, struggling to keep the expressionless mask in place.

He was trying to appear businesslike, as though he didn't particularly care and this was simply an administrative duty, but there was an edge of tension that made it anything but. He cared far too much about her answers. "I've already arranged an escort to return you to where you were captured. I trust you can see to yourself from there."

"Doubtless," Janet said simply, wondering if he thought she was so dazed that she simply didn't know what had happened or that she was so desperate to escape, she didn't care who she left behind.

"Then I see no reason to delay." He moved to stand before her, crouching down and reaching for the lock on the manacles. There was a moment's fumbling with his pockets as he hunted for something; he pulled out what looked like snuffbox and tossed it onto the table next to her tray, then a small knife before finally finding what he was looking for. The faintly rusty lock resisted for a moment, then gave way and he tugged it free.

Janet winced, faintly appalled by the condition of her wrist; the wide manacle had left a sizable bruise right over the bone and the rough edges had left her flesh raw and abraded. For just a moment, she lost track of Valchon as he rose and paced away from the bed, his back to her, the knife seemingly forgotten on the table.

Noting the tension that was so at odds with his seeming show of trust, she allowed herself a small, wry smile. It wasn't even a well-laid trap. She leaned back, causing the faintest rustle of blankets, and he spun, one hand going inside his doublet, then froze when he realized she hadn't touched the weapon. "Is something wrong, Minister?" she questioned, purposely keeping her tone polite. "Perhaps you should get your," she put extra emphasis on the word, "Queen, and make certain she approves of your plan," she challenged him.

He saw the knowledge in her eyes and his mouth pursed. "I see no need to disturb my liege with such a trivial matter..." he said, not ready to let the game drop.

"Still, you should be certain," she parried neatly, her gaze following his to touch on the discarded blade she had no intention of touching, confident that the moment she did, she was dead. "I want to go home, but I can wait a few minutes ... and I know your queen was most emphatic about wishing to question me."

"Since you're well aware that she would just as soon see you dead, I wouldn't suggest you seek her attention." His eyes touched on the blade, and the muscle in his cheek twitched again, showing his frustration with her refusal to go along with that plan. Janet suspected she'd just made her murder considerably more difficult by refusing to give him an excuse. "Now, come." He reached out a hand, indicating she should join him.

And if she did, she had no doubt she was dead. Janet swallowed hard, sensing that the time for game-playing was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. He didn't want to do it here unless he had some kind of defense that she'd attacked first. But if he made it look like an escape, all he had to do was slit her throat and dump her body somewhere no one would ever find it. "I don't think so," she said very softly, then laid it out plainly, "I plan on living a little longer."

He knew and she knew -- it was no game. The mask dropped in an instant. "That's not going to happen either way," he told her with quiet menace. He nodded to indicate the weapon he'd left on the table. "Of course, you might have a chance if you fight." A hint of a smile touched his lips. "After all, there's always the possibility you could take me."

Her answering smile was acidic. "I doubt that." She indicated where his hand was still tucked inside his doublet. "At a guess, I'd say the moment I touch the knife, you'll kill me with whatever weapon you're hiding in your coat. And if I go with you, I get a shallow grave at the first opportunity."

"As I said, either way," he allowed, but still didn't move.

"But you're not eager to kill me here without some measure of plausible deniability," she accurately diagnosed. "So, I'd say my best bet is to just sit here ... and wait."

"Do you think the guards will return to help you?" he demanded, his tone politely disbelieving. "Or perhaps you have some hope that our queen cares about murdering, outlander scum." A triumphant smile flicked across his lips when she winced as though struck. "I can kill you now and no one will care."

Which was a blatant lie, or he'd have already done it. "If you say so." She leaned back, purposely keeping her hands well away from the knife. Whatever he was planning, she had no intention of helping him.

Like quicksilver, triumph shifted to frustrated anger. "Pick up the knife."

Janet shook her head, holding his hard gaze and refusing to be cowed even though it was harder than hell not to at least try.

"Do you think this show of defiance will save you?" he demanded with increasing anger.

"I don't know," she admitted as an odd kind of calm descended over her, "but I do know that doing what you want won't."

The twitch had the muscles in his cheek jumping like a nervous cat. "Nothing will save you," he said grimly, stalking forward his expression deadly intent, his patience clearly strained to the limit. "The only chance you have is to fight."

Janet's gaze flicked sideways, touching on the knife, but she kept her firmly at her sides.

"Go on," he taunted as he continued his advance.

Forcing down her fear, Janet shook her head.

"As tractable as you are," his eyes slid over her with leering appreciation as he changed tactics, "perhaps I should keep you alive. It would give me a chance to enjoy what the dungeon guards didn't have time for."

Teeth grinding as she fought the urge to rise to the bait, Janet held her temper in check and didn't respond.

Triumph made another appearance as he saw the murderous hate in her eyes. "Perhaps you'd even enjoy it."

Her gaze rose as he moved to stand in front of her. No one was going to rescue her, and he wasn't going to go away, she realized with a sick rush. As weak as she was, she didn't have much chance if it came down to a physical fight, but it was probably a better chance than going up against whatever he had hidden in his coat.

His right hand still resting on something in his doublet -- his weapon doubtless - he reached out with his left as he reached the bed. Janet twisted her head away from the hand that found her cheek, but he forced the issue, his fingers the smooth touch of a man who'd never done any physical labor in his entire life.

"Get your hands off me," she hissed.

Her anger only drew a taunting smile. "Make me."

Jaw muscles clenched so hard they were close to cramping, she gripped the blankets on either side of her hips with white knuckled strength, holding on to keep from doing something stupid and getting herself killed. The stroking fingers continued on an ambling path down the length of her throat, purposely pushing her temper.

"Very tractable indeed," he drawled, well aware of just how badly she wanted to lash out and using it against her. He leaned down, grinning at her. "Do it ... maybe you can beat me." His fingers slid lower, stroking the base of her throat, eyes glittering with the need to control.

Janet glanced sideways at the knife, mentally calculating her chances and not liking them at all, but uncertain how much longer she was willing to bear his touch.

"Go on, little outlander," he pressured, hand tightening on the weapon in his doublet. "Fight me."

Swallowing hard, muscles impossibly tense, she braced herself, accepting that she had no choice.

"Try for the knife."

"Don't even think about it," the voice was hard, angry, and utterly implacable.

Valchon froze, while Janet exhaled a heavy sigh of relief. The minister's lips twisted with frustrated rage only to clear almost instantly as he straightened and turned to face the woman standing in the doorway, his hand slipping free of his doublet. "My Queen," he said stiffly.

"Minister Valchon," blue eyes touched on the woman on the bed, their expression oddly comforting before they returned to focus on the minister with laser bright intensity. "I believe I left orders that no one was to be alone with the prisoner."

"I saw no reason for your guard to be present while I was questioning her." He glanced Janet's direction. "After all, servants often gossip, and I didn't think you wished to have any information she might part with shared in the kitchens."

Desperate for any information that might help her understand the situation, Janet watched as Sam drew nearer, her expression unreadable. As she drew to the side of the bed, she reached out, fingers brushing Janet's hair and clinging just long enough to draw her head up. Sam's gaze touched on the discarded manacles. "Which is why you released her from her restraints?" she asked the minister with icy courtesy, then glanced at the table where the sheathed blade still sat undisturbed. "And left weapons lying within reach?" She turned a hard look his direction. "Such carelessness is precisely the reason I ordered a guard to remain with the woman at all times. She's dangerous and you're not trained to deal with the threat." She picked up the discarded knife, fingers brushing the wire-wrapped handle until she abruptly winced and blood beaded on one fingertip. "You should have this repaired," she noted, her delivery never shifting from that cool, unemotional tone. "Several wires have come loose and could injure the user. That could be dangerous in a fight ... slow someone down ... even cost them their life." She tossed the weapon back to him, watching as he easily caught it and winced when the wires tore at his palm. "I would appreciate it if you not disobey my orders again."

The twitch had become a full-scale muscle spasm. "As you wish, My Queen," he ground out.

"I definitely wish," she said without losing that careful neutrality, then her voice sharpened to a fine edge. "I also wish to be present any time you or anyone else decides to interview this prisoner ... no exceptions." She turned back toward Janet, reaching out as if she couldn't quite keep herself from touching, her hand almost rough as she worked her fingers into coppery hair, drawing her gaze. "She is, after all, my property and my responsibility." That was directed as much at her as the minister, Janet realized with practicality, an odd sort of objectivity descending on her. "And, to say the least, I have a vested interest in what she says when she finally starts telling the truth."

The doctor's gaze momentarily swung sideways, a shiver sliding down her spine as she saw Valchon's expression. She saw his hand slip inside the doublet, easing what looked suspiciously like a small revolver partially free. He was scared, she realized in a rush, scared to death that she would tell Sam the truth, and maybe shatter her programming. And it was so tempting to try. He saw the temptation and shook his head, his hand clearly resting on his weapon, the threat behind the gesture obvious. "One word," he silently mouthed, "and she's dead."

Janet looked up at Sam then, all too aware of the danger. "I've told you," she said bitterly, "I don't know anything."

"Oh, you know a great deal," Sam murmured, her grip tightening fractionally in a small display of power. "And soon, you'll tell me everything."

Janet saw Valchon tense out of the corner of her eye and for a moment, feared Sam might have pushed him too far, but before he could react, the door pushed open and Rubio stepped just inside the room. "Your Highness, have you any need of my services?" He flashed an unreadable look at Valchon and stood with his hand resting lightly on his sidearm.

The blonde glanced back, but not in time to catch a glimpse of the weapon tucked in her minister's doublet. "Of course. Senior Minister Valchon was just leaving ... and I wouldn't want to break my own rules."

With little else he could do, Valchon ducked his head in acknowledgment. "My Liege."

"Dismissed," she said softly, ignoring the way he tensed with resentment as he left.

Rubio pushed the door shut in his wake. "Melanthus is waiting outside," he informed her. "I thought it best."

She nodded, then looked back at Janet, refusing to release her hold when the doctor would have pulled back. "Valchon should not have been so foolish as to be alone with a dangerous prisoner," she said softly.

Rubio's brow rose doubtfully, but he didn't argue.

Janet did, however. "He came here to kill me," she insisted.

Sam looked down, her expression unreadable. "I doubt that. Minister Valchon is a respected man."

"And he would have been a respected murderer if you hadn't arrived. He released me and left that knife out, hoping for an excuse to kill me. He had a gun of some kind inside his coat."

A hint of a frown touched Sam's brow before she schooled her expression back into a cool mask. "Had you attacked him, no matter the cause, your death would have been your own fault." She bent to retrieve the loose manacle and grabbed for Janet's wrist as well only to freeze when she saw the bruised and abraded condition of her skin. "Rubio," she glanced back at the guard, "this is unacceptable."

He swallowed hard. "I know, my Queen, but there's little we can do. Elyana has treated the area daily, but the edges of the cuff are sharp and rough and cut into her flesh. We tried wrapping it in cloth, but it made the manacles too tight, and cut off the blood supply to her hand."

She started to say something only to apparently change her mind. "I'll see the problem's dealt with." Grabbing Janet's other hand, Sam fastened the manacle there, noting that it too was abraded, though not as severely. They'd been trading the manacles back and forth but her right wrist had gotten the worst of it. She looked up, and for a moment, Janet thought maybe that had reached the woman inside where nothing else had. "I would not see you hurt this way." A callused thumb stroked the back of the doctor's hand. "Such cruelty is your way, not ours."

"I didn't kill that child," Janet breathed, unable to bear the idea that any version of Sam could think her capable of such a thing.

Blue eyes rose, searching her face a little desperately.

"I swear on my own life," Janet continued, her tone a mix of pleading and despair. "I never hurt him. I couldn't do something like that."

Sam was silent for a long moment. "On your life then," she said very softly, fingers tucking under Janet's chin. "And if I find out you're lying, I'll kill you myself." Something tired and a little sad echoed in her voice as she issued the threat, as though she liked saying it no better than Janet liked hearing it. Without giving Janet time to respond she rose, flicking a hand at Rubio to indicate he should follow her as she stepped into the hall.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

"My Queen?" Rubio questioned as the door slid shut in his wake. They were in the small anteroom of the private apartment.

"Make sure Elyana is aware how grateful I am that she disobeyed Minister Valchon's wishes to inform me of this situation," she told him, her tone low, her gaze distant.

"Yes, My Liege. She will be glad, since I know she feared upsetting you."

The queen's head tipped in a thoughtful nod. "And make certain Melanthus knows not to give way before anyone except me in the future." That mistake could have cost the prisoner her life and could not be allowed to happen again.

Rubio took a deep breath, bracing himself for a difficult task. "I will try, My Queen," he said carefully, "but you must understand, Minister Valchon has great power. If he makes a demand ... even contrary to your orders ... standing against him is both dangerous and likely to fail."

Terreis's frown deepened, the young man's worry leaving her uncertain what to do. By rights, he should be wrong. Her word was law, and no one should have the temerity to ignore it, not even her closest advisors. Unfortunately, she'd seen increasing signs that Valchon had grown far more power hungry in recent weeks, and she couldn't argue. "He is the senior minister," she said softly, neither confirming nor denying the guard's statement. Valchon's past loyal service had earned him at least enough respect to stop her from allowing the servants to see her doubts.

Rubio flinched, well aware that he was skating on very thin ice, but too loyal to remain silent. He'd seen enough of this woman to see that she actually cared about those she was responsible for. "I realize, My Queen ... but I would not have your orders countermanded simply because no one would tell you the truth...." He paused, waiting to see her response.

"Continue," she commanded quietly.

"The prisoner is most likely right," the guard pointed out. "Valchon did intend to murder her ... why else would he free her from her bonds and leave a weapon in reach unless it was to give himself an excuse to kill her ... and I believe I did glimpse a weapon in his doublet."

A muscle flexed in Terreis' jawline. She wanted to argue, but considering the evidence, he was right. "His anger drives him more toward vengeance than peace," she allowed, unwilling to castigate a minister to a guard, but unable to deny the charge.

"Yes, and it drives him hard enough that he will likely try again." Rubio swallowed hard, well aware that he was taking a very real chance. The upper classes stuck together, and this woman had the power to destroy him for no more reason than she'd annoyed him. Still, he'd seen enough to have some trust she wouldn't do that, and he couldn't disregard his own responsibilities. "If he does, I cannot guarantee to stand against him." Blue eyes flashed his way, their expression angry. "I'm only a guard, My Queen. He's a minister. He can do whatever he wants ... strip me of my commission, have my wife sent away, my family lands burned, anything he chooses. I'm nothing to him. Less than a bug he would swat without a second thought." He shook his head, his expression showing fear for the first time -- not fear of his prisoner, but of one of his own leaders. "And as long as the ministers think you don't care about the fate of the outlander, I can't stand against them ... not when they could destroy me and everything I care for ... and they know it."

Terreis considered what he'd told her for a long moment, not liking any of it. "Move her back into my apartments," she said at last, more disturbed than she cared to admit by the level of fear the guard had for her and her ministers ... and by the notion of having the woman back underfoot. Even being in the prisoner's presence for a few minutes had her shaking inside and wanting to believe her denials of culpability in the attacks. She was so wound up that she'd been ready to kill Valchon when she'd walked in to find him touching the woman -- had nearly done so when realized what he intended. Had he actually harmed the prisoner in any way, she wasn't entirely certain what she would have done.

Rubio nodded, apparently satisfied with her answer. It was what he wanted, she realized. He liked the woman, cared whether or not she was hurt. A tight knot of jealousy bound up in her chest as she found herself wondering if perhaps he had hopes of having the outlander in addition to his wife. More than a few men had such fantasies. Was he another one? "I'll see to it, my Queen," he said formally. No, she decided as she studied his clear expression. If that was his wish, he wouldn't have been so eager to move the woman back into the queen's quarters when he would have had far more freedom to do as he wished in the temporary quarters.

"You do that," she said softly. "I have additional matters to see to, but I doubt Valchon will defy my orders so quickly." She released a small, angry sigh. "However, make certain I'm informed if you have any problems. I'll send Melanthus and Elyana to help you move her."

"Yes, My Queen," Rubio said quickly, relieved she'd accepted his word so easily.

She started to leave only to turn back. "She denies being a part of the killings."

He nodded. "I know, My Queen."

"Do you believe her?" He'd been honest with her so far. Perhaps moreso than those she should have been able to trust.

"Perhaps I'm a fool, My Queen ... but, yes, I do," he admitted hesitantly.

She considered his answer for a moment, then shook her head, unable to ignore the truth of her own emotions. "If you're a fool, then I fear I may be as well because I don't know what to believe," she admitted. It flew in the face of logic, but instinct told her the woman wasn't lying ... at least not about being involved in the killing. A mindless killer would have grabbed Valchon's knife and tried to gut him, not simply tried to outwait him. But there was still all of the evidence. "But she was found at a site where the outlander's attacked."

"She may have been used as bait and had nothing to do with the killings, Highness," Rubio suggested. "Or there may be some other explanation, but I've seen nothing that indicates she's a killer."

Terreis nodded to dismiss the guard, watching silently as he stepped back into the other room. She waited a moment, taking several deep breaths and letting them out slowly to calm jangled nerves, uncertain whether to be angry or grateful for the newfound reasons to bring the outlander back within her sphere of contact. Finally, she shook off the temptation to stay and muse on the other woman, then silently turned and stepped back into the hallway.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Terreis found Valchon in the small balcony attached to his rooms, sitting on an ornate cement bench, his head down. He looked up as she stepped out onto the veranda, apparently unsurprised by her appearance. "My Liege," he murmured, the coldly, angry man she'd seen in the prisoner's room no longer in evidence. He looked tired now, though she found herself wondering if it was real or simply a carefully constructed act. Had his hunger for power gone that far?

"Would you care to tell me what happened?" she questioned. He'd served her long and loyally, and deserved to be allowed some measure of dignity, which was why she'd let him go and not questioned in front of the servants. She'd been angry enough to throttle him earlier, but having paced the castle to let off steam, she'd come to some degree of peace with it all; or at least calmed her temper somewhat. However, she still needed to know whether or not she could trust her most powerful advisor.

"I went to question the outlander," he said softly.

"Or perhaps to kill her?" she questioned without raising her voice.

"I went to speak to her," he snapped, a muscle pulsing in his jaw, then he took a deep breath and paused for a moment. "To demand to know why...." He trailed off and she gave him time, reminding herself of his long years of service. Finally, he pushed to his feet, thrusting the letter in his hand at her. "To know why her people murdered my sons," he finished, his voice choking with hate.

Terreis read the hand-written notification of death from a commander in the military. Both men had served loyally and bravely and been killed while working to restore one of the water pumping stations. Head down, she felt the familiar burn of nausea that ripped through her every time she thought too hard about the losses her people were suffering. That explained his actions. "I'm very sorry," she said, well aware the words were completely inadequate considering the extent of his loss. "And, in some respects, I can't blame you," she admitted as she looked up again, "but I can't let you harm her."

Hands folded together at the small of his back, he stood staring out at the city. "I didn't go there to harm her ... only to get the truth." His voice sharpened as he continued, "then the wench offered herself to me ... promised me everything if I just helped her." He pivoted to face her, his voice growing more intense as he continued. "She wanted me to betray you, My Queen ... taunted me that if I wouldn't, the guard would."

Terreis flinched, turning away from the ugly words, wanting to deny them, but afraid they made sense. God knew, the woman had her tied up until she was half mad with desire. It seemed logical enough to believe she'd use her appeal on the others as well. Her molars ground together at the mere idea, hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. "So you decided to kill her?" she rasped. As much as she hated the idea of the outlander offering herself to the minister, the idea of anyone harming her was a thousand times worse.

Valchon turned away again, staring out at the city, his voice a tight hiss. "All I could think of was my sons ... that her perversion had denied them life ... and the fact that she would do the same to you if she could."

There was little she could say to that. Certainly, she couldn't blame him for his hate or his desire for vengeance. Her hands tightened into fists at her side. But she also couldn't let him harm the outlander ... not just wouldn't, but couldn't; the very idea threatened to bring a dangerous edge of violence to her response. "I can see why that would trigger your actions," she said with forced calm, pushing down the urge to make it very plain to him that he was never to touch what was hers by beating him to a pulp.

"Then you understand, My Queen," Valchon murmured on a satisfied note.

Terreis found herself wondering herself wondering if she could still trust him as she turned to look at the minister. Clearly his judgment wasn't at its best; his concerns more on his own interests than the good of his people. "Understand ... yes," she allowed carefully. "Condone ... no." She saw the way he stiffened, his hands clutching the balcony railing tightly enough to make the cords stand out across the backs of his knuckles.

"She would see you dead, Highness," he growled through tightly clenched teeth.

Which was possible; perhaps even probable. And changed nothing. She didn't pause to consider her next words, simply reacted. "The outlander is my concern ... not yours," she cut off that line of attack with brutal efficiency.

"It's every citizen's concern when you take chances with your life," he shot back.

"She's under guard and no danger to me," she insisted, tiring of his pressure.

He seemed taken aback by her rejection of his opinion and was momentarily silent before he shook his head, insisting, "You would be wisest to put her to the sword ... be certain she cannot--" his angry words ended in a choked gasp when she grabbed the front of his doublet and hauled him around, her eyes blazing.

"She will not be harmed" she hissed, her jaw thrust pugnaciously forward, "not by you, nor by anyone under your command." If he said one more word about killing the woman, or even thought about making another attempt, she might just kill him. She was that close to violence. "I'm well aware you're a powerful man, but understand that I will hold you responsible if you ... or any of those under your control try to harm her in any way."

He tensed, lips pulling back from his gritted teeth, but didn't respond, wise enough to realize he'd pressed it too far.

"The outlander is my responsibility ... and I will see to her ... without your aid or advice. Do I make myself perfectly clear?" He had to understand; the woman was her problem to deal with. Nothing else was tolerable.

Valchon was silent for a long moment. "Yes, My Queen," he grated at last.

"Good, because she is my concern ... and my concern alone."

"And what is your concern, My Queen," he demanded after a beat, "her knowledge or her body?" His eyes gleamed with disgust as they raked over her, the look designed to make her feel like she was betraying her people with her lust.

The tactic was curiously ineffective for once. "Whether it's one, the other, or both, it's none of your affair," Terreis said, her tone becoming ice chill in an instant, refusing to be intimidated by his disapproving glare. She thrust him back and let her hands fall to her sides. "Don't force my hand in this matter," she said, her voice deadly soft. "You won't like my response."

A muscle in his cheek jumped spasmodically. "As you wish, My Queen," he said stiffly.

"I think we understand one another now," she pronounced, then stepped back a pace. "I'll see you in tomorrow morning's meeting."

He swallowed hard and inclined his head. "As you wish."

"I wish," she exhaled, then turned and stepped out.

Valchon managed to hold his temper until she was through the door to his apartments and at least a corridor away, then his control shattered and he began hurling curses at no one in particular as he paced the floors with rapid, furious strides. It took several minutes, but finally he got himself under some semblance of control and straightened himself, smoothing his doublet and then his hair. Finally, he took a deep breath, shaking off the wild rage, his jaw hardening with determination. "Soon enough, My Queen, you'll discover just who's in charge around here," he murmured to himself, then hurried out.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Terreis found the smith quietly cleaning his workbench, his tools already stored away for the night.

"My Queen," the man said with automatic obeisance. "I was going to notify you in the morning that I've finished the task you set before me."

She nodded. "Good." She reached for the gold chain on the counter. "These?"

He nodded instantly. "Yes, My Queen, I'm sorry it's taken so long, but when I was working, I quickly realized the gold wouldn't be strong enough for what you wished ... while iron or steel would be too rough edged for what you wished."

Terreis frowned, eyeing the gold chain in her hand. "But this is gold."

"It only looks like it," he explained. "It's tempered steel underneath. The gold is only a thin layer over the top to protect the wearer's skin. There are no rough edges and the size is adjustable."

She lifted the gold chased manacles, noting the etched designs in the cuffs and the twist pattern to the chain, then pulled experimentally, testing the strength.

"They'll will hold up," the smith informed her. "I've tested them ... and had others do so as well."

She fingered the lock, noting the tiny keyhole. "And the locks?"

"They're the finest I've ever made; strong, but delicate. They can't be easily forced or picked."

"The key?" the queen demanded, holding out a hand.

"I made two," the smithy said as he grabbed something from a drawer. "One for you ... and a spare to be distributed as you wish." He held out his hand, spilling two tiny keys and a length of impossibly delicate chain. "The one on the chain can be easily removed, but only if you know the trick." He reached out, demonstrating for her, then waited while she tried it. It took several attempts, but finally she got the hang of it and realized how clever the hidden latch was. As delicate as it was, only someone who knew the secret could easily remove it. She tested each of the cuffs on herself -- pleased to find them perfectly smooth against her skin -- worked the locks, and tested the manacles until she was satisfied they were strong.

"I cast additional links for the chain," the smithy added while she checked things over, "in case you wish to lengthen it."

She considered the chain for a moment. It was nearly as long as her arm; enough length for now. She rubbed her thumb against the inside of one of the cuffs, feeling the slide of smooth gold. "Beautiful and functional," she said at last and looked up. "You've done well."

He heaved a relieved sigh. "I'm glad you think so, My Queen," he said breathlessly. "I'm new to the castle ... my lord, Favril, had me brought up from his homelands to replace the previous castle goldsmith ... and I wish only to please you."

She nodded her approval. "I assure you, you have." She looked back down at the beautifully etched manacles, wondering at her own sense of.... She couldn't decide what the emotion was, but it wasn't particularly positive. Beautiful as the piece was, it struck her that its sole purpose was to subjugate another human being. Even knowing it was necessary, the idea sickened her.

"My Queen?" the smithy said, clearly worried by her silence.

She looked up again and offered an encouraging, if wan, smile. "Thank you for your efforts." She slipped the delicate chain and its tiny key around her neck, pocketing the second key with the intention of giving it to Rubio. "I'll see that your master knows how happy I am with your efforts."

"Thank you, My Queen," he said instantly, ducking his head in grateful acknowledgment. "I'm always happy to serve."

"Thank you," she said again, then took her leave, suddenly eager to be away from the workbench that had turned out the disturbingly beautiful manacles, appalled by the entire idea. It was a necessity, she reminded herself. The outlander had to be contained, and this was far kinder than the rough edge handcuffs she wore now. This, at least had a chain that was both light and reasonably long, and the cuffs themselves were smooth and wouldn't leave ugly scars on her flesh.

So, why didn't it feel like anything had changed?

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Valchon found Lemier in his laboratory, bent over some unrecognizable device, his attention completely swallowed up by the thing until the minister cleared his throat.

The scientist looked up, swallowing nervously as his gaze landed on the minister. "Minister Valchon."

Valchon pushed the laboratory door closed in his wake, his expression unreadable. "I just spoke with our queen," he said very softly, the very blandness of his tone sending a shiver down the scientist's spine. "I assume you're aware of her latest acquisition ... that she saved the outlander from ... imminent danger ... several nights ago?"

"I couldn't have known she would return to the dungeons that night," Lemier said defensively. The servants had all been chattering about the way the queen had dragged the outlander up to her apartments, and he'd known this meeting was coming. The senior minister never let any mistake pass. "And those men were supposed to just get rid of the woman, not...." He trailed off, shuddering with horror. Murder was bad enough, but to torture the poor woman in the doing made his stomach turn. "If they had done what they were supposed to and simply removed her--"

"Those men have been dealt with," Valchon snapped, impatient with the other man's cringing weakness, "and are unimportant. The queen, however, shows signs of caring far too much about what happens to the outlander." His lip curled with animosity as he remembered the way she'd dared to threaten him on the witch's behalf. "She interfered with my plans ... and has moved the wench back into her personal quarters ... under her personal care." When the queen had failed to rise to the bait and kill the outlander, he'd waited to be certain she'd lost interest before moving in. Apparently not long enough. He turned a pointed look on Lemier. "Her programming should have prevented that. After all, she was supposed to hate the outlanders enough to want them all dead ... and build the weapons to do the job ... not be trying to make peace while mooning after one of them."

Lemier swallowed hard, well aware he was skating on very thin ice with the other man. Nothing was going as planned and he'd seen how easily Valchon killed those he felt failed him. Was he the next in line? "Yes, but the programming was done presuming the other woman would play the role of her consort. She would have seen herself as protecting her people, and in so doing protecting her love." He shook his head, fighting to tamp down the trembling in his hands, quick to point out that his plan had been very different and should have worked. "Had that happened, it's likely the programming would have done exactly as we planned ... and lasted the rest of her life, because she could have had the one thing she wants that she couldn't have in her real life. Now her programming is in conflict with her true feelings. The woman she loves isn't her consort to be protected, but rather the enemy we've programmed her to hate. That's bound to produce erratic results." He fumbled with something on his workbench just to have something to do with his hands. "She's trying to resolve it all so it makes sense ... find a way to make her knowledge fit with what she feels is the truth."

"You're saying she does it all for love?" Valchon scoffed at the notion, disdainful of Lemier's belief in such soft emotions. He was in no mood for excuses, particularly such weak ones.

"It's an important facet of her character," Lemier insisted in spite of his superior's disgusted snorts. "We tried to move Maya into the role when attempts to turn the other woman failed ... to give her a stake in things ... something she wanted, but couldn't have in her own world ... but with the outlander in the picture...." He shook his head, trying to lose himself in the practical aspects of the discussion as he reminded himself that Valchon needed him. He was the only one who even began to understand how the equipment they'd stolen worked ... and the only one with the skills to oversee the work in building the weapons. He comforted himself with those thoughts even as a distant part of his brain wondered if it was false confidence. Who knew how Valchon's mind worked for certain? Certainly not him. "You have to understand, the feeling between those women is long standing ... deep ... incredibly passionate--"

"You'll be writing romantic tales for bored housewives soon," Valchon sneered.

Lemier winced, trying to put it in more objective terms as he continued. "The programming only serves to overlay a scenario on the subject's basic personality. She believes your scenario, so she hates the outlanders, but she still retains the same psyche ... which is one that will always choose peace over war if possible ... and which will always be drawn to the woman, and that can't truly harm her. If you try and force her to do so, you'll only increase the likelihood of her the programming breaking down--"

"Then what do you suggest?" the minister demanded, his manner tightly controlled, though fury lurked in the depths of his dark gaze.

"Leave them be," Lemier exhaled uneasily, tensing when he saw the outrage in Valchon's expression. He held up a hand before the other man could hurl another insult. "With luck, she'll find a way to resolve what she believes with her own desires ... simply alter the scenario to fit the conditions--"

"To fuck the outlander," Valchon muttered, his lip curling with dislike, hating having anything out of his control. "That's why I gave her Maya--"

"Maya was a temporary fix. That scenario is likely already breaking down." Very probably speeded along by Maya's inability to play the sweet innocent of "Terreis's" implanted memories ... not that she could have held the outlander's interest even if that weren't the case. He'd gotten a good enough look inside Sam Carter's head during the programming process to be certain that mere sex wouldn't satisfy her for long. She needed far more, while Maya couldn't give anything else. "Her love and desire for Janet Fraiser are an important component of her personality ... no one else will do ... and any threat to the woman is only like to trigger a protective response."

"Except -- in case you're unaware--" Valchon said acidly, "Janet Fraiser knows far too many secrets. She has to die."

"And if you kill her, it's very likely your carefully chosen queen will kill you," Lemier pointed out, even as it occurred to him that might be best for all involved.

"I'm her senior minister," Valchon bit out, his tone outraged. Killing peasants and outlanders was one thing, but he was an important man.

"And Janet Fraiser is the woman she's been in love with for years." Valchon tapped his fingernails anxiously on the workbench, his glare enough to make Lemier speak even faster, his voice trembling with nervousness. "Harm her, and I can almost guarantee that will trump any programming we've instilled." His voice dropped low as he remembered the secrets he'd coaxed from her under the influence of drugs and the stolen alien device. "She'll kill you," he whispered with absolute finality.

Valchon spun away, hands clenching tightly at his sides. "The weapons. How is their construction coming?" It was a sign that he believed Lemier when he switched topics so abruptly.

Lemier didn't try to argue the subject change, relieved to discuss something else. "It's moving more quickly than expected, but with the power problems, still not at capacity."

Valchon absorbed that, and stood silent for a long moment. "Have two thirds of each day's production delivered to the troops in the Vurals...."

"Questions may be asked if that many go to one garrison," Lemier pointed out logically.

"It's directly above the gate the outlanders are using to come and go. That's reason enough if anyone asks." He turned back. "Do they still have people in the area?"

Lemier shrugged uncertainly. "According to the last report I saw, our spies aren't certain. The villagers aren't saying anything, but the trackers believe the outlanders still have some forces in the area ... most likely looking for the women."

Valchon exhaled a small, annoyed sigh and his jaw muscles flexed as he ground his molars. "Order them killed if they're found. No survivors ... the same for anyone found helping them."

Lemier shook his head, his voice thick with horror. The outlanders had helped several communities. Grateful people were likely to be trying to help them at all levels. "But there may be entire villages--"

His lip curling with disdain for Lemier's reticence, Valchon snorted softly. "Then have them put to the torch," he commanded practically. "In fact," he added, his mouth twisting into a perverse grin as a sudden thought occurred to him, "we can turn this to our advantage." A soft laugh escaped his lips, the sound not the least bit humorous. "Our queen would surely be driven to design more powerful weapons if an entire village of her loyal subjects were slaughtered by the outlanders. Imagine her horror at seeing lines of men, women, and children laid out amid the smoking ruins."

Lemier couldn't speak for a moment, so intense was his disbelief. "You mean ... kill them all ... for real?" So far, the "battle sites" the queen had been shown had been long abandoned, the bodies those of criminals and dissenters just thrown on for window dressing. There had been deaths, but not huge numbers and none of them innocent civilians to his knowledge.

"Well, I don't mean to reward them for their treason," Valchon snapped as though the answer was obvious.

"But those people were dying ... the outlanders helped them with the illness ravaging them ... and they were trying to get the water pumps going."

"They were traitors ... ready to offer their loyalty in trade for life and a little water," Valchon jeered. "If they betray their masters so cheaply, they deserve to die."

The scientist paled. "You would see them all dead if it gained you nothing but a moment's pleasure," he said very softly as though the thought had just occurred to him.

"They're peasants," the minister said coldly. "Platitudes aside, that's their task." His smile was genuine for the first time since his entrance. "Their own religion promises that if they suffer for their masters loyally enough, one day they'll come back as the masters. I'm simply helping them attain a higher plain."

Lemier swallowed hard, words refusing to come as his eyes dropped to the workbench. He didn't have the courage to fight the minister, and nothing was going according to his plans. All he could do was try to survive now.

"Now, see that the messages are delivered. I cannot risk being involved if any of this comes out. The other ministers are aware, of course, that the woman's technical knowledge is being used to rebuild Arrathonea, but they have no knowledge of the true scope of things."

"Of course, Minister," Lemier whispered on a hollow note. He looked up, his eyes those of a beaten man. "And the outlander woman, Fraiser, what of her?" He feared all of his work would be for nothing if she died. Samantha Carter's programming would not survive that blow. He was sure of it.

"You'd best hope you're right and Terreis' programming will resolve the issue to our satisfaction ... because for the moment, killing the witch is far too dangerous." He smiled, silently making it plain that those dangers did not extend to killing Lemier, then stepped over to the door, his expression momentarily distant. "Though perhaps there are other ways of dealing with the problem."

"Minister?" Lemier whispered, dreading to hear what new plan the other man had concocted.

He was spared, however, as Valchon simply waved the question away. "Nothing, my dear Lemier, just a stray thought." He pulled the door open to leave, but Lemier's voice caught him.

"Have you ever loved anything?"

"Of course," Valchon answered almost cheerfully. "Power."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 7

Upon returning to her apartments, Terreis knew instantly that the outlander was once again ensconced in her space when her nostrils were teased by a soft perfume that belonged to Janet Fraiser alone. It was no comfort to realize she'd memorized that scent in so short a time, feel her pulse pick up, or realize that her rooms suddenly felt more her own than they had since she'd banished the woman. She paused in the doorway, taking a moment to cool the instinctive reaction, careful to stay where she was likely to be unnoticed by anyone else in the room, curiously relieved that Maya was out for the day. Her eyes fell to the gleaming metal she held, the weight of gold and steel weighing heavily in her hand and heavily on her soul, feeling wrong in every way imaginable. She ran her thumb along the graceful relief that decorated one of the cuffs. No matter how beautiful the workmanship, no one should be leashed like an animal, and that was their sole purpose. Yet, what choice did she have? She couldn't release the woman back to her people when there was the slightest chance she might have learned something of the castle's defenses. And, while she'd denied any involvement in the killings, Terreis had no real reason to believe she was innocent, just gut feelings that might well be overly influenced by guilt. She might want to believe Janet, but she couldn't risk other people's lives on her intuition. For the same reason, she couldn't allow her any freedom within the confines of the castle. Too much chance she'd harm someone. Returning her to the dangers of the dungeons was out of the question as was handing her over to the interrogators. The queen sighed softly, seeing little choice other than the road she'd taken, but hating it all the same. At least these manacles would be gentler on delicate flesh, with no rough edges to cut or tear. Perhaps that would ease some of her guilt.

Finally, she straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath, and stepped forward, her eyes going straight to the niche where the prisoner should have been. She froze mid-step as she realized it was empty. Blue eyes flashed around the room, something akin to panic settling in when she didn't immediately spot either the outlander or her guards, her first thought that Valchon had returned with men and either taken Janet or murdered her. She should have stayed with them, should have made sure she was safe. No, he couldn't have moved that quickly, she assured herself as she hurried forward. Despite her efforts to convince herself that the minister couldn't and wouldn't have committed murder, her heart was in her throat and she half expected to find a delicate body lying in a pool of blood somewhere just out of view of the door. Sick terror spinning her stomach into knots, she quickly searched the room only to come up empty. Nothing. A soft sound from the balcony brought her around, and she was moving before she even had time to process what she'd heard. Two shadowy figures were just barely visible on the night-shrouded balcony, both small framed, standing close. No sign of Rubio, but the two figures were definitely Elyana and the prisoner. She saw Janet's arm come up. A shoving motion? And lunged through the door.

God, it wasn't Valchon attacking. It was the prisoner. Somehow, she must have gotten free and killed or incapacitated Rubio and was attacking Elyana. So much for her desire to believe that such an innocent face couldn't hide the soul of a killer.

Terreis latched onto the young servant's shoulder, yanking her clear even as she shoved hard with her other hand. She felt a moment's resistance, a flash of struggle, and then the awful sensation of a body falling away from her hand. Janet's head swung her way even as she toppled, spilling ungracefully over the railing, her hands scrabbling and grabbing at nothing in a panicked effort to save herself.

It was the horrified disbelief in dark eyes that nearly tore the queen in two.

In that instant and without thought, she lunged, diving headlong at the railing, her still outstretched hand digging into the front of Janet's dress with desperate strength, her only thought that she couldn't let the other woman fall. She hauled hard, but wasn't fast enough to keep her from going over the edge, and was yanked forward by the drag of the woman's slight weight on the thin fabric caught in her clutch. "No!" she hissed, hooking her other arm around the outlander's back and under one arm. She pulled with desperate strength even as she felt the woman slipping through her grasp.

"Highness, what..." she heard Rubio's voice in her ear as he reached past shoulder, grabbing for the woman dangling several floors above the stone pavers that marked the garden walkway below.

"Just help me," the queen grated, not bothering with explanations. She just needed to get Janet up, now ... safe. Whatever the woman was or had done, she didn't care. She couldn't lose her. Her teeth gritted, fingers digging in to soft flesh as she felt her grip slip another couple of inches, Janet's instinctive struggle to grab onto something making it harder to hold on. Rubio was trying to get a hold on Janet's dangling form, but couldn't reach her without dislodging Terreis' hold, while her loose nightgown gave him nothing to grab. Sheer terror drove Terreis to grip more tightly, muscles clenching as she pulled that much harder, finally managing to lift the woman high enough for Rubio to hook a hand under her arm. They gained a few more inches and then a few more until finally, Terreis was able to slide an around the outlander's slender frame, hauling her close as she pulled her the final distance. Holding Janet's slight figure tightly as her shaking knees abruptly gave way, she sank down, her back braced against the balustrade. Sprawled across Terreis' lap, her body trembling violently, Janet could only drag huge breaths of air into her lungs. She didn't resist when Terreis curved a hand to the back of her head, tugging her close, instead nuzzling into the taller woman's shoulder, too in need of comfort to pull back. Her eyes suddenly full of tears, the queen buried her face in silky hair, clinging desperately to the woman in her arms, her lips moving rapidly, though it took her a moment to recognize her own voice whispering, "I'm sorry," over and over.

Janet lay shaking, but otherwise quiescent, in her arms for a long moment, then finally tried to pull back. Terreis couldn't let go and shook her head in silent refusal as she tightened her hold.

"My Queen?" Rubio whispered at last where he was crouched beside them.

"What happened?" Elyana added as she pushed to her knees where she'd fallen after Terreis' shove, and scrambled over.

"I thought ... I thought she was attacking you," Terreis mumbled, her voice muffled by soft hair. Janet stirred as if to pull free again, but the queen just held on that much tighter, unable to let go, her heart still racing painfully.

"No, Highness," the young maid said instantly, sounding shocked by the idea. "She simply asked for a moment of fresh air. She was chained to the balcony."

It was then that Terreis looked up and saw the heavy chain that attached the prisoner's wrist to the cuff latched around the railing. It calmed her pulse a notch to know that if she hadn't been able to catch the woman, the manacles would have kept her from falling to her death. The outlander would have been hurt -- badly cut up, judging by the injuries she'd received just wearing the manacles -- but she would have survived. Unfortunately, it didn't change her own culpability a bit. She hadn't known about the chains. As far as she'd known she was shoving the woman to her death. As if responding to that thought Janet stirred, but Terreis only clung that much more desperately, as though she could control her own trembling if she just held on tight enough.

"The room we had didn't have any windows ... a-and she j-just wanted to be breathe clean air," Elyana stammered, clearly feeling guilty for what had happened. "Rubio and I didn't think you'd mind," she added, making it clear that they'd been the ones to make the decision, not the prisoner.

"I don't," Terreis exhaled, suddenly painfully exhausted, her body literally aching with it. "I don't," she whispered again. "I was just ... afraid," she exhaled, not knowing how to describe the terror she'd felt when she'd thought the outlander was in danger from Valchon, and how that adrenaline rush had melded into her instant response when she'd seen the two women on the balcony and believed the worst on such scant evidence. "I thought she'd gotten loose ... was going to harm you."

"I would never harm either of them," Janet rasped her first words since being dragged over the railing. Muscles tensing, she braced a hand on Terreis' chest and would have pushed back, but the queen would not allow it.

Terreis lifted her head, reaching up to curve her fingers to her prisoner's cheek and draw her head up until their gazes clashed.

"I haven't hurt anyone," the outlander added raggedly. She would have jerked her head back, but the queen spread her hand, preventing the maneuver as she found herself lost in dark brown eyes.

"It doesn't matter," Terreis exhaled, not caring for the moment, all other worries trumped by the mental after-image of Janet's terrified expression as she'd toppled over the railing. "You were innocent on this occasion ... and I was wrong." She ran her thumb along the curve of Janet's cheek down to the cupid's bow outline of her lips, noting the way her flesh was filling out again. A sudden image of dark eyes blank, that soft mouth slack in death, her body shattered on the stones burned itself into her retinas with an intensity likely to haunt her dreams for days. She continued stroking the soft skin under her hand, her servants forgotten, her gaze completely absorbed by soft lips and fathoms deep eyes. She had no words ... none at all.

And it momentarily seemed to her that the outlander didn't either as they stared at one another, the real world a distant memory that had no bearing on those seconds of indescribable connection.

It was Rubio who broke the spell, first by clearing his throat, and then by speaking. "My Queen?"

Terreis looked up, the color draining out of her face as she peered up at the guard and realized he and his wife were silently watching the strange scene before them. So far, they'd been discretion personified as far as she could tell, but she wondered how long even the most discreet of servants would resist the urge to tell the tale of their queen mooning after a prisoner rescued from certain rape in the dungeons. Sliding Janet off her lap, she pushed to her feet and drew the smaller woman along in the same move. Once standing, she held a hand out to the guard. "The key to the handcuffs," she said sharply, her gaze locked on her prisoner. Then she looked up, nodding toward the door. "There are replacements ... I think I dropped them just inside the door." The command was implicit in the words and, after handing over the key, he quickly moved to retrieve the dropped manacles. Terreis' gaze touched on Elyana, and she offered the faintest of nods, indicating the door. "Bring something to clean her wrists," she instructed.

The young woman got the signal and followed her husband back inside, pulling the door shut in her wake and leaving the queen alone with her prisoner.

Janet swallowed hard, her gaze lingering on the closed door to the balcony. Rubio and Elyana had come to represent safety for her, Terreis realized in a burst of insight, and after what had just happened, she had to be scared, wondering if perhaps her next journey over the railing would be neither a miscalculation nor an accident. "I'm not going to hurt you," she said very softly, wanting to wipe away the fear she'd inflicted.

The denial drew a soft, exhausted laugh. "I doubt that's possible at the moment," Janet sighed, then tilted her head back on her shoulders to peer up at Terreis as though hunting for something. "But I appreciate the effort." Her sarcasm was inescapable and layered in meanings Terreis didn't even begin to understand.

The queen didn't know what to say, so she simply ducked her head, concentrating on freeing the sharp edged manacle from a fragile wrist. "The new ones I had made ... they shouldn't...." She paused, her stomach rolling under a wave of revulsion. "They shouldn't cut your skin." The lock was stubborn and she finally had to force it to turn the key. She felt the faint rasp of the tumblers, then the cuff opened under her hands. She swallowed hard, sickened by the sight of cut and bruised flesh. "I'm sorry for this," she breathed, then tipped her head up to stare into Janet's eyes. "I didn't know." Her throat pulled tight under a wave of guilt, making it hard to speak. The prisoner was her responsibility and she had abrogated that task badly by leaving her servants with no confidence they could come to her if there were problems. "I wouldn't have had you suffer this way."

"How would you have had me suffer?" Janet sighed, then flinched as though afraid the grim question would bring another dose of wrath down on her head.

No surprise, really. After everything she'd been through, she had good reason to be afraid, but it left Terreis totally flatfooted with no good answer, torn between the part of her that was horrified by the faintest injury to this woman, and the part of her that hated her for what she'd done. She was saved from the need to answer by Elyana's appearance.

The young maid was bearing a tray with several cloths, a bowl of liquid, and several bottles. She settled it on the low table near the wall, her expression uncertain. "Shall I stay, My Queen?" she questioned worriedly.

"No," Terreis dismissed her without even pausing to consider her answer. She glanced at the girl. "I'll call you when I need you." She felt Janet tense, but didn't acknowledge the response, simply urged her to sit in one of the chairs near the wall well away from the balcony's edge. Pulling another chair over, she popped the cork on one of the bottles, tipping a healthy measure into the silver bowl of water. When she looked up again, they were alone. "She's a kind child," she said very softly.

"Yes," Janet breathed.

Terreis dipped a cloth in the liquid, squeezing out the excess one-handed as she slipped her other hand under Janet's wrist, lifting it as she began gently washing the injuries.

The prisoner winced, a tiny hiss of air escaping her lips.

"This will help it heal more quickly," Terreis informed her, "and the new ... ones ... shouldn't hurt you."

A grim laugh escaped the outlander's lips. "A new leash and collar."

It was Terreis' turn to flinch, though she would have preferred it had her pain been as simply caused as the outlander's. "Do you think I want this?" she demanded, her voice rough with emotion, though her hands remained achingly gentle.

"I don't know what you want," Janet admitted.

It took all of the queen's self-control not to whisper, "You." She swallowed hard, reining in the dangerous impulse with brutal efficiency. "My wants don't matter. You're an enemy of my people ... one who might be able to help end all of this ... but who also might be very dangerous." She couldn't contain a soft sigh. "I have little choice but to protect those in my care."

Janet looked down, hiding her expression behind her bangs as they fell across her eyes. Her obvious hurt and fear tore at Terreis, driving her to reach out and draw the other woman's chin up.

"You are also my responsibility now ... no less so than my subjects." Another tired sigh. "One which I have been woefully neglectful of." She smoothed silky hair back from Janet's brow. "I promise you, that's a mistake I won't repeat."

The prisoner took a deep breath, leaving Terreis with the distinct impression she intended to say something only to change her mind before the words left her mouth.

She considered pressing to find out what the other woman was holding back only to decide against it. She didn't want to risk any more confrontations. Janet Fraiser did things to her self-control at all levels, and she wasn't up to dealing with the fallout from another blow up.

The prisoner was silent for a long moment, and Terreis found herself wondering if she was, perhaps, thinking similar thoughts. As the queen lifted Janet's other hand to begin cleaning that wrist as she had the first, she released a soft sigh, staring down at injuries likely to leave at least faint scars.

"What's going to happen to me?" the outlander asked at last.

Absorbing the soft flinch that resulted when the cloth touched a particularly nasty cut, Terreis focused on her task in an effort to gain a moment or two before even trying to answer the question. Finally, unable to delay any longer, she carefully schooled her expression into one that at least approximated professional interest and looked up. "I don't know," she admitted. She looked back down, focusing on a delicate wrist as she carefully wrapped it in a layer of soft bandages. "Much of it depends on you."

The outlander didn't argue, but her answering snort was surprisingly eloquent.

Guilt and pity held any sharp retorts in check, the injuries Terreis was busy treating a visceral reminder that the other woman had some reason for her distrust. After a moment, she reached out, hooking a finger under the prisoner's chin and drawing her head up to stare deeply into her eyes. "You are safe," she said softly, her tone intended to reassure. "And, provided you harm no one in my service, you shall remain so." It was a sizable concession from her point of view. "I can't promise more than that, but on that much, you have my word."

The outlander said nothing to that, simply let her head fall forward, her shoulders trembling gently as she shook her head back and forth.

The queen barely resisted the urge to reach out and brush her hand over glossy hair on her way to stroking a velvet cheek. "What happened before ... I lost control of my anger...."

Janet's chin rose, her eyes glimmering with accusation. She didn't say a word.

Terreis flinched, her gaze momentarily dropping away. She took a deep breath, silently accepting that her actions had been unforgivable, though she couldn't admit that to her prisoner so directly. "The situation got out of hand." She looked up, meeting the outlander's accusing gaze with a tired look. "I hurt you ... but it won't happen again. You have my word."

The outlander didn't say a word, just looked away as though she feared to do anything else.

With nothing left to say or do, Terreis tossed the used first aid supplies aside and pushed to her feet, reaching down to settle one hand on a narrow shoulder. "Come," she said softly. "The temperature is falling and you're not dressed for it." The outlander was wearing a nightgown -- a rough-spun, lightweight, peasant quality garb that Elyana must have found for her -- and an equality light robe; both most likely intended for summer wear and not particularly warm.

The stumble happened as the outlander rose and her bare foot collided with one leg of the chair hard enough to throw her off balance.

Terreis reacted instantly, automatically steadying the smaller woman, one hand fitting to her waist, the other resting along the curve her ribs, painfully aware of the slender hands that landed on her upper chest as the outlander regained her balance. They both froze, and Terreis suddenly became aware of the roaring freight train that was her pulse. Janet started to pull back, but she tightened her grip just enough to keep her from fleeing, and then enough to pull her even closer. "I won't hurt you," she soothed. She ducked her head, fascinated by the sight of her own reflection in velvet brown eyes. Arousal a burning drumbeat in her skull, struck deaf, mute, and paralyzed, she could only stare for a moment. And then she could only taste the temptations that lay so close. The kiss that followed was achingly tender. By turns coaxing and gentle, she only softened the caress when Janet tensed and tried to turn her head away, not letting go, but not forcing things either. Her patience paid off, and at some point, she tasted a tiny groan of surrender as the outlander's mouth softened under her own.

The distant sound of a door slamming followed by the muffled timbre of Maya's voice broke the spell more effectively than a cold shower. Terreis jerked her head back, the color draining from her face as she realized what she'd done. It had lacked the edge of threat of their previous encounters, but the unwanted, confusing passion was there, perhaps in even greater volume. Pushing the outlander back, she kept her hands close, half afraid the smaller woman would stagger and fall. "I ... I...." She shook her head slowly, unable to think of anything to say, while the other woman peered up at her, her mouth swollen and pink in the aftermath of their kisses, her eyes wide with shock.

The prisoner swallowed, her throat muscles working convulsively, as she drew herself a little straighter and struggled for some semblance of control "What do you want from me?" she whispered at last.

The queen could only shake her head again, totally at a loss for words. "I don't know," she insisted raggedly, though she knew the words were a lie even as they left her mouth. She knew what she wanted. She wanted Janet Fraiser, enemy or no She wanted to lose herself in soft flesh, hear wanton cries, taste those lips again and again ... then taste everywhere else. "Go inside," she abruptly ground out, hands fisting at her sides as she fought the urge to drag the other woman close once again. She all but pushed her toward the doors, needing to send her away to have any hope of regaining control. "Go," she said again, some of her desperation sneaking through as she picked out Maya's voice again, muffled, but distinctive and annoyed. Probably yelling at the servants. Though technically a servant herself, she'd taken to making certain the others knew that she was a step above them in the pecking order.

Janet paused at the door and looked back over her shoulder, staring at Terreis as if to see through to her soul. It shook the queen to feel that look like an actual touch. It wasn't over and they both knew it, but it also wasn't the time for a drawn out post-mortem of what had just happened. Finally, drawing herself to her full height, the outlander stepped back inside, leaving Terreis alone to gather her wits about her before going back inside. It wouldn't do to show the slightest hint of her inner turmoil around Maya. She was in no mood for the bloodletting that would follow if she did. Finally, back in control, she straightened her shoulders and stepped through the doors.

She was braced for the look Maya threw her way the moment she entered the room and managed to offer nothing more than a cool smile. "You're back, my love," she said softly, well aware of the outlander just at the edge of her peripheral vision, sitting on the edge of the servant's pallet, one hand held out to allow Rubio to latch the new manacles into place.

"And just in time to meet our new guest," her lover said, managing to add an extra dose of venom to the last word, though her tone would have sounded cool to anyone who didn't know her moods.

"Indeed," the queen replied, her tone giving nothing away even as she wondered when her bedchambers had turned into this subtle battleground where she wasn't even sure what the war was about or how to affect some kind of peace.

Full lips curled into a jeering smile. "Indeed," Maya repeated the single word and this time there was no avoiding the sarcasm and resentment in her tone. "And would you prefer to bathe with your prisoner alone ... or am I expected to attend?"

Obviously the servant who'd glimpsed her with the prisoner that first night had carried the tale to his friends and expanded on it. The gossip had probably made its way through most of the castle by now, and doubtless gained momentum until it recounted how he'd found them naked and making love in the middle of the tub. Terreis' jaw muscles clamped down as she ground her molars together, slightly ashamed herself that she cared more about the outlander's response to the accusation than she did her lover's. "Whatever you think happened, it's not true," she denied simply, though not entirely honestly. It might not have been what the servants thought, but something had happened that night ... something she didn't completely understand herself.

"I suppose I can't really blame you," Maya ignored the denial with an attempt at ironic humor. "It's your right as queen..." she turned a raking gaze on the prisoner, stepping close enough to the other woman that Terreis had to fight the urge to intercede, half afraid her lover meant to do some harm, "and she is somewhat appealing ... in a rather waifish way."

The queen's gaze hardened, the slight angering her more than she would have thought possible. "Stop this," she ground out.

"So, did she beg you to stop ... or for your protection at a price?"

"She begged me for nothing," Terreis denied -- lying again -- certain that the truth was the worst possible answer. A frisson of unease sliding down her spine, she straightened her shoulders and offered a hard glare, determined to nip this as quickly as possible. "Whatever gossip you've heard, it's completely untrue." She glanced at the prisoner, silently willing her not to say anything and relieved to find her expression completely inscrutable. "I removed her from the dungeons for her safety ... and she's here now for the same reason. Beyond that, the matter is none of your affair."

"None of my affair," Maya repeated, her voice climbing at least an octave. "And will it be my affair when I walk in and find you fucking her?"

That went too far and Terreis' already frayed temper snapped, her manner suddenly becoming dangerously calm. "No, that wouldn't be your affair," she answered bitterly. "If that happens, I suggest you turn around and leave. You won't be needed." She didn't flinch from the answering slap, simply reached up and fingered her reddened cheek, then wiped away a drop of blood where one of Maya's rings had nicked her lip. If anything, her manner was even calmer and colder as she continued, "I once promised you that on the day you no longer wished to share my bed, I would see to your future. Shall I make the necessary arrangements?" It occurred to her as the words left her mouth that she actually hoped her mistress would accept the offer. They'd been growing apart and Maya had seemed bitter and angry all the time, while she'd found herself increasingly unable to overlook growing strains of both crudity and cruelty which made her skin crawl. Perhaps Maya was as uncertain as she was as to how to exit a relationship that had become a miserable excuse for what it had been.

Maya, however, responded to the offer by losing all color, the fear in her eyes enough to catch Terreis by surprise when she'd never raised a hand to her mistress nor offered her any punishment if she chose to leave. Quite the contrary, she'd always promised to see that she was set for life the day she moved on. "N-no," she insisted quickly. "I'm sorry." She struggled to catch her breath. "I-I know you wouldn't--"

"These continuing apologies are becoming a tiresome trend," Terreis sighed, not letting the other woman finish her latest effort to make amends for her explosive temper. "And now you feel free to strike me." She shook her head. "Even if I weren't queen, that's unacceptable."

"I'm sorry," Maya repeated, suddenly submissive. Her chin swept upward, eyes soft with the threat of tears. "I lost my temper and my behavior was inexcusable ... but it's only because I love you so much."

Or tired of losing the power being my mistress gives you. The thought occurred unbidden as the queen found herself hit with the same pleading, apologetic look she'd received so many times of late and she found herself curiously unmoved. Still, she reminded herself, barely resisting the urge to glance at the outlander, Maya had some reason for her jealousy where the prisoner was concerned. Pressing the anger and resentment down, she took a deep breath and pushed the decision back. Now was not the time to resolve their relationship. She was too angry, her cheek and lip still stinging where Maya had struck her. Better to leave any decisions to a time when she was calmer and more in control. "I suggest you sleep in the kitchen servant's quarters tonight," she said coolly. "There's always spare room there."

Maya stiffened as though struck. "Are you banishing me from your life then?" she rasped.

Unable to lie, Terreis offered a small shrug. "I don't know." She needed to consider the question when she was calmer.

Maya was silent for a moment, then she glanced over at the prisoner, and back at Terreis, seeing the guilt in her eyes before she could hide it. "For the outlander?" she demanded coldly.

Terreis shook her head. "She has nothing to do with this," she responded, surprised to realize just how true it was. The woman was an issue in other ways, but the problem had begun before her entrance into the equation. "It's between you and I. It's like a poison has entered this relationship ... and I'm not sure there's an antidote."

Maya was silent for a long moment, her hands clenched tightly in front of her as she gathered herself. "Please don't do this," she whispered, emotion apparently making the words difficult.

This time the queen had to fight to maintain her resolve as she was reminded of better times when love had been new and far gentler. She reached up, fingering the cut in her lip, the taste of blood a harsh reminder that things weren't as simple as she would have wished. "I think you should go for now."

Her head tilted downward, her mistress stared at the floor between her feet for a long moment and then finally exhaled a very soft, grim laugh as she looked up, dark eyes searching Terreis' face with almost haunting intensity. "You never.... You never react the way I expect," she whispered at last, then turned. She was gone before the queen could decide what the softly uttered comment meant.

Terreis stood staring after her lover for a long moment, intensely aware of the woman seated in the servant's niche, disturbingly obsessed with wondering what she thought of the scene that had just played out and, at the same time, painfully embarrassed by the whole, sorry mess.

"My Queen?" Rubio murmured worriedly as he drew close.

Bracing herself for the disgust -- or worse, pity -- she fully expected to see in the eyes watching her, she did a slow turn. Her gaze went straight to the slender figure now chained to the servant's pallet, and she was surprised to see neither loathing nor triumph, but an odd kind of sympathy. It left the queen shaken by the sudden desire to go to the outlander and unburden her soul; to kneel before, lay her head in her lap, and simply let the words flow. For just a moment, it even felt as though she would be welcome ... not as queen or captor, but merely as a woman.

Which was insane, she reminded herself. Janet Fraiser had no reason to care for her. They were enemies -- and more than that, she had been harsh to the point of cruelty. She might regret her own behavior, but it changed nothing. Sighing heavily, she look at Rubio, nodding to indicate his charge. "See to her care. I need some air ... I'll be in the gardens below. You need only shout if you need me." With a last glance at the outlander, she all but fled the confines of her apartment in search of a little air.

*~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

"Did you think the news wouldn't reach me, my love?" The caustic question sent a shiver of apprehension down Maya's spine as she did a slow turn to face her master. He pushed the door to her temporary room closed behind him, his movements slow and precise. "Or perhaps that you could hide from me among the kitchen servants."

"This is where she sent me," Maya quickly insisted in an effort to deflect the rage she knew was due to fall on her head. She'd known he'd hear -- even with almost all of the servants replaced in recent weeks, he had spies everywhere -- but she'd expected to have more time to plan her defense. "I thought it best to do as she wished."

His cheek twitched. Never a good sign. "So you left her alone with the outlander?"

"I had no choice. She sent me away," she told him, leaving out her own mistakes in handling the woman, well aware that he would very likely kill her if he knew the truth. "She's undecided about this relationship."

His eyes raked over her, his expression one of disgust. "You should have used your charms, my dear ... enslaved her with that body you use so well."

She shook her head, surprised to find herself no longer so thrilled by his strength and cruelty. The fantasy of finding a man who could wield power over her, instead of being her slave, was rapidly devolving into a nightmare. "The only reason she cares for me at all is because of the lies you implanted in her mind ... and even those ties are rapidly fading."

He grabbed her arm and yanked her close, glaring down at her. "Or perhaps you're doing your best to shred them," he jeered.

Thinking of the explosions of temper and resentment, the accusations, and the attempts to push the other woman into exploring the darker sexuality that she found most arousing, Maya couldn't honestly deny the charge. She'd only gone to the woman's bed to please her master and had hated it and wanted it ended from the first. Not trusting the woman's proclamations of tender love, she'd been constantly looking for the lie and sleeping light, half afraid she was being used against her lover. It was the final irony that she'd finally come to believe the woman honestly believed the things she said and had come to trust her far more than the lover she'd once worshipped. "I've only tried to please her," she said a little desperately as she saw his expression darken when she didn't immediately answer.

"Don't lie," he advised her and shook her hard to emphasize his point. "Now, tell me what happened." His eyes almost seemed to glow, the intensity of his look sending a shiver down her spine.

All she could do was tell him as little as possible and hope that would deflect the worst of his anger. "I returned to find her with the outlander." Tension rippled through her muscles and she was amazed to feel the burn of jealousy as she remembered the look in blue eyes as they'd searched for the other woman. Despite everything Valchon and Lemier convinced their chosen queen was true, they couldn't change that love and need. "She told me to leave for the night." His grip on her arm tightened to punish her for her mistake.

One eyebrow rose high on his forehead, his doubts evident. "Somehow I doubt that's all that happened." He jerked her arm roughly. "Now, tell me the rest of it."

She tried to find a lie that would accommodate but panic robbed her of the ability to plan as needed.

"The truth ... now."

"The outlander came in from the balcony ahead of her ... her mouth swollen ... kissed," she exhaled the last word, her tone deeply resentful. "Then ... my queen followed ... her eyes drawn only to the outlander ... wanting her ... lusting and needing, rife with guilt for her betrayal."

Valchon's grip tightened on her arm while his other one rose to stroke the slender line of her throat. "Should I question your loyalty to me, my love?" he demanded, distrust in his eyes. "Because that sounds like genuine jealousy in your voice." His thumb wrapped around her throat, not pressing, but threatening. "You wouldn't be starting to care for our queen, now would you?"

She shrugged with forced calm. "I thought to use that guilt against her." She lifted a hand to rest it lightly on his chest, struggling to keep the trembling out of her muscles. He despised weakness in all forms and was likely to punish it with considerable cruelty.

"Clearly you failed," he growled, pressing into the underside of her chin ever so slightly.

"This is only temporary," Maya insisted, grasping at straws to appease him. "She was angry, but she's not one to throw people away. When she calms--"

"And what precisely did you say that so angered her?" he demanded. He eyed her, his cool composure almost more intimidating than his rages ... and often more dangerous. When he simply raged, he struck out blindly. When he was calm and thinking clearly, he considered things carefully, saw nuances he missed in his furies ... and was often all the more brutal for it.

Afraid he would learn the truth through other means, she answered the question. "I slapped her."

His lips pulled into a mockery of a smile as he snorted softly. "And she simply sent you here?" he demanded, coldly courteous, then leaned closer, his breath ruffling her hair, fingers tightening on her throat. "I would have beaten you within an inch of your life." His eyes ran over her delicate frame. "You're lucky she's so weak."

Maya shook her head slowly, the sense of death hovering just over her shoulder giving her an odd sort of courage. "It wasn't weakness that held her hand," she whispered. "It was something else." A grim laugh escaped her lips, but involved in her own thoughts, she missed the fear that crossed his face. "Something I think you and I will never understand." She easily withstood the blow that followed, in fact expected far worse, though a low groan escaped her lips. It hurt like hell, but there would be no marks. He was an expert at controlling how and where he hit to keep from marring the flesh he enjoyed. If he weren't, she probably would have been dead long before. She fully expected a beating to follow, but instead he released her, stepping back a pace as he straightened his cuffs.

"There's nothing about her that I don't understand," he hissed, though she had a sense he was trying to convince himself as much as. "Nothing at all." He straightened his doublet. "She's like the rest of the outlanders ... weak ... soft ... easily outsmarted ... and easily beaten." He slid a hand up into her hair, fingers clenching and pulling her head back. "You're right. She probably will take you back ... and I suggest you beg her forgiveness ... and play the perfect ... mewling, clinging mistress that she wants."

Swallowing hard, Maya nodded, completely submissive. Anything else was too likely to get her killed.

"Good," he sneered, then thrust her back. His eyes ran over her, making her feel less than human. "See that you keep her involved this time." His expression smoothed into a bland mask much as he smoothed his doublet and then he slipped out, leaving her trembling in his wake.

Maya shook her head slowly and slid down the wall into a sitting position, leaning forward until her forehead was resting on her upthrust knees. She'd miscalculated at every level ... where Valchon was concerned, where the outlander was concerned ... even her own behavior seemed to be completely out of her control. She ran a hand through her hair, cursing her stupidity for her own efforts to attract Valchon's attention. She'd been Lord Hamstil's mistress then -- recently moved to the castle from his outlying lands when his wife discovered her existence -- and sleeping with both Hamsill's son and Minister Canielli -- both of whom were fond of giving expensive gifts. From the first, Valchon had excited her, his strength and self confidence thrilling her in a way none of her easily dominated lovers ever had. He'd shown little interest at first, which had only whetted her interest, until by the time he took her to his bed, she was willing to do anything to have him, and not merely willing, but eager to beg for every twisted thing he'd done with her.

What a fool she'd been. She'd thought he cared somehow ... thought his using her to affect his ends meant he trusted her. Now death was a steadily growing weight on her shoulder that would make itself known sooner or later if she wasn't careful.

And her efforts to manipulate the outlander he'd made queen had gone no better than her efforts to manipulate Valchon -- though for completely different reasons. She felt the familiar burn of resentment as she considered the woman whose bed she'd shared for several weeks. At least she could understand Valchon. Samantha Carter -- Terreis, she reminded herself -- was completely out of her experience. At first she'd thought her gentleness was weakness, her trust foolishness, and her courtesy even to the lowest servant nothing short of pure stupidity. Given near unlimited power -- or least believing she had near unlimited power -- and her primary concern had been others.

Maya had mistrusted that concern, thinking it was nothing more than a manipulative game, certain she'd see the truth as she played her own game.

But the woman wasn't playing. She wasn't stupid ... and wasn't weak or a coward as Valchon wished to believe. She was something else entirely.

Maya had a sick feeling she'd chosen very badly in siding with the minister. "Terreis" might bore her in bed, but she would never have had to fear the nature of the serpent sleeping next to her as she did with Valchon. She never needed to fear whether or not she would be waking in the morning with the woman. The same could not be said of her lover.

And more than that, she feared that if and when she discovered what had been done to her -- what she had been made to do -- Samantha Carter might well make Valchon's rages look petty by comparison. She wouldn't threaten or wait until Maya was sleeping. She would face her ... and ... Maya feared ... kill her.

And she would deserve it.

*~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Terreis automatically reached out, steadying the delicate figure that collided with her as she rounded a corner on her way to the gardens below her chambers.

"My Queen," the sweet voiced, breathless young servant turned an apologetic look her way. "I'm so sorry, I--"

"It was my fault," the queen interrupted as she recognized the young kitchen wench Maya had accused her of wanting to bed some days before. In the soft light, her hair glossed with coppery highlights while dark brown eyes gleamed with adoring sincerity. "I wasn't watching where I was going." She offered an easy smile and watched a blush crawl across the young woman's cheeks. It would doubtless be so easy to take the girl to bed. She would be flattered, probably even grateful. And, perhaps, staring into brown eyes, your hair buried in hair the color of burnished copper, you could slake some of the need for the woman in your possession, a distant part of her brain taunted.

"My Queen?" the girl questioned.

Terreis abruptly realized she was still holding onto her arms. She quickly released her hold and let her arms drop to her sides. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I was lost in my own thoughts for a moment." And then she remembered something else ... the flash of awareness that had briefly hammered at her skull ... the memory of impossibly deep, dark eyes and coppery hair suddenly with her all over again. The girl had insisted it was some kind of second sight, but Terreis had discarded and quickly forgotten the entire notion. But, as she considered her reaction to the woman in her apartments, a shiver slid down her spine as she realized she matched that memory all too well. Except in her memory, there had been nothing but tenderness and affection between them. She shook her head, doubtful that such a thing was possible. Yet, as she thought about it, it seemed right somehow. It explained the obsession she was powerless to stop. The maid was still peering up at her -- curious and perhaps a little worried.

"Highness?"

A frown creased Terreis' brow as she considered her own thoughts. "We spoke once before...." She saw the young maid's eyes light up at being remembered. "You said my line was subject to visions ... of our destiny...." She nearly stopped there, hesitant to allow herself to consider what she was considering. "Do you actually believe in such things?"

"Of course," the girl said quickly, eyes shining with innocent faith. "It's part of your genius as a leader ... your ability to know what to do.... You see things in a way no one else can."

The answer only deepened Terreis' frown as it occurred to her that she would prefer to be known for her logic and innovative ideas than for any supposed magic tricks. Besides, to try and relate that vision to the outlander seemed unlikely at best. "And what if what I see makes no sense?"

Slim shoulders dipped in a hint of shrug. "My grandmother always said such things make themselves clear when the time is right."

"I pray your grandmother's right then," the queen said softly, tired and discouraged by the whole mess, "because right now, I feel as thought I'm looking at my life through a fog."

"Is there anything I can do to help?" An inviting smile touched the young servant's lips, her body tipping forward, a gentle thrust of hip and breast making the offer physically as well as verbally.

It would be so easy, Terreis thought, tempted by the thought of a few hours of pleasant release with someone who would demand nothing of her and would offer herself so freely, with no conflicts, no guilt, and no anger. Except when it was done, she would probably feel responsible for this girl and guilty for using her. Yet another stress in a life that already had far too many. Besides, it wasn't really the girl she wanted. She sighed softly and shook her head, gently rejecting the offer. "I fear not. You go on. I wouldn't want you to get in trouble for running late in your duties."

Disappointment shone in the young woman's eyes, but she did a quick curtsy. "Yes, Highness." A moment later, she hurried off, leaving Terreis alone with her own thoughts as she stepped into the welcoming comfort of the gardens.

Tipping her head back, she simply stood on the stairs for a long moment, leaning into the cool breeze that played with her hair and gown. The smell of thick greenery and new flowers -- blooming thickly now that they had enough water -- teased her nostrils, the perfume sweet and soothing. She felt some of her stresses drain away as it occurred to her that her work was doing this, bringing life back into things. They'd deepened the wells and replaced pipe where needed, brought electrical generators back online, and were working on getting both water and power to any of the outlying areas that had lost services. The attacks were playing havoc with her efforts, but despite everything, the repairs were making a difference.

She plucked a flower from a hanging vine as she stepped down the several stairs to the stone walkway that circled the enclosed private garden. The petals were pure velvet against her skin, the scent almost spicy. A faint noise overhead drew her chin upward, automatically searching the different balconies until she found her own. Sharp eyes automatically measured the distance to the stone pavers below, the mental image of the shattered bone and torn flesh that would have resulted from that fall making her flinch in horror as the garden suddenly took on a darker tone. It would have been little better than murder; unplanned and irrational, but murder nonetheless. Staring down at the bright blossom in her hand to look anywhere but at the spot where she'd pictured Janet Fraiser's broken body, she stroked the velvety petals, wincing as a thorn at the very base drew a drop of blood. Bright crimson welled up on her finger ... the color vivid against her skin ... and she found herself frowning, unable to look away, trapped in another place in time.

"Let me see." The words were almost lost in a lilting laugh, and she looked up to sink into velvet brown eyes as a gentle hand curved to her own.

As she felt the sting of the injury being probed, she heard her own voice. "Ow, that hurts."

"Don't be such a baby," Janet Fraiser teased. "It's just a little peroxide."

"You know how I hate paper cuts--"

"Faces half the known terrors in the universe and can't stand an itty bitty papercut." More soft laughter reached her ears as gentle fingers cleaned the small injury. "Don't pull away. It'll only be worse if it infects."

"I know, but--"

"Who's the doctor here?"

"You are, but--"

"Then listen to your doctor and let me finish this."

"Ow!" She yanked her hand back at the sharp pain, the abrupt jerk toppling the smaller woman into her arms. She was suddenly incredibly aware of the soft curves pressed against her own, the drugging weight of arousal thick in her veins. "Janet?" There were a thousand thoughts in the single word question and the woman pressed so close understood all of them.

And then Janet was nodding, an answering hunger in her eyes inviting Terreis to duck her head and taste the softness of full lips, moaning low in her throat as the other woman's mouth opened under her own. Tongues tangled and bodies strained as their breathing roughened, and then suddenly she felt hands on her chest, pressing back, the kiss broken as Janet turned away, gasping for air."Janet?" The other woman's name had a totally different timbre this time; a note of unsuppressed longing and need.

"We can't."

Terreis fought her own muscles as she tried to lean closer only to feel herself pulling back, a pained groan bubbling up from her chest.

"My Queen?" the soft exhalation broke the spell, and as quickly as it had appeared, the phantasm faded away, leaving her staring at empty space in confusion. She reached out, fingers touching the very space where Janet had stood, but finding only thin air. Terror welled up in her breast as she wondered if she was going mad. It had seemed so real. She had felt the warmth and weight of the woman in her arms, her body stronger than it was now, with a natural padding of flesh the woman in the rooms above was still regaining. For those moments, they had stood dovetailed together, bodies a perfect fit, mouths bound together, hearts beating as one. "Are you all right?"

It took her a moment to process the question and the fact that it was a voice that had dragged her out of the hallucination, then she did a slow turn, focusing on the man standing a short distance away. "Lemier," she said, recognizing the scientist coordinating the weapons building efforts.

He ducked his head in acknowledgment. "I thought I heard you cry out. Are you all right?" he asked again.

"Yes," she said, sounding not at all confident of her answer. "I just...." She didn't finish and instead stood shaking her head, unable to describe what had happened. He was silent, simply watching her closely, his expression worried. A heavy sigh escaped her lips and she considered the scientist, wondering if perhaps he would understand what was happening to her. God knew, she was at a loss. "Are there such things as waking dreams that are as vivid as reality?"

If he was surprised by the question, he didn't show it. His head canted to one side. "I've heard of such things ... yes," he said after a thoughtful pause. "Why do you ask?"

She let out a tiny, half-hysterical bark of laughter. "Because I just experienced something like that," she murmured, staring into the distance as she remembered every moment of the fantasy. "And I think I might be going mad." How else to explain her fascination with a woman she barely knew -- one she had no business desiring -- and now she was having hallucinations. That could not be good.

He drew forward a step, frowning as he studied her. "If I might ask, what was this dream?"

She heaved another sigh, turning away and opening her hand as she realized she'd closed it into a fist during the dream. Crushed petals fluttered away from her fingers, trickling to the stones at her feet. "The outlander," she said very softly. "I dreamt of the outlander prisoner." She ran her tongue over her lips, wetting them as it struck her they were painfully dry, though the flavor of the other woman's mouth was still with her. "Not as she is now ... but healthy ... warm ... soft." She turned to face him again, head canting to one side as she struggled to understand her own thoughts. "And welcoming." She swallowed hard, a confusing flood of emotion threatening to be her undoing. "She was smiling ... and when I kissed her, she wanted me."

"You're a beautiful, intelligent, and powerful woman," he pointed out quietly. "Is such a thing so hard to believe?"

A grim laugh escaped the queen's lips as her eyes went back to the spot on the stones where the prisoner would have landed had she fallen. "I nearly killed her tonight," she breathed, shaken once again to realize how close she'd come to, if not killing, then at the very least, seriously hurting the other woman. Lost in her own thoughts, she barely noticed the way the scientist tensed.

"Is she badly hurt?" he rasped.

Terreis shook her head, exhaling a deep, shuddery breath before she answered, "She was badly frightened, but not hurt." Her head tipped back on her shoulders, eyes going to her balcony. "When I saw her on the balcony with one of the servants, I thought she was attacking the woman ... and I just reacted ... pushed her over the railing...." Her eyes slid closed, a horrified shudder sliding through her. "And then I panicked ... barely caught her and pulled her back." Raw terror made her chest ache. "If I hadn't...." She couldn't finish. Janet probably wouldn't have fallen all the way, she reminded herself in an effort to control the horror, but the idea of her wrist slashed and bleeding was scant comfort. And it wasn't out of bounds to think that the lock on the manacles might have shattered under that kind of stress.

"But she's unharmed?" Lemier questioned.

"Yes ... she was badly shaken, but I caught her in time."

"And was she attacking the servant?" he asked quietly.

The question only making the guilt worse, Terreis shook her head. "No. She was completely innocent of the charge. I misread the situation."

He nodded, absorbing the admission thoughtfully. "Why do you think you did that?" he asked at last.

The queen shook her head, struggling to understand her own jumbled and confused emotions. "I don't know why I do anything where she's concerned," she admitted at last, then looked at the scientist, surprised to find herself dumping all of this on his shoulders. "Probably not very comforting to hear your queen admit she may be going mad," she laughed grimly.

He shook his head, brushing that idea aside. "You're not mad," he assured her, his voice oddly soothing, reminding her of something else ... someone else? "But there's obviously something about this woman that bothers you."

"Bothers me?" Terreis repeated. "That barely begins to describe it." She took a deep breath, reaching up to rub the heal of her hand into first one eye socket and then the other, struggling to contain a sudden, violent headache. "It's like she's in my head ... in my soul. I can't think of anything else ... and even knowing what she may have done, hating it more than you know ... when I look at her, I can't believe she's guilty of what Valchon says ... and I find myself thinking that even if she was a part of the killings, she must have had no choice...." She shook her head, wavering dazedly on her feet. "It doesn't make any sense. It's like voices in my head sometimes." Another dark laugh escaped her lips. "I've hurt her ... frightened her." A throaty whimper escaped her lips as she lost herself in her own fears, sickened by the memories. "I didn't mean to ... didn't even want to ... but I did...." She stood perfectly still except for the harsh shudders that rattled her frame as she inhaled and exhaled. "Sometimes I think I hate her ... and sometimes I think I...." She didn't finish, the impact of the words more than she was able to contemplate.

"What?" Lemier whispered, his voice worried, soothing, almost hypnotic.

She shook her head. "I don't know." She was so tired of it all ... the pain, the suffering, the fear. "I had her moved to different quarters ... with a guard and a servant to see to her care." She looked up, half afraid to see disgust in his eyes as she added, "The anger I was feeling ... it was dangerous. I knew I had to get her away from me ... or risk hurting her."

A frown touched his brow, but he didn't speak, apparently content to allow her to say what she wanted in her own time.

"Then today, one of the assigned servants warned me that Valchon was speaking to her alone." Her molars ground together, rage glittering in her eyes as the scene played out in her head once again. "I went there to protect him ... but I found him ready to do murder ... and I was ready to kill him for touching her." She swallowed hard, struggling to force down some of the remaining anger. She turned a hard look on the scientist. "Still think I'm not mad?" she demanded bitterly.

He shook his head. "No," he assured her, his head canting to one side as he considered what she'd told him. "You said you'd had waking dream."

She nodded. "About her ... wanting me ... unlikely to say the least," she muttered.

"Why?"

"She's my prisoner."

Lemier shrugged. "Twelve generations ago, your many times great grandfather stole his bride from an enemy and founded your line. According to the histories, she eventually fell in love with him and they had a wonderful life and many strong children."

"I wonder if history would say the same thing if she wrote it?" Terreis snorted derisively, though a tiny coil of awareness tightened in the pit of her stomach as she remembered her own temptation to seduce the woman and keep her for her own.

"I don't know," Lemier admitted. "Perhaps ... perhaps not. And what of your outlander, what would history say of her?"

Terreis had it in her to wonder why she was saying all of these things to the scientist, but she had to talk to someone, and she couldn't trust her ministers with the things running through her mind. "I fear it would say she was part of a brutal attack force, slaughtering civilians for nothing more than sport." Her eyes slid closed, the darkness swelling in her chest as she was reminded of all the cruelty the woman had inflicted on others.

"Is that all?" he pressed, apparently unwilling to accept that simple answer.

She thought of the other things; the way Rubio had defended her, the fear in Elyana's eyes when she'd come to get the queen, convinced that Valchon meant no good, the way both of them had taken responsibility for their presence on the balcony, afraid for their charge. "And it would say that she's kinder to the servants than most of the ministers are...."

"And what would you say?" he asked when she didn't continue.

A long moment of silence followed before she quietly spoke up, the words coming in halting syllables. "That she's no monster ... she's human ... frightened ... beautiful...." The last slipped out before she could call it back, and she looked up, startled, half expecting to see censure in the scientist's eyes. After all, he'd seen the damage the outlanders had done, knew how inhuman the destruction had been. But his expression was sympathetic, drawing her to admit, "And seeing her like that ... chained ... frightened ... it horrifies me ... makes me want to protect her ... from anything and everything ... including myself."

He nodded, absorbing her softly spoken words. "Many of the ministers would accuse you of treason for such sentiments. They believe the outlanders are simply mindless brutes...." She stiffened, braced for his condemnations, and was surprised when he continued in the same, ultra-calm voice. "I believe they're wrong ... that whatever the outlanders are doing, they're human ... and perhaps your ability to see them as such is what will finally help us find a way to make peace."

She shook her head, discarding the notion. "I doubt my lusting after one of their foot soldiers will make any difference either way."

He was silent for a long moment before offering a wry shrug. "You know the Book of the Ancients says that each of us is cleaved in two just before our soul enters this world ... and the other half is sent far away ... making it our life's task to reunite with ourselves." He tipped his head back to peer up at the stars.

Terreis eyed the scientist doubtfully, surprised to hear such fanciful thoughts from someone who was supposedly a believer in technology. "Are you suggesting the outlander is the other half of my soul?"

"I don't know, My Queen, but stranger things have happened," he mused out loud.

She shook her head, struggling to dismiss the idea despite any temptations. "Next you'll be telling me that my dreams are visions of destiny," she scoffed.

He considered the comment and shrugged. "Would that be so awful?" he asked, his tone ironic.

Lost in contemplation, she didn't immediately answer. "No," she admitted cautiously when she finally spoke, the idea of that kind of trust and affection existing between herself and the other woman more alluring than she would have thought possible. "I just don't see how it could be possible."

"The legends say the greater the challenge in bringing your soul together, the greater the love that will result."

"If that's the case," Terreis said grimly, "I'm not sure I could survive a love that great."

"Nor could you survive without it...." She flashed him a look and he shrugged defensively. "...according to the legends."

"You mock me," she accused, her tone somewhere between serious and ironic.

Lemier shook his head. "I wouldn't do that," he disagreed, a frown touching his brow. "I respect you too much."

His answer caught her by surprise and she turned away, reaching to pluck another flower, idly stroking the petals as she muttered, "I'm surprised. You've little enough reason for that of late ... as unsuccessful as I've been in protecting our people."

"No one could have done better," he disagreed with her harsh self-assessment. "I've watched you during this crisis ... seen how you care for ... for your people ... all of them, not just the powerful."

She did a slow turn, frowning at him. "I'm not simply queen to the powerful. I'm responsible for everyone," she reiterated the obvious, surprised by his comments. "My people must be my first concern. Nothing can come before their needs."

"There are many within your court who don't see it that way," he said very softly. "Many of the ministers would gladly sacrifice the weak and powerless to serve their own ends."

She shook her head, unwilling to believe his assessment of the men in her service. "You're wrong. I've seen how desperately they're working to come up with ways to fight the outlanders." Not successfully, she had to admit -- they seemed to have more desire than skill -- but they'd been trying. Their sincerity wasn't in question, even if their competence was.

"You've seen them trying to impress you ... and get you to do their jobs ... make their lives easier ... protect them... You haven't seen them caring for their people for the most part." He faced her, his spine straight, braced for her anger. "You're the one who's fought to bring water to the farms not just the city ... to bring military protection, medical care, electricity to the people with no power ... for whom those things are the difference between life and death."

She drew breath to argue, only to come up short as the words dried up before she could utter them. If she was honest, she'd had similar suspicions. "I'm just trying to do what's right," she exhaled

"I know ... which is why..." he began, then trailed off, taking a moment to consider his words carefully before beginning again. "Which is why you must trust yourself to follow the right path where the outlander is concerned."

Terreis couldn't contain a derisive snort as she considered the way she'd treated the woman. "I'm not sure I should be trusted around her in any regard." She ran her bangs back from her forehead, tugging the coronet that was her symbol of office free and ruffling her hair. Deeply disgusted with her lack of control where Janet Fraiser was concerned, she experienced a cold bolt of terror at the thought of what might have happened. She looked up when a hand landed lightly on her forearm.

"You're wrong," he said very softly. "I've seen who you are ... and that's not someone who glories in the pain of others ... not even your enemies." She was caught by the near desperation in his eyes. "And if she is the other half of your soul ... then you cannot truly harm her. Your half of your shared soul would not allow it."

"I told you," she whispered helplessly, frightened by the way some part of her responded to the things he was saying even as part of her argued that they couldn't be true, "I nearly killed her tonight."

"Nearly," he repeated the word she'd used. "But you couldn't do it, could you? And when it came down to it, you fought to save her, didn't you?"

"Yes," she admitted, her voice softening as she remembered that moment when she'd clutched the woman close, trembling and terrified in the aftermath. If only it could be that simple. "But she's my enemy," Terreis added, struggling to find the core of anger at the outlanders that allowed her to maintain some distance from the woman, afraid that, without it, she would be weak before her. "And my prisoner."

"Or perhaps she's simply yours," Lemier offered.

The temptation to believe him almost overwhelming, she pushed the idea back through sheer force of will. "I doubt she would agree with that."

He nodded in acknowledgment. "She'll fight it ... just as you're fighting it ... but neither of you will be able to resist the need for your soul to reunite."

She shivered as she remembered the unplanned kiss they'd shared on the balcony and the one from her waking dream. Janet had fought her on the balcony during the first moments, pulling back, muscles taut, but then at some point, she'd released a low groan of surrender and velvety lips had softened under her own. It wasn't the wanton need of her hallucination, but neither was it the terrified struggle that her own abominable behavior had caused. It was tempting to think that maybe it could be, but, realistically, none of it was real ... just a strange obsession. She had a life, a lover, responsibilities that could not be put aside for mere lust. "It's a pretty legend," she said at last, "But my first concern must be my people ... how best to serve and protect them."

"I believe you will find a way to do that ... and discover your destiny as well ... that, ultimately, you cannot do one if you don't do the other." He drew in a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. "And I believe that if she is your other half, she needs you as much as you need her."

Her eyes slid closed, images running through her that could only be fantasies. "What if it's all a lie?" she breathed. "What if she's manipulating me somehow?"

"Even if everything else around you is a lie, you'll know if what you both feel is the truth."

She turned to stare at him, frowning as her brain toyed with the idea, something she couldn't quite reach tweaking her memory. The knowledge was almost there, but she couldn't quite dredge it up. "Everything around me a lie?" she repeated as though she didn't quite understand the statement.

He suddenly straightened, apparently remembering that he'd interrupted her private musings. "However, I've bothered you long enough. I'm sure you weren't looking for company when you came into the private gardens."

Terreis nodded unsteadily. Suddenly eager to be alone, she didn't argue. She needed time to think, and that was impossible with him there, distracting her. She shook off the momentary haze. "Thank you for your thoughts, Doctor," she offered her gratitude sincerely, genuinely warmed by his kindness, and appreciative of a friendly, non-condemnatory ear. "You're a good man." Involved in her own thoughts, she missed the shadow that passed over his face.

"Thank you, My Queen." He ducked his head respectfully. "You are a fine queen ... and a fine woman. There are many of us who are grateful for your efforts ... and wish nothing but to see you happy."

Terreis lifted the flower she'd picked to her nose, breathing in the sweet scent of the bloom. "I'll be happy when the people in my charge are safe."

He simply nodded to that, then turned and left her alone. Involved in her own thoughts, Terreis didn't notice that the scientist paused on the top stair on his way to reentering the palace, watching her silently for a long time. "I'm sorry," he whispered very softly, "so very sorry."

*~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Sitting up in bed, her chin resting on her upthrust knees, staring into the distance, Janet was barely aware of the Elyana and Rubio where they stood nearby, silently watching her. She'd gotten used to being watched constantly during the days since her exit from the dungeons. At first it had driven her crazy, but she'd adjusted and come to accept that the young couple meant well. Besides, it was a huge improvement over her previous berth.

But she wasn't thinking about that. Instead her mind was on the scene on the balcony, vacillating back and forth between the moment of horror when Sam had pushed her over the railing, and the moment when she'd found herself ensconced in a surprisingly gentle hold, unable to summon the strength to keep pulling back when the other woman was behaving so much like the Sam she knew. She'd accepted the kiss at some point, needing some measure of comfort and reassurance, no matter how ill advised it might be. The whole situation was insane and she was starting to fear it was driving her slightly mad.

Or maybe extremely mad.

Or perhaps she was still in that goddamned hole, and had gone completely starkers and everything she was experiencing was nothing more than the conjurings of a sensory deprived mind trapped in hellish darkness.

She shook her head, dismissing that thought. Even mad, she doubted she could have come up with the current scenario.

She ran a hand over her hair, sighing heavily as she struggled to ignore the tingling awareness that remained everywhere Sam's body had contacted her own. It had to stop. She'd held off trying to tell the other woman who and what she was -- what they were to each other -- uncertain she really was Sam and afraid of tipping her hand if she wasn't. But it was Sam -- brain-washed, erratic, and tender and furious in unpredictable turns -- but Sam. She sighed softly, contemplating a method for reaching the other woman and coming up with nothing definitive. There had to be a way to reach her though. She'd been calmer, the mindless fury draining away after the brief burst of violence and subsequent panic. If Janet could just reach out to her when she was in that place, then maybe they could find a way to fight whatever had been done to her. It had to work. It had to.

Because she wasn't sure what was going to happen if she didn't. She lifted a hand to her lips, the memory of the devastatingly tender kiss still with her. The hunger was still there between them, years of sublimating and controlling the intensity of desire stripped away, whatever programming Sam had been subjected to making for a dangerous mix of emotions over which she seemed to have little control. When Sam was caught in the rages, their relationship was quickly forgotten under the barrage of anger and the fear, but when she was calmer -- gentler -- it became harder to remember and much harder to resist the need for comfort and compassion. How much more difficult was Stockholm Syndrome to resist when the captor in question was the same person she'd been hopelessly in love with for years, someone she trusted more than anyone else in her life, and someone whose merest touch had always been able to inflame her passions? Sighing sadly, she buried her face in her knees, folding her arms over the back of her head and hiding from the world. She was still like that when she heard the outer doors to the huge apartments open and close again. Expecting it to be Sam, she lifted her head just as Valchon entered.

Rubio tensed, stepping between the minister and his prisoner. "Sir?"

"I wish to speak to the prisoner alone," the minister said without preamble.

"The queen has ordered that no one is to be left alone with her."

Janet swallowed hard, grateful for the soldier's protection as Valchon flashed a narrow eyed glare his direction.

"I speak for our queen," the minister sneered.

"By her own word, not in this matter." The young guard was visibly rattled, but determined to stand his ground.

Considering that her survival very probably rested on his refusal to be cowed, Janet could only to be grateful to the young man. For a moment, she thought Valchon was going to argue, then he straightened himself and stepped forward. "Very well then. I'll just speak to her with you here--"

"No interrogating the prisoner without the queen's presence by her own command," Rubio insisted, bracing himself as the minister drew closer.

"Unless you plan on laying hands on me, boy," the minister responded, intelligent enough to know the young guard wasn't likely to push that far, "you've got a problem." He neatly sidestepped Rubio, offering Janet a triumphant smile.

Rubio spun, glaring at the smaller man's back, his hands fisted helplessly at his sides. He didn't dare touch a minister against his will.

"My husband--" Elyana whispered, but he held up a hand, silencing her.

"Any harm to the prisoner will merit the queen's anger," the guard bit out, hoping to warn the minister off if he was planning on trying to attack the woman again.

"Don't worry," Valchon drawled as he leaned down, hands resting on the mattress near Janet's hip and thigh.

She didn't wince at the invasion of her personal space -- that would give him far too much pleasure -- and ignored the guard and his wife, instead focusing all of her anger on the man grinning down at her. "You did this to her," she hissed almost inaudibly and was gratified by the way his grin shifted from triumphant to something far less confident. "Twisted her memories and her emotions ... I don't know why, but I promise you, you won't succeed. Underneath it all, she's still Sam Carter ... and this fiction you've forced on her won't last much longer. She's too strong for it."

The smile dropped away entirely, shifting to a sneer as he considered her. "I fail to see the appeal," he disparaged, then leaned closer, his voice dropping low so only she could hear. "Such a fanciful tale ... but you should consider to whom you tell it very carefully." A ghost of the smile returned. "After all, were you to convince our queen of such insanity, it would create a very difficult situation ... one which would need to be quickly remedied. After all, in this time of crisis, our people cannot have a mad queen ... nor can they have two rulers ... so she would have to be dealt with."

Janet swallowed hard, the threat clear. If she could convince Sam of the truth, he'd kill her -- and god knew how much power this man had -- enough to create this whole fantasy and either force others to believe it, or go along with it -- she didn't know which. She shook her head. "You went to too much effort to bring her here ... do this to her--"

His hand flashed out, thumb braced against the underside of her chin, fingers along the side of her throat, pressing just deeply enough to emphasize his power over her. "But were she to become infected with your insane rantings, she would be useless to..." he paused for emphasis, "...her people."

"Release the prisoner," Rubio commanded, drawing close, one hand in the air above Valchon's shoulder, fingers spread, not quite making contact but ready to grab.

Valchon ignored the threat, leaning so close his breath disturbed the fluttery hair that fell across the doctor's ear. "One word ... and she dies." He straightened and stepped back, neatly dodging Rubio. "Remember what I told you, outlander. Enjoy our queen's attentions if you wish ... but play games with her mind, and there will a price to pay."

Rubio stepped between them, not understanding what little he'd heard of the interplay, but hearing enough to know he didn't like it. "If you're threatening our queen," he growled angrily.

Valchon offered the younger man a smile. "Me? Of course not, boy." He tipped his head to one side, appearing to consider Janet carefully. "I simply want the prisoner to understand that we will not tolerate any spurious attempts on her part to harm or corrupt our queen in any way."

The message was loud and clear. If she tried to convince Sam of the truth, she was dead.

"Understood, outlander?" Valchon demanded.

She nodded stiffly, hands knotting into tightly clenched fists at her sides. "Understood," she whispered, the word like ground glass on her throat.

"Then we understand one another," the minister said, sounding satisfied. He did a slow turn, smiling coldly at Rubio. "I'll have to inform the queen of just how conscientiously you've seen to your duties. I'm sure she'll be very impressed by your loyalty." His tone made the words a subtle insult. "And now I'll bid you good night." He ducked his head, flashing a last warning look at Janet before stepping out.

Rubio stared after the man for a long moment, then turned to look at Janet. "What did he say?"

She shook her head, noting that Elyana was standing near the balcony doors with a hint of a frown. "It doesn't matter." She slid down on the narrow mattress, pulling the blankets up over herself, suddenly exhausted beyond measure and feeling the physical battering her body had taken. She couldn't tell Sam now, at least not without being very careful ... and very certain about what she was doing. They were both far too vulnerable, but only she was aware of it. "Rubio," she said softly, pushing up on one elbow to peer up at him. "Would you protect her?" They both knew who she meant.

"With my life," he answered instantly.

"Then I'll tell you this much," Janet said, praying she was right in trusting her instincts, "I'd never hurt the woman you call your queen ... in fact I'd lay down my life for her ... but Valchon ... don't trust him."

His frown deepened, then he looked toward the woman poised near the balcony doors, sharing a moment of silent communication before his gaze swung back to touch on Janet. "I trust only Elyana completely."

Janet looked back and forth between the two, the love between them easy enough to see. "Probably your best bet," she admitted, then collapsed into the sheets.

"You should sleep now," Elyana said softly as she moved to stand beside her husband, one hand resting lightly on his upper arm.

"Yeah ... sleep," Janet groaned, folding an arm across her face as though she could block out the dark thoughts running through her brain as easily as she blocked out the lights in the room. She slid into a shallow, restless sleep in moments.

After it was obvious she was asleep, Elyana tugged her husband back, her voice low as she whispered, "You should have allowed me to signal our queen." She peered up at him, not completely understanding his actions. "She should know her minister defies her word."

He shook his head. "We can't afford to make an enemy of him." He glanced over his shoulder as though afraid someone might be listening in. "Especially not now." He tugged her into a tight hug, pressing a soft kiss to her temple.

"You should tell the queen," Elyana whispered peering up at him. "She could help. You said she's praised your loyalty."

He shook his head. "I respect her more than the rest of them, but she's still one of them. She's not likely to take our side if it comes down to it." Curving a hand to the back of her head, he pulled her close again, resting his chin against the side of her head as she nuzzled into the curve of his throat. "We can't take any chances. Not until you're free."

*~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

It was late by the time Terreis finally returned, driven inside by the steadily dropping temperatures. Elyana was asleep in a huge chair near the fire, while Rubio stood near the prisoner's bed. The queen noted the sleeping prisoner and waved the young guard over. "I think she's safe enough to leave unguarded for the moment," she murmured, her voice low. "If you could wait in the anteroom while I'm readying for bed."

He nodded. "Of course, My Queen." He paused to wake his wife, tenderly supporting her when she staggered, and the pair silently slipped out.

Stripping out of her gown, Terreis slid silently into the bath, the warm water a soothing balm to sore muscles, though it did little for her tattered thoughts. Though she resolutely tried to keep her eyes away from the slender figure curled up, apparently sound asleep in her tiny niche, she couldn't do it. Barely aware of what she was doing, she found herself staring, struggling to make out the faint indications of arm, shoulder, hip through darkness and thick piles of blankets, struggling to ignore Lemier's words even as she found herself wanting to believe he might be right.

Finally finished, she slipped out of the water, barely pausing to pull on a robe before moving to her prisoner's bedside. Deep asleep, Janet never noticed. It was easier when she was like this, and Terreis crouched down to reach out, fingers just barely brushing her bangs, stroking them back from her face. Her face soft in sleep, the outlander appeared younger, more innocent than she had any right to look. Her eyes slid down, touching on Janet's right wrist where it poked out of the blankets, held in place by the length of chain fastening her to the bedframe. Pale bandages peeked out from under the gold circlet, reminding her of far too many things she would have been more comfortable forgetting. "I'm sorry," she breathed at last.

She remained like that for a long time before finally rising and signaling Rubio that they could return. She slid into her own bed, the curtains surrounding it muffling most of the sounds from the rest of the room. She could easily have been alone for all the noise she could hear. Nonetheless, the awareness of the other woman remained with her and sleep was a long time in coming.

 

 

 

 

Part 8

 

 

Janet tipped her head up, eyes closed, the warmth of the early morning sun on her face contrasting with the cool breeze that played with her hair. She was locked to the balcony railing by the gold handcuffs Sam had brought three nights before, but they were light enough that if she kept her eyes closed and concentrated on the feel of the sun and the breeze, she could almost pretend they didn't exist. Thinking of Sam, she didn't know whether to be grateful or disappointed that she'd barely seen the other woman since the scene on the balcony. She left before Janet woke in the morning and returned well after she'd gone to bed at night. The peace and quiet gave her a chance to let go of her problems for a little, but at the same time, it did nothing to gain either of them their freedom. Freedom, now there was an alien thought, she realized. She'd been there long enough that a weird sort of normalcy threatened to settle in. She ran a hand over her hair, then massaged the back of her neck to distract herself from that thought. She did that a lot -- distracting herself from her own thoughts when they threatened to bring the world crashing in. According to her best guess, they'd been missing from the SGC for close to a month, long enough that their colleagues might well have given up any hope of finding them. And Cass -- her adopted daughter was probably in hell worrying about them both, praying for a miracle and terrified they were dead. She'd already lost so much. The utter cruelty of her having to go through this was just too wrenching to contemplate. Janet could only pray that their friends at the SGC were looking after her, and making sure she was okay.

The soft pad of footsteps yanked her out of her own grim thoughts, and she glanced back to offer a grateful smile to the young woman who stepped onto the balcony, a tray of food in hand. Elyana's kindness had given her space to heal, and was possibly the only thing that had kept her from going insane. For reasons she didn't even pretend to understand, the young maid had been nothing but thoughtful and kind from those first moments.

"It's time for you to eat again," Elyana said softly and flashed Janet a sweet smile. She carefully set the tray down, then straightened. "I brought some of the purja that you liked so much yesterday."

She took her responsibility for fattening Janet back up very seriously ... and had been doing a pretty remarkable job of it the doctor had to admit. Janet hadn't been on short rations long enough to do serious damage, but she'd still been weak as a kitten after her rescue from the dungeons. Under the young woman's care, she was quickly regaining the lost weight along with her strength and stamina. She eyed the food a little askance. The constant eating, however, was getting on the tiresome side. "I'm really not very hungry right now," she sighed. "But you go ahead." Sam had ordered that she get unlimited food and she'd come to realize that the two servants were eating any left overs. From what little she'd been able to gleen about the situation, it probably represented a considerable increase in quality and volume over what they were used to. The servants who'd made deliveries or who she'd glimpsed from the balcony had mostly been a little underweight, not dangerously so, but enough to indicate a society at the edge.

Elyana offered a small, queasy smile. "Thank you, milady," she always referred to Janet by the title despite the doctor's discomfort with the practice, "but I'm not really hungry." She swallowed hard, her complexion taking on a greenish cast. "Besides, you're the one who needs to gain weight ... not me."

The doctor turned, hitching her hip against the railing, her head tipping to one side as she considered the maid, noting and assessing details others would have missed. She frowned, putting what she saw together with a dozen other, disparate facts that she'd noticed, but hadn't really considered carefully. "When are you due?" she asked at last. Considering the young woman's obvious adoration of her husband, Janet expected a happy reply, and was caught by surprise when Elyana lost all color, her eyes suddenly huge saucers in her face.

"What are you talking about?"

Thinking the young woman just hadn't understood, Janet quickly clarified. "The baby ... when's it due?"

Any remaining trace of color drained from Elyana's face. "How did you..." she stammered, not finishing the question before moving on to the next. "Does anyone else...." She didn't finish that one either. "You can't have told anyone ... please tell me no one else knows...."

Janet shook her head, confused by the response. "No," she denied instantly. "I only just put it together myself," she added, hoping to soothe away some of the confusing fear she could see.

"You can't tell anyone," Elyana whispered intently. She glanced over her shoulder nervously.

Rubio had gone inside for a moment and the young woman's uneasiness left Janet with a worrisome suspicion. "Does Rubio know about the baby?" she asked, concern etched across her brow. Rubio and Elyana had both been kind to her. She hated the idea that there might be a problem.

Blue eyes widened. "Of course he knows," Elyana said instantly.

Scratch that suspicion. "Then what's wrong?" Janet asked. "Because it's obvious something is?"

Elyana's expression seemed to crumple. "Rubio doesn't want anyone to know," she exhaled. "And if you knew, then--"

"It's unlikely anyone else would notice," Janet quickly assured her. "I told you, I'm a doctor," she added, hoping to chase away the terror in the girl's eyes. "The things I noticed are very subtle, and even I wouldn't have guessed if I hadn't spent so much time around you." She reached out, resting a gentle hand on the Elyana's forearm. "It's okay."

Elyana exhaled a heavy sigh, some of the tension leaving her shoulders, though fear continued to lurk in her eyes. "It's just ... if Sire Ezri found out...." She trailed off and stood shaking her head back and forth.

"What?" the doctor asked gently. "What are you so scared of?" She'd become genuinely fond of the young woman and hated the idea that something that should have been joyful should bring so much terror into her eyes.

Elyana's chin rose and she peered at Janet for a long moment as if assessing whether or not to trust her. Finally, she spoke quietly, "Sire Ezri allowed Rubio and I to marry, but Rubio hasn't finished paying off my sale. If Ezri finds out I'm going to have a baby, he'll void the sale ... and force me back to his lands...."

"Sale?" Janet repeated, not understanding at all. "You're saying Rubio bought you?" she exhaled after a beat.

"Not yet ... according to the law the deal isn't finalized until he finishes paying the agreed price ... and he can't do that until the queen pays him as she agreed to ... a bonus," the young woman added, looking faintly embarrassed, "for caring for you."

Which explained at least some of their attentiveness. Janet stifled a tiny pinprick of hurt with a practical reminder that they certainly weren't on her side ... no matter how kind they might be. "But ... you ... you're married," she whispered at least, still struggling to get her brain around the concept.

The young woman nodded. "But Sire Ezri could void the marriage until the price is paid in full ... and if he learns I'm carrying a child ... then he'd demand the price for two slaves ... or that both the child and I be returned ... to sell to someone else ... or at least me. With so few children born each year, he might keep the child to work the fields ... or ... or if it's a girl...." Her voice creaked, forcing her to pause for a second to regain control. "She'd probably wind up like I did."

As it sank in, Janet couldn't think for a moment. "Bastard," she exhaled almost inaudibly.

Elyana neither argued nor confirmed the soft curse. She swallowed hard, a blush crawling over her cheekbones. "His wife discovered he was keeping me and ordered me sold. He would have put me up on the common block, but Rubio was one of his guards ... and offered to pay half again fair market value." She looked down, her cheeks flaming with embarrassment. "He-he was always kind to me."

"Rubio loves you," Janet said softly, sick to her stomach at what she was hearing. "Don't doubt that."

Blue eyes fell away, focusing intently on the tile floor. "It may be Ezri's child ... h-he made demands -- not since the queen demanded my services, but before -- he said he had a right until the debts were paid," she looked up again, her expression a little desperate, "but Rubio doesn't care. He says he'll love it as his own no matter what."

"Of course he will," Janet soothed as she pushed down the swell of rage, afraid the girl would read it as disgust with her. She reached out, curving a gentle hand to a narrow shoulder, uncertain what to say. The poor kid wasn't much older than Cass, and the notion that anyone would treat her that way brought out every protective instinct the doctor had. "You said Sa-- Queen Terreis," Janet quickly corrected herself, "agreed to pay a bonus for my care?"

Elyana nodded. "Rubio had been taking all of the spare shifts he could ... but at that rate, it would have taken close to a year to pay the price. With the reward the queen offered, he could pay Ezri and still have a little left over."

"Does she know about this?" She couldn't believe that Sam -- any incarnation of Sam -- would withhold the money if she had any idea of the situation. She had the softest heart of anyone Janet had ever known, and she couldn't imagine anything changing that basic a personality trait.

Elyana shook her head. "I wanted to tell her, but Rubio says no. He's afraid she'll tell Sire Ezri."

Janet shook her head slowly, not knowing what to say. "I'm sorry," she murmured at last even though she knew the words were totally inadequate. It was all she had to offer. "God, I wish I knew how to help." She ran a hand over her hair, thinking that the price of the girl's freedom was probably little more than a few things from her jewelry box back home. "Unfortunately, I'm the most powerless person on this planet."

Her brow drawing together in a thoughtful frown, Elyana peered at Janet for a long moment, then shook her head. "You're wrong," she said very softly. "I've seen how she looks at you. You have power. You just haven't accepted it yet...."

That pulled Janet up short, and she stared at the young woman for a long moment, shuffling the meaning behind her words into some semblance of coherency. "You don't know what you're talking about," she said at last.

"Yes, I do," Elyana disagreed with a surprising degree of confidence. "I saw her panic when you fell--"

"When I was pushed," Janet over-rode the younger woman's voice, teeth gritted as she struggled to remind herself of that moment and not the one that had come later, when Sam had been so scared ... and then so very gentle. She had to be careful and remember that the other woman wasn't herself right now. There was a part of her that was unchanged -- Janet had seen glimpses of her basic kindness and decency -- but she was also angry, resentful, and suspicious. The erratic mix of emotions made any attempt at manipulation a perilous proposition at best.

Pain flickered in Elyana's eyes. "She didn't mean to," she reminded Janet defensively. "And she regretted her mistake."

A dark eyebrow twitched upward as Janet resisted a sharp retort by reminding herself that the girl didn't truly understand the situation. She and Rubio had come to the palace since Sam had been placed in power and seemed to have no idea that anything was amiss. In fact, from what the doctor had been able to glean, most of the palace servants were new to the job. Probably to cover up the way an outsider had been installed as queen. "Regret doesn't change what happened," she said very softly.

Something impatient and a little annoyed flickered in the girl's eyes. "Sire Ezri never once regretted anything," she whispered bitterly. Elyana was so reliably cheerful and gentle that Janet had taken to thinking of her as more of a child ... an innocent among hardened and manipulative adults. For the first time, it occurred to her that she was underestimating the young woman. In that moment, her eyes were diamond hard and far older than her years. "Not one thing," the young servant said tersely, her lip curling with subtle hate. "Even if he knew for a certainty that this child was his, he'd never care for it ... it would just be a slave ... to be worked to death, used, or sold to line his pockets."

Janet stood frozen for a long moment, her mouth hanging open, at a complete loss to know what to say. "I'm sorry," she whispered at last, once against feeling totally inadequate for the task. There weren't words and any attempt to pretend there were just seemed insulting somehow.

"She isn't like him ... or the others," Elyana said softly, her voice intense, "and you're a fool if you think she is."

Janet couldn't argue that. "No, she's not," she agreed quietly. Even at her worst, Sam wasn't -- couldn't be -- that. "But...." Practically speaking, she couldn't explain her relationship with Sam to anyone else. Emotionally speaking, she could explain the animosity between them to herself. It made for a helluva mess all the way around. No matter what she knew intellectually, there was still an incredible level of emotional confusion that bordered on denial. Seeing Sam as her enemy was nearly impossible after everything they'd been through and she had to remind herself constantly that she couldn't afford to trust her. "It's not the same," she whispered at last.

"No ... it isn't," Elyana agreed after a beat, "that's why you have power where I didn't ... because she actually has a heart, and would care ... even for an enemy she took to her bed."

Janet started to argue with the suggestion, only to come up short as she stared at the look in the younger woman's eyes. This wasn't a theoretical discussion she abruptly realized. "You want something from me," she said at last.

Elyana paused, then answered obliquely. "I promised Rubio I wouldn't tell her about our situation...."

It took Janet a moment to put it together, and when she did, she instantly shook her head emphatically. "Believe me, I'm the last person you want speaking on your behalf."

"But you haven't promised ... and you could ask her about the reward she promised ... ask her to pay him. Haven't we taken good care of you--"

"Yes, but, Elyana," Janet said, shaking her head in denial, "she hates me--"

"No," the young woman insisted, her eyes shining with desperation, "she doesn't. She cares ... even if she doesn't want to ... and she might listen--"

"Elyana--"

"Please," the maid begged, grabbing Janet's hand, "I'll be showing soon ... and if Ezri finds out, we'll lose everything."

Janet ran a hand over her hair, a small, frustrated sigh escaping her lips. How the hell was she supposed to refuse? Elyana was the closest thing she had to a friend in the place, even if she was paid for the service. "I really don't think this is a good idea," she said helplessly.

The younger woman's grip tightened, a physical expression of her growing desperation. "Please," she begged.

Janet stared at the girl for a long moment in an effort to summon the strength to refuse. She couldn't do it. "I'll try," she said at last. She shook her head, her expression hopeless. "But don't count on any miracles." Nothing was that simple when it came to her relationship with the woman Elyana thought of as her queen. She feared she was all too likely to make the situation worse rather than better.

"She'll listen to you," Elyana insisted. "She has to."

Janet didn't bother to argue, though she didn't see any hope of that actually happening, and just stood shaking her head bemusedly.

"Please don't tell Rubio," Elyana added and Janet nodded in agreement even as she wondered what the hell she was letting herself in for.

And then Rubio returned, ending any further conversation ... at least on that topic.

Hands braced on the railing, Janet leaned forward, tipping her head back and staring skyward. Deep grey thunderheads were boiling overhead, the air alive with the faint tang of ions. "You think it'll rain?" she asked Elyana as she tipped her head back down, noting the way the top branches of the few scruffy trees in sight whipped under a growing wind.

It was Rubio who looked up, squinting as he assessed the clouds. "Probably not today," he murmured, "but soon. It's time for the rainy season to start and the clouds have been gathering for a couple of days." He shook his head. "But we've hardly had any rain in years ... so there probably won't be much."

"An extended drought," Janet said very softly. "That makes sense," she mused out loud. A lengthy period of drought might explain the slow motion systems failure they'd seen in the villages.

"According to my father, when he was a boy, the rains would last for hours ... come every day for weeks ... until the land blossomed with life."

She looked over at the young man. "But not in your memory?"

He shook his head. "My father was a boy then." He sighed heavily. "Before everything went wrong ... actually, the rains have been better the last couple of years. If our queen can actually get the pumps working, there's water in the cisterns for nearby farms."

Janet frowned as she considered that information. "She's really been working on that, hasn't she?"

He nodded. "When we came here, I didn't expect much. The royals never seemed to care. Just left the districts to the ministers, who..." he didn't finish, apparently thinking better of being that honest. He looked at Janet. "She's not what I expected," he reiterated. "She's a good woman."

Janet nodded. She couldn't argue that. Given power, Sam had remained true to form and spent her time trying to make the society she found herself in a better place. Which might explain why she'd been taken and brainwashed. The locals must have noticed her efforts to repair their infrastructure. Had they decided to take that genius for themselves? But how could a culture that was so far behind them technologically have come up with such a successful means of brainwashing? And if they simply wanted Sam for her ability to get their infrastructure online, why the lies about an attacking army? None of it made any sense.

"Last night," Rubio began cautiously when Janet didn't speak, "she was just ... mistaken. I don't think she meant for that to happen ... to frighten you so badly ... or risk hurting you."

"No," Janet allowed, remembering her friend's instant efforts to undo the damage wrought by her panicked shove. She glanced over her shoulder at Elyana, who was suddenly uncharacteristically quiet, "but she seems to lack ... control ... where I'm concerned." Which was ironic, considering just how controlled she and Sam had been with each other for years.

He peered at her, his expression worried. "You should just tell her what she wants to know," he said, his caring surprisingly genuine. "I can understand why you're loyal to your own people, but you've seen how fair she'll be ... if she can make peace, she will. She's not looking for a slaughter ... not like some would. Just tell her the truth."

A grim laugh escaped the doctor's lips. "Unfortunately, I can't." She turned to stare out at the city again. "I'm less certain of the truth than anyone," she admitted before she could think better of it, then flinched, not liking that thought at all. She'd tried to resist any doubts about her own sanity, but the harsh reality was that it was a steady fight not to start to wondering about her mental facilities.

He didn't say anything, just sighed softly and stared at the coming storm.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"Make sure the barrels are properly tempered this time," Terreis instructed Lemier as he took the plans and written instructions she had for him in the wake of the technical failure of the most recent prototype weapon.

He nodded in acknowledgment. "Of course, My Queen. I'm sorry for my mistake."

She waved it aside, not bothering to waste time by raking him over the coals for his error. An improperly tempered gun barrel had exploded that morning, shattering the first time it was fired. It was a mistake they couldn't afford to repeat when their army needed weapons. "Just make sure it doesn't happen again. We've already had too many delays."

"Again, my apologies," the scientist said quickly.

"Go on," she said by way of dismissal, returning her attention to the plans laid out before her -- a design for a nonlethal net that could be fired from a rifle-like projectile weapon. She'd hoped to be able to start the machinists on a prototype sooner than was going to be possible. A soft cursed escaped her lips as she found herself wondering if Valchon had somehow manufactured the delay in hopes of using the time to talk her out of building any nonlethal options. He wanted only the most deadly weapons possible for the time and resources spent, and considered anything else a waste. So far, they'd agreed to disagree, but she suspected her senior minister was becoming more and more capable of going behind her back to manipulate matters as he saw fit.

She outlined the design with the tip of her finger as she found herself wondering if she could still trust Valchon. Since the death of his sons, he'd become increasingly secretive, and had even countermanded her orders on several occasions, redirecting weapons and troops without informing her. He appeared to want nothing more than revenge with no thought to making peace or rebuilding their world.

And she didn't even want to think about his thwarted attack on the outlander woman. Every time she started contemplating that particular event, she found herself wanting to wrap her hands around his throat. She tried to tell herself she only cared because of the information that would have been lost, but even as the thought ran through her mind, she knew it was a lie. It was the woman she cared for, not just the knowledge she might have.

She rubbed her thumb against the plans, noting the graphite that stained her skin, worried that her desire to capture rather than kill her enemy was affected entirely too much by her conflicted emotions where the woman was concerned. She closed her eyes as soft features and doe eyes appeared, unbidden, in her mind's eye. She remembered the taste and feel of velvety lips and the press of warm curves, then felt the familiar flare of desire, the embers surging back to life with startling speed. God, was the woman a succubus sent to steal her soul?

Or perhaps her other half, she wondered as Lemier's suggestions came back to haunt her. The mere idea seemed ridiculous on the face of it, and yet, plagued by an obsession she couldn't even begin to understand, she couldn't entirely dismiss the notion ... especially not when something about it felt ... right.

She reached up, pulling her coronet loose -- the metal tines that kept it in place uncomfortable against her scalp -- and ruffled her hair. Peering at it, she found herself wondering why. It had never bothered her before, yet, of late, it had seemed a constant source of discomfort. She ran her thumb along each of the tines, trying to see if there were any metal snags that might be recent, but it felt like it always had. A grim smile touched her lips as it occurred to her that there was something symbolic about her mark of office becoming uncomfortable as she found herself burning with fever for the one person in the world she should never desire. Perhaps her ancestors were trying to send a message.

No, that made even less sense than the idea that the outlander held the other half of her soul. Her ancestors had burned for plenty of their captives ... they'd stripped them, bedded them, a few had even wedded them. They would be in no position to find fault with her desires. In fact, they'd probably be the first ones to start a cheering section egging her on.

Which was no comfort when she considered it too closely, because the cruelty they had used more often than not in those encounters wasn't something she aspired to in her life. She wanted something else entirely ... gentleness ... caring.... She wanted....

Too many impossible things to contemplate, she thought with a sigh. None of which she could do anything about for the moment ... or maybe she could. Another soft sigh escaped full lips as she stared at the coronet, reminded of the power it offered. Perhaps she would be better off just making the decision for both of them ... take the woman to her bed and say to hell with the rules. She ran her thumb along one of the delicate tines, remembering the kiss on the balcony, and the way the woman had eventually surrendered to the moment, her mouth warming and softening, lips parting to accept the invasion of Terreis' tongue. She had felt and tasted the beginnings of arousal in the other woman. With time, she could take Janet Fraiser, and make her her own.

She ran her thumb along another tine, then deliberately pressed the point into the tip ever so slightly, the flicker of pain oddly helpful for clearing her head. No matter her desires or fantasies, as long as there was any chance the woman was the utter monster she feared she might be, it was a risk she couldn't take. A decision made -- at least for the moment -- she shook off the momentary musings, and tossed the coronet aside to return to her work.

The ability to concentrate on something so technical was a comfort, allowing her to bury herself in something other than her own problems until she lost all track of time.

It wasn't until she heard the sound of boots on tile that she realized several hours had passed while she was engrossed in her designs. She carefully schooled her expression into one of disinterest when she looked up and realized her senior minister was standing in the doorway, staring at her with a look of disapproval that she was fast learning to dislike ... and distrust. "Valchon," she said with a faint nod.

He offered a cool smile, eyes flicking down to touch on the paper she was working on, then rising to meet her gaze again. "More designs," he murmured by way of question and she nodded. "According to Lemier, you're going ahead with plans for nonlethal weapons."

She shrugged. "I want choices in our arsenal--"

"Heavy artillery would increase our choices," he snapped impatiently.

She waved that topic aside. "Impossible for the moment ... we just don't have the resources to make it practical. Maybe in a few weeks--"

He drew himself straighter. "If you weren't so concerned with methods for taking prisoners, that might not be the case," he pointed out, the note of accusation nowhere near as subtle as she suspected he meant for it to be ... nor as effective.

"My concerns don't change our lack of raw iron or smelting capabilities ... nor do they allow for the heavy casting that would be necessary." Her gaze sharpened even as her voice chilled. "I can't produce anything out of thin air," she bit out, "it takes men, supplies, energy. We're rebuilding, but it's a process, not an event."

He leaned back fractionally, his expression more assessing than the startled she suspected he wanted it to appear. "Of course, Highness. I meant no disrespect," he murmured, his tone conciliatory. "It's simply the stress of reading the reports. It has us all on edge."

She nodded, but didn't speak, in no particularly hurry to open herself up to him.

"In any event, that's not why I wanted to speak to you," he began again, his tone sliding into subtle shadings of obsequiousness that set her teeth on edge.

"Very well. What is it?"

"I was recently made aware that you've banished Maya to the kitchens--"

"To the kitchen servants' quarters to sleep," she corrected him, her tone making it clear she wouldn't appreciate any efforts to intrude on her personal affairs.

He seemed genuinely taken aback by her tone for the first time. "Of course," a momentary pause followed before he continued, "however, in either event, are you sure it's wise to upset the normal patterns of the palace at a time like this?"

Her brows drew into a frown. "I doubt my personal affairs matter much either way," she said in an effort to dismiss the issue.

"You are queen," he said smoothly, "all of your actions matter ... and now is not the time to allow your subjects to see any turmoil in your life."

Clamping down on the temptation to tell him where to go, complete with directions, Terreis waved the issue aside. "My affairs," she said pointedly, "are my own ... and none of yours."

"Of course, My Queen," he said with an obsequious duck of his head. "I simply hate to see you unhappy ... and the girl has been a loyal ... servant ... to you ... and hardly deserves the mockery of the kitchen help because you've had a minor disagreement."

"Our disagreements are none of your business," Terreis said carefully. "I felt it best that we have some time apart before making any decisions." He appeared to lose some color in response, though she couldn't help but wonder why he would care. "However, since you seem so invested in the situation," disapproval echoed in her voice, "I assure you, there were reasons for my decision ... and your concerns change none of them."

A muscle twitched in his cheek, but he nodded. "Of course, My Queen. As I said, I didn't mean to offend and simply wished to bring a very real concern to your attention." One eyebrow rose suggestively. "I know how you hate to have the servants gossiping about your private life."

A hint of a frown touched her brow as she found herself wondering if he had any idea how many different explanations he'd already given for his attempted interference ... and what his real reason for caring who shared her bed might be. "They do that no matter what," she murmured, well aware that speculating about her personal life was one of the major entertainments in the castle.

"Perhaps," he allowed, then added suggestively, "but with the outlander staying in your apartments...."

One eyebrow shot up. So that was it. She eyed him in an effort to assess his intentions, but his expression remained cool and unreadable as though he hadn't recently tried to murder the woman. "For her safety," she said by way of cold reminder.

He was smart enough to let that subject lie. "Of course ... but if Maya were there, it might end some of the speculation."

Terreis laughed very softly, and a little bitterly. "Somehow I doubt that." Her lips twisted in a wry smirk. "In fact, I suspect that scenario would only generate even more tales." Her look was enough to silence any arguments he might have offered. "Which is why I really can't arrange my personal according to the gossips' wishes ... since they'll come up with something to chatter about no matter what I do." She arched an eyebrow, silently daring him to challenge her refusal to fall into line with his wishes. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Minister?" She purposely tapped the plans in front of her. "If not, I really need to finish what I'm doing here, then check with the crewchief running the repairs on generator four."

"Speaking of which," Valchon began, apparently accepting that he wasn't going to change her mind about Maya or the outlander, "I understand from Lemier that you're insisting that the crewchiefs be trained in the complete workings of the machinery their crews are repairing, rather than simply being made aware of the requirements in their own divisions?"

She nodded. "Of course. It should have been done years ago." The way things were set up now, workers and their immediate supervisors had only the most rudimentary knowledge about the systems they were tasked with repairing, which meant they had to have guidance if the situation deviated even slightly from their written instructions. They literally didn't have enough knowledge to make even the smallest decision. Which meant work was constantly stopping -- and frequently had to be redone. The men were more than capable of learning what was necessary to make low level decisions on site, and she saw no reason for delaying that step.

"Are you sure that's wise?" he inquired. "If one of them were to be taken by the outlanders, the enemy could gain invaluable intelligence."

"Perhaps," she allowed, "but we need people who understand what they're doing, so they can make judgments in the field instead of having to have even the smallest decisions made by myself or Lemier." She shook her head. "The current level of oversight necessary is just ridiculous and slowing things down immeasurably."

"I can understand why you might see it that way, Highness, but--"

"It's necessary," she cut him off sharply, holding up a hand. "That is, if you want to be able to produce heavy artillery in under a season."

Whatever he was about to say died unspoken, and he tipped his head to one side in acknowledgment.

"Now, is that all?" she asked dismissively, suddenly wanting to get him as far away from her as possible. Despite all of his years of loyal service, the death of his sons seemed to have unhinged the man until she truly wasn't sure he cared about the good of their people in the least anymore. "Because if it is, I have work to finish here."

Dismissed, there was little he could do to stay without incurring more anger on her part. Finally, he ducked his head respectfully. "As you wish, My Liege."

She leaned back in her chair, staring after him until he'd gone, then tipped her head back and let her eyes slide closed. It was no comfort to have the outlander's face appear instantly in her thoughts along with a near painful level of desire. The nights of sleeping with the other woman so close -- her scent in the air, the soft sounds she made during the night a constant reminder -- were hell on her libido. Her thoughts were tormented by images of Janet Fraiser's body twined -- naked in the sheets -- with her own, while her dreams were of the two of them bound together, completely emotionally devoted to one another. In the dreams, there was even a child to seal their bond. She ruffled her hair, and pinched the bridge of her nose tiredly. There was something about the woman that held her in thrall, and she was beginning to think that running away from it was more than difficult, it was impossible. A soft sigh escaped her lips. The woman had been ill used -- there was little question of that -- but was she more sinned against than sinning? Terreis massaged her temple, her thoughts running in endless circles as she tried to decide what to do, afraid that there was only one certainty in the whole mess. Something was going to have to give.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"No, that's the general," Elyana said as Janet started to slide one of the figures on the gameboard in front of her backwards. "In the third round, the general can move in any direction but toward his home keep." The maid had started teaching her the chess-like game the day before to pass the time now that Janet wasn't sleeping all the time.

Janet eyed the complex array of pieces spread out on the octagonal game board. "Right," she sighed, disgusted with herself for forgetting rules that would normally have been fairly easy for her. Even though she knew she needed the mental stimulation, she was too distracted her worries about Elyana's plea that she speak to Sam. With her head already on the chopping block -- the axe literally poised just above her neck -- getting involved in the whole mess was probably just asking for it to drop. Unfortunately, she couldn't turn Elyana down after the way the young woman had cared for her in such a genuinely kind manner. The maid cleared her throat, and Janet realized she'd slid off into her own thoughts for a moment. She reached out moving the game piece in a more or less random direction, any attempt at tactics discarded.

Elyana raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment, instead leaning forward to contemplate her own move.

Leaning back, Janet silently watched her. She'd initially assumed the young woman was both innocent and a little simple, but with she now knew, had come to the conclusion that was simply a defensive façade she showed the world. Elyana was smart. Janet noted the way she considered her moves. She was smart, and she was careful. The illusion of innocence was probably her best protection, allowing her manipulate people who never suspected she was even remotely capable of such a thing. It sickened her more than she cared to contemplate that the younger woman had lived a life that made that kind of knowledge necessary.

Then it was her turn to move again and Janet found herself staring at the board, and trying to care about the array of strategies possible. She was still struggling to remember the basic list of legal moves when she heard the sound of the main doors opening and closing again, then a soft voice. Janet looked up from the board just as Sam stepped through the archway between the anteroom and the main bedroom. Despite her best intention to remain cool and in control, she felt her heartrate speed up as their gazes locked and held. Sam's hair was disarrayed as though she'd been running her fingers through it -- the way she often did when she was frustrated with something back at the SGC -- and the delicate crown she normally wore was dangling from the hand hanging at her side. Janet swallowed hard, held prisoner by the intensity of the gaze directed her way. It lasted no more than a moment or two, and then Sam turned to look toward her guard.

"Rubio," the blonde said softly and waved the guard over. As they stood speaking in hushed tones, Janet glanced at Elyana, whose eyes shone with hopeful lights.

"Please," the girl mouth, pounding the last nail in Janet's coffin.

Sighing softly, the doctor nodded. "I'll try," she mouthed.

"Try what?" a wry voice cut in and Janet looked over, eyes going wide as she realized Sam had seen the silent communication.

She swallowed hard, feeling vaguely like a deer in the headlights -- very rapidly advancing headlights if previous experience was any gauge. "Try to ... to speak to you," she said hesitantly. Dark blonde brows rose in silent question. "I was wondering if we could speak ... alone?"

"Interesting you should ask," the blond said very softly, her tone unreadable, "since I was going to make that very suggestion." Sharp blue eyes pinned her in place.

Janet had a bad feeling they weren't looking to discuss the same things. "Oh." She wondered if she sounded as uneasy as she felt.

A blonde brow ticked upward another notch, but Sam didn't comment, just turned pointed look on Rubio."Rubio ... Elyana ... I'll notify you when I need you." She nodded toward the anteroom. "And close the door behind you."

"Yes, My Queen," the guard said, while Elyana rose and joined him. A moment later, the door clicked shut in their wake, leaving Janet completely alone with the woman who now controlled her life.

A moment passed and then another. Finally, Sam spoke up, her voice soft, her tone unrevealing. "You said you wished to speak to me?" she prompted, apparently tired of the wait, and hesitant to reveal her own hand.

"Yes," Janet said softly. She was sitting on the edge of the narrow pallet that served as her bed, the manacles that bound one wrist to the inset bedrail guaranteeing she couldn't go anywhere. Sam drew closer, forcing Janet to crane her head back on her neck at a painful angle to maintain eye contact. She considered pushing to her feet, but Sam pulled a chair over, settling into it as she leaned forward, peering at Janet, her expression unreadable. "It's about Rubio and Elyana."

The purposely bland expression broke for the first time as a hint of a frown creased Sam's brow. Clearly, that wasn't what she'd expected to hear. "I see," she said cautiously. "And?"

Janet took a deep breath, glancing down at her twined hands where they rested on the small table that sat near her bed. Her mind was threatening to go blank as she struggled to think of a way to broach the problem of the money owed to the young servants ... while trying to avoid their reasons for needing it. She should never have agreed to this, she thought as she tried to organize her thoughts, terrified of screwing it up. "Apparently you promised Rubio a bonus for my care..." she said carefully, instinctively aware of the way Sam tensed as though expecting a fight.

The taller woman nodded. "Yes ... a considerable one." She leaned forward, elbows braced on her knees, watching Janet closely. "Your life is valuable to me, and I wanted him to understand that."

Janet glanced up and froze, momentarily trapped once again by the look in familiar blue eyes, uncertain of its meaning and a little afraid. She swallowed hard, whatever speech she'd planned suddenly forgotten under the impact of the look directed her way. "They've ... uh ... they've done a good job."

Sam nodded, still watching Janet closely. Her gaze broke, sliding away from Janet's to trail over the doctor's slender frame, noting every detail with absolute precision. "Yes, they have," she allowed, then met dark brown eyes again. "I didn't think it would be possible for you to improve so quickly."

Janet purposely looked away, struggling to put together her shattered thoughts. "I didn't either," she admitted, back to studying her hands to distract herself. "They need the money," she said at last when she couldn't think of a gentler approach. She looked up. "Rubio and Elyana, I mean ... they need the bonus you promised them."

Sam's frown deepened, her lips momentarily working, though no sound came out. "What does this have to do with you?" she finally asked.

Which put Janet on the spot, uncertain how to answer in a way that didn't give away their secrets or make her look like she was plotting something. "They've been kind to me. I just want to help ... and I ... I know they need the money ... and ... you agreed they've done the job well."

An eyebrow twitched, but Sam's expression remained otherwise unreadable. "One could argue they haven't finished it yet," she countered, her tone cool, "and that any bonuses are somewhat premature."

"Perhaps," Janet allowed, trying to avoid any kind of argument, and suspecting she wasn't doing well at all, "but they need it now ... quickly...." The doctor half expected an explosion. She could see the other woman's suspicions and dreaded what might happen. She was surprised when the other woman simply leaned back in the chair, her gaze assessing.

"Why?" Sam asked quietly. "They live in the palace ... have food from the kitchens ... and clothes from the supply room ... why do they need that much money?"

Janet swallowed hard, her eyes falling away again. When she finally spoke, the words came in halting, broken sentences. "I'm not ... in a position to ... to say...." Which sounded really lame, even to her own ears. Somehow, she didn't see that convincing Sam of much of anything ... except maybe that she was up to something.

Dark blonde brows shot ceilingward right on schedule. "And yet you opened this subject," Sam pointed out practically.

"I know," Janet sighed. "I'm not asking for anything for myself. I'm just--"

"Asking for gold on behalf of your guard," Sam cut her off firmly, though she didn't appear to be angry, just suspicious. "Surely you can see why that might arouse some skepticism ... especially since you refuse to explain why."

Hard to argue that point. Janet nodded, struggling to remain calm and cool, well aware that Sam was gauging her every expression. Janet studied the other woman for a long moment, seeing both suspicion and an innate curiosity which needed satisfaction. Sam wouldn't back down from her desire to know why ... and any attempt to deny her that information would only guarantee that she kept pressing and thought the worst. Which left the doctor with a difficult decision to make. If she kept her word to Elyana and kept her pregnancy secret, god only knew when Rubio might get the money they needed. And if she didn't, she was betting someone else's future that Sam was still herself underneath the patina of a queen that had been forced on her.

"Is this an attempt to use my gold to bribe your guard?" the blonde asked, sounding surprisingly calm considering some of her recent responses.

Janet shook her head. "No ... even if I could, I don't think it would work," she answered honestly. Rubio and Elyana were both phenomenally loyal to the woman they believed to be their queen. Afraid of losing their trust and friendship, she'd been careful not to risk making them feel torn between herself and Sam.

"Then why?"

"They've been kind to me ... and...." The situation was almost impossible to explain and she momentarily fell silent. Sam wasn't going to even consider going along with her request until she understood the situation. "Elyana's pregnant," she said at last, praying she was right.

A hint of a smile touched soft lips, and she thought she saw relief in blue eyes. "I can see why Rubio would want to provide," Sam murmured, "but given that she can't be very far along, I'm not sure it's that much of a rush."

A muscle pulled taut along the curve of Janet's jaw and she quietly disagreed, "Yes, it is."

A moment's silence followed, then Sam spoke, her voice soft and serious, picking up on Janet's conflicted emotions. "Why?"

Janet ran a hand through her hair. She should have stayed out of this. No matter what she did, there was a risk to the young couple, and a risk she'd be blamed for something. Unfortunately, having started she couldn't stop now. Hello, Point of No Return -- You Are Here. "Do you realize Elyana's a slave?" she asked at last.

The deep frown and look of genuine confusion answered the question more eloquently than words would have.

"Apparently someone named Ezri ... owns ... her." Janet's lips curled with distaste at the idea. "He allowed Rubio to ... buy ... her ... on credit ... but if he finds out about the baby before it's paid off, they think he'll rescind the deal ... or demand an increased price that Rubio can't afford."

"Are you sure?" Sam's voice was a tight, angry rasp.

Janet nodded, then jumped when Sam suddenly pushed to her feet, her expression strained. "Rubio ... Elyana," she called out as she paced over to the main doors and pushed one open.

The guard and his wife quickly appeared, looking a little uneasy.

Sam peered at Elyana for a long moment -- hunting for some sign of the claimed pregnancy perhaps -- then spoke, her voice low, but commanding. "I understand you're with child ... and Ezri still has papers on you?" Her gaze swung sideways to touch on Rubio, taking in the way he lost all color and stepped protectively in front of his wife.

"My Queen--" Rubio began, the words coming out too quickly, his tone borderline to panicked.

"Is this true?" Sam cut him off.

For a brief second, he looked utterly horrified, and then his expression closed down. Folding his hands together at the small of his back, he straightened his spine and met her gaze. "Yes, My Queen." When Elyana gasped softly and took a half step forward, he reached back, his hand wrapping around her to pull her against his back.

Janet wished she could see Sam's expression, but her only clue to her mood was the stiff tension in her back. A beat passed, and then suddenly she stepped around Rubio, her strides long and hurried as she rushed out, leaving the shell-shocked trio behind her. Her only verbal response to the situation was a bit out, "See to the prisoner," as she slammed the door in her wake.

Elyana flinched as though the crash of the door was an actual blow, the hand on Rubio's shoulder clamping down with rigid strength.

Trembling, Janet stared after Sam, her heart suddenly hammering against the inside of her ribs.

"You told her," Rubio growled, his voice thick with anger and betrayal.

Dark eyes swung over to touch on the young guard, the guilt in Janet's expression confirming his suspicions.

"I don't know how you knew, but why would you...." He couldn't finish, and was silent for a long moment. "We've taken care of you ... seen to everything." He looked back at his wife, emotion thickening his voice. "Elyana's been a friend to you when most people would have cheerfully slit your throat in hopes of a reward from Minister Valchon. Why did you tell the queen?"

Janet stared helplessly up at the man. She'd promised Elyana she wouldn't tell him about her request, and couldn't explain why she'd been so certain she could trust Sam. "I didn't ... it was--"

His lips pulled back from his gritted teeth, and he lunged forward a half step. "If I lose my wife and child because of you--"

"Rubio, no," Elyana broke in and stepped around her husband, hands braced on his chest as she halted his advance. "She didn't know," she soothed.

He shook his head, unable to let go of the anger. "If she's gone to tell Sire Ezri...." True hate flickered in his eyes at the mention of the man who legally owned his wife. His hands rose, and he gripped Elyana's upper arms tightly. "If we left now, we might be able to--"

"No," the maid said quickly, cutting him off, "if we run, they'd find us ... and it would be worse ... with no hope."

Still in shock, Janet could only sit shaking her head. Sam wouldn't.... She couldn't.... It wasn't in her to knowingly hand someone over to that kind of fate ... to send a woman and child into slavery. And yet, Sam had done so many things she wouldn't have thought possible since they'd played with her mind. Her skull suddenly throbbing violently, she let her head fall forward, hiding her face in her hands as she listened to the pair she might have unintentionally consigned to hell.

"I won't let them take you ... I won't let that bastard touch you--"

"I won't let it happen," Janet spoke up, her soft voice somehow overriding Rubio's furious desperation.

He pushed Elyana aside, glaring at Janet with barely contained rage. "You'll stop it?" he sneered, waving his hand at her chained wrist. "You're the lowest of the low ... a slave has more rights. You can't even save yourself--"

"But, if necessary, I can save you," the doctor countered, her voice deadly calm, while her eyes were just dead. She looked up, and Rubio fell silent when he saw her expression.

"There's nothing you can do," he finally whispered.

"Yes, there is," she disagreed with that same, eerie calm. "I can trade for your freedom--"

"Except you have nothing of value," he snarled disdainfully, angry at her presumption that she could fix anything.

"You're wrong," Janet said very softly, her voice painfully sad. "I have knowledge ... and I have myself...."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

 

 

 

Part Nine

 

Janet kept her head meekly bowed as Rubio led her in from the balcony, the free end of the handcuff chain wrapped around his hand. A precaution in case she decided to escape, she supposed. Though she'd made no attempts while in his care, if she'd thought success was a possibility, she might have gone ahead and tried, since she'd apparently lost the only supporters she had in the place.

She glanced at Elyana where the young woman stood nearby, her head down, her expression bland and withdrawn, then back at Rubio, whose every glance in her direction amounted to a furious glare.

None of them had spoken more than ten words since her pronouncement that, if necessary, she would trade herself to protect them. Rubio had started to say something at the time only to fall silent, while Elyana had simply stared at her for a long moment, the knowledge that she had set these events in motion. Seeing her draw breath, Janet had known instinctively that she intended to confess her part in the debacle. Knowing it would do no good, the doctor had shaken her head, silently discouraging the young woman. Elyana had enough problems without alienating her husband. Janet had made the judgment call to tell Sam the truth. It only seemed fair that she be the one to bear the consequences. Or maybe it was just that she liked the young woman, and couldn't bear the thought of any further difficulties being heaped on her head. The girl reminded her of Cass in some ways; hurt too much too young, with a serious nature forced on one that should have been far more innocent. It made them both harder and softer than those around them. She closed her eyes, thoughts of her adopted daughter momentarily overwhelming. God, she missed Cassie like hell, even if the relationship was sometimes tense. Inheriting an adolescent moving into her teen years was not necessarily the best introduction to parenthood, but despite everything, Cass had come out okay -- more than okay. God, the poor kid was probably scared to death imagining everything that might have happened to she and Sam.

Lost in her own thoughts, she didn't realize that Rubio had stopped and turned to face her until she collided with his arm, He reached out, steadying her, then pulled his hand back, staring down at her. For the first time since Sam's exit, he didn't look like he'd enjoy a chance to wrap his hands around her throat. "Did you mean it," he asked quietly, "when you said you'd trade yourself to save Elyana?" There seemed to be no doubt in his voice that the deal would be accepted. Rubio might not be as attuned to the shifting emotions as his wife, but he wasn't a fool.

Her stomach doing a fair impression of a pretzel, Janet nodded. "It's my fault ... if Ezri finds out." She reached out, resting a hand on the young guard's forearm, wanting him to understand. "I didn't do it to hurt you ... either of you. I just thought...." She trailed off, closing her eyes and shaking her head as the enormity of it all threatened to wash her into a very deep emotional abyss. In spite of everything, she'd believed there was enough of Sam left to make her do the right thing. The thought that maybe she'd been wrong sickened her. "I thought she'd help," she admitted at last, still shaking her head, her voice sad. "It just didn't occur to me she might ... might not." Close to tears at the thought that Sam might be capable of hurting the young couple so intent on serving her loyally, she had to fight to get the words past the tightness in her throat. "I can't explain ... but I really thought she'd help." Unfortunately, as more time passed, Janet was getting more and more scared that whatever had been done to Sam might just drive her to turn Elyana back to her master. Maybe they'd made her so loyal to the system that she'd consider it the moral thing to do and not see the base evil of it all.

"And so I shall," the voice was soft and oddly soothing, its impact freezing everyone in place for the span of a heartbeat.

Janet tipped her head up, eyes going round as she saw the woman standing in the doorway, her eyes intense, her lean frame full of coiled tension.

Sam had returned.

She stood stiffly in the doorway for a long moment, the only motion, her eyes as they slid over Janet, taking in the dark rust gown she wore, lingering on the deep décolletage. When she looked up again, naked hunger momentarily shone in her gaze before it was banished behind a cool wall.

At the same time, Rubio took a half step forward, his head swinging momentarily in his wife's direction before he looked back at Sam. "My Queen," he said tersely.

Janet fell back a step, watching Sam closely for some clue as to what she'd done, relieved when the other woman turned her attention to the guard. A flicker of something akin to hurt crossed Sam's face when he faced her stiffly, his expression suspicious almost to the point of belligerence , then she straightened, waved Elyana over, and strode forward as though nothing was amiss. Offering an encouraging smile, she held out the paper in her hand. "This is yours, I believe."

Taking it, Elyana stared at the paper for a long moment, then up at Sam, while her husband read it over her shoulder. She swallowed hard, shellshocked by the import of what she held. "I ... is this ... really...."

"I made sure it was properly filed ... so there's no question ... and no cause for anyone to protest," Sam assured her when Elyana seemed unable to continue.

The younger woman nodded unsteadily, while Rubio just kept staring at the paper in shock. "You got Sire Ezri to release me," she croaked at last, barely able to get the words out.

Janet's eyes slid closed and she released a shuddery sigh of relief, grateful that the young couple was going to be all right -- and also that Sam hadn't disappointed her. No matter how many lies she'd been made to believe, the woman Janet knew was still there. When she looked up again, the blonde was staring at her intently, though she settled a hand on Elyana's shoulder and directed her words to the maid. "You have your freedom now. Use it wisely." She took the other end of the handcuff chain from Rubio -- though he barely noticed -- as he pulled his wife into a hard hug, burying his face in the curve of her neck, the emotion so intense both young people were on the verge of tears.

It lasted a long moment, and then Rubio lifted his head, glancing back over his shoulder at Sam. "Why?" he whispered, his voice thick with emotion. It was the last thing he'd expected from his past experience with royals.

"I told you before, I value loyalty..." Sam said seriously. She slipped a hand into a pocket on her cloak, retrieving a small bag of coins that jingled softly as she held it out. "...far more than gold." She tucked it into his hand.

He looked down at the bag, then back up at her. "My Queen, after this, I can't--"

"Take it ... for the child." She offered a gentle smile. "Now, get out of here. Take the rest of the evening off and spend the night with your wife. You've both earned it."

He nodded unsteadily, too emotionally choked up to speak. He glanced back at Janet where she stood silently off to the side, not speaking though his eyes reflected the sudden influx of worry, his anger replaced by gratitude now that everything had turned out well.

Sam saw his glance and easily divined its meaning. "Don't worry. I can handle things here." The softly spoken words had a double meaning that sent another hard shudder through Janet, the tremor rattling the chains softly. Instinctively, she knew Sam had no intention of stopping this time, a belief that was only cemented when the blonde firmed her grip on the chain and flashed a glance her way. The look in her eyes drew another tiny shudder and answering rattle.

Clearly worried, Elyana reached out, resting a hand lightly on Sam's forearm in an effort to intercede. "She was trying to help."

"I know." Sam nodded to indicate the door. "Now, off you go." Her attention never wavered from her prisoner.

Hesitant to leave, Elyana paused where she was, but Rubio tugged lightly on her arm. "Come." He glanced at Sam, hiding his worries a little better than his wife, but not much. "Our queen wishes her privacy."

She didn't speak this time, simply nodding in acknowledgment, while Janet had to fight the urge to beg them to stay. There was an intensity to Sam's looks, a hunger, but also an aura of possession that scared the hell out of her. She couldn't forget that kiss on the balcony. Unlike the awful attack that had resulted in her banishment from Sam's presence, it hadn't been intended to punish or hurt. Insistent and tender at the same time, it had conquered her fears and drawn her in, promising love and shelter, and eventually making resistance impossible. At some point, she'd surrendered in spite of herself, and she was far from certain that she could resist another such onslaught any better. After everything she'd already been through, the need for comfort from one of the few people she'd always been able to trust was too tempting for her to have much hope that she could hold herself back.

An uncomfortable moment of silence followed, while the four players in the drama all looked uncertainly from one to another. "Go on," the blonde said at last, her voice soft, but with a confident note of command. With little else to say or do, the servants finally had no choice but to leave. Sam stood perfectly still as they left, silently watching until the doors were pushed closed in their wake. She appeared to take a moment to get her emotional footing, then did a slow turn, eyes sliding appreciatively over her prisoner, her desire far too palpable to be ignored.

Afraid of what that look portended, Janet backed up until the chain that bound them together was stretched to its fullest length, then stood poised as if to flee even as it occurred to her that she had nowhere to run. The manacle was wrapped around her right wrist, and Sam held the other end in her right hand ... an unbreakable physical link between them that denied her any hope of escape.

"Come here," Sam said very softly, her voice low and intense, eyes gleaming with a complex tangle of emotions that did nothing to slow Janet's rapidly accelerating pulse.

Janet just shook her head and backed up another step, her arm outstretched to gain the space needed. She felt her heart hammering against the inside of her ribcage. Instinct told her that the other woman had no intention of stopping this time, and she was determined not to play along.

Sam accepted the refusal without argument and took a coaxing tack instead. "You knew to trust me with Rubio and Elyana's secret. You know to trust me now," she said and held out her free hand invitingly. "Now come here." While there was no anger in the softly spoken command, there was a frighteningly intense note of possession.

Janet was tempted. There was no denying it. She'd long turned to Sam during difficult times and for once there was no anger in the other woman. Maybe she could reach her; talk to her; remind her who she was and--

A light tug on the handcuff chain served as a stark reminder of the situation, drawing the doctor's eyes down to the beautifully etched manacle that encased her wrist. The point was duly made. Talking wasn't what the other woman had in mind.

"Now," Sam said very softly, her voice throbbing with emotions she'd always kept locked behind very thick walls in her real life; emotions Janet had longed to hear, and which made refusing harder than she would have thought possible.

All too aware of the dangerous swirl of emotions, Janet spun away, needing to break the spell cast by familiar blue eyes. "Whatever game you're playing, please don't." she begged raggedly. The aching desire was almost worse than the anger. It promised a false haven that threatened to spill them both deeper into the abyss.

"It's no game," Sam murmured and Janet suddenly felt pressure on the manacle that encased her wrist. She spun to find the other woman taking up the slack by wrapping the chain around her hand. Blue eyes searched brown for a long moment. "You were ready to offer yourself to save Elyana," she said at last.

Janet tensed, the tightly coiled anger that was always with her flaring to life and giving her a brief respite from the desire to simply trust and surrender. "Is that what this is about," she demanded bitterly, "payment for services rendered?"

The blonde winced, paling ever so slightly. "No," she insisted instantly. "This is between you and I ... nothing more, nothing less."

Janet turned away again, needing to block out the way the other woman was looking at her. None of it was real, she reminded herself; not the caring looks, nor the coaxing tone of voice, nor any of the other things that made her seem entirely too much like the woman she knew and loved. As much as she hated it, under the current circumstances, they were captive and captor. "Except you're a great deal more ... and I suppose I'm a great deal less," she said in an effort to remind herself of her precarious position and gain some emotional distance.

Sam took another wrap on the chain, forcing Janet to turn her way. "Is that what your masters told you ... that you're less than others?"

Janet just shook her head, too frustrated by the notion of trying to explain that she had no masters. It was like beating her head against the wall, and she was in no mood for the emotional concussion that invariably resulted when she made the effort. "It doesn't matter," she sighed and would have turned away again, but Sam took another wrap in the chain, forcing her to take a half step closer and denying her any opportunity to block her out for even a moment.

"You tried to help Rubio and Elyana ... and were ready to offer yourself if your efforts had failed. Why?" she asked, the genuine note of curiosity in her voice almost more perilous than the anger and accusation that were so commonplace.

Janet's eyes slid closed for a moment, and a tiny shudder slid through her. "No one should be a slave," she said very softly, her voice throbbing with emotion, "and that girl shouldn't have to wonder who the father of her child is." That was so wrong at every level.

"No," Sam exhaled with quiet sincerity, "she shouldn't."

The much needed sympathy and caring sent a bolt of unwanted warmth through Janet, driving her to spin away, her heart hammering painfully fast, barely able to breathe. It would be so easy to just let herself pretend for a little while and sink into arms she instinctively knew would be both protective and possessive in a way that frightened and drew her at the same. It's not Sam, she reminded herself as she cut that thought off, at least not the Sam she knew ... or who knew her. The taller woman took another wrap in the chain, but this time Janet steadfastly refused to be pulled around and simply dropped her arm, allowing it to be dragged back at an angle.

"No matter who sired it, that child is Rubio's now," Sam's said, her voice silky and seductive, but at the same time forceful in a way that refused to be denied. "That's all that matters." She took two wraps this time, giving her captive no choice but to turn until she was standing sideways, arm outstretched, eyes blazing.

"Bringing me to heel?" the doctor demanded, summoning every last bit of resentment and anger she could muster as she gave the chain a sharp yank in an effort to gain a little space.

Sam shrugged, muscles taut where she clung to the chain, refusing to give any ground. "Accepting reality," she disagreed, keeping her tone soft, almost soothing, as she took another wrap in the metal links tethering them together, forcing Janet within arm's reach. "Things can't go on the way they are." Another wrap ate the last of the chain and left her knuckles nudged up against a slender forearm. "And you know it as well as I do." She reached out with her free hand, barely brushing her fingers along the arch of her prisoner's cheekbone. "Something has to give." And god knew, that wasn't likely to be her -- not when she believed she was a queen with a right to anything -- or anyone -- she cared to have.

The doctor yanked her head back, breaking the tenuous contact as she spun away, mind racing in an effort to find a way out of the situation. Sam increased the tension on her wrist and she tried to yank her hand back with a hissed, "Don't."

Sam didn't allow even that small measure of freedom, instead drawing so close she was almost touching her prisoner's narrow back. She rested her left hand on Janet's left shoulder. "Were you a slave?" she asked gently, as though afraid of causing more pain. "Is that why you care so much for Elyana's feelings?"

"I care because she and Rubio are good people," Janet sidestepped the question, tired of having her every word questioned and doubted. She would have stepped away, but Sam tightened her hold just enough to end any thoughts of gaining space. "They don't deserve to be hurt."

"No," Sam agreed, her breath ruffling auburn hair, "they don't." She reached around to draw Janet's chin to the side, leaning forward until their eyes met over the smaller woman's shoulder. "And perhaps you don't either." The words were softly uttered, the look in her eyes warm and seductive.

A part of Janet melted and broke at the same time. "Then why are you doing this?" she demanded, blinking to clear the threat of tears, barely able to speak past the tightness in her throat. She stared up at her friend, silently willing her to understand what she was asking and back off before it went any farther.

Sam shook her head slowly, denying the charge, her eyes liquid. "Believe me, the last thing I want to do is hurt you." She continued rhythmically stroking a soft cheek. "But I needed to know who you are ... that inhuman cruelty isn't your real nature." She sighed softly, leaning forward, and burying her face in silky hair. "I was afraid you weren't even human ... that you enjoyed the pain and death inflicted on my people." She straightened, staring down into dark eyes with hypnotic intensity, fingers still moving lightly against her skin. "I know you're scared ... but I'm not like your past masters ... I'll take care of you ... and I know that you can feel ... care about others...."

Struggling silently, Janet tried to twist her wrist free, but Sam had it too effectively pinned. Instead of giving ground, the taller woman shifted her hold, wrapping her right arm around Janet's waist and pinning her arm against her own chest. With her prisoner effectively contained, she levered her even closer.

"Don't do this," Janet whispered, nearly overwhelmed by the temptation to simply accept fate. No matter who this woman claimed to be, or what their situation, it was Sam's eyes she was staring into, Sam's hands that were touching her, Sam's body pressed against her back ... and Sam's mouth that came down to taste her own. Still enough in control to fight the kiss, every muscle in her body knotted in an effort to regain her freedom. Unfortunately, she was nowhere near strong enough to win any physical confrontation.

"Shhh," Sam hushed when their lips parted. Dusting tiny kisses over soft cheeks, she dropped the hand braced along the curve of Janet's jaw to her upper chest, pinning her free arm against her side. "Trust me...." Her voice dropped low, becoming deliberately seductive. "Let me care for you...."

Teeth gritted, Janet shook her head vehemently, desperately fighting the temptation to do exactly as Sam wanted, and relax into hands that were remarkably gentle despite the force needed to contain her struggles. She was so tired of fighting and being scared all the time. Sam had protected her so many times in the past and a part of her was certain she would even now. "I can't ... don't ask me to," she begged. Lips brushed her cheek and ear as she turned her head away, the caress like warm velvet against her skin.

"I have to," Sam exhaled and her lips closed on Janet's earlobe, nibbling gently while graceful fingers toyed with the front laces on her bodice, tugging at the tight knot. "You're mine now." Her hand rose, drawing her prisoner's head back around to claim soft lips. "And I'll make sure the bastards who hurt you can never touch you again."

Misguided though it was, the quiet proclamation was achingly sincere, and Janet couldn't contain a soft gasp, deeply touched in spite of herself. In an instant, her mouth was reclaimed, the faint parting of her lips making way for the gentle invasion of Sam's tongue. The doctor didn't want to respond, even tried to resist the soft stroking roughness that made her pulse pound and reminded her of all the intimacies circumstances had denied them both, but it was hopeless. She'd wanted Sam too much for too long; loved her too much for too long. Despite herself, she sank into the kiss.

Eyes glazed by passion, Sam finally pulled back no more than a hand's breadth. "You don't need to be afraid anymore," she whispered, then ducked her head, lips trailing down the length of Janet's throat, nuzzling into the curve of her shoulder as she began working the laces of her bodice loose. "I'll take care of you."

A tiny whimper escaped Janet's throat, her blood burning with unwanted arousal, her every effort to gain some distance and some sanity neatly blocked by the woman holding her. "And who'll protect me from you?" she demanded, using the only weapon left even though she half expected to trigger the dangerous rage again.

Suddenly tense, Sam straightened, but there was no sign of anger in her serious expression. "I'm sorry for what happened," she said very softly and leaned forward to press a small kiss to Janet's forehead. "I was wrong," she added, the look in her eyes heart-meltingly soft, "about you ... and it won't happen again." She ducked her head, lips just barely brushing her captive's. "Trust me," she said again, the words coming out as a heartfelt plea. "Trust yourself to me...."

Wondering how the hell she was supposed to resist something she'd wanted for so damn long, Janet couldn't contain a small moan in response to the kiss that followed, her mouth soft and yielding this time. She was so damned tired of fighting when she didn't have a prayer of winning. As the laces on her bodice came loose, an agile hand slipped inside her blouse, shaping to the rounded curve of a full breast and stroking gently.

"Give yourself to me," Sam urged. Using words to seduce, she just kept talking, her voice soft and coaxing, drawing Janet in and promising her a harbor in the storm "Let me take care of you...." Nibbling on a delicate ear, she tugged the front of the bodice open and slid her fingers down to the waistband of the skirt. "Hold you and keep you safe...."

A tiny whimper escaped Janet's lips, Sam's tenderness and gentle entreaties close to shattering her resolve completely. Weeks of struggling to maintain some sense of herself in a world turned upside down had left her longing for a little closeness and human comfort. "We can't," she moaned and tried to push the hand at her waistband away without success.

"We can," Sam disagreed, still using that soft, sensual tone. She tugged Janet's blouse free of her waistband and slid her hand underneath to stroke her stomach lightly, her touch warm and intensely sensual. "We will." Eyes gleaming with growing hunger, she ducked her head, the kiss that followed soft but demanding, as her mouth moved against her prisoner's, building to greater intensity with every passing second.

Harsh tremors shaking her from head to toe, Janet made one final attempt to regain her freedom, tearing her mouth away from Sam's, her breath coming in ragged gasps. "I don't want this," she groaned. Not entirely true. Emotionally and physically, she wanted it desperately. It was just that intellectually, she knew damn well it was the worst thing that could happen. She was already dancing dangerously close to Stockholm Syndrome. Add sex to the mix and maintaining any semblance of sanity might well become impossible. Her feelings for Sam were too deep and intense, and in a situation where their normal level of equality and respect weren't present, that could be a very large albatross around her neck.

The hand at her waist slid up her torso, trailing fire during the journey, to cup the side of her face refusing to allow her to turn away. "Liar," Sam accused, though a hint of a smile teased her lips. She stroked a full lower lip with the pad of her thumb. "I can see it in your eyes ... feel the heat on your skin ... the way you're breathing ... trembling. You want," she said softly, but with utter finality. She released her hold on the chain, letting it unravel until it was dangling at Janet's side and reached out, guiding the other woman around until they were facing each other. "You want as much as I do," she groaned, her voice rumbling softly. The chain forgotten, she reached out, stroking Janet's cheek, then along her jaw and down the length of her throat. "Need as much as I do."

"Damn you," Janet breathed almost inaudibly, resentful of the desire and temptation being forced on her. Sam's other hand slid down and around her waist, yanking her close enough that every curve was molded to her own, reminding her of all the fantasies she'd harbored during her years in the SGC.

"If I'm damned," the blonde groaned, "it's your doing." She shook her head, the hint of fear in her eyes proof that she was almost as powerless as her prisoner when it came to the thing between them. "I tried to fight this ... but I can't...." The kiss that followed was rougher than the first, not angry, but needy and fraught with the refusal to be denied. "Surrender to it," she growled when their lips parted ever so slightly, her heated breath still playing over Janet's face, "surrender to me," she added, shifting the emphasis of the sentence. Sam didn't give her a chance to deny the desire firing her blood, just reclaimed her mouth, not breaking away until they were both breathing hard and trembling. Suddenly, she caught Janet's right hand, pressing it to her chest right over her heart. "Feel that." Harsh angles softened, the expression on Sam's face melting from commanding to pleading in an instant. "Feel how hard it's pounding because of you."

It was the last straw. Swallowing hard, Janet couldn't resist the urge to spread her hand where it rested on bare skin just above the neckline of Sam's gown, achingly aware of the texture of velvety flesh overlying the unsteady thud of her friend's heart. Her eyes slid closed, the pad of her thumb moving slowly against soft skin. "You don't know how difficult this is," she exhaled. Gentle hands cupped her face, fingers slipping into her hair and caressing, the tenderness offering protection, comfort, safety ... love....

"I know," Sam disagreed. Her mouth brushed Janet's again, pulled away briefly, then dusted another kiss over soft lips before pulling back. "I know all too well." She continued stroking silky hair, the gentle caresses drawing Janet to lean into them, seducing her against her will. "This could destroy us both ... but I have to have you." Her lips found Janet's again as her hands slid down, trembling violently where she fought with the ties on her skirt. Tongues met and tangled, breathing turning harsh. The laces on Janet's skirt tore under overeager hands, then heavy fabric tumbled to the floor, forming rust red pool around her feet. Moments later, the shoulder straps on her bodice gave and it quickly followed, leaving the doctor in little more than the loose under-blouse. She shivered as Sam leaned back, her gaze touching on every inch of newly revealed flesh, eyes gleaming with appreciation.

A beat passed, then the taller woman reached out, peeling the blouse off and tossing aside, appreciation turning to raw lust as her captive was bared completely. Janet shivered, feeling the gaze sliding over her body like an actual caress. "So beautiful," Sam exhaled at last.

Janet stood frozen, the look in Sam's eyes making the chains completely superfluous, as the taller woman freed the clasp on her cloak, letting it fall away, forgotten, then tore at the gold fasteners on the front of her gown. Her gaze slid lower, touching on every inch of pale flesh as it was bared. She'd seen Sam naked hundreds of times in the infirmary, but it had never been anything like this. Even with them both being coolly professional, there'd been an awareness, a subtle kind of energy that arced between them, but nothing like this heated, intense electricity, that was like a lightning bolt that just went on and on.

When the last of her clothes fell away, Sam stepped forward, ducking down ever so slightly, hands fitting to Janet's ribcage just under her armpits. "Put your arms around my neck." The command was softly spoken, little more than a breath of air, but the look in her eyes was irresistibly beguiling. Without planning to, Janet found herself sliding her arms around the column of Sam's neck, upper arms braced on her shoulders, fingers clinging tightly to thick, blonde hair. Muscles pulling taut, the taller woman straightened, lifting her slight burden surprisingly easily. "From now forward ... you're mine," she whispered as she carried Janet to the huge bed, shouldering the curtains aside and sinking down with her.

In her normal life, Janet had never been drawn to lovers who'd thought to own her, but somehow that raw note of possession on Sam's lips sparked a surging wave of arousal she was powerless to resist. She didn't want this need -- was terrified of becoming trapped in it like a fly in amber -- but at that moment, she couldn't pull away. She needed the solace offered by the woman she'd loved so long far too much. Body literally aching, she arched into the hands that slid over her torso, finding the curve of breast and rib, stroking the faint indentations that delineated bone and muscle. Soft lips followed and she tightened her fingers on pale gold hair, clinging desperately. Sharp teeth found the outer curve of her breast, biting lightly and dragging over sensitive skin, the rough caress sending a sharp spasm of sensation radiating outward. Damp and rough, Sam's tongue soothed the tiny injury with gentle, lapping strokes before moving on to outline the easy curve of her ribs.

Unable to resist the urge to touch, Janet slid her hands over Sam's back and shoulders, sensitive fingertips tracking flexing runs of muscle, neatly trimmed nails occasionally scoring soft flesh. A low groan escaped her lips as she tipped her head back on her shoulders, the intensity of sensation making reality blur and run together. She'd always known it would be like this if they ever once stepped over the line; passionate, addictive, and so very pleasurable it was like finding the last piece of the puzzle to her own soul. A low moan signaled her pleasure and she arched into the soft kisses that trailed over her torso, then was more than amply rewarded by the drugging reality of Sam's mouth on a coral tipped breast. Suckling gently, her lover slid a hand down, stroking slowly at the hipline, teasing and toying with the body she now possessed. "God, Sam," Janet gasped, sensation and arousal momentarily driving the reality of the situation from her mind. Low groans turned to a startled yelp as Sam surged over her and she suddenly found her wrists grabbed and pressed into the mattress.

Her eyes gleaming with jealous lights, Sam's mouth compressed into a thin line. "I won't have anyone else in this bed ... no other lover ... no other master...." She stretched out above Janet, settling their bodies together. "And no other name on your lips." Her voice throbbed with the absolute confidence that her commands would be obeyed.

Janet froze, not knowing what to say or do. The woman making love to her was Sam. To think of her by any other name was nearly impossible even when her eyes gleamed with an alien look of absolute dominion over everything around her. "There's no one else," she whispered, sidestepping the name issue, unable to lie and uncertain whether she was afraid of angering the other woman or breaking the connection she needed so desperately. "There's only you and I."

Some of the angry jealousy melted away, and Sam's expression softened. "You and I," she repeated, the last of the darker emotions fading and melting into an expression of tender desire. "Only you and I." Her head dipped, and she tasted soft lips hungrily, her mouth moving against Janet's, promising every pleasure imaginable, while the restless friction created by their bodies began delivering on the sensual covenant. Her hands shifted, moving from clutching fragile wrists to twining their fingers together, the kiss that followed sweet enough to remind Janet that the woman she knew was still there, no matter what name or title she used.

Sam moved slowly, a hard thigh pressing against damp flesh as she trapped one of Janet's legs between her own, the influx of sensation enough to make the smaller woman arch into the slow, sliding contact. Pushing up on her hands, the blonde stared down at her prisoner for a long moment, eyes sliding over smooth flesh with the power of an actual caress. Finally, her gaze rose again, blue eyes meeting brown with a look that melted the last layer of protective ice Janet had struggled to maintain around her heart. She didn't have it in her to even try to resist the seductively sweet kiss that followed.

"You're mine now," Sam breathed when their lips finally parted. She snatched another quick kiss, then quietly proclaimed, "Body ... and soon ... soul."

The softly spoken vow elicited a mix of fear and need in Janet, but Sam reclaimed her mouth before she could draw breath to speak. Minutes passed, the slow motion blending of their mouths a form of lovemaking all its own. Finally, unable to fight the need any longer, Janet's fingers clenched on the hands bound to her own, her tongue dragging against Sam's, giving as good as she got.

Finally, Sam pushed up on her elbows, her breath coming harsh and ragged. A long moment passed as they stared deeply into one another's eyes. A strange frown ghosted across Sam's face, and for just a second, Janet thought she was starting to remember who she really was. Then just as suddenly as the odd look had appeared, it faded away, to be replaced by a tender kind of possessive hunger. Without further words, muscles flexed and knotted as she slid lower on Janet's body, lips fluttering down the graceful column of her throat and over her upper chest, every touch sending tiny flickers of fire through oversensitive nerve endings. She didn't give Janet a chance to think, instead using the intensity of physical need to tame any remaining struggles. Not to be denied, her every touch sent flickers of erotic fire through her prisoner, and she used that fact to her advantage.

For Janet, it was terrifying and exciting at the same time, the emotion and sensation so vivid she couldn't even begin to resist the siren's call. Her breathing rough with arousal, she arched into the kisses that played over her skin, steadily working their way closer to the sweet ache gathering in the pit of her stomach and stretching the erotic tension tighter with every passing second. At some point, Sam untwined her hands, bracing one on the mattress near her captive's shoulder, while the other plied sweet caresses over velvety flesh.

Completely lost now, Janet lifted one hand, fingers slipping into goldspun hair, toying with the silky strands. Her other hand found Sam's shoulder in a slow moving exploration, the chain lightweight enough to be forgotten in the erotic haze caused by the soft lips that danced lower on her torso, outlining taut abdominals down into the deep vee of her pelvis. Every touch a fresh wave of fire licking at her skin, Janet arched into the soft kiss her best friend -- now lover -- pressed over the soft flesh just above dark curls, her impassioned cries bringing Sam's head up and making her eyes gleam with raw hunger. The blonde drew one hand down, stroking lightly, outlining the curves of bone and muscle, caressing her hip, then trailing along her belly. Leaning forward, she pressed a kiss to the top of a smoothly muscled thigh, her gaze holding brown eyes captive, silently demanding total surrender.

Sam or not, Janet no longer cared. The physical elements were all familiar; eyes, hands, hair, face, body, all those she knew so well. But more than that, the soul -- the decency, caring, intelligence -- was the same, making for a sense of inevitability that couldn't be denied. This was meant to happen. Had been for years, and delayed far too long. A tiny wordless pleading sound escaped her lips as her fingers clamped more tightly on wheat blonde hair. A beat passed, then agile fingers pressed into damp flesh, parting and stroking, that first intimate contact made with gazes locked, the intensity of the moment drawing two small, matching cries, and making both women shudder under the impact of something more momentous than either of them could have predicted.

Soft kisses fell onto the tops of Janet's thighs as slow thrusts created a deeper physical bond. Even with all the problems, it felt so good and so right. She let out a tiny cry, more of a gasp, as soft lips dusted over intimate flesh, then pressed deeper. Neatly blunted nails dug into Sam's shoulder as a rough, stroking tongue followed, toying with silky flesh that ached and throbbed in response.

So very right.

A quick bolt of sharp suction had Janet whimpering softly, the sound low and desperate, the sensations so intense simply remaining conscious was almost more than she could handle, though she pleaded for more. More contact, more sensation, more Sam. Soft and feral, her lover's low growl drew her eyes back down until their gazes locked and held. Long, graceful fingers thrust deeper with careful, but pointed strength, purposely increasing the physical bond. A gasp escaping her lips, Janet instinctively counter-thrust, her fingers clamped down on Sam's hair and shoulders, and then Sam was moving, trailing hurried kisses up the length of Janet's torso until she reached her mouth. Commandeering soft lips, her fingers retreated, then thrust again, and she drank in the ragged cry that escaped full lips.

Whimpering low in her throat, Janet thrust to meet plunging strokes, instinctively seeking to increase the physical bond between them. A shift in the bucking rhythm rubbed her thigh up against soft hair and softer flesh, and she purposely increased the pressure, the friction drawing a hard shudder from the woman above her. A flicker of triumph in her eyes, Janet slid her hands down, curving them to slim hips and dragging Sam closer, the sense of power that came from her effect on the other woman a much needed balm to the part of her that couldn't believe what she was doing.

Need, driven by too many years of denial, guaranteed that their first coupling wouldn't last long. Sam might not remember how long she'd wanted the woman in her arms, but her body did, and Janet was in so deep that she couldn't have held back even if she'd wanted to. And she didn't want to. She needed this too much; needed the human contact, to feel close to someone, safe, and cherished ... even if it was only an illusion.

Fingers digging into Sam's hips, she ground her thigh deliberately against the silky folds of Sam's sex, the sweet caresses driving her own passion as much as her lover's. When the kiss broke, she trailed her lips along her lover's cheek, then down, nipping her jaw, before finding her mouth taken again as fingers thrust even deeper. Sliding a hand up, she tightened her fingers into pale gold hair and pulled Sam's head back until their eyes met. For the first time in weeks, she was on equal footing, as much the master as the slave. "Mine," she whispered almost inaudibly.

Blue eyes sparked and blazed, a tremor running through already stressed muscles as Sam pushed up on one hand. "You think to claim a queen?" she challenged, her voice little more than a throaty rasp.

Muscles compressed and flexed along the curve of Janet's jaw, her eyes burning. She cupped her hands on either side of Sam's face, taking back some of the power she'd lost in recent weeks. "No ... only you," she said very softly, ignoring the title and putting extra emphasis on the last word.

Sam searched her face as though hunting for something, but uncertain what. Suddenly, the arrogance melted away, leaving the woman Janet knew in its place. She started to speak, but no words came, and finally, she just ducked her head, her mouth finding her lover's with blind hunger. Body gaining momentum, fingers driving deeper, the slide of sweat soaked flesh on flesh, driving them both, she cried out and Janet drank in the begging sounds through the blending of their mouths.

Janet clung desperately, her body heaving up to meet Sam's thrusts, one hand tangled in her hair, the other spreading against her upper back, nails digging in. Mouths still intimately bonded, their gazes locked, emotions flowing without words. Low cries echoing between them, electric tension sliding over sensitive nerve endings, they had only each other as the feelings built to a climax. Then they were flying, gravity a forgotten concept, caught in a perfect moment that seemed to last forever.

And then they were tumbling back to earth together, falling into each other, once again wrapped in the real world's gravitational pull.

Sam buried her face in the curve of Janet's shoulder, her entire body trembling in the aftermath. "I waited too long for this," she breathed, oblivious to the double meaning of the softly spoken words.

Janet turned her face toward her lover, silky bangs playing over her skin as she dusted soft kisses over Sam's cheek and temple. Lying sprawled together, neither woman moved for a long time, both drawing much-needed comfort and pleasure from the twining of limbs and the press of warm curves. It felt so good not to think for just a little while.

Finally, Sam pushed up on her elbows to stare searchingly down at Janet, the slight movement creating a fresh flow of friction where their bodies were dovetailed together. A tiny shiver slid through the smaller woman as she became aware of the shape and texture of the body pressed against her own, concentrating on the subtleties that hadn't been apparent during their frantic lovemaking. She adjusted her position slightly and felt Sam move to accommodate her, the brush of flesh on flesh stirring the coals anew.

Still supporting her weight on her elbows, Sam brushed gentle fingers through auburn bangs, stroking slowly, a tender smile curving her lips. Janet expected some comment from the other woman, but they both remained silent, as though afraid of breaking the spell cast by their lovemaking. Several more minutes passed while they lay silently watching one another, studying the rises and hollows, the shift and play of expressions. Finally, Sam leaned, drinking from her lover's mouth as their bodies once again began moving in slow, erotic dance. Hands caressed and clung while lips traded heated kisses, reality and fantasy blending together, the only sound the slide of flesh on flesh and the unsteady rasp of their harsh breathing. Helpless to resist the sensual rhythm, Janet spread her hands against Sam's back, massaging slowly as she felt the flex and play of taut muscle.

By the time Sam's lips began the slow journey down her body, sweat was gleaming on her skin, tiny entreaties escaping her lips, her hands reaching for and stroking strong shoulders. At some point blue eyes rose, a hand reaching for, and twining with Janet's, the only spoken word Sam had uttered in several minutes hanging in the air.

"Mine."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Terreis returned to consciousness slowly, gradually climbing back into the waking world to find herself still enjoying the most pleasant of dreams; warm soft curves snuggled against her side, a lover's head pillowed on her shoulder, strands of silky hair spread across her chest. She pushed just enough to peer at the woman ensconced safely in her arms, surprised to find herself so utterly unsurprised by her presence. She would have expected some level of discomfort -- or at least a period of adjustment -- upon finding a new lover in her bed, but they had curled into each other as though they'd been sleeping together for years. She ran tender fingers over dark, fluttery bangs, taking pleasure from the cool, silky texture. Their lovemaking on the other hand -- she shook her head a little dazedly -- that had been anything but what one might expect from long term lover. Not sweet or peaceful, it had felt like they'd wanted each other for decades and finally had a chance to touch. She could almost believe Lemier's mythology that her soul had been split in two and come back together. Explosive and desperate, need had rolled over them like a sirocco, burning out of control and leaving nothing standing in its wake. And even after the first joining, they'd reached for each other again, the physical need undaunted, until they'd both all but collapsed in exhaustion.

She let her fingers trail down to a slender shoulder, just barely brushing velvety skin, momentarily overwhelmed by the sensory memory of their lovemaking. After those first few minutes of resistance, Janet had melted into her arms, tiny pleading cries on her lips, her hands clinging. In the minutes that had followed she'd become an equal participant, giving as well as taking, her touch hungry and possessive. Blue eyes slid closed, desire lighting anew as she remembered the moment when Janet had laid claim to her. Had she considered the idea in advance, she would have expected to be angered at the presumption. As much latitude as she'd given Maya, her handmaid would never have dared, and Terreis would never have allowed it if she had. Maya was her mistress, and she'd never lost herself enough to forget the clear delineation between their status in life. As tender as they'd been, Maya never would -- never could -- possess her at any level. She experienced a tiny thrill of fear as she accepted that -- prisoner or not -- Janet could own her soul with all the ease in the world. She hadn't been angry or annoyed with Janet's desire to stake a claim; she'd been thrilled, just like she'd been thrilled by the other woman's unexpected fervor during their lovemaking.

She'd expected to have to tame a woman who was little more than a wild animal -- to coax and calm desperate struggles until Janet accepted the thing between them -- not to lose herself in the touch of a passionate lover who acted as though she was every inch her equal. Another soft caress ran through auburn silk, and the smaller woman snuggled deeper into her hold, leaning into Terreis' touch even in sleep. The instinctive response drew a soft smile from the watching woman as she found herself wondering how she'd lost her heart so thoroughly to someone she should hate. A tender, giving lover, the outlander was anything but what the queen had expected. Janet had shared her body, and more than that, Terreis felt certain she'd shared her heart. Whatever she'd been forced to do, she wasn't a monster, she was just another victim of the bastards who'd hurt her own people.

Terreis leaned down to press a soft kiss to her lover's temple, then pulled back, watching her sleep for a long time before carefully disengaging herself, her movements gingerly to avoid waking the sleeping woman. As Janet settled back into the mattress in an exhausted sprawl, Terreis brushed up against the cool metal of the handcuff chain, one end still wrapped around Janet's wrist, the other end free. Picking up the free end, she considered it for a long moment, tempted to just leave it, but finally, she latched the other end to the intricately carved headboard. Like it or not, it wasn't yet time for that much trust. Slipping out of bed, she shivered as night-chilled air slid over bare skin. A quick glance confirmed that the fire had nearly burned out, and she shrugged into a robe before moving to stir the coals and add more wood. Within minutes, the flames were once again licking high in the oversize fireplace, the heat radiating outward to warm the room and add a pleasant layer of amber light. The queen held her hands out, warming them before leaning against the hearth to stare into the flames, her thoughts on the woman who now shared her bed. Asleep, she appeared almost painfully young and innocent, the image only reinforced by her physical delicacy and current fragility.

Unfortunately, Janet was hardly the innocent she appeared to be. Whatever her reasons for the things she'd done -- and Terreis had come to believe she'd had little, if any, choice in her actions -- she'd been involved. There were many in Arrathonea who would prefer to see her dead, most notable among them her senior minister. Once the affair became common knowledge -- and she was under no illusions that it wouldn't -- Valchon's flunkies would probably cause as much trouble as they were able. And if anything happened to Terreis, Janet's life would undoubtedly be forfeit. As an enemy prisoner, she had no legal rights whatsoever.

That thought momentarily paralyzed her. No rights. Just as she'd given Janet no rights in taking her. The stray thought occurred before she could stop it. A sudden wave of guilt crested and broke over her, neatly trimmed nails cutting into her palm as her knuckles clenched tighter and tighter. Her stomach muscles knotted and rolled and she fought to retrieve her native confidence. She was queen. What she'd done was for the best. She couldn't go on wanting and fantasizing about the woman, completely distracted at a time when her people needed her leadership desperately, and Janet was better off in her care than anywhere else ... certainly better off than she'd been with her own people. Her resistance had been about fear of the unknown, not pain or suffering. Terreis had been as gentle as she knew how to be without giving ground, and Janet had turned to her in the end. The other woman was a decent human being -- soft-hearted, and caring -- her genuine worry about Elyana and Rubio proved that much. Terreis swallowed hard, her eyes sliding closed for a long moment. She'd make the rocky beginning up to Janet, teach her to trust -- give her reason to trust -- protect her, and see that her life was one of safety and pleasure from now forward. After what she'd already been through, she would likely be grateful once she came to appreciate the improvement in her life and accept that it was real. Just as she had turned to Terreis in the mid of passion, she would learn to turn to her at all other times. The queen would see to it.

But first, she had to make certain Janet was safe. There was a war on; as queen, she was a logical target for assassins, and if her enemies were take her life, any decisions regarding Janet's future would fall to the next in line -- Valchon, since she had no heirs. If that happened, she would most likely either be put to death, or handed over to the interrogators -- which would likely result in the same end. In making the decision to take the woman to her bed, she'd taken responsibility for her. She owed Janet whatever protection she could offer.

Which really only left her one option....

Turning away from the fire, she prepared the document quickly, her handwriting little more than a scrawl, but legible enough to make it legal, which was all she cared about. A more formal version could be drawn up and filed later, but this would protect her lover in the meantime.

Pushing to her feet, she turned back toward the bed, her expression sad. She was still contemplating how best to break the news when the door to her inner chambers opened a crack and Elyana stuck her head through. Noting she was carrying a tray of food, Terreis waved her in.

"I thought perhaps you and Lady Fraiser would be hungry, since you missed dinner," the young woman said softly, though Terreis noted the way her eyes strayed to the servant's pallet. Elyana stiffened as she noted it was empty, her eyes momentarily a window to her worries, though she quickly hid the reaction by bustling about and settling the tray on a nearby table.

"She's fine," Terreis said very softly, uncomfortable with the notion that the maid thought the worst of her, "just sleeping."

The young woman finished setting the tray down, then turned toward the queen, her expression unreadable. Her eyes slid around the room, taking in the haphazardly discarded clothes tossed here and there, their meaning unmistakable when coupled with the empty servant's bed. "You took her, didn't you?" she asked at last, her voice very soft with an undercurrent of something akin to disappointment.

Despite the temptation to lie, Terreis nodded slowly, wondering why she cared so much what a servant thought of her. But the young maid and her husband had proven themselves, and she'd learned to value their loyalty. "Things couldn't go on the way they were," she said, hearing the defensiveness in her own voice even as she spoke. "It had to happen."

Elyana didn't argue, her expression closing off and becoming unreadable. "Do you need a doctor sent for her?" she asked quietly, only the faintest quaver giving away her fears.

Terreis instantly shook her head. "No ... she's not hurt," she felt the need to assure the younger woman. Fighting a wave of shame, she tried again. "I-it's not ... what you're thinking ... not like what you went through." she wanted Elyana to understand that hurting Janet had been the farthest thing from her mind. From what little she knew, Elyana's experience as Ezri's mistress had been ugliness itself, not the sweet bonding of flesh and heart she'd shared with the outlander.

"But you forced--" Elyana started to say, only to cut herself off. She took a beat to gather herself before speaking formally, "If you say so, Highness." She started to step away, but Terreis reached out, resting a hand on her shoulder and forcing her to pull up short.

"She's fine." Blue eyes blazed momentarily, anger at the implication that what had happened had been about force or pain. Janet had surrendered to her and, after that, sought her touch. "And she's mine, now ... given herself to me. I couldn't hurt her."

Elyana glanced down at the table, noting the paper Terreis had been writing on before her entrance. Despite the rough handwriting, she was able to read enough to realize what it was. Without thinking, she picked it up, then set it back down very quickly as she remembered her place. "And you think this won't hurt?" she asked, her voice suddenly very small and a little lost, the words coming before she could think better of them.

"Right now, it's the only way I can protect her."

"This isn't protection," Elyana disagreed sadly, then straightened her shoulders, her expression becoming bland, the abrupt change driving home how good she was at hiding behind a mask. "My apologies, Highness. I'm sure your choices are best for all involved. I know you have the interests of your people at heart." It was a pat speech, meant to salve Terreis' ego, and the queen was smart enough to recognize it meant nothing.

Nonetheless, she felt the need to add, "I am trying to do what's best ... for everyone."

"Of course, My Liege."

Terreis sighed softly. The girl would understand later. She was queen, but there were limits on her power. She had to act carefully. There were things that even she couldn't do ... at least not without causing a tumult among the populace. "Go on," she said after a beat. "And you don't have to check in again before morning."

Bowing her head in automatic acknowledgment, Elyana back away toward the door. "As you wish, Highness." A moment later she was gone, the door pushed shut in her wake.

Alone again, the queen heaved a sigh of relief, reaching up to massage her temple in an effort to calm the headache that had plagued her off and on for weeks, undoubtedly due to stress. She didn't blame Elyana for her feelings, but the confrontation was a distraction she could have done without. She took a moment to calm herself. The realities of the situation made certain demands, and she was responsible to so many. It was a balancing act, and, given the circumstances, she was doing the best thing for all involved. When she finally strode over to the bed, she was once again in control of the situation, confident of what she was doing, and certain her choices were for the best, the only hint of any nervousness, the way the paper fluttered faintly when she picked it up.

Pushing the curtains aside, she took a seat on the edge of the bed, her expression soft as she studied the woman buried in the blankets. Several minutes passed while she allowed herself to simply enjoy the sight of her lover asleep in her bed, surprised by how normal it felt. Finally, she reached out, resting her hand lightly on a slender hip, shaking gently to wake the sleeping woman. "Hey there," she said softly, her voice husky and inviting as she encouraged Janet back into the world of the living.

Janet pushed up on her elbows with a low groan, then did a slow roll onto her back, coming up short as she suddenly reached the end of her glittering, gold tether. Confusion flickered in brown eyes as they fell on the gleaming chain. Not giving her lover time to consider her situation, Terreis tugged lightly, pulling her closer to the edge of the bed until they were hip to hip. "We need to talk," she said softly.

Janet pushed into a sitting position, quickly catching the blankets when they started to slip and pool around her hips. "What?"

Gently caressing the warm curves under her hand, Terreis let her eyes drop to touch on the fine-boned hands holding the blankets in place, struck by their beauty and well aware of their grace and agility. She allowed herself a moment to appreciate the sight, then looked up, meeting Janet's gaze as she began carefully, "This situation ... it's not simple." It was tempting to lie in an effort to make things easier, but after what they'd shared, she couldn't do it. After what they'd shared, Janet had earned the truth.

Janet didn't speak, just kept watching Terreis warily, the look in her eyes making the task before the queen even harder.

"You're a prisoner ... hated by many because of what your people are doing. Because of that, there are political considerations that limit my choices in how I deal with this...." A shudder of tension rippled through her prisoner, her expression growing steadily more wary. Considering what she must have experienced in her past, she probably expected the worst, Terreis realized in a rush. "I want you to understand that I've considered this carefully ... how best to see to those considerations and still protect you...."

"Meaning?" Janet spoke at last, her tone far too bland to be honest. She was scared and angry, Terreis realized, and trying desperately to hide both emotions.

The queen handed her the sheet, surprised to find her voice trembling ever so slightly as she haltingly explained, "Legally, it gives you standing. If something were to happen to me ... it means I can see that your ... custody ... is left with someone who would see to your care--"

Janet's chin remained down, but her eyes rose, her gaze spearing through Terreis with laser intensity, her voice a tight, furious rasp, the anger far too intense to be hidden now. "You've made me a slave--"

"It gives you legal standing--" Terreis tried to point out logically, willing Janet to understand the position she was in. She was only doing it for the best, not to be cruel. She had to see that.

Or not. "It makes me your goddamned property," the outlander hissed, hurt and anger vying for control over her emotions.

Terreis started to issue some kind of denial or additional explanation -- something to try and make it seem better -- only to come up short. A beat passed and then she nodded. "Yes." Lying, or pretending things weren't what they were wouldn't help the situation.

Dark eyes slid closed as Janet's expression twisted into one of literal, physical pain. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, took another breath and again let it out slowly. Just watching her agony made Terreis hurt in sympathy. "Don't do this," she begged when she finally caught her breath.

"I have to," Terreis murmured and reached up, cupping the side of her lover's face and drawing her chin up. "It's the only protection I can give you right now." She knew it was hard, but it was the only choice she had. She couldn't free Janet, making her a citizen would likely cause the ministers to revolt, and keeping things as they were afforded her no protection whatsoever.

An inarticulate growl escaped full lips as Janet yanked hard on the chain binding her to the headboard, rattling it noisily. "You could let me go," she hissed furiously.

Terreis shook her head, her tone flat. "No, I can't." She couldn't allow Janet to have any hopes of regaining her freedom. "Not for my people's sake ... and not for yours either." Considering the abuse the woman's previous masters had already heaped on her, there was no way in hell, the queen would allow any of them near her ever again.

Another frustrated yank rattled the chains as Janet hid her face with one hand, visibly fighting tears. "Damn you," she whispered. "Don't do this to me ... please ... just ... don't."

The pain in her voice was such that Terreis very nearly relented. Only the knowledge of what could happen allowed her to maintain her resolve. "I'm sorry," she offered, her thumb brushing soothing caresses onto Janet's cheek, "but it's the only way." The outlander leaned forward, shading her eyes with her free hand. Terreis slipped her fingers into babyfine hair, slowly combing it back from Janet's temple. "I would spare you this pain if I could," she whispered. She tucked a finger under Janet's chin, drawing her head up, stomach clenching with guilt as she saw the way the other woman blinked rapidly as she fought harsh tears. "You'll learn to trust me." She couldn't resist the temptation to run her thumb along her lover's lower lip, absorbing the warmth and texture as she searched dark eyes. "Learn to trust your heart and soul into my care. I only want what's best for you."

Another sharp tug on the chain rattled metal on metal. "And this is best?" Janet demanded, eyes suddenly blazing as she thrust her manacled wrist into Terreis' line of view, forcing her to acknowledge the harsh reality.

Terreis caught Janet's wrist, forcing it down as she curved her other hand to her cheek, fingers slipping into auburn silk. "For a little while..." she said carefully. She leaned closer, mouth finding her prisoner's, the kiss that followed coaxing and tender. "...while we both learn to trust." Arousal surging back to life, she kissed Janet again, tugging the slave contract from unresisting fingers and laying it on the bedside table. Hands came up to stop her, but she caught them easily and looped the length of chain around Janet's free wrist, then used one hand to pin both arms above her head, controlling the sensual battle simply and effectively. "You can't deny me," she whispered, then reclaimed soft lips, the caresses that followed tenderly seductive in contrast to the unbending way she held Janet captive. Fingers sliding lower, she brushed the blankets aside to explore freely, trailing soft caresses over silky skin. Easily containing any struggles she refused to give way, but at the same time was as gentle and tender as she knew how to be. Their bodies knew where they belonged, political needs be damned. She just had to make the outlander see that.

"Don't," Janet pleaded long minutes later when the silky kisses finally broke, but her voice was unsteady with need, and agile fingers found her body slick and ready for the slow, pressing entrance that followed.

"Shhh," Terreis breathed, sharing another slow kiss as she spread her other hand over Janet's chest, her touch ranging over soft curves, stroking and teasing. Palming a perfect breast, she felt the firm press of a swollen nipple into the center of her hand and massaged slowly, feeling the way flesh became even firmer under her touch. "Your body knows the truth ... and, given time, your heart and mind will accept it as well." Maintaining the gentle pressure on her lover's chest, she broke the kiss, shifting, her mouth brushing lower on perfect curves. She expected the momentary resistance and dealt with it easily, powerful hands containing the small struggles, then absorbing the sharp spasm that rippled through her lover when she dipped her tongue into slick flesh. Janet was hers; she could taste, feel, and hear the evidence of it in moist flesh and delicate cries of passion. Driven by needs she couldn't even begin to understand, she stroked and teased until her lover surrendered completely. As she heard Janet's cry, she let go of the binding chain and soon felt the pull of a strong hand in her hair.

After that, their lovemaking slid from one moment to the next with desperate passion -- never quite stopping, just slowing, then accelerating again -- until both women were trembling and spent.

Her body thoroughly and completely sated -- at least for the moment -- Terreis leaned against the headboard, sitting up, Janet ensconced safely between her thighs and spooned up against her chest. The fire had long since died down, leaving the room to chill once again, and she tugged the blankets back up until the thick fabric settled around them. Slipping her fingers through Janet's sweat damp hair, she noted the way it caught any remaining glow from the fire, gilding the delicate strands to a fiery bronze. Completely and utterly at peace, she rested her chin on a narrow shoulder, then turned her head to press lazy kisses onto the curve of her new lover's throat and let her hands amble slowly over easy curves. "Breathing again?" she drawled between soft, sucking kisses.

"Just barely," Janet murmured, her tone distant, though she didn't resist when her head was tugged more firmly against a supportive shoulder.

Terreis ran a hand lightly up and down Janet's arm, stroking slowly, taking her time to enjoy the sensual pleasure. "You are so beautiful," she whispered and trailed her hand back up, gently petting mussed auburn hair back from a rounded cheek, then tugging her lover's chin around to share a slow kiss. "I never thought to find this,"she admitted, then snatched another quick kiss, "certainly not..." she paused momentarily, trying to decide on how to phrase it without bringing up the obvious difficulties in their relationship, "...so unexpectedly." Another soft kiss followed, giving and sweet.

"Unexpected," Janet repeated, and dark brown eyes slid closed, a soft sigh escaping her lips. "It certainly is that," she murmured, her voice ghostly soft.

Terreis pressed a kiss to her temple, then froze as she felt the woman in her arms stiffen. Blue eyes rose and a frown creased her brow as she realized Janet had raised the handcuffed wrist -- apparently intending to reach back -- only to freeze as she saw the gold etched manacle. She was staring at it silently, her expression fixed in a look of disbelief as though she'd managed to forget the chains for awhile. As Terreis watched, she slowly turned her hand, palm inward, revealing the delicate lock, flexed her hand into a fist, then opened it again. A harsh shudder shook her body where it was pressed against the queen's.

Suddenly ashamed of herself, Terreis barely resisted the urge to make the other woman put her arm back down so she didn't have to face the reality of her own choices. She'd put that manacle there ... and it was her decision to keep it there. "It's only for a little while," she offered what comfort she could.

Janet flinched as though struck, her gaze still locked on the glittering shackle. "Take it off," she rasped at last, her breathing suddenly sounding tight and forced, every muscle in her body spring-steel taut.

"Soon--" Terreis began, her voice soft and soothing, but Janet interrupted sharply.

"Please ... get if off ... now. Don't make me...." her voice cracked to a panicky halt and she drew in a deep, shuddering breath. "Please," she said again, the quality of her plea heartrending.

Feeling the harsh tremors that continued to wrack her prisoner's slender frame, Terreis suddenly couldn't follow through on the intention to keep her locked up, not when it caused so much pain. "Okay," she soothed as she reached up to free the key hanging on the chain around her throat. "It's all right. I'll have you out of those in a moment." She caught Janet's wrist with her other hand, tugging it closer as she unlocked the cuff. Another hard quake rattled the woman in her arms. "Shhh, it's okay," Terreis said to calm her fears as she fought to get the tiny key in the lock. "You'll be all right." Finally, the cuff opened under her hands and she tugged it free. Careless of where it landed, she tossed the shackle aside, the key still in the lock. "It's all right," she whispered over and over as she tugged the smaller woman closer, tucking her head into the curve of one shoulder and rubbing her back tenderly. The gentle solace continued until Janet sagged in her arms, the fight draining out of her. As she held the exhausted, limp woman, she silently cursed the bastards that had hurt her, certain that she'd flashbacked on the treatment she'd received from her last master. Images of how Janet must have been abused to react so badly playing in her head, she couldn't contain a soft growl, furious at her lover's phantom tormentors. Finally, she rested her hand along the side of her lover's face, guiding her chin up until their eyes met. "Okay now?" she asked worriedly, the anger fading in the face of the need to offer comfort. She could punish their enemies later. Right now, her lover needed her.

A dozen different expressions quicksilvered across delicate features as Janet struggled to find an answer, none of them a comfort to the woman holding her so carefully. Finally, she just shook her head, her tone hopeless as she whispered, "This shouldn't have happened."

"You're wrong," Terreis disagreed, her hold tightening possessively. "This is exactly what needed to happen ... you and I ... together. I don't know what they did to you, but, clearly, the best thing for you is to be free of your previous masters--"

An inarticulate growl exploded from Janet's lips. "I don't have any masters ... and I'm not a slave!" She tried to shake Terreis off, but the queen only strengthened her hold, refusing to let go.

Frustrated by the denial, Terreis drew Janet's chin back up. "Then what?" she demanded angrily. "Tell me who and what you are." Her eyes flashed possessively, and the words came out as a royal command. Janet was hers now. No more half truths and denials.

"Why bother?" Janet shot back, her own frustration making her tone raw. "You won't believe me ... and when I answer your questions, you just get angry."

"Because I want the truth," Terreis shot back impatiently. Was she supposed to tolerate more lies?

Another angry growl escaped the smaller woman's lips. "I haven't lied to you ... about anything," she hissed, turning away from Terreis and leaning forward, her back stiff with anger. "I may not have told you everything ... but I haven't lied."

Terreis' first impulse was to issue an accusation reminding the outlander where and how she'd been taken, but she tamped it down, instead taking a deep breath and keeping her voice even as she spoke. "Then tell me everything ... your version of the truth ... complete and unvarnished. Give me the tools to fight the people who hurt you and so many others." Janet had to see that she could only act on whatever information she had.

Janet shook her head stiffly, then folded her arms on her upthrust knees to make a platform for her chin. "It's pointless," she said hopelessly.

"No ... I can help you if you just trust me," Terreis implored her, touched by the hurt in the other woman's voice in spite of herself. Her touch light, she ran her fingers down Janet's back, following the graceful track made by her spine, the tender caress intended to soothe shredded emotions. "Talk to me ... give me a chance. I'll listen."

Janet flashed a suspicious look over her shoulder, silently reminding Terreis that she had reason to doubt the promise, no matter how honestly it was offered.

"You have my word," Terreis said as sincerely as she was able, nearly pleading as she added, "Just tell me the truth." She wanted to know what was going on in the other woman's head. She caught glimpses of it now and then, but not enough to let her put the picture together, and she hated the sense of being blocked out. She wanted to know everything possible about the woman now sharing her bed.

Janet sighed heavily, turning away again. A long moment of silence followed and the queen feared her plea had fallen on deaf ears, then finally, the outlander cleared her throat. "I'm not part of any killing," she denied, sounding exhausted by the whole subject. "None of my people are. We're explorers."

Tamping down the urge to disagree, Terreis simply said, "All right," though she knew by the way Janet tensed that the other woman heard the obvious doubt in her voice.

The outlander didn't rise to the bait, though it took some self-control if her annoyed sigh was any gauge. "Normally, four person teams go through the gate ... to make contacts with other worlds...." She glanced back, staring at Terreis for a long moment as though she expected something of her.

"And you're a part of one of these teams?" the queen asked at last to fill the void.

Janet shook her head, then turned around, resting her chin on her folded arms once again. "No. I'm the chief medical officer on our home base. Normally, I don't travel through the gate."

Frowning, Terreis considered that information. "Then why did you come here?"

"The team that came through ... they found the people ravaged by a pox very similar to a plague once found on my own world. Because of that prior experience, we were able to synthesize an effective vaccine. I came through the gate to supervise the operation ... only there was a lot more wrong than just the plague. The people were half starved, not enough water or food, sick, scared of something, though they wouldn't tell us what...." She made a tiny sound of disgust. "We were just trying to help ... and paid the price."

Terreis shook her head. "That makes no sense," she argued, wondering why Janet would try and tell such an obvious lie. "We've had no plague in Arrathonea ... nor are my people starving ... or scared," she added with extra emphasis before continuing, "at least not of their leaders. Things are difficult right now because of the attacks, but it's not the nightmare you're describing."

Janet didn't argue, simply waited until Terreis had finished before continuing. "We brought additional personnel over to try and repair their systems so they could get water to the fields ... and I set up a small clinic ... but the people were scared...." She glanced back, once again leaving Terreis with the sense that something was expected of her. "I was using an abandoned building ... doing what I could for any patients who came in. We'd been there roughly a week when a man named Tecal arrived, claiming his son had fallen and needed a doctor ... so I gathered what I needed and went--"

"Your commander allowed you to accompany an unknown man ... alone ... on an alien world ... where the citizenry you'd encountered was already afraid?" Terreis said doubtfully. It seemed an unlikely scenario at best ... and if any of it were true, her commanding officer deserved to be horsewhipped for allowing her to go into an unknown situation alone.

"My guard had been recalled to help with the repairs," Janet said softly. "But another officer went with me ... a woman named Samantha Carter...." Again she flashed a look that demanded something of the queen, though Terreis was at a loss to know what.

Frowning, Terreis canted her head to one side, struggling to put aside her automatic prejudices and honestly assess what Janet was telling her. She stared deeply into brown eyes, jealousy flaring in the pit of her stomach as she saw something she didn't like at all. "She meant something to you," she said at last, other issues momentarily forgotten.

"She was a friend," Janet confirmed, her voice softening instinctively in a way that did nothing to ease her lover's fears.

A firm headshake denied the simple claim. "She was more than that, I think," Terreis said softly, amazed by how much the idea hurt. "Your lover?" she demanded through gritted teeth. She hadn't considered the possibility that there was someone else out there that had some claim on her prisoner's affections and the idea did not appeal.

"We cared for one another," Janet allowed, still watching Terreis closely, "but no ... we weren't lovers." She abruptly looked away, hiding the emotion in her eyes.

One hand fisting tightly in an effort to control her frustration, Terreis forced the dark emotions down by reminding herself of what she'd just shared with this woman. Whoever Samantha Carter was, if they truly hadn't been lovers, then she was out of the running for that place in Janet's life. That thought calmed her ... because she had no intention of sharing. "But you wished to be?" she asked, even though she wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer.

Another odd look was thrown over Janet's shoulder. "Circumstances didn't allow it," she sidestepped the question neatly.

"But you wished it?" Terreis pressed, needing to know the answer even though she wasn't sure she wanted to.

Liquid brown eyes focused on the queen, drawing her in and refusing to let go. "I love her," she said very softly, "more than my life."

The words felt like an actual blow, their impact cruel enough to leave Terreis reeling. "Then why weren't you lovers?" she whispered, unable to believe anyone would reject the raw emotion she saw in the other woman's eyes.

"It wasn't possible," Janet said softly, then looked away again, "homosexual relations are grounds for dismissal from the service in my country ... and our jobs were important to us both."

The queen's lip lifted in a sneer. "Then she was a fool," she disparaged, envy for the unknown woman forming an angry knot in her stomach. "I would never have accepted so inconsequential a reason for denying your love--"

"It wasn't like that," Janet snapped, the hopeless note giving way to anger. A beat passed, then her voice softened, the words coming in hesitant, staggered syllables. "It was ... she was ... our work was important ... larger than either of us ... and we had everything but ... that...."

In spite of her jealousy, Terreis was touched by her lover's obvious pain. "You said she was with you," she said after a beat, not wanting to think about the longing in her lover's voice. "What happened then?"

A beat passed, then Janet continued, the words coming out halting and a little uncertain, as though she wasn't entirely confident of reality, but not like a lie. "It was a trick. We followed Tecal into a nearby quarry ... where I could see what looked like a child's body ... but when I went to him, it was just rags...." She paused momentarily, taking a second to regain control over frazzled emotions. "Men appeared out of hiding places and attacked. Something was held over my face .... I was drugged...." She trailed off and was silent for long enough that Terreis considered pressing her, only to conclude it was best to let her proceed at her own pace. "After that, I don't remember much." She ruffled her hair, a tiny shudder rippling down her spine. "Voices ... trying to ... make me listen ... affect my thoughts...." Her voice grew steadily more distant and flat, something about her tone sending a bolt of horror through the queen. "And darkness ... total darkness ... for days ... weeks maybe. I don't really know. I didn't know ... wh-who'd taken us ... or why ... I was starving ... thirsty all the time ... poisoned and tortured sometimes...." She fell silent again. "...scared for my sanity..." she added, her voice ragged, as though the words were dragged out of her. "...and I didn't even know why ... or who was doing it to me...." Her voice trailed off, and she buried her face in her arms.

Terreis swallowed hard, horrified by what she was hearing. Her touch tentative, she reached out again, slowly stroking Janet's back, her doubts suddenly forgotten. Her lover's pain was too real for her to doubt the truth of the story ... and it made a perverse kind of sense. Janet had never shown any sign of being a cruel killer the way the other outlanders were. She'd been kind and solicitous to the servants, had barely even fought back when Terreis had lost her temper. Hell, Valchon had been ready to gut her, and she'd held her temper and avoided the conflict. "Our attackers must have taken you on another world," she said at last, struggling to fit the pieces of the puzzle together in a way that made sense. Janet couldn't possibly be referring to Arrathonea. Her people weren't starving, suffering a plague, or frightened of their leaders. Most likely their attackers moved from world to world, ravaging those they found, stealing, conquering, killing. Janet had been in their way, so they'd taken her and thought to use her. "Kept you drugged ... then left you behind for their own reasons." She continued the gentle caresses, stroking soft flesh, both taking and offering comfort in the light contact. "It must have been awful, but you're safe now."

The quiet proclamation brought a soft, grim laugh full of bitter hurt.

Terreis suddenly remembered that Janet hadn't been alone. Despite her jealousy, her heart clenched at the thought that her lover might have lost someone she clearly cared for so much, might have even seen her die. "This Samantha Carter ... was she killed?"

Janet tensed fractionally and twisted to direct another odd look Terreis' way. "I don't think so," she said very softly, something about her look making the queen cringe ever so slightly. "But I don't ... know ... what happened to her."

"I hope ... hope that she's safe," she said at last. There was little more comfort Terreis could offer. She didn't want her lover to suffer any more pain, and she bore the unknown woman no ill will, but at the same time, there had been so much love in Janet's voice when she spoke of her colleague that it made her ache with envy. She wanted all that love and need for herself and no one else.

Janet's frown deepened. "I do too," she exhaled, then turned her head forward, pillowing it on her arms. A long moment passed, then she spoke softly, depression underlying her tone. "Let me go."

Terreis fought a burst of resentful hurt that the other woman was begging to leave after what they'd shared. "I can't. Eeven if your story's true, you have nowhere to go. It can't be Arrathonea you described, which means your people aren't here ... and you have no way to signal them."

"I know the gate coordinates to get home," Janet said simply.

Refusing to consider that option, Terreis' brain was already racing. She curved a hand to Janet's shoulder, clinging as though she feared she might make a break for it right then and there. "Even with the coordinates, you have no way to signal them to allow you through safely ... you'd be killed if you tried."

Janet stiffened and looked over her shoulder. "How do you know the gate's blocked on our end?"

Terreis blinked, not knowing where the sense came from, but absolutely certain that stepping through the gate without sending some kind of warning would prove fatal. "I-it only makes sense," she stammered, hunting her mind for an explanation and working her way through it out loud. "Any government with the technology to move back and forth through the gate ... exploring and making contact with other worlds would have to be aware of the risk of making enemies or incurring an attack ... and guard against it." She frowned, her head tipping to one side. "They must have a signaling system ... so it can be lowered for teams coming and going since explorers might not be able to stick to the rigid time constraints required to use a schedule to come and go." She raised an eyebrow as she politely inquired, "Am I right?"

She received a hesitant nod in return. "Yes."

Terreis canted her head slightly as she absorbed the admission, glad she'd relied on logic to disarm the request. "Then you can't return to your people safely." Janet could hardly blame her for protecting her life. "And I won't release you to more harm," she said firmly.

Janet turned away again, though it was impossible to miss the tension that knotted every muscle in her body.

Terreis scooted forward, reaching out to draw her prisoner and lover close once again, her hands tender, but possessive. "And even if I knew I could safely let you go," she admitted, knowing she should lie, but unable to contain the truth that effectively, "I don't think I could do it ... not after what's happened." She sighed softly, pressing a kiss to the side of Janet's head. "You're mine now ... accept it." She expected an explosion of anger or resistance, but Janet just leaned against her, shoulders slumping as she exhaled a heavy sigh.

"You'll never let me go, will you?" the smaller woman asked at last.

Terreis didn't lie. "No." She hugged Janet closer, her hands gentle as she absorbed the tiny tremors that shook the smaller woman. Gently drawing her head up and around, she offered a reassuring smile. "But you'll always be protected and cared for." She kissed her forehead softly. "I promise ... deal with me honestly, and I'll do everything in my power to see that the rest of your life is as happy as I can make it." She petted the fine hair at Janet's temple with slow strokes. "I'm willing to accept that what you've told me about your life is true," she allowed, "but that life is over...."

"And you're my life now?" Janet questioned, her tone unreadable.

Blue eyes glinted with royal arrogance. "Yes." Terreis ruffled auburn hair. "I know it probably sounds harsh," she admitted, "but fate has put you in my hands ... and thank god it did." She brushed a small kiss onto full lips. "When I think of what could have happened...." She shook her head slowly, terrified by the scenarios her mind insisted on conjuring. "As hard as this has been, you'll be all right now."

Janet did a slow turn, pushing to her knees and facing Terreis. She reached out slowly, caressing the queen's cheek lightly, then trailing her fingers down to outline the full curve of her lips. "You do care for me," she breathed.

Still a little frightened by the intensity of her emotions, the queen nonetheless nodded. "I don't know if I should," she sighed, "but I do." She reached up, catching the hand caressing her face and drawing it to her lips to press soft kisses over the rise of her lover's knuckles. "Trust me," she promised, "and I'll make certain you never want or suffer."

Janet didn't answer, simply leaned forward, forearms resting on the queen's shoulders as she found her lips, sharing a tender kiss. Groaning softly into the blending of their mouths, Terreis slid her hands up, fitting them to Janet's sides, thumbs resting on her ribs just under her breasts. The queen's breath caught as a graceful hand slid down to stroke her chest, outlining the curve of her breasts, then spreading flat over her sternum, pressing her back. "You mean that, don't you?" Janet whispered as she followed Terreis down, leaning over her and trailing butterfly kisses down the center of her throat.

A trembling hand worked into dark auburn hair, and the queen tipped her back, opening her throat to exploring lips. "I swear," she groaned, already lost in passion once again, her heart and body somehow devoted to this woman in spite of the madness of it all. Soft lips caressed her own, the kiss going on until she was weak and trembling with desire, the effect increased exponentially by the way Janet's hand ambled over her breasts and stomach, leaving trails of erotic fire everywhere they touched.

Finally Janet pushed back, bracing herself on one hand as she peered down into blue eyes for a long moment. "I'll do everything in my power to do what's best," she promised at last. She kissed Terreis again, just barely brushing her lips before pushing back. "Always remember that." And then she ducked her head, lips sliding over warm skin, brushing sensual caresses everywhere. Nodding, Terreis reached for her lover, but Janet caught her wrists in surprisingly strong hands, pressing them back to the mattress with her weight. "Let me," she whispered, fluttering another kiss onto soft lips before working her way lower, tasting and teasing with abandon.

Tiny moans escaping her lips, Terreis slammed her head back into the pillows, fingers clawing into the sheets, clinging tightly to resist the urge to reach down and guide her lover's kisses where she needed them. "Please," she gasped after several minutes of teasing caresses. And then Janet gave her everything she could possibly want from a lover, drawing begging cries as her control was shattered into a million pieces.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Slender fingers slipped slowly through wheat blonde hair, their rhythm steady and tender. Braced on one elbow, Janet silently studied Sam's face, watching the way her features softened as her breathing grew deeper and steadier. Physically worn, well sated, trusting -- Janet's stomach knotted on the last thought -- her friend -- lover, the correction echoed in her head with all the emotional impact it deserved -- was quickly drifting into a deep sleep. Continuing the tender petting, she leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to Sam's temple, then pulled back and simply watched her for a long time. As a doctor, she tracked Sam's physical condition closely, automatically assessing her state of consciousness. As a lover....

As a lover, she consciously repeated the thought after she momentarily skidded to a mental halt. As a lover, she was simply drawing comfort and strength from their closeness, knowing full well she'd need both for what lay ahead. Fingers still sifting through pale gold silk, she leaned down and pressed another kiss to Sam's temple, her voice a near inaudible breath. "Never forget ... I love you...."

There was no response from Sam, and, after a long moment, Janet pulled her hand back. Sliding her fingers under the arm hooked around her waist, she carefully eased it aside, settling it onto the mattress with a light touch, then waited. The other woman only sank more deeply into the mattress, her breathing still slow and steady. The doctor took a deep breath to steady her nerves, then levered herself off the bed, careful not to wake the sleeping woman. When she was finally on her feet, she stood staring down at Sam for a long moment, silently vowing to do everything in her power to find a way to help her and restore her memories. Unfortunately, she couldn't do that by staying where she was. Finally, she let the surrounding curtain fall back into place, and hurried away on light feet.

There was a huge walk in closet on the opposite end of the room, and she stepped inside, rifling through the racks in search of what she needed, yanking things on as she came to them. Bypassing the collection of intricate gowns, she pulled on a pair of dark brown pants, shin high suede boots that were only a little too large, a long-sleeved, black shirt, and a thick leather jerkin. A belt over the top contained the jerkin and oversize blouse, while a heavy black cloak would offer protection from the elements and prying eyes. Stepping out, she laid the bundle of heavy fabric aside and moved to stand by Sam's bedside, carefully easing the curtains aside. As she stared down at the sleeping woman, she couldn't help but question her plans. She hated leaving Sam behind, but saw no other option. By her rough calculations, they'd been missing roughly a month. There was a good chance their colleagues had given up, but then again, maybe not. But, if O'Neill and the others were still hunting for them, they weren't likely to be doing so for much longer. Sooner or later, General Hammond would have to shut the operation down. She'd delayed making any efforts, too weak to have any chance of success, and hoping against hope to reach Sam. But Sam showed no sign of remembering her real life even after all the prompting during their discussion of the "truth." And after what had happened between them -- she shook her head dazedly -- she was afraid of losing herself. Even now, there was a dark temptation to remain with Sam and have what she'd always wanted. She massaged her wrist, the slow throb of still-healing flesh a tangible reminder of all the reasons she couldn't stay. Remaining with Sam meant becoming a slave and she had no intention of surrendering her soul that way ... not even for the woman she loved.

Janet had no doubt that Sam would think she'd been intentionally betrayed. And in a sense, she was guilty of the charge, Janet admitted to herself. Though she hadn't planned her near breakdown, she'd instigated the lovemaking that followed with some thought of remaining free ... and using the opportunity to escape. And -- if she was honest -- because she'd wanted something for herself. She'd needed the bond between them to give herself the strength to do what was necessary. Strange to think that it was her love for Sam that would allow her to betray her.

Life was a goddamned ironic work of art some days.

Finally, she leaned down, pressing a soft kiss to Sam's temple, her voice a soft whisper. "I love you ... always remember that." Her touch was so light that Sam didn't stir when she locked the manacle around her wrist, slipping the key free to drop it into a pocket. It probably wouldn't buy much time, but a little. With her chances for escape measured in seconds, every moment counted. "I'll come back for you," she whispered, brushing a last caress through spun gold hair before letting the curtain fall back into place, relieved when it hid her lover from view.

She started to turn away, only to turn back and grab the slave contract off the ornate bedside table. Crumpling it, she flicked the paper into the fireplace, watching as it hit the coals and flared, momentarily lighting the room before melting into a fine grey ash. A grim smile touched her mouth, the symbolic act more freeing than she would have predicted.

Then she was moving, grabbing the discarded cloak and hurrying onto the balcony. There were guards on the doors to the queen's apartments, which made escaping that way nearly impossible. She'd been subtly pumping Elyana since being put in her care, and had a loose plan in place already. With luck, she could be off the palace grounds and well away from the city before there was any serious pursuit.

After making certain the garden below was empty, she dropped the bundled cloak, watching as it landed several stories below with a dull thud. That done, she flung a leg over the balcony railing and stood carefully balanced. Decorative pillasters ran up the walls from the ground floor to the top floor several stories above, the artificial pillars deep enough to give her something to hold onto, the texturing in the stonework making for a reasonable number of finger and toe-holds. Ignoring the sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach, she swung out, muscles pulling taut as she took her weight. The climb was made in torturous silence, her hands and shoulders aching from the effort required to cling to the rough surface. And with every passing second, she fully expected to hear Sam shout for the guards. Finally, when she was about six feet up, she kicked off and dropped the final distance, landing lightly on the stone pavers in the garden courtyard. Retrieving the cloak, she slung it on, counting on the matte black fabric to make her that much harder to spot in the dark.

Thick, ropelike vines ran up the garden walls. Half dead from long term lack of water, and only just starting to leaf out now that they were being cared for again, they were tough as leather, with trunks thicker than her arm. They supported her weight easily and she quickly made the climb to the top of the high walls, then peered over. A narrow alleyway ran behind the royal gardens, but it was dark and quiet. She knew from Elyana that it also backed the royal stables which had a rear entrance, and could only hope that riding a dargash -- the local draft and riding animal -- was analogous to riding a horse. Of course, the last time she'd been on a horse had been during an high school stint as a summer camp counselor, so she wasn't entirely certain how much bearing that had on the situation.

The stables were easily found, the smell marking them from a half a block away. She found the rear entrance unlocked with no sign of a guard, so she simply slipped inside, pausing to allow her eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. Stalls lined the walls on the both sides, and the high-ceilinged building echoed with the soft sounds of large animals moving and breathing heavily. A little larger and heavier than most horses, the creatures had a longer, somewhat pointed nose, broader forehead, cloven hooves and short, coarse fur. Thick, ropey muscles rippled under the skin when they moved, while dark eyes watched her suspiciously. She drew too close to one stall and the animal -- a huge beast who looked to be a foot taller than any of the others -- snorted angrily and bashed a hoof into the stall door in warning.

She jumped back, instinctively holding up her hands. "Easy ... easy, boy ... definitely not gonna try riding you," she soothed as she back away, wondering if this had been such a good plan after all. There was no way in hell she could control a monster like that. She passed several more stalls. Though not as aggressive as the first animal, the others glared and snorted threateningly if she stepped too close, so she kept going. Finally, she drew close to a stall with a large, placid example of the species. Heavily muscled, its black coat plush and softer than the others, it watched her closely, but seemed unimpressed when she drew close, then reached over the stall door. The pointed nose swung over, sniffing her hand curiously, its breath hot on her skin. She rubbed the animal's muzzle lightly, finding it velvety soft, and it leaned into the caress. It looked like this was the best choice of the lot. It appeared only slightly interested when she finally stepped inside. A heavy saddle was thrown over the stall divider, the bridle hanging from the wall. The creature watched silently as she retrieved the saddle, making no effort to resist when she slung the heavy leather onto its broad back with a grunt. Her voice a steady, soft murmur designed to soothe herself as much as the animal, she quickly buckled things into place, hoping that she was actually doing it right. The bridle followed a moment later. Empty water skins hung from pegs on the wall, and she grabbed four, quickly filling them from a spigot that fed the water trough, then hanging them over the saddlehorn.

"Good boy," Janet whispered after she'd finished, rubbing the creature's nose. It leaned into the light caress, and docilely followed along as she led it out of the stall by the reins.

The front door of the stables was locked, but designed to be opened from the inside, and she soon found herself hurrying down dark, quiet streets. Sharp eyes watched for any movement, but as far as she could tell, she was the only one out that night, which allowed her to move surprisingly fast. She quickly reached the high walls that circled the palace, easily finding the gate that led into the surrounding city. A barred gate was locked into place over the broad arch designed for wagons to pass through, but a narrow door that allowed for foot traffic was still open. She was surprised to see only a couple of pickets walking the walls, their strides slow, apparently uninterested in what was going on around them. As far as she could tell, they never noticed her. If she hadn't already been comfortably certain there were no real attackers out there, she would have been after what she'd seen. This wasn't a city with any fear of coming under an alien onslaught.

Once she was through the palace gates, she found herself in an elderly city, the buildings tattered, but showing the remains of past elegance. If Valchon was letting Sam out of the palace, he had to be doing so carefully to keep her from noticing the condition of the surrounding city. The place had been beautiful once, but she was looking at the result of years of neglect and disrepair.

Keeping the descriptions Elyana had given in her head, she moved fast, almost jogging in her haste, while the huge creature trotted along beside her, apparently content to follow her lead. Afraid of drawing unwanted attention if she had a problem controlling the animal, she didn't try to mount the dargash until she was a short distance past the edge of town, then she hauled herself into the saddle, grateful that the animal seemed to be such a calm creature. Unimpressed by her efforts, it stood perfectly still until she got herself settled, then lifted its head when she retrieved the reins. A soft snort greeted her gentle tug on the reins, but it didn't fight her. She exhaled a grateful prayer and patted heavy shoulders. Considering their relative sizes, if junior had felt like heaving her into the next county, he was more than capable.

Orienting herself, she spotted the Vural Mountains in the distance, their massive silhouette neatly outlined by moonlight. The gate was just on the other side, and Elyana had let slip that a road led through a low pass and would take her where she wanted to go. Only one road headed in the direction she wanted, but it was unlabeled, leaving her to hope it was the right route. Twisting in the saddle, she flashed a last look toward the palace, noting the stormclouds gathering against the night sky. She could only hope that Rubio was right and any storms were still days away. "Please let me be doing the right thing," she exhaled, praying she wasn't making the situation worse. Then she turned back, holding on tight as she spurred the animal to a lope and took off.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

 

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